Lee Cobb, Marlon Brando & Rod Steiger On the Waterfront
New Year’s is fast approaching and I realized that I have been remiss in addressing my imaginary readers in San Jose. Its been so long that perhaps they have given up on me and now they are whistling some other annoying tune that I didn’t put into their head, but I can fix that right now...
Rain drops keep falling on my head, But that doesn’t mean my eyes will soon be turnin’ red...
Now there’s a song that could stick with your for days, maybe months, hell, decades! And whistling it in the halls at work might annoy your coworkers just enough that they skip asking you to lunch. Its another Burt Bacharach song, this time in collaboration with Hal David. What is it about Bacharach's songs that lend themselves so well to nesting in your mind? Bacharach and David wrote the tune for the 1969 classic, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and it won the Oscar for Best Original Song that year -- so its a tune of some merit, tell your coworkers that and maybe they will put you back on the Thank-God-Its-Friday lunch list.
But I have no interest in discussing those cute cowboys Paul Newman and Robert Redford on this eve of New Year’s Eve -- they both lived in my hometown, although Redford left some time in the late seventies, as Westport was just too small to accommodate two of Hollywood’s most gorgeous leading men ever. The women in the grocery store were unable to handle it, something had to give. I wondered when Redford moved away whether he had lost the flip of a coin. Ultimately it doesn’t matter how it was decided that he was to go and Newman was to stay, because Westport won either way -- we got our blue-eyed movie star!
But seriously, good folk of San Jose, I want to talk about On the Waterfront -- a movie that takes place far from sunny California. And there are no cowboys, only longshoremen and thugs and a blonde Catholic school dropout played by Eva Marie Saint, who despite her plain face, yes plain, boils down below...its her voice that tells you this, that same deep voice and wife-like cadence to her words she uses to seduce Cary Grant in North by Northwest. The opening credits announce that the movie is Introducing Eva Marie Saint and I noticed that for the first time last night. I’ve seen the movie two or three times and it was only last night that I realized this was her first movie...geez, her first movie and she gets to make out with Marlon Brando, I mean never mind that she moves on to Cary Grant, let’s face it, starting with Brando had to just make everyone else seem like a cheat.
So everyone is all about Brando in A Street Car Named Desire...sure, Stanley is sexy, swinging around in that muscle shirt and hollering for Stella, but I think his depiction of Terry Malloy is more appealing in its understated humility. Stanley is really an arrogant ass, I don’t want to know Stanley and I sure as heck don’t want to have a beer with him. But Brando’s Terry is so vulnerable when he takes Eve out for her first beer that you almost think he’s never had a glass of beer himself. He tears your heart out when he says to her, up there on the roof, next to the pigeon coop and the polluted landscape behind them, “I bet you ain’t never had a glass of beer. Would you have a glass of beer with me?” What girl in her right mind would say no?!
There are beautiful touches that Brando brings to Terry -- when he’s walking Eve home through the park, the grayness of the city is heavy, but the whiteness of her Catholic school gloves are astonishing. They glow as though they are lit by a lamp hung just for them and Terry takes one of those gloves as they are walking and puts it on his longshoreman hand...Eve wants to leave him, wants to walk the rest of the way home alone, but dammit, he’s got her glove. He makes small talk with her, tells her how he remembers her when they were in elementary school together, he remembers her braids, and the braces on her teeth, what a little mess she was, and its on the tip of his tongue, but he never goes as far as saying she had grown into a beautiful woman, he just implies that he’s pleased with how she turned out. All this while wearing that glove...he waves it around and gesticulates and you see her reach for the glove a few times and up goes his hand, but he’s not even aware that she wants the glove back, he is enjoying walking with her, remembering her as a kid. He blushes when she admits that she remembers him, he says "Some people just got the kinda face you can't forget." Ooof and that's coming from Brando!
Finally she takes the glove off his hand and puts it back on her own hand...its a beautiful thing the way Terry uses that glove to hold her attention. The electric charge that comes when she peels that glove off of his hand is unmistakable. And the whole time I was watching this scene, I was thinking she’s half his size, but her glove fits his longshoreman hand, his boxer’s hand...Terry was a boxer before he went to work on the docks, how could he fit this virginal church glove on his meaty fists? The glove builds a picture of Terry that is essential to you understanding him and sympathizing with him...he’s a good sweet soul, not a palooka.
The pigeons -- oh the pigeons! You cannot run from the bird imagery in this movie. Eve’s brother Joey is killed in the first five minutes of the movie by Terry’s bosses -- they throw him off the roof where he kept his pigeons. “Too bad he couldn’t fly” the thugs remark and laugh when Terry expresses his regret about his part in Joey’s death. But the pigeons and the stool pigeons cross paths so many times and Terry protects his pigeons from the hawks...Terry starts out as a hawk and then becomes a pigeon himself -- you cannot help but ache for him. Everybody, including Terry’s own brother, Charley, played by a young and still comprehensible Rod Steiger, take Terry for a stupid bird. But Terry knows the birds better than anyone, he knows the birds always know how to get home and they know how to fight. Every pigeon in this movie meets a terrible end, except for Terry, he’s the only pigeon to survive.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Workers Unite message of the movie is all there...its gripping and relevant. The story of the longshoremen taking their docks back is edgy and powerful. But its Terry’s story really. Terry embodies the proletariat message of the movie -- “I coulda been somebody. I coulda been a contender” -- in the end he’s bloodied and staggering, and he becomes somebody.
On a final note, who else in Hollywood can wear a black turtleneck sweater like Brando? Tell me who? Okay, I hear the Jayne Mansfield jokes, save ‘em, 'cause Brando fills a sweater better than anybody!
Okay, my good people of San Jose, there it is, my New Year’s message to you all. Thank you for your loyalty, all ten of you! I promise to bring you more stories in 2010, whether any of them will make any sense I cannot say, but they will be stories just the same!
It would be their last party together - there had been too many parties, too many bad parties - there was the one that he rammed into the Sketson’s car while leaving, he hit it so hard that he punched in the black driver side door of the Mercedes and then he panicked, in his scotch-and-soda-dreamy-stupor so horrendously that he clipped that black boy that washes dishes, who was standing on the edge of the manicured polo field to have a cigarette, the boy fell, unconscious but unscathed, but Paddy didn’t know this, he was certain he had killed the boy and so he drove the half mile up the road to George and Madeleine’s house, told Evelyn to get behind the wheel and go home - that long lonely drive up the Merritt Parkway, while he hid in the loft of George’s polo pony barn. Surely the police would not look for him there - he would pass out among the hay bales and George’s Harvard memorabilia so carefully boxed and by tomorrow afternoon the police would decide that the black boy was killed by someone who wanted him dead, not by some old drunk like Paddy. Evelyn, ever the good wife drove home crying that she would never, ever do this again and then she panicked and thought she should call the Sketson’s in the morning and just offer to fix the Mercedes.
The phone rang at dawn and it was George calling to say he had found Paddy asleep in the hayloft when he was throwing down hay to his ponies and did she want him to bring Paddy home? Perhaps he should spend the day with him and Madeleine, he of course had a set of clothes for him, since Paddy often slept in the loft, and as a precaution because the police had come knocking at 4 am and they had NO idea that Paddy was in the hayloft, so they said, “of course there is no one here from the party and you can look at our car, we came home at 10:30...long before the boy was hit...how did we know the boy was hit? well the Sketsons called us at 2 am and said the boy was hit and that you people, you people in the uniforms would be over this morning to ask us questions. What are you people trying to do? turn this into some civil rights scandal? This is Connecticut after all, we have no problem with the blacks here. That boy’s brother mucks stalls for me - they are nice boys, I certainly wouldn’t run him down with my car and not on the hallowed ground of the polo field. Nobody in their right mind would do that.” But it was all settled, the boy recovered and never identified Paddy’s sedan and that was that.
