January

TreesFall'19Some thoughts on friendship (and growing things).

In San Francisco the seasons melt one into the other without much fanfare. But we do have seasons and today is a true winter day. I’m sitting in our garden, now a lush patch of verdant greens, most of which are called “weeds” but I prefer to call them volunteers – wild onion, oxalis, nasturtium, miners lettuce. I’m not sure where they came from or when, but now all are adamantly part of our backyard landscape. Beneath the oxalis, some of the more purposed greens are starting to appear, the favas, narcissus, helebores, day lilies, dutch iris. Already, the green dotted snow drops are blooming. It’s damp and chilly out here but the sky is bright blue with a light brushing of gauzy white clouds. I’m trimming the rosemary and sage, clipping off dead hydrangea blooms. They’re crisp and brown and some as big as my head.

Sitting down to give my back a rest from the bending I’ve been advised not to do, a modest tiny sparrow flits in and out of the pear tree. Maybe, it’s a junco, very shy, not like the shiny, cawing crows or the scolding, bossy bluejays that come around when it’s warmer. This fall, the leaves of our apple tree turned a bright yellow and clung to the branches far longer than I can recall in the many years I’ve lived here. And the pear tree too kept it leaves, turning gold then a deep, brilliant red. One day, I woke up to see they had all fallen off, suddenly it seemed, not after a dramatic, windy storm, but after a gentle nighttime misting.

Not long ago, a friend of many years who lived just down the street from me had to be put in hospice. Her passing a month later was not unexpected, her lengthy decline had been painful to witness. In my mind, the leaves on the trees out back seemed to fall with her. Sitting in the yard today I thought of her visits to our garden. There were few especially as she became immobile and finally bedridden, but she loved our bit of green in the midst of the city. It reminded us both of our Midwestern roots. Today I think of us sitting out here in this careless backyard in our mismatched garden chairs, one of which she had given me.

Friends, unlike family, are not a guaranteed relationship. Even family members who we don’t like or lose connection with, will always be a part of us if by blood only. But friends – are they like all that green growing in back that I didn’t quite plan on but have found a home in my garden? Those friends that have found a place in my life; whose merits and quirks I may have passed over on first meeting but have learned to appreciate, love and cherish.

With friends, there is a bit more work involved than with family because nothing is automatic. Yet I feel that the important people in my life have come to me – circumstantially.  For that, I thank my good fortune. Despite our many flaws as a species, we humans have the ability and the need to love, nurture and care for other humans. That’s what carries us through the hard times and what cheers me in my darker moods.

Today, in our chilly garden, I thought of a recent visit with my friend. That evening she was in obvious pain and embarrassed because she had called me asking for help. But after we started chatting, it was her wit and her loyalty, her interest in my life that kept me sitting with her long after my help was administered.
I was reminded why our friendship had endured for so many years.

Staring up at the bare, leafless branches today, I felt her loss. I felt the loss of others that have graced my life. Out there with green stuff growing and blooming and dying all around me, I did not feel sad. It is, I know, the natural course of things. But I’m glad that the leaves were so bright and stayed so long before they were gone.

Barbara Wyeth 1/9/2020

The Art Room

Sister Maureen 2The Art Room

Sister Maureen would sit in a old-fashioned wooden office chair in front of her over-sized roll top desk, her feet never touching the ground except to gently propel herself in the direction intended. The desk in itself was a wonder, each of its many compartments stuffed with bits of paper, writing utensils and stamps. Stacked on top in precarious piles were periodicals about stamps, newsletters about stamps and glassine sleeves full of more stamps. The giant piece of furniture dwarfed the slight figure of our teacher, artist, writer and avid stamp collector.

In her collecting, Sister Maureen focused on Vatican Stamps, specifically on Papal Issues. I thought her hobby quaint, but not so curious. She was a nun, after all. And that particular obsession with the pope and the Vatican and those miniature printed squares of almost endless variation and theme seemed the perfect specialty for Sister. I pictured her, long after school hours, perhaps late into the night, at her desk, hunched over her albums, in the big room atop the Victorian mansard roofed building that was our school, a Catholic all girls academy located in the wooded west side of our Midwestern town.

When you grow up in a place, it is the world to you. It seems neither remarkable nor special. It is simply your reality. Once away from my hometown, out of college and on my own, it seemed even more unremarkable. And yet, place is of great importance in our lives. It affects not just where we live, but how we live. It forms our memories, our judgements, our likes and dislikes. No place, especially our home place, can truly be considered unremarkable.

As a child, I lived on a street lined with tall, overarching elms. By the time I was in high school, those stately trees had fallen to Dutch Elm Disease. Our lush high school campus, which took up two square blocks, was like a park. It had numerous varieties of trees, apparently no elms, and many flowering bushes like roses and lilac. In a far corner of the grounds was a grotto with a blue-cloaked statue of the Virgin Mary that was crowned every May Day by, I assumed, the holiest girl in our school.

There were other buildings on campus, their styles reflecting when they had been built over the course of time. There was a modern building for the boarders, a mid-century convent where the nuns lived, a ranch house style rectory for the resident priest, and a modest Victorian white frame house that held the music department until the new hall was built.

And then there was the chapel – ancient, tall, imposing and Gothic. It was on the second floor over the old auditorium that now served as our study hall.  The chapel was straight out of Lives of the Saints. It was deliciously dark inside, smelled of burning bee’s wax candles and lingering incense. The altar was smaller than the one in my parish church but ornate in the old style, festooned with statues of the divine. The stained glass windows let in little light but those beams of color glowed like small jewels. In the center of the chapel were pews for us students. The high walls were lined with kneeling stalls for the nuns, each with a bench that folded down on the rare occasion the sisters got to sit during a high mass or Forty Hours Devotion. We did not have to use those benches or maybe weren’t allowed to since we had not yet entered the convent. I recall being in the Chapel only a few times but it felt truly Medieval and otherworldly to enter that dark and holy place.

The view from the Art Room was not of our campus as it faced North and looked out on the rather ordinary street below. From the tall wavy glass windows we could peer out on a residential neighborhood of modest homes and still healthy trees. To the west was an old, slightly run-down house that I found fascinating and made sketches of for class projects. Farther down the street and just barely in view was the Catholic boys’ school and in the opposite direction was a public elementary school and playground. All this we could see from the tall windows of the Art Room. It felt like we were looking down on the world from an enlightened and impartial viewpoint. There it was for all of us, to see, to experience, to learn from, and someday explore – but not quite yet. We were still within the protective arms of our Catholic girl’s school.

Despite her tiny size, Sister Maureen was dwarfed, actually, by nothing that I am aware of. She held her own as a staunch proponent of the liberal arts, especially history and fine arts. The Art Room was one half of the top third floor. The other half was the Science Room that also served the Home-Economics classroom. We art students distained both science and home-economics, concerned as we were with far loftier matters of art and beauty. The Art Room was high ceilinged, dark and somehow sacrosanct, with an almost similar aura as our ancient chapel. In Sister Maureen’s view, I think, it was a sacred space. One of my classmates was of special favor because Sister Maureen was a close family friend. She had painted a portrait of her mother and aunt when they had been a students a generation before. It hung in a darkened corner over a set of file cabinets that held pictures of “visually interesting things”; prints, art postcards, reproductions, old book pages, magazine clippings to use as reference, though I can’t remember ever using them for that. Just looking at this collection of so many years was a rare enough treat.

Next to those cabinets that lined the wall we shared with the lab next door was a floor to ceiling glass-fronted display case holding samples of former students’ work. Most of it looked ancient to me, like something I would see in the galleries at the Illinois State Museum. I recall some pottery, though we had no wheel or kiln. Perhaps it was a piece of Sister Maureen’s. Also in that cabinet of wonders were small Plaster of Paris figures, a wooden hinged manikin, and some drawings and paintings that all seemed like they hadn’t been moved from those shelves since the beginning of time. Still, I was fascinated by the sort of rarefied world being presented to us by this small, forceful person in a white habit and veil who spoke of art and painting and stamps and very little of God or popular culture.

Small in size, she could be intimidating. Her blue eyes would narrow, her small mouth purse if we failed to reply sensibly to her questions about Art and esthetics. She demanded we think and not just repeat something we heard or thought that she would approve of. I remember struggling over essays about What Is Art? Does anyone really know the answer and certainly I did not as naive Catholic girl. I think our answers mattered less than her wish to get us thinking and learning the value of thinking. As budding artists, she exonerated us to not just look, but to actually see. Seeing is a life long struggle but Sister Maureen introduced the practice as a worthy and necessary endeavor. As an artist/photographer I constantly struggle with seeing, rather than just looking or assuming or guessing. And I know full well when I DO see or, more often, when I miss the mark entirely.