So the next party came, the last party, in late December, almost Christmas, it wasn’t a green hot summer night like the night he had hit the Sketson’s Mercedes and the black kitchen boy. The Mercedes had been fixed and the boy had moved on to parking cars at the Clam House down by the Long Island Sound, where he could see the lights of Manhattan at night and he figured “better to drive those white people’s cars than be hit by them.” Well, on this late December night, the club held the annual Hunt Ball and all the men and the fair women of the Fairport Hunt Club shined themselves up - the men wore their pink coats and the women, well, they wore Dior and god-what-have-you-as-long-as-there-were-pearls-on-top and they drank and drank and sang terrible Irish hunting songs, even though almost none of them were Irish, except for George and Paddy, who both went to Harvard when Harvard didn’t approve of the Irish.
But that night, Evelyn was growing tired, after 28 years of Paddy and the “mishaps” as she called them - after the money gone to bad horses, after the hiding from the police and the careening home on the Merritt Parkway, she decided that her Protestant mother was up in heaven telling her, Evelyn, you could have done better, my dear. So she sat there, in her black-chiffon-off-the-shoulder thing with the dyed-to-match-silk-pumps and her hair-done-by-Jaques-Eves-that-afternoon and she sipped her dry champagne and seethed as she watched Paddy kiss another woman, that young blonde Peerpoint woman, the one who had the perfect “boot leg” and the britches that were hand-made for her in London, the one who apparently could ride any horse in the country side. Paddy kissed that woman on the nape of her Dior neck and he fingered her pearls and whispered to her like she were a vixen fox in her lair. “He’s gone too far this time.” Evelyn thought and she raised her empty glass to the Hungarian bartender and said, “Another!” And the night wore on as the band became tinnier and tinnier playing String of Pearls and Tuxedo Junction and Evelyn thought, if Glen Miller was actually here he would spit on this band...she wished she was in Manhattan for the evening instead of boring Fairport, but this is what a passion for fox hunting and Paddy had done to her.
So she threw back her champagne cocktail and she sucked on an olive and when midnight came with a conga-line that raged through the hall and into the kitchen and out of the kitchen and back to the bar, she descended upon Paddy like an ice storm - “its time to go home Patrick, and so home it is” she tore Paddy from the arms of Miss Peerpoint and off they teetered...past the rising crackling fireplace, handing their empty glasses to the ever-so Polynesian boy that nodded and offered to get them their coats from the cloak room. Paddy buried his face in Evelyn’s powdered cleavage and she pushed him back, “i think you’ve had enough of that this evening” and Paddy whispered with a molotov-cocktail-of-air that he would never have enough until he was dead. The Polynesian boy drifted back to them with their coats and handily dressed them for the cold December evening that they were about to emerge in.
There was a delicate snow falling, the first of the year and it lit them up, the two of them under the stars that still twinkled somehow through the squall of flurries. Evelyn pick pocketed Paddy’s keys from his camel hair coat and despite his appeals, she took charge of the sedan - “we’ll have no damages tonight Paddy - its a straight shot home.” Then Paddy leaned into the passenger seat and sat more erect than a drunken man should, he primped his cashmere muffler and lit a cigarette, “Onward then woman, Onward!” and so they made their way through the late and dark Connecticut roads, where the stone walls slept, to finally drift elegantly onto the Merritt Parkway - the only travelers, quiet as a sleigh with no bells. Evelyn drove in a liberated way but realized that Paddy was beginning to enjoy his chauffeured existence - the way he dragged on his cigarette and looked out the window, longingly at the bare trees and the now accumulating snow, was beginning to infuriate her. And his silence, his silence was even more infuriating - how could he? how could he ignore her after kissing the Peerpoint girl, in front of everyone. They were half way between Fairport and New Canaan when she could no longer hold her tongue and she exclaimed, in a voice that only her minister father could approve of, “Well, Paddy, Well, here we are!” and with that, Paddy replied, “Already?” and he opened the door of the sedan and disappeared into the snowy evening, like a dance partner that had let go.
Evelyn slammed on the brakes and skid on the wet highway. Before the sedan came to a full stop Evelyn was out the door and running back up the parkway calling for Paddy -- the snow was blanketing everything now and there was no sound except for her coat against her chiffon dress and that lovely whoosh of her silk shoes in the powder. “Paddy! Paddy! You bastard where are you!” Suddenly all the terrible adrenaline that she had felt during the hunt season when her horse did unspeakable things like run away with her past the hounds and the huntsman and nearly dump her headfirst into stone walls was nothing compared to the fear that she felt at this moment. Surely the State police would say that she had killed him in cold blood for kissing the Peerpoint girl! But then, there he was, on the near-side of the median, face down, out cold, very cold and when she plunged her hand through his coat and his silk shirt, to his warm chest, she felt his heart beating and she put her lips to his and he uttered “ Woman, get me home for another day of hunting!” She dragged him by his patent leather slippers to the sedan and like a sack, she put him piece-by-piece in to the car. They wheedled home through the snow, the headlights throwing back all sorts of sparking light. In the morning, they would agree, while waiting for the ever-so-three-minute-eggs that the time of parties was over.
The following tale of a blizzard long ago is for young Isabel who, rumor has it, is currently stranded in New York City with her double dutch jump rope team. She and her team mates were whisked by the blizzard up the East Coast highways from North Carolina to Manhattan to compete at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem on Saturday night and now she is in the thick of a great snowy adventure...
Probably one of the reasons I like to stay put these days, is that as a child I traveled alot. I spent holidays and school breaks with my mother or my father -- and it was always stressful to decide where to go. They left the decision up to me and so early on I learned how to balance my parents. I spent more time alone in airports than probably most normal kids back in the Seventies. Today, of course, kids never go anywhere alone, and most especially not the airport.
I knew LaGuardia Airport like the back of my hand. I knew how to get there using the Connecticut Limo (I was 9 for my first solo trip on the limo service), I knew how to conduct myself at the Eastern Airlines counter, check my bag, how to go through security, get to my gate, get on the plane, fasten my seatbelt, enjoy a Coca-Cola while we flew, and how to get my bags when I arrived at my destination. I enjoyed all of it -- the process was orderly to me and there was adventure in talking to strangers in the limo car and on the plane. I was a “good shipper” as they say of horses that travel well.
One trip from Raleigh to New York proved my mettle as a seasoned traveler. It was February, 1976. I was 11 and my mother put me on a plane bound for LaGuardia. I had just spent my school winter break with her in Southern Pines, NC -- a week of riding race horses in the sunny pine woods. The weather was clear and beautiful and warm when my plane took off in North Carolina. But things began to deteriorate by the time we got close to New Jersey -- a snow storm was causing chaos at all the major airports. Our plane began to circle and the pilot announced that we could not land at LaGuardia, so we were either going to Montreal or to Newark. I stared out the window into the darkness...the land and little lights below us obscured by the snow clouds. All I could see was the beating red light at the end of the wing.
For some reason I knew Montreal was in Canada, but I had no idea where Newark was. So I asked the stewardess -- she told me Newark was in New Jersey. Okay, I told myself, my dad lives in New Jersey, that’s not far from home. I asked her if they had a Connecticut Limo in Newark? She replied very confidently that they did. Then she told me that I could spend the night with her if we went to Montreal. That was cool with me, she would be my knowledgeable companion in Canada. She said I could fly back with her to New York after the snow storm was clear. That was a plan I could deal with. Well, we didn’t go to Montreal, we landed in Newark.
I followed all the passengers to the baggage claim and the place was mobbed with people whose flights had been redirected. I felt tiny as I was bumped about by the tired and cantankerous crowd. I waited patiently for my bag. It was dark outside and it was snowing hard. I turned to see the taxi and limo service desks -- I didn’t see a Connecticut Limo desk. So I asked one of the taxi guys, “Where is Connecticut Limo?” The guy smiled at me and said “No Connecticut Limo here” but, but the stewardess told me...”sorry kid, I told ya there ain't no Connecticut limo here.”