I‘m a big “saver”, I have a difficult time throwing anything away so I’m surprised that I have none of my artwork form those years under Sister Maureen’s tutelage. I know with certainty that there were no paintings of palm trees in a blazing sunset. Palm trees, I recall, were her pet peeve – well one of many-but we lived in the heart of the Midwest and I doubt if anyone of us, at that point in our lives, had even seen a palm tree.“Paint what you know,” draw what you see” were her mantras yet I can remember little of note that I did during those years, just dance programs, prom decorations, and such. I do remember one pastel drawing of the Virgin Mary so I guess those rules could be stretched a bit when it involved images of sacred beings.

I believe it was our senior year when Sister Maureen took our class on an excursion to the Art Institute in Chicago. It was my first trip on a train, my first trip to a large city, larger than my hometown or Waterloo, Iowa where my favorite aunt lived. It was my first trip to a major museum to see paintings I had seen only in the pages of art history books. The museum felt holy when I walked in, almost like the beautiful somber churches of my childhood. It felt expansive, too, and each gallery opened to more wonders. Sister Maureen was especially enthusiastic about the Impressionists and that period of Art making. Looking at Van Gogh’s Blue Bedroom, I could hardly believe I was looking at the real thing, actually painted by the real artist. I loved this painting that I had looked at so many times with my mother when we leafed through a leather bound book of Great Masterpieces of Art that we had at home. And here it was, with many others I recognized. What a big wondrous world this was! On subsequent visits to the Art Institute, long after that first trip with my art class, I make a point of dropping by to see Blue Bedroom. It’s like visiting an old friend of long acquaintance.

That day, Sister allowed us some free time to wander the museum and the gift shop, then meet up to catch the train back home. A friend and I were certain we were on time but getting to the station, the other girls were already seated and looking out the windows, worried. Sister Maureen glared at us and we could hear that the engines had started. A kind conductor reached down and helped us up on board. We did not miss the train, but Sister Maureen was red faced and frowning for most of the trip home. Only later did I realize how concerned she must have been. My friend and I feared her wrath when we got back. By then her anger seemed to have faded but not without some stern words about being responsible and sticking together and behaving like adults. I remember thinking that the train left early but saw no need to put up any sort of argument against my teacher who was also a nun, an argument that I most surely lose and be branded as disrespectful. I also knew she was right. It wouldn’t have hurt to be early and cautious. These days I’m at an airport at least two hours before any flight any where.

When graduation time approached. I was eager to get on to the next phase in my still-young life. I had loved my school and most of my teachers except for Sister Veronica 2nd year Latin and French who once falsely accused me of cheating and another time called me in front of the class to wrangle around a particularly vexing French word I couldn’t seem to pronounce for the life of me. And Sister Thomas Aquinas, Senior homeroom, who called me to task for questioning Holy Mother Church over the mysterious Index of Forbidden Books.

I was going to go to the local junior college so I knew I would be seeing many of the girls that had become such dear, close friends. I knew I would most certainly miss my taciturn but adored Sister Maureen, but I was ready to get on with things. I remember girls crying openly about leaving the school. For many of them, their lives were about to change dramatically, moving away from home to college, or to marriage and children. I looked out to the world I had viewed from the protective confines of the art room, a hand emerging from Sister Maureen’s snow white habit pointing to all that was out there, waiting for us. And I felt ready for it all.

Within a few years, I would learn the enormity of what I would need to face, more dramatic that I could have possibly imagined. On graduation day I had felt well-armed and confident. Within two years my mother died, and I went off to college and it was the 60s and all hell was breaking loose on college campuses across the country including my university. At the time I never realized how unanchored I was but I bumped along through those years, invigorated, crushed, thrilled and sometimes totally lost.

I visited Sister Maureen only once after graduation and by that time she had retired or, to her mind, “been retired.” She told me about the new art teacher who had replaced her and had students making paper flowers. I felt Sister’s disappointment and anger too. She was prideful enough to feel that her legacy so-to-speak had been erased and that she had been replaced by a craft teacher, not an art teacher. She said the other retired sisters at the convent talked only about former students and their growing families and children. She now had her own small room off the main sitting room where she could work on her Vatican collection, but I sensed her boredom. Had she become bored with the Church as well, with the restrictions placed on her by going into the convent, by the kind of life that was required of her? Teaching kept her mind active and engaged and now she was living with other old women who she had little in common with. I am no doubt projecting here, but that was the feeling I got during our visit. Perhaps it was because I was going through my own serious disenchantment with the Church. Or maybe it was just plain boredom. I became bored with the routine that my “faith” required of me without any real engagement with life, with the world that was opening up to me, a dangerous joyous place I was attempting to navigate. There was a disastrous war going on, blacks and women and gays were all demanding their rights, the earth was being assaulted by man’s neglect, I was learning about sex and art and literature and disent and activism. That world was scary and hurtful at times but definitely not boring.

My father remarried much sooner than I had liked but I recall it was quite a bit later when he and my stepmother invited Sister Maureen to dinner at their home. I had already been on my own, living in San Francisco for some time but I had talked so much of Sister Maureen. They know how fond I was of her and how important she had been to me. They told me that she had seemed forgetful and confused and I was saddened hearing that. She had always been so witty and interesting. Perhaps they had expected a more saintly sister. Perhaps she was indeed fading as we all surely will.

A while back that friend who had been so close to Sister Maureen all her life, actually, sent me copy of two of her etchings, both simple and lovely – and secular in subject. A small print of men playing cards is especially appealing. With her keen eye she had recorded quite simply and quite well what she was seeing – no embellishment, no palm trees. And just recently that friend emailed me. Would like to see a copy to her of a letter from Sister Maureen, mentioning me in her remarks? I know I was not as important to her as she was to me, but I felt so honored, so pleased. Now when I look at her print I can see Sister Maureen, holding court in the Art Room with all of us seated at our long work tables. We are young, we are idealistic, eager for life, eager for art, and we are learning how to see.

The Student Union

 

(A thinly veiled memoir about a youthful escapade, friendship and loss). 

If we had done this today, we would have been carted off to jail, I’m sure of it or at the least, been exposed and embarrassed in the Daily Iowan student newspaper, maybe even expelled from the University. It was not that we did anything terrible but we trespassed, brazenly. It’s really amazing that no one saw us.

It was probably Darcie’s idea. She was by far the most fearless person I have ever known. It was three of us,me and Darcie and another girl who she had a crush on. Laura had huge brown eyes and long blonde braids. She was quiet but loved hanging around with Darcie.

I had met Darcie in the pot shop, what we students called the Ceramics Studio. It was a series of quonset huts by the river. A snazzy Frank Gheary building sits there now, appropriate to the priorities of our current times, it houses the School of Business. The quonsets were leftovers from emergency building right after World War II and had also had been used for married student housing before he  being moved to their current “temporary” location. It would still be many years before the new,modern facilities would be built.

They were cold and had no straight walls. It was like being inside a barrel. In a rainstorm, it was a noisy but comforting shelter, although not necessarily dry. After a downpour, riverlets of water would flow under the doors and make their way, like a natural creek, to the clay room’s wide drain. Fortunately, the throwing wheels, the shelves for drying pots, the kilns were all set up off the floor. Of course, it was always damp in there anyway with clay and slips and glazes and all the water needed to clean and mix and throw. I recall one major hail storm that was deafening. Golf-ball size ice balls pounded down, denting the buildings and metal storage bins outside the quonsets. People drove around Iowa City in pock-marked cars for years after that storm. Still there was something thrilling and comical as the ice hailed down on us inside our metal drum.

Darcie had transferred from a women’s college in St Louis, she told me, where she got kicked out for hitting another girl. She had apparently took a swing at someone who insulted her current crush. If Darcie disagreed with you, she would just give you a look, cold and incredulous, like what are you thinking, how could you be so stupid?

If you were someone she didn’t take a shine to, she’d most likely swig. She was stocky, only about five feet tall, wide and thick. She always wore a clay-spattered plaid flannel shirt over cuffed clay splattered blue jeans and muddy work boots. Her hair was cut boy-short with soft brown curls that flopped over eves like a teenage rock and roll idol. But she had a round, pretty face with a delicate nose that reminded me of my Aunt Grace. Her humor was sly and wicked and she loved to smoke pot. One night Darcie decided I needed to be educated in the ways of the world so she had me rolling joints in the living room of her off campus house on Iowa Avenue. We were listening to the Fugs. I didn’t feel a thing until I got up to go to the bathroom and felt the walls leaning backwards to accommodate me. Darcie always had strong stuff. She smoked it whenever and wherever she wanted to, causing quite a stir with the ceramic instructors at the pot shop. She was at odds with them all.

The head of the program was a daft, vacant eyed old man whose work was in a lot of museums. He was the token famous person in the department. The assistant professor was a tall and younger, very East Coast, lots of thick brown hair that stood out from his head. He flirted with all the women and most in turn had crushes on him. He was in fact carrying on with an aspiring undergraduate sculptor who I waitressed with on weekends. The grad assistant was this gorgeous Hungarian who sat at his wheel, shirtless, pulling up walls of huge muscular pots. He was kind to all of us unworthies but the feeling in the department was big pots were best and only men were strong enough to really work in ceramics. Darcie thought the men in the ceramics department were idiots that had stood too close to the off gassing kilns when they were firing. For all her nonchalance, she was ambitious and wanted to get into graduate school. She wasn’t about to sleep with anyone to do it.