Well, now I felt completely lost. How could she have been so wrong? Stewardesses were supposed to know everything! I just started to cry and then I remember this woman pointing at me. She was a tiny Asian woman in a short short skirt and an astonishing rabbit fur jacket. I was sure she was a hooker...my father had pointed them out to me once in Times Square. I didn't really know what the true nature of a hooker was, just some sketchy idea of their profession, but I did know how they dressed and she was definitely dressed like a hooker.
She laughed at me “Look at the little girl, she’s crying!” Her fat man companion just stared at me while chewing on a cigar stub. This just made me mad. The stewardess had lied to me and now a hooker was laughing at me. I dragged my suit case through the throngs of adults who seemed completely unaware of me. They were all trying to get home too and my predicament meant nothing to them.
My anger turned to determination -- I pulled myself together and decided to find out how I could get to LaGuardia, because I knew there was a Connecticut Limo there and as far as I knew, that was the only way I could get home to Connecticut. You would think I would have tried to call home -- that it would have occurred to me to go to a pay phone and call my worried grandparents, but I didn’t, I was a kid on a mission.
I looked out the big wide windows and saw lines and lines of busses. Their roar and squealing in the cold snowy night gave me hope. I could smell the bus exhaust mixed with the cold. I went to a desk and asked if there was some way to get to LaGuardia? The guy didn’t hesitate, he pointed to a bus loading up passengers outside...”yeah, that one's going to LaGuardia.” I was thrilled!
I ran out into the snowy night with my bag and got on the bus. By now it was probably 10 pm and little did I know that my grandparents and my mother were in contact with the New York and Connecticut State police.
I rode the bus through the snow storm with all these other displaced travelers and I might have even fallen asleep. I remember the snow lighting up the night. The lamps along the highway glowed in dirty orange. The turnpike might as well have been the frozen tundra. When we arrived at LaGuardia I felt like a sailor who had found her way around Cape Horn. I asked the bus driver to let me off at the Eastern Airlines terminal. I got off and dragged my big bag to the Connecticut Limo desk -- finally, a familiar beacon in my long night! The man behind the limo desk was the friendliest face I had seen all night. They had a car leaving almost right away. I got in with a few weary people -- a family returning a sunny trip to Florida and world worn business men, the kind who you saw all the time in Connecticut...standing on the train platforms in the morning with their brief cases and coffee...they all looked the same to me.
Suddenly the snow stopped falling and we were on I-95 making all the usual stops that the Connecticut Limo made -- pulling into hotels in Greenwich, Stamford, Darien, Norwalk and finally my destination -- The New Englander Hotel in Westport. I got out, payed the driver, went into the hotel lobby, dropped my dime in the pay phone, and dialed. Pop answered, quickly and out of breath, “Hi Pop, I’m home, can you come pick me up now?” It was 3 am and I had made it home.
Safe trip home Isabel! I look forward to hearing your story!
There are Loquat trees all over Bermuda and at a certain time of year they are laden with their fig sized fruit which is the color of an unripe mango. A loquat’s outer skin is not unlike peach skin, it is velvety and the slightly dry meat is spare and it surrounds a pit that seems too large for itself. During this Time of the Loquat, it is common to find groups of school children standing on the side of the various narrow Bermuda roads -- their navy smock-like uniforms slightly askew, their white knee socks making them appear like little birds - picking and eating the sun-colored fruits. School bags filled with homework assignments are piled and forgotten on the ground as the children stand on tip-toes to reach the fruit. They cock their bright heads and eat loquat after loquat until you imagine they are full and slightly sick and maybe even high on the sugar of the strong little fruit. Seeing them hoard about the sweet fruit trees reminded me of sucking on honeysuckle stems with my friends in the early summer days in Connecticut. And then the Time of the Loquat is over, probably just when everybody on the island has had their fill of the free sunny gift.
Casa Verde was the name of our house in Bermuda. Almost every house in Bermuda had a name -- the names could be nautical, botanical, something that evoked where the house was located on the island, whimsical names that said something of the owner’s personality or where they came from...names like Cat’s Pool, Hibiscus Hill, The Long Bird, Frangipani Cottage, Sea Breeze, Shady Palmetto, Kiscadee Cabana, Humdinger, Turtle Nest, Peppercorn Farm, Manchester Manor, Palm Grove, Hurricane Garden, Little Field, Salty Air, Lobster Lair. In our case, the house was mint green, and our Portuguese landlord simply called the house what it was: Casa Verde.
Py found the house with the help of an agent who worked for Gold Finger -- it was the perfect spot for us. Casa Verde was one of a handful of houses on Lolly’s Well Road, one of the last rural neighborhoods on the island. The road wound up from Harrington Sound and was adjacent to the highest point on the island, Watch Hill. There were little farm fields all along the road - one-acre patches that rotated with crops such as broccoli, small red potatoes, carrots, onions, and fennel. Bermuda carrots are the sweetest, fattest, shortest carrots you have ever had -- everyone raves about the Bermuda Onion, which resembles a leek, though much lovelier than any leek I ever knew. But it was the Bermuda Carrots that I would come to miss when we moved back to the States. The fields were maintained by a Portuguese man who visited occasionally to plant and harvest.
The first time I saw my neighbors Malcolm and Riddles they were walking along the edge of the broccoli patch in front of my house. Malcolm was repeatedly throwing a tennis ball for Riddles and as she repeatedly chased it up the road, he made his way into the patch and proceeded to take two bunches of broccoli. Then he and his fine fast lurcher disappeared up the narrow road, he with his green spoils and she with her well-worn tennis ball. I thought it quite brash to Night Farm in the mid-afternoon. I had only lived on the island for a couple of weeks, but I already knew that Night Farming , the stealing of produce and flowers from fields, was common and considered a punishable offense.
Lolly’s Well Road was bucolic with its few houses and its throng of Bermuda cedars, who’s needles spoke with the sea wind and were akin to horse tail. The road may have started way down the hill at ever-rushing Harrington Sound Road, but it ended approximately a mile away, on the other side of the hill with a small dairy farm, which was home to a modest gathering of holsteins, and finally came to intersect with South Shore Road. Lolly’s Well was home to a great population of feral chickens and they would leave their eggs in the same places every day...on top of limestone garden walls and tucked under frangipani and palmettos. But Lolly’s Well was defined by a feature greater than its rare rural nature and its high elevation. The Quarry. The Quarry was a grand hole in the ground that had been exhausted of its limestone for years, yet it was still a center of hyper mechanical activity five days a week. The Quarry teemed with work. Trucks coming and going all day. There was a working garage down in hole that repaired anything from dump trucks to motorbikes to mini cars. The Quarry even had a small training track for trotting ponies tucked into one corner of it. The ponies and their driver would briskly trot up the hill from a stable down on the South Shore and they would blast around the sandy track to prep for Saturday races.
Casa Verde had the mixed fortune of being built directly across the road from The Quarry -- and so day after day, from sun-up to sun-down, we were bombarded by the constant roar of The Rock Crusher. It was down there, like Godzilla, turning truckloads of demolition materials into fine dust. You see old houses and buildings never actually died in Bermuda, they would be recycled. Limestone was a precious commodity and it would return to The Quarry, where it had originally been mined, to begin over again, and take on a new life.
When Py first went to visit the house, he stood in the lovely green front lawn that looked over the little farm field and then stretched out to the road where the cedars created a thin veil that barely concealed the soaring pinkish white walls on the far side of The Quarry. As he stood there with Kim, the sharply dressed real estate girl with the long tan legs and the annoying habit of calling him Bruce, even though his name was not Bruce, and she would apologize and then after a while, he stopped correcting her, and he just became Bruce to her, he heard the deafening teeth rattling Rock Crusher doing its daily bid. “Does it go on like that all day?” he asked her.
“Yes, Bruce, yes it does. And that’s why this house, which would normally go for $10,000 a month because of its quality and size is only going for $5,000 a month. A real bargain!” Her earrings sparkled in the high Bermuda sun and she probably tapped her pointy high-heeled toe while she waited for Bruce to decide.
As Py tried to reconcile this bargain in his head, he looked out to the West, which offered up an astonishing view of the North Shore. The sun would set there every night he thought. And a sail boat drifted like a toy in the distance. Later, we would see Cruise Ships lumber by, so ridiculously big that their being afloat seemed like some trick of the light. The daily ferries would scoot by every day such that you could set your watch by them. It was this view, and the seeming loneliness of the road, combined with the willingness of the landlord to let us bring our 95 pound hound dog and two weird old cats along that sealed the deal.
In the fifth grade, on summer afternoons
Anita and I used to jump on Harry Reasoner’s trampoline
we would stomp through the woods behind Anita’s house
and emerge in Mr. Reasoner’s back yard
The house was white and rambling
We would pad in bare feet across his paved driveway
and up to the kitchen screen door where we would peer in to find
Reasoners’ housekeeper cooking – she knew what we wanted
She would come to the door in her neat white uniform
nodding her head
and we would ask if we could use the trampoline,
"yes yes, go go" she would smile impatiently
The trampoline was in the front yard surrounded by thick hedges
and shaded by huge old maple trees
When we jumped on it, we could see over the Reasoners’ stone wall
across the road to the stretching green polo field at the Hunt Club
If we turned to our left and jumped we could see over the hedge
and observe Mr. Reasoner’s driveway entrance
If we turned to our right and jumped we could see the neighbor’s pool
So we would scramble on to the trampoline
find our spots and begin
There was a rhythm that we would have to find
so we would start to jump
slowly and low, being careful not to catapult each other by landing
slightly before or after which always created a jolt through our legs
Then the rhythm would arrive and we would go higher and higher
into the green of the maple leaves and we would begin to turn
in the air – the polo field would appear and we would see someone
riding a white pony across it
Anita would jump high and tuck her long body together
so that she cannon-balled into the trampoline and
pop up again to land on her feet – not missing a beat
I would roll and spin and spy the neighbor’s pool
flashing blue and cool with nothing but a beach ball
floating on its surface – the water abandoned for the afternoon
We would raise our arms and laugh
and talk about everything
as we rose and fell and tried new contortions
to find new ways that we would hit and then be bounced
And then Mr. Reasoner’s limo would turn into the drive
Black and long and empty
except for a driver who did this drive everyday
As we jumped we would spin
back toward the house to spot Mr. Reasoner
exiting the house with his white hair and his thin body,
sometimes carrying a brief case
He would slide into the limo and it would drive just a little too fast
round the driveway circle and
back up towards us and the stone gate to the road
We could see Mr. Reasoner in the back with his reading lamp on
and we would wave to him
Sometimes he would see us,
sometimes his head was bent
already reading his notes for the evening news
I wondered if he was talking in his "news" voice to the limo driver,
trying out the news of the day to see how it sounded
Or did he keep it
all inside until he was infront of the cameras and America?
The sun would begin to sink lower and cast long shadows
out across the polo field
and Anita and I would be so tired from laughing
and bumping up and down that we would finally quit
We would head home to the smells of dinner cooking and the sound
of Mr. Reasoner on the television.
its raining and its cold and i know what’s coming the leaves are finally terminal they are billowing taking their last breath in gold the soybean fields are filled with crackling skeletons and the roadside is pungent with something akin to wine i saw the cows facing north today their heads up, watching and watching not grazing the rain rolling down their shoulders they know what’s coming i made the long walk to catch my horse in the field tonight his copper sides stained dark from the rain he shivered as i put on his halter back in the dark barn i boiled water poured it over bran and oats and sticky black strap molasses and mixed it with my hands i filled my horse’s bucket and the steam rose up around his eyes as he dove in i leaned on his belly and licked the molasses off my fingers as i listened to him eat i asked him if he knew what was coming? but he was too busy and too cold to answer nothing warmer than a horse eating dinner nothing... an owl spent last night just outside my kitchen window he flew in at cocktail hour he seemed to be suffering from a broken heart cause he played the same tune all night like his woman had done him wrong he knows what’s coming winter’s coming, man, winter’s coming...
I wrote this eleven years ago...not sure how to feel about it now....thoughts on Bermuda black youth...hmmmm
February 9, 1998
While walking my dog on a rural road in Smith’s a few days ago, I encountered the same group of feral chickens that frequent that road and noticed a hen of a totally different color. She was the usual burnished browns and reds that many of Bermuda’s feral hens display, but tucked neatly beneath her left wing was a collection of white feathers in the distinct pattern of what could only be described as a NIKE “swoosh”. I stopped. I looked again. There she was carrying the status symbol that has made millions and she carried on with no “attitude” and the other chickens treated her basically as one of the girls.
On my way home, I thought about the chicken and the wonder of genetics that caused her to have this birthmark. When I arrived home, I told my husband about her and said that next time I went down the road I might take a picture of “Nike Chicken”. But, my husband said “No! We’ve got to get the chicken. We’ve got to put her in a box and bring her home, because nobody will believe a photograph. They’ll think its fake.” And so we carried on for a time, joking about keeping “Nike Chicken” in the garage and then it occurred to me that she’d probably die from fright or loneliness if we removed her from her friends.
So, I came upon “Nike Chicken” again today. She was scratching away with the rest of the girls and under the watchful eye of two or three strong and well-plumed roosters. This past weekend we read in the Bermuda paper of the “inner city” attitude that apparently the youth of Bermuda are adopting from their American neighbors. They are taking lessons from television and movies and rap/gangsta music. They are spending their weighty allowances on baggy clothes and above all they have learned to worship the NIKE swoosh. Its everywhere; in their clothes and in their hair. Last Sunday, while waiting in line for tickets to “Titanic” my husband and I watched a handsome black Bermudian walking up the street with his little girl on one hand and his little boy on the other. This man and his children were dressed up for church and they were not a picture you see often in the fabled inner city of America. And then we noticed it, at almost the same time, my husband looked at me and I looked at him. The little boy, no older than 6 or 7, had a clean shaven head, except for a raised relief of hair that formed a NIKE swoosh over his left ear. Like a crucifix, like a tattoo in honor of “MOTHER”, like a scar, this NIKE swoosh was there to remind us what was important to the boy…what he believed in.
The trouble with the idea and the reality of Bermudian youth, especially, young black boys, imitating the inner city attitude of their American counterparts is that it lacks imagination and reason. The youth of Bermuda have never lived in the vast frontier of the American inner city. They may know the feel of drugs and of street fights. But they do not know the monster that inner city kids are trying to escape through drugs and gangs. Bermudian youth are surrounded by beauty: palm trees, hibiscus blooming in February, turquoise waters, and that sky, oh that beautiful endless sky. The elders of Bermuda are beginning to cry in unison that Bermuda’s children have nothing to look forward to and therefore they are sinking into despair and hopelessness. I'm not so sure.
With all this beauty around them, these children can only be destined to self-destruction, because they are so utterly spoiled and no one has taught them how to behave. Sure these children have problems, the problems of rich kids and not-so-rich kids. We all grew up with alcoholic, divorced, or troubled households. I, too, grew up in a terribly spoiled community where the kids behaved badly, because they could afford to. Real inner city kids are faced with the daily bombardment of the concrete jungle complete with garbage, decay, constant fear of being shot to death, 24-hour a day sirens reminding you that everyone around you is either going to jail or to the hospital, and many, many people sleeping in the streets strung out on one thing or another. Bermuda is not the hell of the inner city. Bermuda is blind to her affluence in relation to the rest of the world.And the adults of this island should not encourage their children to imitate the results of the awful desperation brought on by true down and out civilizations.