I was a terrible potter. I loved the feel of the wet clay as it formed in my hands. I could never throw a cylinder more than a foot high but I took as many classes as I could. I loved the wet dirt smell of the place, the noise of the rain during a storm and I loved Darcie. It wasn’t girlfriend love. I was already sneaking off to the riverbank with guys and dancing slow, drunk and dirty at the bars downtown. I loved Darcie because she didn’t give a damn, because her rebellion was so refreshing and because she was so fiercely loyal when she loved you back. I saw something in her eyes that needed me, that needed a friend, that needed not to be judged. I was young and unformed, I didn’t even know I had the power to judge.

More than a few times at Bill’s Saloon over on Dubuque Street, she would get angry if no one asked her to dance, then she would get drunk and angry when no one asked me to dance, or if some obnoxious frat rat said something snide about one of us art school chicks. She’d take a swing and soon the big, bearded hippie bouncer would escort us out and we’d all have to leave. It was worth the drama. One time she swung at her intended target with such force that she slipped fell onto the beer-slick floor. It was a few minutes before anyone in the writhing crowd noticed. Darcie told me she couldn’t decide if she was hoping to dance with a cute guy or with her cute friend with the long blond braids.

Darcie had the sweetest parents. I met them a few times when they visited their daughter. Her mom had that cute Darcie nose and they genuinely loved this wild girl, their precious only child they had later in life, but seemed totally puzzled by her. They didn’t understand her, Darcie said, but who did? Certainly not me. I basked in her swagger, her ballsiness, but I saw the hurt in her eyes, the caring and the bafflement, too. Did she know what she wanted? I didn’t but I wasn’t even looking. Darcie was. Me? I had no plan, I was just coasting until the next thing came along to capture my attention.

Laura, the girl with the blonde braids was really smart and assured. Her father was an anthropology professor at the university, known for his liberal politics and outrageous lectures. He traveled frequently to New Guinea and would at some point during the semester, get rid of his suit and bow tie and show up at McBride Hall in full native regalia complete with a bone through his pierced septum. It was worth the rigorous essays and the early lecture hour just for this performance. Laura wasn’t wild, but she had taken a fondness to Darcie. I think Darcie was in love. The three of us palled around together for a while before Laura went off to a university in the East. Her father was such a strong personality, I think she felt overshadowed. And like I said, she was smart. She eventually transferred out to Yale or Princeton or someplace like that.

That early spring evening, it was getting dark. Deep lavender and gray clouds hovered over the river. We were sitting in the pot shop in a room where Darcie had displayed her latest work, shelves and shelves of hookahs. The body of the pot was a light porcelain jug, the top a black course clay fashioned into a hand giving the middle finger. All these fuck-yous just waiting to welcome some professor who had wronged her in some way. We smirked talking about the possible reactions, Darcie giggling at each scenario.

The quonsets were below and to one side of a stone walking bridge that crossed the river to the main art building. Stepping down off the bridge and directly ahead was the Student Union building that also housed offices and the Iowa House, a hotel for visiting alumni and professors. It also had the only decent high-end restaurant in town, the State Room. On Saturdays I worked there with another art student, the girl who was carrying on with the ceramics instructor, hoping to land a spot in the graduate program. We served platter-sized steaks garnished with a big mushroom on top, served with a baked potato with butter and sour cream and a salad of iceberg lettuce. We never got to eat the steaks. After our shift, we got one of the baked potatoes in a doggie bag as if were a special treat.

From the pot shop door that March evening, we could see that a window to one of the offices in the student union was left ajar. It was about two stories up. The windows swung out slightly like French doors and opened onto a wide ledge that wrapped around that end of the building. Darcie noticed that the decorative molding led up almost like steps to that open window. I don’t recall much discussion about what we were about to do. We had no agenda, no plan. It was pure opportunity.

Darcie led the way as we walked over and quietly and quickly climbed up the side of the building, Laura opened the window some more and we hefted ourselves in. Incredible. What to do now? We marveled at the ease of it, looking at each other nervous and embarrassed, but soon Darcie was bouncing up and down and spinning the secretaries’ chairs, opening drawers to see what was in them. It was all pretty boring office stuff. I suppose there were some interesting files there but we really had no intention of doing anything – it was pure whim. I grabbed a few printed notepads from “The Office of Student Affairs” and some ballpoint pens, incriminating evidence if I had thought about it. Darcie took an automatic pencil sharpener emblazoned with the University of Iowa seal and Laura just wandered around, amazed at how effortless it had been. I began to get queasy imaging the Campus Police charging in to apprehend the trespassers and dragging us off to jail. And me! With those notepads and pens in the pocket of my army surplus parka. We checked everything out and moved a few things around just to spook the unhip townie secretaries we assumed worked there. Darcie led us out, opening a heavy metal double door and suddenly we were in the dark, quiet halls of the Iowa House. A Latina maid stared at us blankly as she pushed her cleaning cart past us. We continued down the carpeted hall, then to the elevator, down to the main entrance and out the door.

It was totally dark by now and the air heavy with cold moisture. In Iowa, March is late, grim winter, spring still weeks away. In the safety of night, Darcie pulled the pencil sharpener out of her pocket, inspecting it, showing it to us like a pitchman at the state fair. Then we started laughing, the relief of not getting caught, the amazement at our daring adventure, the craziness of it all – we laughed and laughed clutching our sides and puffing out little clouds of freezing breath. Darcie took one of my notepads and ripped off pages, tossing them in the air like confetti.

When Darcie transferred to Kansas City Art Institute, the pot shop lost most of its appeal. After a few letters, I lost track of Darcie but many years later, a potter friend in Seattle told me about this crazy, wonderful artist she had met and was showing with at local craft fairs. Darcie! Yes, still crazy, still conflicted, still wildly talented.

She had built a studio in an old schoolhouse on Bashon Island. I planned a visit and Darcie asked if I could bring some coke. It would be one of my few drug purchases ever but I felt like I owed it to her, payback for the pot and the Fugs  so many years ago back on Iowa Avenue.

My Seattle friend and I took the car ferry and drove to Darcie’s schoolhouse. She was much the same, a bit thinner, still her soft laugh, her defiant, puzzled look, gorgeous pots everywhere, their glazes picking up the weak Northwestern light. She seemed have a peace about her verging on sadness, though, her humor still biting but not mean. She was modest and self-deprecating about her successes and there had been many. My meager dose of drugs impressed her and we had a wondrous afternoon talking, looking at pots and walking the wet, grassy perimeters of her new place on the island.

I’ve always thought my pottery instincts transferred to my Seattle friend. She was so much better at it than I had ever been. In fact, she seemed to take up where I stopped. I could go no further with ceramics and my life took a different direction. She took up pots and Darcie as well. They became friends and colleagues.

I learned that Darcie still struggled, especially with her love for women and her sense of doing right by her now elderly parents who had always been so patient and generous with her. One day, my friend called. When Darcie didn’t show up to teach her class, friends called a neighbor to check in her. A big, lumberjack kind of guy, he walked across the crunchy, frosted-over grass that separated his trailer from her schoolhouse and looked in a window. It was the bathroom window and there he saw  Darcie laying in the tub, peaceful like an odalisque-her plump white, body almost glowing, he said later. He had never imagined his tough little neighbor in quite this manner, then again, maybe he had. Darcie was always appealing and seductive in her own way. At the risk of Darcie’s considerable anger, he tapped at the window, waiting to be yelled at, hurled unfired pots at. He tapped again and then began pounding on the side of the old wooden building.                       Wake up, goddamn it. Wake up!

It was gas. I heard two versions. One was that her father had been helping Darcie and working on some things around the place. That it was he who had installed the gas heater. If so, how could he bear that truth. The second version, no more bearable, was from my Seattle friend. She wasn’t so sure it was accidental. She had learned to love Darcie but knew of her demons, that happiness had eluded her for so long, that she wanted it so badly and seemed to think of it as an entity. If you did the right things, loved the right people, made the right pots, that you could earn it. Maybe she didn’t remember the pot shop in that thundering hail storm or our devilish escapade and escape from the Student Affairs office. Maybe she thought that once earned, happiness would just be there, ever and always, like heaven. For that you need religion. Happiness is for now, Darcie, just like our breath that cold March night by the Iowa River. It’s real, so real you can see it but then just as quickly, it dissipates and is gone.

 

Sent from my iPhone

Iron Lung

Written several years ago, in this time of pandemic, seemed worth revisiting…
In 1953, Edie’s family didn’t have a TV, not yet, but it was In all the newspapers: Polio, pictures of hapless kids, grinning bravely, their heads poking out of the huge breathing drum, an Iron Lung, they called it. At school, the nuns led prayers for al the poor children struck down with polio.
Edie’s mom told her it wasn’t just kids either. The president of the United States, the one who was now dead, he had it too. Edie would hear her parent’s quiet, worried talk after supper, after they had listened intently to the news that came over the radio, the same radio that broadcast breathless accounts of the Saint Louis Cardinals baseball games, that practically jumped off the shelf when Stan the Man hit another home run. On Thursdays when Willa Mae, their colored cleaning lady came to the house, she and Edie’s mom would sit with their tea and listen to their favorite soap opera. These days they lingered and talked about the epidemic and Sister Kenny and a possible vaccine that would put an end to their worry.
Willa Mae shook her head and clucked, “I sure hope they do something. It breaks my heart seeng these little cripple children.”
Edie’s mom stared into her empty tea cup.
When her husband came home she looked ups this “Should we still go? The kids will be so disappointed if we don’t, Mother, too.”
Hearing this, Edie held her breath. How could they not go? Every year at the end of the summer, her family loaded into their car and drove all day across the flat steaming fields of Illinois to her grandma and grandpa’s farm in Black Hawk County, Iowa. She was sitting on the stairs, listening intently,  her arm wrapped the bannister on the landing. Then she heard her dad, “We can’t let them down. Of course we’ll go.”
Edie’s heart jumped a little and she ran upstairs to her room. They would be going to the farm after all.
The drive to Iowa was a long one but if they started early, they could be at the farm before dusk. They started off, windows down, morning-cool air blowing in the faces of Edie and her two brothers in the back seat. As the sun grew hotter, Edie’s mom said, “I can just feel the freckles popping!”
Edie looked at her own arms. Would they pop on hers as well?
She And her brothers tried to read comics but that was impossible with the windows down. Her brothers started poking around her at each other. Her dad said, very loud, “Cut it out or I’ll stop the car,.”
They knew he would and they started counting P.I.E. Trucks, Pacific Intercoastal Express, it said in small letters under the logo. There were lots of them on the road, always. Their mom turned around and smiled. “We’ve got a long way to go.”
Before they got to the Big River, they had to cross a smaller version of it, the Illinois River. Her dad liked to take the ferry at Savannah. Out of their way but an adventure, her dad called it, like the secret rides he and his friend Mr White would take them on back home. He drove the boxy grey Plymouth onto a floating wooden platform and a man in farmer overalls guided it across, standing at the helm in front of a big, noisy motor. They drove off onto a dirt road on the other side, Dad waved a thank you, and got back on the blacktop. Then the ferry picked up a waiting truck, rusted-out and old, and took it back where they had just come from. Back and forth all day, Edie thought, back and forth.
When they got close to the big river, the boys and Edie spelled it out –
                  M I S S – I S S – I P P I
Looking down from the car windows, they saw the huge opaque brown river, barely flowing, it seemed. Long barges moved slowly along, some empty, some loaded down, sitting heavy in the water. The steel girders on the bridge framed their view like individual photos in a flip book.Then they were on the other side.      WELCOME TO THE STATE OF IOWA
  WHERE THE TALL CORN GROWS
A goldfinch and the state flower, a wild rose embellished the sign.
They were in Keokuk now and stopped for lunch. Edie had fried catfish in a basket with French fries. They all squeezed into  a sticky vinyl booth, Edie sipped her strawberry pop from a straw. Soda pop was a treat they got only while on vacation or on a drive to Lincoln park on a particularly hot summer night. Overhead fans whirled around, not cooling anything but stirring up the moist air that smelled of grease and fried fish and burnt meat. After lunch they watched a jeep struggling to drive up a hill behind the diner, almost straight up a steep bluff. The driver kept backing down, revving his motor and starting up again. The cook came out to watch, stained apron stretched across his fat belly. “Damned fool,” and Dad nodded.
Back in the car, Mom turned on the radio, Paul Harvey and more news of polio striking down kids. “Turn that damn thing off,” her dad said and they drove on.
The rolling fields were still covered with oats and corn, blindingly green in the  late summer light. Even the sky looked hot, hazy blue and not a cloud in sight. The sun was low in the sky by the time they turned off the highway and down a white gravel road to the farm. Behind the car billowed a cloud of white dust. They were almost there and Edie’s heart did that little dance again. On to the lane, shimmering corn fields on one side, the gnarly old orchard on the other. In the culverts on either side was wild rose and Queen Anne’s Lace and black-eyed Susan’s and Day Lilies, all dusted with fine white powder.
By the time they were at the house, Grandma and Aunt Mayme were in the yard waving flour-covered hands, a pie probably in the oven for tonight‘s supper. White-haired, handsome Grandpa sat in a big wooden chair stroking an old stub-tailed cat and nodded hello. He had a heart attack last Spring, her mom had told Edie, and did’t move around much these days. The Boys, Edie’s two bachelor uncles jokester Carl and serious Bill,  tromped up from the barn, past their parked John Deere tractor to greet their sister and her family. The Boys brought out chairs from the kitchen and set them in the yard. Soon the women were catching up on news of cousins and kids, deaths and of course, polio. Her dad smoked his Lucky Strikes and her uncles puffed on their pipes and talked of cars and equipment and the price of corn and oats while Grandpa looked on.
Her brothers could be still no longer and headed off to the orchard, Edie. Instead, wandered into the modest, clean house, taking in the smell of waxed linoleum and good things baking in the Home Comfort oven. Yes, it was all as she remembered.  Then outside, she raced past the chickens, sending them flapping and squawking, and ran down to Camp – a place in the woods Uncle Carl, the younger of the Boys, had cleared out do she and her brothers could play. Yes, the three sitting rocks were there and the pigs still looked at her with lazy, mean little eyes when she climbed back over the fence and headed back up to the house.
That night when the family sat at the big round table in the dining room, facing a feast that Grandma and Aunt Mayme had been preparing all day for their guests, Edie wasn’t hungry at all. She just couldn’t eat, not even Grandma’s mashed potatoes or her aunt’s Apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream. She didn’t want to catch lightning bugs out under the elm tree and put them in a jar. All she wanted to do was go to the living room and lie down on the foldout couch that was her bed on these summer visits to the farm. Her Aunt Grace, who had driven out from near-by Cedar City that evening after work, shared the bed with Edie when she visited. Her brothers went outside and chased each other around, the grown-ups sat in the cool evening air and Edie fell asleep fast and didn’t notice when Grace carefully joined her.
Edie woke up the next morning to find her mom sitting next to her.
“How do you feel, honey?”
Edie wanted to play with the stub-tailed cat and go down to Camp. “I’m fine.”
But her mom looked concerned and she heard Grace talking, “Try not to worry. She’s probably just tired from the trip. We’ll keep a close eye.”
At lunch, Edie still didn’t feel like eating, Grandma frowned at her, disapproving. Her aunts and mother exchanged worried looks. After play with her lunch and not eating much of it, Edie lay down on the couch. She studied its scratchy surface, her fingers tracing tiny clusters of pink and white flowers that patterned the deep blue upholstery. Grace came in and put her palm to Edie’s forehead,
“She’s hot.”
Edie wanted to jump up, go out and collect fallen apples with her brothers in the tired-out old orchard. She wanted to help Aunt Mayme collect eggs or do the wash and help her hang it up on the sagging clothes line that ran along the side of the house. Why couldn’t she? Her head was hot and felt like it weighed a ton, her legs, too.
“I’m fine, Mom,” she said, hoping to wish it so, confused by her body’s rebellion and sad because it was vacation and here she was, lying on the couch in this dreary, hot room, watched over by pictures of Jesus and Mary, dried Palm fronds tucked behind their frames. The upright piano in the corner, the one nobody played, sat dark and silent and only made her sadder. She could see the drooping branches of the elm tree and the glistening corn fields beyond. Occasionally she saw a streak of one or both of her brothers as they played in the yard. . Not fair. Not fair. She felt tears forming. She may as well be back home, in her own room, with her dolls and the Strawberry patterned curtains over windows that faced north so that at night she could watch the beacon from Capital Airport.
“C’mon honey, we’re going to the doctor.”
That was her dad, holding one of Grandma’s quilt, ready to wrap around his girl. By now, Edie’s teeth were chattering.
Why do I feel hot and cold at the same time she wondered. Her dad scooped her up and swaddled her in the quilt, her mom and Grace followed, hurrying past Grandma and Mayme, standing with hands clasped in front of their aproned chests. “Oh dear. We’ll pray,” they waved as Dad loaded Edie and the women into the Plymouth. Down the lane, a cloud of white dust behind them, out Eagle Center Road, past Schaefer’s General Store and the farmers outside drinking soda pop and bottled beer. Their heads swiveled. What’s the damn hurry?
 He sped up to the intersection turning onto Orange Center Road, past the funny half house that never got finished, the humped storm cellar next to it, past the Catholic Church and rectory, the yellow brick two story school. Edie huddled up next to her aunt in the back set, Grace directing her dad.
“This is the best way, the back way.”
“Don’t boss me Grace. I was raised here,you know.”
Grace shut up. Edie’s mom turned around and patted Edie’s quilted hand as Cedar City and County Hospital came into view.
Later, when Edie told the story, she actually recalled very little, relying mostly on accounts of her mom and aunts, and her father of course. What she did remember was her fear that their vacation on the farm could end, just like that, and that she did’t want her parents to know how bad she had felt.
She remembered too that the doctor had her make a BM for him so he could study it to see if she had polio. He had made her open her mouth really wide and stuck what looked like a fat Popsicle stick in her mouth. “Say aah.” He thumped her chest and listened to her breathe and asked all sorts of questions about how she felt and about the kids she played with. He was dark, almost as dark as Willa Mae, their cleaning lady back home. His bushy black mustache moved up and down when he talked. She could hardly understand what he said sometimes, his voice sing-songy  and high. Her dad would translate. But the doctor’s hands were gentle – small and soft, unlike her dad’s blunt square fingers. She wasn’t afraid, even when he gave her a shot. It did’t hurt at all.
Leaving the hospital her dad drove a lot slower.
“Thank god,” her mom said and Grace gave Edie a little hug. Her teeth weren’t chattering anymore and she even felt a bit hungry.
“Edie Button, how about if we stop at Schaefer’s and get you some lime sherbet.” That was her dad and he knew lime sherbet was her favorite.
“Twenty-Four hour flu,  The doc told me, scaring the hell out of a lot of parents, he said.”
“Thank god, thank god,” her mom kept repeating.
This time the Plymouth pulled up slowly and parked in front of the store in Eagle Center.
“Say, you were in quite a hurry there, ” one of the old guys said.
 In the back of the store was a bar that sold cold beer and an occasional shot of cheap whiskey. It was getting on in the afternoon and a crowd of men milled around out by the gasoline pumps. Her dad stood out among the farmers, all of them in dusty, sweaty overalls, their arms and faces sunburnt and brown, their foreheads pasty white.
” Got a sick little girl here but she’s gonna be OK,” her dad announced. “Gave us a fright with all this polio talk going around.”
An old farmer gently slapped her dad on the back. “It’s a real worry these days.”
Her dad got the sherbet, packed in a round paper tub, wrapped with extra newspaper to keep it cool and they drove back to the farm. When they got there, Grandma, Grandpa, Mayme and the Boys were all having coffee, sitting around the dining room table, the Hummel Madonna watching benevolently from the mantle. The ornate clock with its Roman Numerals chimed four o’clock.
“Don’t worry, it’s just a nasty flu.”
“Thank god,” her mom said
“We’ve been praying,” Mayme said, she and Grandma still clutching their rosaries.
Edie was embarrassed a bit by all the attention but felt well enough to have a small bowl of green sherbet. After that she napped a while and that evening ate a portion of meatloaf for supper. Her brothers looked at her sheepishly, worried maybe, but a little jealous, she knew, of all the attention she was getting. That night when Edie was back in bed on the fold-out couch in the darkened living room, a cricket was chirping so loudly it was all she could hear above the murmur of the adults saying the rosary as they did every night. When Grandma came in to say goodnight, Edie told her the cricket was keeping her awake.
“Don’t worry about that lil’ cricket,” Grandma comforted, “Let him sing you to sleep.”
That night Edie fell into a deep, lush sleep and woke up to roosters crowing and the quiet bustle of women in the kitchen. Her head did not feel thick and heavy and her stomach growled. She hoped Grandma was making bacon and eggs for breakfast.
The summer after that, Edie waited for the cricket to sing her to sleep. She remembered when her dad had rushed her to the hospital and the lime sherbet afterwards. She thanked the Blessed Mother that she didn’t get polio and didn’t have to spend the rest of her life in an iron lung. Tomorrow she and her brothers had planned a big ceremony down at camp to honor their Aunt Grace. They still had to clear a path and clean the sitting rocks and put a string on the metal that her brothers had made from an old iron nail. The cricket rubbed its legs together. Jesus and Mary looked on, the piano in the corner sat silent as always. And Edie fell into a deep calm sleep.