So, tomorrow I will walk down the road and visit “NIKE Chicken”. I will look upon her as though she is an apparition crying crocodile tears for the youth of Bermuda.
I want to thank Michael Crane of the British Isles Backgammon Association for running my story Backgammon in the Bahamas (posted here in September) in the association's November/December 2009 issue of their bi-monthly journal Bibafax. I am truly humbled by the publication of the story.
The following is a story from my mother that accompanies the above sketch -- this is a small excerpt from the memoir I am completing about my mother, who was a race horse trainer. Before she became one of the first women to be licensed as an NYRA trainer in 1975, my mother galloped scores of horses for Hall of Fame trainers such as Allen Jerkins and Elliot Burch.
Sun & Snow was a small 2 year old gray filly that belonged to C.V. Whitney. She was a very good filly, although over-matched when she ran against Ruffian. Once morning I was breezing her at Belmont. We were approaching the 3/8 pole all out when a flock of pigeons flew up towards us. I was frightened, expecting her to spook and perhaps hurt herself. She never blinked an eye slamming into the birds, killing several of them in her wake.
"There ain’t nothin’ like regret to remind you you're alive" Sheryl Crow
As your life reveals itself to you, you may find lucky choices mixed with regrets and the sting of the past sitting somewhere in that place in your middle body that only seems to exist for such emotions. They all led you to Now. But you may also find, like the peeling of an onion, that the layers that seemed to be truth and the layers that seemed to be nothing but mendacity may trade places -- this is the trick of time, I think.
Who’s to know if something as seemingly insignificant as my sitting home alone on the night of my high school prom changed the direction my life -- was that the flutter of a butterfly’s wings in my life? All I know is that I did sit home alone that night and then? Then I went on with things. One year later I would spend a night running from the Law and while it felt like the roar of a lion instead of the flutter of insect wings, its only consequence would be to equip me with a story to tell and a realization that regrets can be fleeting.
There was a country club, somewhere in the wilds of Connecticut that was the place to skinny dip, after hours, in the summer, under the one light in the parking lot or the polluted moon. We knew it as the Jewish Country Club -- which only distinguishes it as a Club that many of us were not members of. The thing about Westport back then was that there were lots of clubs and while they didn’t say it in their bylaws, the memberships were doled out to whites only or gentiles only and this, I suppose, necessitated the need for clubs that made themselves equally exclusive by admitting only those who were excluded elsewhere. See? It was complicated to some but not to most -- and it was a civil way of handling a completely uncivil habit.
But the point here is not to expound on the history of uncivil rights in Connecticut -- the point is to identify this immaculate club with the 9 hole golf course, spacious club house, and most especially the swimming pool that drew a number of underage skinny dippers from various drinking establishments to partake of its waters.
The first time I swam in this pool was with a great number of people. We were home for the summer from college, our freshman year was over and done with, and as the bar that we were lingering in closed and sent us out into the hot summer parking lot, word got round that we were all going swimming. Now we lived in a beach town and the parking lot we were loitering in at 2 am was only minutes from the Long Island Sound, but it was rare for any of us townies to swim in the Sound at night. We were of the Jaws generation -- a night time swim in the beautiful green waters of the Sound only meant one thing to us kids -- Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss were going to be examining our remains sometime the next day and then the town would go bankrupt for the summer because all the tourists were too afraid to swim. So pool hopping was a big night time behavior of the young set in my town.
It was a nice pool, not Olympic sized, and it was advantageously near the parking lot, so there was a light that shone down on the pool. Just enough so we could find our way there and proceed to swim and party in a pleasant safe glow. There was something just so fine about skinny dipping on a summer’s night after drinking in a stuffy stupid bar with a bad dance floor all evening. The skinny dipping was an antidote to all the bullshit -- suddenly there we all were, just a bunch of kids with not a lot of attitude, and certainly none of our clothes and it cured whatever airs we were trying to put on.
That first night was fun and light and seemed to last for hours, although I am certain we all got our swim in hastily and then headed partially-clothed and barefooted back to our cars to make it home before the sun rose and our families took notice that we had been out all night. But it was that night that I met my first boy -- the boy who would stay by my side for the rest of that summer and would break my heart when it came time to return to college.
A few weeks later we returned to the pool, just the boy and me. We left the bar before all the others and agreed that the full moon was just right for skinny dipping at the Club. We were elated to find we had the place to ourselves. We parked, took off our shoes and padded down to the pool. We stripped to our bare naked selves and dove into the shimmering cool waters -- the moon seemed to be the only being on earth besides us. But five minutes in to the swim we were rudely reminded that we were not alone and that we were in fact breaking the law. A cop car pulled into the parking lot and two Westport policeman got out -- they shined their flashlights down on us and said “Okay, oughtta the pool!”
I looked at my boy and he looked at me. “I am NOT getting arrested naked. My grandmother will shoot me.” My boy agreed that getting arrested naked was a bad thing, “But what are we gonna do?”
“We’re gonna run.” There was a chain link fence that surrounded the pool - it had a gate on the parking lot side and another gate on the backside that led into the dark, to the wide open spaces of the golf course. We hoisted ourselves out of the pool as the cops continued to stand at the edge of the parking lot, we looked up at them as though we were headed their way. I looked at our pile of clothes next to the gate that was closest to the cops -- those clothes seemed a million miles away, there was no way we could grab them and get out the back gate before the cops came down the hill. We were going to have to abandon our clothes and run naked. We emerged from the pool and stood facing our enemy for just a moment and then we spun around and sprinted for the back gate. “WHOA WHOA WHOA! Where are you two going?!”
We blasted through the back gate and disappeared onto the golf course. My boy was tall and lanky and I was little and lanky and we ran so fast our feet never seemed to touch the ground. The moon was bright and we knew we had to stick to the sand traps and the forested edges of the green. The flashlights were bouncing behind us. The cops were shouting at us but they weren’t gaining on us -- they were slow and fat and they had clothes on. We dove under a thicket and huddled on our bellies -- I felt like a rabbit, all out of breath and tingling with fear. The cops were getting closer, we held our breath and each other as they passed us. We waited until they disappeared on the moonlit horizon and then we crawled back out. “Can we make it back to the pool and get our clothes?” I asked my boy.
“I don’t know - they are going to circle back soon.”
We contemplated staying in the thicket, but it was damn thorny in there. We agreed we needed to get our clothes and get to the car. So we took off and ran back to the pool. We got to the pool and picked up our clothes and then ran for the car, but just as we got to the car, the cops showed up. They were running up the hill from the pool, their bellies swinging with handcuffs and holsters and billy clubs. My boy looked at me, “We’re fucked now!” but we weren’t because I looked toward the club house and saw an escape route. The club house was made up of two large buildings that were joined together by this long arching walkway which led out to a patio that overlooked the golf course. The moon cast this beautiful light down on the patio. We threw our clothes down and ran for the club house. The cops shouting, “HEY HEY HEY! STOP!” But we didn’t stop. We dashed through that echoing tunnel -- again the light from the flashlights danced all around us. We didn’t slow down as we crossed the patio and jumped a two foot stone wall that turned out to have nothing but nothingness on the other side. We were flying through the darkness, my naked boy and naked me and finally, we hit the ground. We rolled and rolled and scraped our knees and rose back up on our feet. “You okay?”
“I’m okay. You okay?”
We looked back to see the wall we had jumped off of -- it seemed to be twice as tall as us and the flashlights were coming. We took off again and turned as we ran to see the cops jump off the wall and fall and fall and fall. We heard them crashing to the ground and swearing, “JESUS CHRIST!”
I was certain we might have killed one of them and if not, I thought for sure they would kill us when they caught us.
We ran and ran down this long straightaway that by day was milled about on by golfers and their caddies. The cops were up and running again and we veered hard to the left side, the Sound side of the course. I could smell the salt water and see it shimmer through the trees and beyond that were the tiny lights that flickered from Long Island and the tip of Manhattan. We found another thorny thicket and dove like foxes underneath it. Now we were tired. And we were bashed up. The mosquitoes were sucking our blood and the cicadas were laughing at us. My boy held me as our chests heaved and collapsed -- there wasn’t enough air for us at that moment. The cops continued down the middle of the course. They were jogging and swearing. Their lights were sweeping across the greens and the sand traps and peeking into the thickets...we pushed farther back into the thicket and held our faces down...we couldn’t let them see our eyes.
What was going through my mind as I lay their naked and bleeding and itching? I was determined not to get caught at that point. I knew that it would be the most embarrassing thing that had ever happened to me. I saw my grandmother’s face and she was furious with me. I saw the little paragraph in the Westport News Police Report and it explained how we ran half the night naked from two of Wesport’s Finest. How we were handcuffed and brought to the station without any clothes and how we stood in front of the magistrate at 4 am to be charged and sent to a holding cell. I shuddered at the idea that our great family friend Mac, who was a former and highly decorated Westport Policeman and was now the Chief of Police in Wilton, my boy’s hometown, would call up my grandmother and ask her what kind of delinquent I had become? He would say something about how he taught me how to swim and now? Now I was a hardened naked criminal.
We laid there under the thicket for a long time. The cops kept running back and forth -- we could hear their radios squawk occasionally. My boy and I began to wonder why they didn’t call for any back up? We decided they were too embarrassed to call for help. Who would believe that they had spent the past four hours chasing two naked kids around a nine hole golf course. Maybe they just wanted the glory of arresting us all on their own.
And just like kids, we didn’t think past our next few minutes. We wanted to get back to the car, but it wasn’t safe to make a move. But then the signs of morning started and this brought a whole new element to our being naked fugitives from justice -- the light of day would shine down on us and there would be no hiding. The birds began to sing and that first finger of day light was beginning to glow and the moon had left us...he’d had enough of us for one night. And then something amazing happened. The cops gave up. We saw them trundle up the center of the golf course and disappear around the club house. We crawled out of the thicket and ran slowly along the edge of the greens back towards the club house. We could see the headlights of the police car make one grand broadcast across the parking lot like the lights of a Hollywood premier and then we saw the Law’s red tail lights disappear out onto the main road. They were gone.
We made our way to the car in bluish light of morning. We no longer ran strong and tall, we were huddled, with arms crossed, ashamed and bloodied. We were relieved that none of the Club staff had arrived yet. We found our clothes right where we had left them -- next to the car on the pavement. We scooped them up and got in the car. My boy started up the car and we drove down the street where we proceeded to get dressed. We couldn’t believe it was over, that we were just going to go home now.
The sun was shining when I walked in the kitchen door. My grandmother was sitting at the kitchen table. She was furious. “Where have you been all night? Look at you! You’re a mess!” And I was a mess. I was covered in mosquito bites and bloody scratches and my hair was filthy with briars. I probably looked like I had been wrestling with a bob cat all night.
“You don’t want to know Mom.”
“Yes I do. Where have you been?”
“Please don’t make me tell you. Just be happy I am home, okay?” I just walked right by her and went upstairs. I went to bed for an hour or two and then I went right back out. I drove down to the beach and there I soaked my battle scars in the salt water of the Long Island Sound for the rest of the day. I never did tell my grandmother what happened and she never asked about it again.
Although it is the Week of the Turkey, I have a bone to pick about Chickens. This morning’s News and Observer ran an article with a catchy, but alarming headline: In a Cary backyard, death swoops down.
Seems a nice older couple, who keep a small number of chickens in their suburban yard lost a rooster to a Falconer and his hawk. The Falconer was hunting rabbits with his hawk in a nearby meadow and the hawk took the couple’s rooster instead of a rabbit. The Falconer graciously went to the couple’s home, apologized for his hawk’s trespass and offered a handsome sum of $45.00 as compensation for the rooster. His goodwill was rudely rebuffed by the devastated couple -- they ordered him off their property and reported him to the police. They told the paper “this sort of hunting should not be allowed anymore!” and backed up their claim for banning Falconry by saying it belongs in rural areas, not residential areas such as theirs. But their argument falls apart when the article reveals that keeping chickens is banned throughout the city of Cary and this nice couple received a special exemption permit to keep chickens in their yard. Hmmmm...too surburban for practicing Falconry but rural enough for keeping chickens.
Frankly, I think the hunter, who had a proper permit to hunt within the city limits, should be commended for apologizing and offering to pay for the rooster. This innocent hunting mistake is not comparable in any way to some of the gun hunting tragedies that have happened in recent times. Obviously he felt bad -- he and his hawk made a mistake and that is the rub here -- it was a mistake. Falconers practice an ancient and beautiful form of hunting. I imagine a Falconer to be much more in tune with his bird than a man who keeps hens for the sake of eggs. I find nothing wrong with hunters who hunt responsibly -- especially ones who are honest when they have made a mistake, be it with their hawk or a gun.
But this is the kind of behavior I am beginning to expect from Urban Chicken Keepers (UCKs). This article is one in a handful of stories I have read lately about the good intentions of city people keeping chickens gone wrong. It is admirable that people want to keep chickens so as to have fresh eggs and perhaps teach their children about the realities of where their food comes from. But something is amiss with this growing trend. Unfortunately, there seems to be far too many UCKs who are totally unrealistic about keeping fowl. Fowl are livestock and they are vulnerable to any number of predators and disease and people who keep them should understand that reality. But UCKs aren’t buying it -- they are hellbent on teaching us that chickens can be pets and livestock all at the same time.
Last month, The New York Times ran a story about the state of Urban Chicken Keeping in Berkeley, California -- take note my imaginary readers of San Jose. Seems Chicken Husbandry is the latest and greatest trend to hit the city. In a city overrun with vegetarians, chickens now abound in back yards and apartment courtyards. I have no problem with vegetarians, as I practiced not eating meat for over a decade. But the problem with vegetarians owning chickens, aside from the obvious murky philosophical details, is that they don’t want to kill them. So when chickens become unwanted in Berkeley, they are showing up in over-crowded animal shelters to be re-homed. The shelters don’t have the resources to care for all these homeless chickens. I’m going to get emails for this but here goes -- my solution, of course, is to kill the chickens and feed them to the homeless dogs. There, I said it and I feel better for it.
UCKs complain that their neighbors don’t like their chickens. They say their chickens have been poisoned and strangled and stolen. UCKs cannot understand why people don’t love the sound of their rooster at 5 am as much as they do. UCKs are under assault and they are mystified by the hoards of people showing up at town council meetings demanding that chickens and roosters be driven out of their neighborhoods.
With that said, I want to tell you about Frenchy. She belonged to my neighbor Elena, who is an extraordinary chicken keeper. Elena and I could be said to live in the country, although, its beginning to not look like the country so much anymore. We live five minutes outside of the city limits of Hillsborough, NC, so we get all the benefits of town without the bothers of the same. I have learned everything I know about chickens from Elena. I first met Elena through a riding buddy and not long after we met and discovered we were neighbors, Elena called me to ask if I might Chicken Sit for her while she went on a trip to the mountains. I admitted right away that I had never taken care of chickens. And Elena said I had been recommended with the highest references from someone who’s horses I had taken care of. I told her “Horses are one thing, chickens are another thing entirely! For one thing, I am not afraid of horses, but I am afraid of chickens.” Elena reassured me and invited me over to meet her 12 hens, her one teenage rooster, and her turkey. I spent two hours learning the ins and outs of her tiny operation. She was impressed that her turkey liked me. She could tell because he didn’t display his feathers when I came near -- and his head didn’t go all red...these were signs she told me, that he might attack me. I was surprisingly comfortable with the turkey and while she had a proper name for him, I began to call him Gonzo after the Muppets character who sleazily managed a flock of performing hens. Elena told me that Gonzo had once had a female turkey, but she ate her, and so Gonzo spent his days leering at her hens. Gonzo was clearly a pet and not headed for the oven. But the teenage rooster was headed for a culinary future.