I Remember Miles

A piece I started before the lockdown… prompted by a PBS documentary.
An escape into my early San Francisco days.

When my two brothers and I were teens, our parents set up what they hoped to be a study room for us in the basement of our new home. We each had an old, hand-me down, rummage sale desk for our supplies and books. They were arranged with enough space in between so we wouldn’t pester each other. That was the idea.

I can’t recall my younger brother ever being down In that damp, dark room. He was more interested in tennis and girls. I however did spend time down there, wrestling with math and algebra in between day dreaming in a big, old easy chair that had moved from the living room of our old house downtown to the basement in our new house in the good neighborhood. That chair had long been my refuge, a favorite spot to think about life and fantasize about boys. I’d slouch down in its worn cushions, drape my legs over one arm and listen my record albums; Joan Baez, Ian and Sylvia, Richard and Mimi Farina, and of course, Bob Dylan – that is, when I could claim access to the record player.

My older brother exercised nearly complete control over the music played down in our basement room. Since our move, he had dropped the “hood”  look – shirt collar turned up, skinny white belt, tight blue jeans – for a beatnik persona. He dubbed his corner of our room The Rat’s Nest. When he wasn’t typing out witticisms on our dad’s old Smith Corona and air-planing them over to my desk, where I was really and truly trying to study, he played his music. And his music was jazz: Dave Brubeck, Jimmy Smith, Don Shirley, Ramsey Lewis, Miles Davis.

We were never what I would call a music family. As kids, we played 45s, in the basement of our old house, in a room we shared with a big huffing furnace and shelves of my mom’s canned pickles and apple sauce. My older brother was always the most interested in music. He still is. We played rock and roll, and Disney movie music but my education in jazz began in The Rat’s Nest and like folk music and Bob Dylan, it all became the soundtrack of my adolescence.

When I went away to the University of Iowa, the first concert I went to was Dave Brubeck at the Iowa Memorial Union. Perhaps that music made me less homesick, having lost my mother, gotten a new stepmother, another new house and a whole new, different life in the short span of a few years. The familiarity of the music helped smooth the way of so many changes. But in those same years, along came the Stones and the Beatles and more folk music. I learned to love blues and old-time country and all that amazing psychedelic music.

By the time I moved to San Francisco, popular music was dominated by heavy metal, guys in pants too tight and hair too big and Punk hadn’t come along quite yet shatter the disco ball. In San Francisco at that time was a station that played jazz exclusively. It was all those sounds I’d heard emanating from my brother’s Rat Nest. Listening to that station was like a graduate course in American Music and it rekindled my interest in and my fondness for this free-flowing, adventurous genre – something that was still with me from those days of studying and day dreaming down in the basement with my brother grooving along to his latest LP.

My first job in San Francisco was at the Cannery on Fisherman’s Wharf. I was living in the Mission in a flat with three other women so getting to work on Muni put me on the 30 Stockton bus through Chinatown and North Beach. In that neighborhood, right next to the *cop* *shop* as we called it, was the Keystone Korner, a nightclub featuring jazz exclusively. I could see the  marquee from the bus window and when I saw that Miles Davis was going to be at Keystone, I knew I had to go.

My roommates and I frequented 99 cent movies at the Times Theatre on Stockton Street. Often we would wander over to Keystone and stand in the doorway listening to the band, but they were not necessarily jazz fans, they really didn’t get it. I not sure I did either but I know I liked it, and the whole jazz scene was so cool but
I had no cool boyfriend at the time that I could cajole into going to a jazz show. Still I was determined not to miss this opportunity to see and hear probably the most famous jazz musician in the world.

That night I dressed in the hippest all black outfit I could cobble together and set out on my own. After fortifying myself with a cappuccino at the Trieste, I headed over to Keystone Korner.

The club was surprisingly small and very dark. Small round cocktail tables jammed the floor with barely enough room for the waitress to maneuver through with drinks. The crowd was older, lots of academic looking men in sport coats with elbow patches, woman is dark clothing wearing dramatic ethnic jewelry, and a big contingent of black men that I assumed were ardent fans and likely aspiring musicians. I briefly had a table to myself but the place was filling up fast. Soon I was approached by a tall, dark haired, older woman. She asked, in a deep accent, if she might join me. I was relieved and felt shielded, being a young woman alone in this nightclub, from any uncomfortable attention. I remember her name, Elizabeth Black. She was German, she told me, and a fan of jazz and especially of Miles Davis. To me, she seemed wildly sophisticated, being from Europe and all. Then she told me she had lived in San Francisco for years. Her American husband had no interest in jazz but she most certainly did and like me felt, that she was not* going to miss Miles Davis.

The club’s small room made for close proximity to the performers. Todd Barkan introduced Miles Davis and out he came. With him was a very young black man, boyish and slight and nearly naked m, with a tall standing drum. Miles was in meticulous hip attire as always, but the young drummer was barely dressed at all in a wrap around his waist and a headband, like someone in a National Geographic photograph. I don’t even remember the band, I was so mesmerized by the two performers practically right in front of me. The music was thrilling-loose, bending, swelling, going off in unexpected directions. Elizabeth and I gasped and applauded. We were awed, deeply affected, emotionally moved by this music, by this experience. I was so exhilarated, I wanted to do it all over again so I arranged to go to the next performance that following night.

It could not have been more different. My elegant friend from the night before was not there and Miles looked carelessly put together, almost sloppy. I don’t recall if the drummer was back with him, I was so fixated on the drastic change in Miles. I felt disappointment and pity. I was embarrassed for him as he wandered aimlessly about the small stage, sometimes stopping unpredictably. I kept trying to assume this was his idiosyncratic way of working but to me it just seemed sad.

That night I learned that genius was no more protected from the fragility of life than the rest of us, even though we fully expect it to be.  The music on Sketches of Spain is very different from his sterling first night club performance, but it remains my favorite Miles Davis album. It’s the one I remember most from those days when my brother was educating me from his post at The Rat’s Nest. I’ve had some copy of that recording since those days, first in LP form, then CD and now in my iTunes. I wasn’t able to duplicate the thrill of our first night but I do not regret any of my time with Miles in that crowded North Beach night club, a long time ago now, because I got to see him soar.
I was there to witness it.

3/30/20

Sent from my iPad

Sent from my iPhone

Waiting at a Cafe in Chios

ChairBlogCame across this going through an old  journal/sketchbook from 1976. A girlfriend and I met up in Greece to explore more of this part of the world where we had traveled two years earlier. This time we were hoping to cross over to Turkey from the island of Chios but end of season bad weather kept us waiting and we never made it…

My entry: Next door to our already favorite cafe-patisserie-candy shop is an abandoned mosque. There is an iron gate in front, chained and padlocked. Strewn in the yard (in some sort of order no doubt) are pieces of columns, plaques, some with Greek writing, some Arabic, It sounds like there are a million birds back there but I can’t see them. It’s 5 o’clock and  finally stopped raining but blustery, chilly. The cafe is dimly lit, enhancing the dismal quality of the day. Lots of damp coats and jackets, their smell mingling with smell of hot fat for the loukoumades and perfumed honey. Soldiers sitting around with nothing to do except linger over coffee for hours and stare. The ceiling is patterned with what looks like a block print, red flowers on light green. The pattern is not regular.

I can still hear the birds.

Geranium

GeraniumLeafA sweet story about my mother and the solace of the garden especially during troubling times.

 

I remember standing along the side of the garage watching my mother tend some bright red geraniums.
I was waiting for my date and feeling that he wasn’t going to show. I’m not sure why i felt that way. I just did. I think hanging around close to my mother made me feel less nervous, that she would be close when the inevitable happened.

My date was a boy I really didn’t know well. We were going to a summer invitational. That’s what we called these dances, not a school dance, not a club dance but ones put on privately by a group of girls. I would have an invitational that coming spring. These dances were somewhat formal and the local paper, eager for news, always published an announcement with a photo. A program would be printed, a hall rented, usually the Elks Club downtown, and a a stodgy, parent-approved band hired. Thinking about those dances, I can feel the scratch of my starched, nylon-net crinoline, the fragrance of L’Air de Temps and hair spray, feel the sweet press of a clean smelling young boy as we slow danced to the Lou Han Trio.

This boy, this date, was the friend of a girlfriend’s brother and I was taken by his warm, brown eyes and polite manner. I didn’t have a boyfriend that summer between junior and senior year. In fact, I didn’t really have a boyfriend all during high school. I dated a few guys that were in our crowd, maybe to play Risk and drink gin and ginger ale in someone’s basement rec room or go to a movie, probably with the gang. But I went to an all-girls Catholic high school and it was acceptable and expected that we girls could ask a guy out for our dances. Since the invitationals were planned and held by a group of girls, it was OK for me to ask someone for a date. Despite this advantage, there was still the nervousness, the butterflies, the fear of being rejected. Most of the time, I didn’t like doing it, especially if it was someone I didn’t know very well, like this time, but I really wanted to go to this more casual, summer dance. I wanted to be there with a group of girls I admired and envied. I wanted to be part of them.

Mom and I made small talk as I stood there in my new dress with its full skirt. Under it I had on my biggest crinoline even though it was August. The dress was lemon yellow with spaghetti straps and white embroidery on the bodice. I never got the super tan I wanted but I had some color and my legs looked shiny brown in my new, white high heels.

In the black, malleable soil of Central Illinois, most everything seems to grow like crazy, in the season, not all year. That’s how it seems to me now that I’ve lived in California nearly half my life, where cycles of growing overlap and intertwine, seasons blur. I grew up in that flat, fecund Midwestern landscape and got an early taste for the pleasures of digging in dirt and seeing things push up through its moist, loamy weight. It still seems miraculous to see a green sprout, so fragile and tender, break through the heavy ground. Against so many odds; snails, slugs, all sorts of fungus and rot, not to mention raccoons, gophers, dogs, and kids, life forces itself up towards the sun.

My mother was an avid gardener and I now know the quiet work and focus of gardening. Often when I am deadheading the cosmos or trimming out invasive morning glory vines, potting new plants, staking tall gladiolas. I think about our yard from back then and see the ample form of my mom. She is kneeling over her wildflower circle or tending to a prize day lily, trying to coax the valued near-black bloom, by her attention and care and love, for what is this nurturing if not love,

When I’m working in our shared urban garden behind my multi-unit building on Russian Hill, hours may pass and I notice only because the light changes, or a cool wind picks up or the fog starts to roll in, announced by the foghorns bleating over the Bay. Today is a party up the block and I hear the sweet, off-key voices of children singing Happy Birthday. A siren whines, a motorcycle backfires in the tunnel, the cable car chugs up Hyde Street as I tend this only slightly tamed, gaudy place we call The Garden.
Towards the back, we let the wild things go; the ivy, valerian, morning glory, the succulents, the geraniums. It’s just too hard to get back there, squeezing by a vicious century plant and a spiky old rose bush. From any place in the garden, and it’s big, the biggest back lot in our block, I can see scarlet geraniums. It seems they are always in bloom, in some corner out there, anytime of year. Perhaps I alone see them…the red geranium against bright yellow cotton, the spicy scent on my skin.

When I was in high school, boys brought their dates flowers if they were going to a dance. I hope they still do. For a prom, a hand-held nosegay was in order, for these smaller events, a corsage would do. As I stood there that hot early evening, rocking on my heels, they were new and moving a bit relieved the pressure, I wondered what sort of corsage my date might bring. Would it go with my dress? Mom asked me about the girls giving the dance. They were from the big public high school and I felt my being invited was a prelude to join one of two senior year sororities, Hob-Nob or Charter. I knew it was a long shot since very few girls from our Catholic school were members. That summer and that night it seemed important in a way I was unable to really describe. I admired the neat, collegiate look of these girls in their madras bermuda shorts, and and roomy sweatshirts, navy for Hob Nob, maroon for Charter. They were always having car washes and doing charity things. Mostly they seemed beyond high school and hometown and closer to that magical world of college.

A few years later, my world would change radically, my mother having succumbed to a swift and deadly cancer, myself struggling with grief and adjustment, and filled with indignation about treatment of blacks in the South and the slaughter that was Vietnam. At University, I loathed the Greek System and what I felt they stood for but that summer evening, as the mosquitoes started to pester and the sun got low, I felt on the threshold of something, of belonging and I was eager to join the girls I saw as favored.

I think Mom was staying busy so as not to abandon me. Our small talk got more forced. Finally, I went in the kitchen to check the clock. It was late, too late to be ignored and I knew the nice boy with the brown eyes wasn’t coming and I was not going to impress anyone with my tan and pretty yellow dress. When I came back out, Mom had snipped a perfect, full, brilliant red geranium and held it up to my dress like a corsage. We went into the kitchen and she pulled open the everything drawer and found a long pin probably from one of my more successful evenings out, and pinned the flower to my dress. She stood back admiringly but I could feel only embarrassment.
Mom just said, “Your day will come.”
We went into the family room, I slipped off my tight new heels and we joined my dad on the couch and watched TV.

Geraniums are virtually indestructible. If you break off a stem, just stick it in the dirt and soon there’s another plant and soon after that, a bright red bloom. I don’t think about the disappointment of that night. Instead I remember that perfect red, my yellow dress, my mother’s uncomplicated love for me and I never forget it because there are always geraniums to remind me.

Notes on the Women’s March, San Francisco 2020

A Tale of Two Cities

Against everything I have heard and read about this practice, I keep my iphone on my bedstand. On the days that I work, it is my alarm. On the days I don’t, I still instinctively grab for it upon waking. It’s a habit that I can’t seem to break, especially in our present time when I feel I need to be braced for what will meet me when I step out into the world. Keeping my joy, as we are admonished to do, seems contingent on some degree of knowing what’s going to hit me in the face as another day unfolds.

Today, I wake to find a favorite art supply store closing. I only recently started shopping there and was amazed at the vast array of their merchandise; materials I had been shopping for on line or just foregoing because I couldn’t find what I needed. Convenient, too, a easy bus trip or walk. And then, one of the few remaining neighborhood theatres in our city is closing, to become another expensive dress shop or designer coffee shop or a fixed prise restaurant with no parking but plenty of valets?
Or maybe it will just join the empty storefronts, commemorating the greed and lack of forethought endemic in our community.