Elena is as realistic about her chickens as no UCK could ever be. All roosters in Elena’s yard meet one fate and that is the knife. She doesn’t tolerate the noise they make and the trouble they cause. As for her hens, Elena is very loving to these girls. She calls them “My Girls!” and she sometimes sits with them at night in the coop just to hear them coo -- she strokes them and admires their feathers. But she has no compunction about killing them and eating them. Two of her stand out chickens are gone now -- one was named Sister and the other Frenchy. I noticed Frenchy the first day I went to Elena’s house. Frenchy looked like none of the other hens. She was the most delicate rose color -- her feathers looked like something you would see adorning a whore in a Degas painting. And she had pantaloons! These fabulous layers of sunset pink feathers that covered her legs. Frenchy was all girl and she talked too much. Sister was the big girl in the coop, she went everywhere first and everyone got out of her way, but she was quiet about it. Frenchy made a lot of announcements -- open this gate, give me that tortilla, i’m going to sit on that egg now!
And sitting on eggs was Frenchy’s problem. Elena told me Frenchy wanted nothing more than to be a mother hen, “Frenchy is the broodiest hen I have ever owned, she is constantly sitting on the eggs and ruining them. You have to watch Frenchy!”
And so Elena went to the Mountains and I was initiated as a Chicken Sitter. I made all sorts of mistakes -- I went too early in the evening to close the coop. I assumed that because it was dusk, the hens would be roosting. Nope, if there was any daylight at all, those girls were still outside. I let them all out of the coop one morning into their generously sized pen and then went out the gate to go around the back of the coop to begin cleaning it. I assumed they had all gone out the other door, but when I opened the back door, they all came streaming out. Thus began my initiation as a Chicken Herder. Elena taught me to hold my arms out, almost as though I were practicing Tai Chi and to gently wave my arms as though I were the wind and the chickens were the sea. Never chase chickens, that is a futile exercise. Scoop the air around the chickens and they will go the way you want them to. Its probably the most zen thing I have ever learned, the herding of chickens. And most importantly it avoids the need to pick them up -- some people are fine with picking up chickens, I am not one of those people.
Two days before Elena returned, the teenage rooster disappeared. The hens lived in one pen and Gonzo and the teenage rooster lived in another. They could peck at each other through the fence, but that was the only contact they could have. Gonzo and the rooster were not shut in at night, they had a small roof overhang that they roosted in when the sun went down and Elena insisted that they would be fine. But I found the rooster gone and Gonzo in a somewhat hysterical state over his missing friend. I decided that Gonzo would be calmer as soon as I let the hens out of the coop and I was right -- his feathers laid down and his face went blue instead of red as Sister and Frenchy and the rest of the cabaret girls sauntered down their little ramp into the light of the day. I couldn’t help but think of Can Can girls when the hens emerged from the coop each morning -- it was just a comical sight to me.
So with the rooster missing I was presented with a dilemma. Should I call Elena? I decided against it. She was coming home the next day and I had high hopes for his return. There was no evidence of a murder in the yard...no feathers strewn in the grass. I fed everyone their grain and tortillas, and cleaned the coop. I came back at lunch time and looked for the rooster. He was still gone. I was beginning to think that maybe he had been carried away in the night by an owl.
I returned after sunset to find all the hens convened in some sort of grand meeting. Gonzo was pacing up and down the fence and his voice was more hysterical than it had been earlier in the day when he announced that his rooster companion was missing. I turned my flashlight on to The Girls and approached them. They were very intent on something in their midst, but they scattered when I waved my arm at them. I couldn’t for the life of me think of what it was that would keep them out in this darkness, but I found out immediately. The remains of the teenage rooster lay in front of me - he was nothing but a rib cage with tail feathers. They had picked him clean.
I ran back to my truck and called my husband. I told him to come right away. “You have to help me clean this up, I can’t do it all alone.” He was not thrilled with the idea of visiting the scene of a chicken murder, but he came and gave me moral support. The rooster had returned that evening, but the unfortunate thing got in the pen with The Girls and not with Gonzo. They took no time in killing him. Elena returned the next day and I apologized to her for the loss of the rooster. She apologized to me for having to see how brutal The Girls could be. She said she was just sorry that they ate him before she could! She offered me a handful of eggs to take home, I declined. I was off eggs for a long time after that. Elena explained that the rooster was probably injured when he returned from his gallivanting and The Girls smelled blood on him and that was all it took for them to murder him. Elena was matter of fact about it. I was traumatized.
But Elena called me again this spring and asked me to Chicken Sit again, she said things should go fine, no roosters this time. But when I went to her house to get the key and my instructions for the week, she had a surprise for me. “Frenchy is finally a mother!” Elena had lost too many eggs to Frenchy’s brooding habits, so she went to the feed store and bought five cotton ball sized Bitties for Frenchy. She set the Bitties up in a dog crate in the sewing room at the front of her house and put Frenchy in there with the little yellow-as-the-sun peeps. Frenchy took possession immediately, there was no question in her mind that the Bitties were her flesh and blood.
I was so happy for Frenchy -- there she sat in the dog crate with the Bitties neatly tucked under her rosey petticoats. Frenchy purred and wiggled. These were her children and she couldn’t be more content. “Do you mind taking care of her and the little ones all week?” Elena asked as I admired Frenchy. I told her I could do it, but I had one question, “Frenchy’s not going to turn on the little things is she? I mean, if one of them tells her that she’s not really their mama, she’s not going to retaliate and eat them is she? Cause I don’t think I can handle another murder.” Elena told me to just make sure there was plenty of food and water in the cage and to keep it clean. She assured me no harm would come to the Bitties.
You cannot believe how much Bitties can grow in seven days. They went from being Easter Basket material to near pullet-sized in the time I cared for them. I wondered if Frenchy was shooting them up with growth hormones. Their wing feathers were emerging by the end of the week! Each morning when I walked in the door I would find Frenchy walking around the cage with the Bitties riding on her back, which became more entertaining as they got bigger. On my final morning, I found all the Bitties were riding Frenchy except for one. This Bittie was standing on top of the cylindrical feeder and he was flapping his wings and crowing! “I think I found the rooster.” I told myself.
Elena returned the next day and I was happy to report that all the Girls, and the Bitties, and Frenchy and Gonzo had lived through the week. I told her of the rooster and she said there was no way to sex the Bitties that early, but lo, she found him crowing two days later and called me. “Wow! You were right!” she said. I felt as though I had passed some great chicken exam by my observation of the little rooster.
Frenchy died this summer, not long after her Bitties were grown. She was close to eight years old and perhaps motherhood satisfied her and tired her so much that she decided to let go. Elena told me that Sister dove into a terrible depression after Frenchy’s passing and so Elena did what she thought best - she ate her. I thought that was a fitting end for Sister -- she had given years of service as the head Girl and when she could no longer give eggs due to her ennui, she gave her body to Elena’s kitchen.
I want to finish with this clipping from The New York Times which I have kept for over 10 years:
Hawk Eats Pupil's Pet Chick
Lompoc, Calif., March 7 (AP) -- As frightened pupils watched helplessly during recess on Friday, a hawk swooped down and grabbed a chick that was being raised by a fifth grade class at Los Berros school, flew to the top of a nearby telephone pole and ate the pet, which had been named Peep Jr. A student teacher, Lori Stitch, said that there was no time to shield the children and that as a result youngsters "learned about the food chain." Ms. Stitch said she regretted that Peep Jr. "Never knew another chicken."