It’s a chilly day, but bright with that extraordinary light our part of the world is known for. I dress and head out for The Women’s March, eager to find solidarity and purpose, to be a body counted, to take a stand-and maybe find some joy on this gorgeous day.

The bus ride is uneventful and I hope nothing unpleasant happens en route. We pass too many empty storefronts, usually occupied by someone wrapped up in a sleeping bag, undisturbed by street-hardened passersby. As we get closer to the Civic Center, we ride by an alley full of tents, surprisingly clean. My first thought, was there some kind of police sweep? But in that case, why the tents. It occurs to me perhaps the people living there might have even tried to keep it tidy. I realize too, that “uneventful” means no loud, maybe smelly homeless people interrupting my so far quiet morning. Many shops are open and Saturday-busy of course, and people stroll with their signs and coffee in hand down to the march to demonstrate for equality and justice and compassion.

The rally has begun, speakers inspiring if sometimes dull, but there is plenty of spirit in the crowd. To be in such masses of the like-minded is energizing. And the signs; political truths spiced with laugh out-loud humor. The hot dog vendors I usually see in the Mission are grilling the franks and onions and peppers and my meager breakfast is wearing off. The crowd is forming to start the long walk down Market Street but I can resist no longer. I sit down on the short wall in front of the Library. Next to me is a woman dressed like a Haight Ashbury denizen from the 60s. I feel plain and sensible by comparison but we both are enjoying the hot dog and the warm sun and the good energy all around us, drums pounding, people chanting.

She gets up to join the march and as I finish my hot dog I notice an clean, neat middle-aged man carefully checking the waste bins for food and meticulously re-wrappng what he finds, putting it in a granny-cart he’s pulling. He seems embarrassed when I ask if he’d like a hot dog but accepts it graciously, without apologies when I bring it back to him – mustard, onions, peppers, no catsup. A stocky, older woman in a soiled but warm-looking jacket approaches me asking for a hot dog so she gets one as well, “the works” this time.

I join the throng. I’ve done these protests before and admit to the childish fun of walking down the middle of the main street of major American city. Of course I am surrounded by hundreds and see a huge crowd ahead of me and behind me. Spirits are high, everyone taking pictures with our phones, laughing and nodding, chanting. As we walk along, I find myself looking up at familiar buildings, like old friends from my long years of living in this city. Some I am pleased to see, still standing, still proud. Some are forlorn and in need of help, and there is so much new all around, cranes and scaffolding abound. I feel a sense of pride in the place where I live, in our big-cityness. I look at the crowd watching, mostly benevolent locals, smiling, taking photos, and TV news crews cameras aimed at marchers. Some amused tourists are seeing what they have come to expect in our town. We provide their entertainment for the day. And then there are the foreign tourists, more curious, more serious, taking in this spectacle of political mood.

In the midst of this feeling of power and solidarity, I see also a man sleeping or trying to, amidst the drums and shouts, laying on the ledge of a monumental sculpture of some significant event in California history. The stature shows men turning a press to crush something – the man sleeping under them?

The march is coming to an end and I break free at the Embarcadero, feeling now the exertion of the walk. I know getting home will be long and tedious, but I’m in good spirits. In front of the Gap store, a crowd waits for the bus, some women still in their pussy-eared hats. Tucked on the sidewalk, small and dirty and legless, not even a half-man, a torso, with, long string-y black hair. He does not put his hand out until I show a five dollar bill. Without looking at me he grabs it, filthy long nails with chipped red polish. How did he get there, in that spot? How will he get away from that spot? I’m shaken and move to the next stop trying to hold onto that elusive joy before it sips away.

At the next stop, the bus shows no promise of coming. On top of  a trash can is a plastic bag. Spilling out of it, dozens of used needles and paraphernalia. My first inclination is to move the mess but to where? And I am afraid to touch any of it. I take a quick photo and send it to 311, hoping no one is hurt by this toxic trash before it is cleaned up.

I finally board a very crowded bus to Chinatown and walk through the street festival also being held this weekend. Lunar New Year is coming, I can hardly move on Grant Avenue but the mood is festive. There are stands selling plants and flowers, herbal remedies of every sort, cooking gadgets, lottery tickets. Brilliant red and gold is everywhere- the lanterns hanging above the street, tasseled souvenirs, toys, packets of red envelopes, stacks of printed new year greetings. The late afternoon light seems to make the reds even more brilliant.

I have lived many years near Chinatown. I consider it a part of my personal neighborhood and feel a part of it’s very alive-ness. Chinatown is crowded, dirty, proud, surprising, and rich with the activity of living. Right now, however, all that activity seems to be slowing down a bit. I walk by a forlorn ticket sales booth, a young girl pouting and distracted at an empty game stand, and two preteen girls gamely spinning around on the teacup ride.

Time for an espresso and a ride up the hill on a promised bus, “all routes returning to their normal schedule, my phone app reads”. This day is a Tale of Two Cities, my beloved bipolar city.

Barbara Wyeth

Hotel De Lille

When we landed in Paris, my girlfriend and I headed straight for the booth offering hotel information for a mere 5 francs, just over a dollar. We had dutifully marked several choices in our guidebook, Europe on $25 A Day. We found to our surprise and great disappointment that our chosen hotels were booked, not available. The thin lipped, head-phoned young woman at the counter said, Car Show, in a heavy accent. Hadn’t we left the United States and all that crass commercialism behind in search of history and art and culture? She found instead an equally cheap place in the VII arrondissement on the Rue De Lille. We had to go on good faith, too tired to argue and too limited in language skills to even discuss. Our henna-haired agent had already moved on to the next hapless, weary tourist.

It was dark and late when our taxi arrived at 40 Rue de Lille. We were greeted by a middle-aged man with short-cropped white hair wearing a baby blue terry cloth bathrobe that did not look recently laundered. Under his arm, he held a light colored, yapping terrier of indeterminate breed. The terrier did not look recently washed, either.

He waved us in, C’mon. C’mon. I don’t usually open the door this late.

Hooray. He spoke English, with a definite British accent and a tell-tale lisp. An English-speaking queen in the heart of gay Paree. This had to be better than those selected hotels in our guidebooks. We got a short lecture on being in early. He would not open the door after 10:30. Poochie would get upset. It took forever for her to quiet down and he’d be up all night.

Je suis Tony. Now run along upstairs. Micheline has the room ready for you.

A skinny grey-haired woman had appeared suddenly in the tiny lobby. Her hair was cut very short and she had a large, elegant and somewhat ruddy nose. She looked mannish except for her sleepy, shy smile. Micheline grinned proudly at the recognition of her responsibilities, then retreated behind a small door in the front of the lobby.

We climbed up the narrow stairs, lugging our few bags that now seemed way too much to be hauling around like this. The shower was on the 2nd floor, the WC on the 3rd, our floor. We had to schedule our showers so as not to interfere with the other guests. There was a sink in the room and a low, short washbasin that turned out to be ideal for hand-washing panties and bras and anklets. It was a while before I learned its true purpose but it always seemed much handier for personal laundry than for an intimate toilette.

The next morning we joined the rest of the guests for our petit dejuener in Tony’s apartment, a baguette, butter, coffee, some sliced fruit and little packets of processed cheese. The other guests were all men. One of them, cute in that boyish, tight pants, gay-guy way, was Patrick who would later send us on to Henry in London. A hustler, we surmised, but a sweet one. Shalomchai was pretty and slim-hipped, from Thailand, working at the jewelry counter in Bon Marche and studying international business. His actual name was impossibly long and got shortened to Chai. He whispered behind his hand and giggled a lot. Paul was older, traveling with his handsome, tall, and very much younger companion Jeremy. George and Charles were in Paris with the Robert Wilson Troupe performing weird new-music operas and having fun between shows doing street performances. Amazing to us that the Wilson group had recently been in residence at our very own former University of Iowa in the middle of the good ole USA, We found that we had numerous acquaintances in common. We traveled this far, to another continent, another culture, to find our cozy quarters on the Left Bank.

Tony held court in his blue bathrobe, Poochie on his lap, gazing into Patrick’s dark eyes whenever he joined the conversation. Then Tony would start in on when he would be getting some English bacon, apparently the only thing he missed from his native country. Who was thoughtful enough to bring it to him here in Paris? Anyone who supplied this was guaranteed the best accommodations and most generous favors at the Hotel de Lille. Tony’s eyes gleamed and got a far-off look when he expounded the virtues of English bacon. He got the very same look when he talked about Sicilian boys, how divine were their eyes and hair, and their butts on those Vespa scooters they all liked to ride around on….and My Lord, at the beach. It was pure heaven. Normally, chatty, nonchalant Patrick would frown and become silent.

In our little room, we relished the discomfort and oldness of everything. The floor was slanted and the windows wouldn’t close all the way but the view outside these windows, the rooftops of Paris, was pure Colette or better yet, Anais Nin. The diesel smell of the buses and the perfume of brewing coffee from the cafes that adorned every corner in our neighborhood, wafted up to us in room 14 at the Hotel de Lille .

During the day, my friend and I walked the streets of Paris and learned how not to order coffee. Don’t sit down and don’t ask for a cappuccino. It’s three times the cost of a café creme ordered while standing at the counter. Our mornings we shared with the cast of the Hotel de Lille, our evenings ended early since we had to be “home” by 10:30.

I was trying to ignore a toothache that had begun before my trip. It was getting more troublesome and more painful every day. Finally, I could no longer avoid dealing with it. Tony set me up with a dentist at the American Hospital in Neuilly on the outskirts of Paris. He took on another role that I had failed to notice before, that of mother hen to his young guests. The experience was less traumatic than I had imagined and my relief at getting rid of the offending wisdom tooth overcame any anxiety about having to deal with this in a foreign country. If Micheline could have pulled it out with a string tied to the doorknob of our room, I would have let her.

But Micheline seemed pretty busy as it was, not particularly with the housecleaning. Paul, who shared with Jeremy, the top penthouse suite, two rooms and a private bathroom, reported every morning on the disappearance of a bottle of vodka, or scotch or wine. His complexion confirmed what I had guessed but apparently he wasn’t doing much actual drinking in his room. He said he had left change and travelers’ checks, an expensive camera, all in plain view to bait the thief but the only thing that ever went missing from the room was booze. Jeremy added, however, that the room was always left neat and spotless. I could not say that for ours. One morning we happened back to our room after our baguette avec buerre and our café creme (not the croissant and cappuccino of our guide books) and opened the door as Micheline flung our blankets and sheets across the bed, pitching forward and landing face down on the mattress. She stood up, barely, with effort, smiled her sweet smile and staggered out the door. This apparently counted as “making up the room”. By the time she got to the ground floor, she would slowly and carefully walk to the door of her apartment and sleep it off. One night, getting back just barely before the bewitching hour, we saw a huge, young, and very dark-skinned man climbing in Micheline’s window. We knocked on Tony’s door. He answered, clearly annoyed, in his baby-blue robe, Poochie tucked under his arm. It was now past 10:30. Chai, Patrick, and a few other boys glanced up, then returned to a sitcom playing Tony’s small TV. The television sat atop a rickety TV tray that wobbled with the sound track.

Oh that’s just her boyfriend. Now run along. This show is really funny,…about the Mafioso.

The guys went back to their program and we took our chocolates upstairs. I had healed enough to enjoy fine French Chocolates from Galet D’Or, just around the corner on the Rue de Siene. We spent our evening doing hand wash in the bidet and writing in our journals.

My friend and I decided we should stretch a bit, not confine ourselves just to Paris. Patrick gave us the address of his American friend who was living in what he called “not quite a squatter” in London. There were a lot of Irish in the neighborhood so we didn’t have to worrying about bombs. He assured us that we could stay with Henry. Off we went via Amsterdam and arrived in London for the Christmas season. Henry’s room was bitter cold and the three of us slept snuggled up together on a mattress on the floor, in a mostly successful attempt to keep warm. Henry seemed desperate for company, or just plain desperate, so after a stay that proved to be too long, we headed back to Paris again.

We didn’t have any English bacon but Tony gave us a room on the 4th floor. We were moving up. Many of the same guests were there. Patrick had moved on but Paul and Jeremy still had the 5th floor suite. The theatre gang was there and had added a few more to their troupe. Being higher up meant a few more stairs to climb but a slightly cleaner room and more status in Tony’s clique. We still had to be in by 10:30 but one night, be-robed Tony asked if we would like some wine and we were allowed into the inner sanctum with the guys and the TV on the wobbly stand and lots of gossip about male celebrities, who “was” and “who wasn’t”, mostly “who was” or “wasn’t telling”. After a few glasses of wine, Tony would tell us about his plan, a little pensione on the beach, not too far from Palermo. Those lovely Sicilian boys. He’d sigh and gaze heavenward. That was the sign for all of us to leave and we’d head upstairs to more journal writing and travel book reading as we plotted our next move. And the guys headed off to the gay boites of Paris. They had all been granted keys so they could stay out as late as they wished. We hadn’t reached that status yet, just closer to the top floor, that and wine and bad TV with Tony.

We actually did move on, this time across to Germany, down into Italy, to Venice, the Dalmatian Coast, then Istanbul and finally to Greece. Had Tony seen these boys? We sent him postcards of the Charioteer of Delphi and the famous one of the hoofed satyr with the mind-boggling erection, a card that sold all over Greece-the statue regarded as a national monument not unlike the Tour Eiffel or the Statue of Liberty. We stayed in hotels and pensions, all cheap, with varying degrees of amenities, but none seemed quite like home, not like the Hotel de Lille.

We had been traveling for several months before my parents sent me an angry letter, to the American Express office in Athens. It seems they had been receiving angry letters as well, from the university. Instead of using grandmother’s inheritance to pay off student loans, I had taken the money and run. Seemed like a good thing to me but not to my dad. My uptight, no-adventure, stuck-in-the-mud stepmother was especially offended. Her own daughter had stayed home and taken a job with the state whereas I had shown a “complete lack of responsibility”. I should come home immediately and “take care of this!” My money was running low and instead of finding a job and settling in Paris, which had been a sort-of plan, I had traveled and seen so much. I could not feel bad about my choices. Even so, I knew I could not avoid reality forever and so I made plans to go back. My traveling companion had been more resourceful than I and vowed to keep traveling. We went back to Paris to enjoy the amenities of Europe one more time. She would soon be off to Teheran to hook up with another friend who had gotten her a job there teaching English. I would spend a few days on my own in Paris and then fly back to the good ole US of A and start the task of looking for a job and being, god knows, “responsible”.

This time when we arrived at the hotel, Tony was not in his baby-blue bathrobe, but in a jaunty, snug Italian sweater and a pair of khakis, showing a slight paunch, but very little color in his face. Had we ever seen him in daylight?

Here’s a key. You might want to take in some late nights before you go.

My goodness, and the top floor too. Jeremy and Paul were back in the US. Paul had stumbled drunk, Tony told us, outside the hotel. Messed up his knee and had to go back for some sort of surgery to repair it. Tony put Poochie on a leash and they stepped out onto the narrow sidewalk for a morning stroll.

My last 2 days in Paris were sad and sweet. My companion was now on her way to the Middle East for more adventure. I made the most of my time and shopped for a few things, a yellow cotton scarf patterned with little palm trees, a vintage scottie dog pin from the 30’s some antique French postcards with glitter, but my money was low. I had budgeted barely enough for cab fare to Orly and then to a girlfriend’s apartment once I finally landed in San Francisco. There was little else to spare. My last night, Tony fixed his “famous” cParisRooftops-'73 dinner for the guys and for me. He did not say that it was especially for me but still I felt honored.

My friend flourished at her teaching job and wrote me faithfully of her adventures in the Shah’s Iran, those last heady years before the revolution. After a few frugal years of being responsible, we planned to rendezvous in Greece. We had not planned to go to Paris but two weeks before I was to leave again for the US, we decided we needed to get a taste of Europe. There was no questions as to where we wanted to stay. Through a travel agency in Athens, we found out that, yes, the Hotel de Lille was still in business but the cost of staying there had gone up considerably. We couldn’t communicate with the Greek travel agent to determine if Tony was still the proprietor, then again, we didn’t know his last name or even if Tony was just a nickname.

After a grueling bus ride, far more adventurous than we had planned, we made it to Paris and into a taxi and to 40 Rue de Lille, sil vous plait. Yes, it looked exactly the same. We rang the buzzer and a tall, older, harried-looking man answered. Oui Oui. The lobby was cleaner but unchanged. The smiling woman was not shy, homely Micheline but a crisp, well-dressed matron. Coming down the stairs a young but very-expensively dressed American couple sailed by without so much of a nod of greeting. My friend and I looked at each other. The phone was ringing, and our hotelier ran off, smiling and bowing into Tony’s old apartment, now an efficient looking office.

We stayed a few days. Our room was cleaner but it was unseasonably cold and snow flakes drifted in as the windows still did not close properly. We still had to arrange for showers and share the WC but no gossip and no cheap red wine or bad French TV. Paris was lovely, more familiar and more comfortable, but we made a point to stay out most of the time. The hotel was now just for sleeping. That morning we were leaving, I was finally able to stop our frantic hotel man long enough to ask about Tony. At first he just looked at me, puzzled or perhaps distracted as he always seemed to be. Maybe it was my English as he seemed to speak mostly French.

Ah, I believe he is in Sicily. He retired you know.

Retired, I wondered, or perhaps he did not fit into the new, slicked-up version of the Hotel de Lille. But not to worry. I pictured Tony quite happy, in his baby-blue terry cloth robe, slight paunch over his Speedo, Poochie under his arm, relaxing at the beach on the Mediterranean, and all those lovely dark-eyed Sicilian boys.

Tony, I knew was in paradise.

Barbara Wyeth