My grandfather used to say “New Years is for amateurs.” Pop was serious about his drinking and he had no time for people who drank only on occasion. He was especially suspicious of Teetotalers. He considered them furtive. To Pop, a Teetotaler was unable to drink for fear they might reveal their true selves and therefore could never be trusted as a friend. My grandmother shared this opinion and every once in a while I would hear her describe someone in an uncharacteristically quiet tone, “He’s a Teetotaler, you know...” as though she were revealing the darkest possible secret about this individual. I am certain this was all born of the fact that my grandfather’s father lost his fortune due to Prohibition. In addition to his liquor business being shut down by the law, my great-grandfather Glynn was driven out of the Catholic Church after a fellow parishioner caught him with his hand firmly stuck in the tithing box. It was his intention to push his charitable donation further into the box, but it served only to appear as theft. Now he had no livelihood due to the Teetotaling menace and his Church had disowned him. There was only one thing to do -- drink himself to death.
Oddly enough, my grandfather was born on New Years Day. He was the first baby born in Boston, so the story goes, at 12:01 am on January 1, 1905. His mother was given a cake for bringing Thomas Burke Glynn into the world at such an auspicious time. And it seems that the significant dates of my grandfather’s life would all fall around the holidays. He married my grandmother on December 26, 1936. The 26th of December, of course, is known as Boxing Day and he used to quip that it was the most appropriate day for his union with my grandmother as “it had been a fightin’ match ever since!” My grandmother’s birthday was December 6th and my mother was born on December 7th, five years prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. But most significantly for Pop was that his mother died on Christmas Day in the early 1930s. This cast a shadow over Christmas for him for the rest of his life.
The holidays are coming and I am preparing, as I do every year, to hunker down and get through it. It is most regrettable to me that the Holiday season now begins with hunting season in early November. It is that much longer now that I have to thwart the funk that overtakes me during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mine is a complicated funk though, because I have such ambiguous feelings toward this time of year. There is the side of me that is joyous with the idea of making Christmas cards and cooking on Thanksgiving Day. I cannot resist Charlie Brown’s Christmas and Gene Shepherd’s Christmas Story. I can barely contain myself when I hear Elvis sing Blue Christmas. And probably my most favorite Christmas show? The claymation classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer -- it goes deep for me, into a place of my childhood that still exists in another dimension of time, I am certain of it.
But hunker down I must, despite the side of me that enjoys this time of year. I am a child of divorce and the holidays were an extremely odd time for me as a child. It was decision making time for me. Who will I spend Thanksgiving with? Who will I spend Christmas with? And I didn’t just have one Thanksgiving dinner, I got to have at least two, because the parent who didn’t spend Thanksgiving with me, made up for their lost day, by recreating it at a later date. The same happened with Christmas, sometimes the recreation of which came way past the 12 days of Christmas. My grandmother was very traditional in that she put the tree up on Christmas Eve and took it down on Epiphone, every year, like clockwork. But occasionally my father, who lived hours away from me, would request that the tree stay up just a bit longer, so that he could visit me and put my presents under the now tired looking tannenbaum, whose needles were tinkling to the floor. She was annoyed by this request. And me? I just thought it was strange, because to me, it wasn’t Christmas anymore.
So I have this biological time bomb that goes off every year when the holidays begin to loom. Although I am grown, I feel this pressure somewhere under my right shoulder blade that tells me I need to make a decision. Of course, I don’t have to decide on my holiday whereabouts at all anymore. I am not obligated to anyone to make a holiday appearance. I can stay right here, right at home and choose not to see anyone. But this feeling doesn’t go away until New Year’s Day and it drives me to make certain efforts to participate in the festivities, even though I would be happy to let it all slide. Some years, I ignore the pressure quite valiantly, but there are other years where it manages to overwhelm me. And because I have no children of my own, because my family has remained quite small and is getting smaller as time passes, the pressure comes not from within, but from my surroundings. I watch friends go through the intense maneuverings of this time of year and I see them look at me curiously, “Why doesn’t she have the same horrendous holiday schedule that I have?” They are perplexed by the simplicity of my holiday experience. I envy their being overwhelmed by family and perhaps they envy my freedom.
While growing up my mother instilled in me the beneficence of buying the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. You know what I am talking about, the little sad tree on the back of the lot that no one wants. Charlie Brown saw something of himself in that tree and he defied the fakery and the commercialism he saw in Christmas by giving the pathetic tree a home. The children of the Christmas pageant scorned him for buying such a waste of a tree, but it was Linus who recognized the import of the tree. He saw the Christian lesson in adopting a tree that would only end up on the trash heap. And lo, a Christmas miracle occurred, as the Peanuts gang began to love the tree, it became a shining beacon of Christmas.
My mother applies this idea of buying the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree to almost all facets of her life and I follow this “religion”. We adopt the saddest of dogs, one’s with behavioral and physical flaws, we take on horses that are not quite sound or of Show Quality. And we do the same with people, although we are less apt to forgive people as much as we do animals and Christmas Trees. We have slightly higher expectations of the people we surround ourselves with, but they get enormous breaks from us just the same.
When it comes to Christmas trees, it doesn’t always have to be the smallest most pathetic tree. I spent Christmas on my mother’s farm in Southern Pines, NC back in 1982. I was a senior in high school and it was a year in which I decided to spend the whole vacation with my mother, right through New Years Day. I left my father in the cold that year. My mother and stepfather were planning on having a party on Christmas Eve, a “payback” party, one of those parties we all have at one time or another, when we gather together all the people we owe a night out to. My mother’s house was a wonderfully small affair, with only one bedroom upstairs in a loft and an open first floor that had practically no walls between the kitchen and the living area. But despite being small, it boasted a living room that soared 25 feet or so to the roof with the loft dangling above it, only accessible by a spiral steel staircase, the kind you see in inexpensive Greenwich Village lofts. The backside of the house was sunny with French doors and windows above, very unusual for now stuffy Town and Country Southern Pines.
On the morning of Christmas Eve my mother and I drove downtown to find a Christmas tree. We went to a lot near the railroad tracks and they had a large selection of very fat fir trees, none that fit my mother’s requirement for something scrawny and in need of charity. But at the very back of the lot was a 20 foot fur that stood as proud as anything you would see in Rockefeller Center. We walked back an stood under the boughs of the great tree. There was a tag tied to one of the lower boughs and there were several prices listed. Each price had been crossed out leaving a price at the bottom of the tag of ten dollars. The tree had started its illustrious career at $350! My mother looked at me and I looked at her. We had found our Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. The tree man came over, “You ladies like that tree?”
“Yes, yes we do. Its so beautiful!” My mother was fingering the price tag.
“and Big. Nobody wants this big of a tree. Last time I buy a twenty foot tree!” The man said as he craned he neck to look to the top of the tree.
“Can you deliver the tree to my farm? Its too big to get in my truck.”
“We wouldn’t normally do that, but for you, I’ll do it. ”
We paid him ten dollars for the tree and ten dollars to bring it to the farm.
My mother and I couldn’t wait to get home and tell Ed about the tree. We busted in the door and all the dogs came running and Ed was watching football. This was his lunch break. They had alot of race horses in the barn back then, as many as 20 yearlings and he and my mother did all their own stalls. The horses had the day off that day, because we were having a party. There was housework to do, food to be made. We were expecting 15 or so people for drinks that evening, and there was no time to work the yearlings.
“Ed, we found the most marvelous tree!” My mother started moving some furniture out of the corner she planned to put it in.
“And where is the tree? Do you need me to get it out of the truck.” Ed said this while his eyes remained glued to the football.
“No, no, its being delivered, they are on their way with it.”
“Delivered? When did we get the money to have trees delivered? Why couldn’t you and Shannon just put it in the truck?”
“Because its 20 feet high!”
“Nobody wanted it. It was too big!”
“I don’t want it.” Ed got up and started to look at the area my mother was clearing. “And what are you going to decorate it with? We don’t have decorations for a tree that large!” My mother looked at me and I looked at her. We hadn’t considered that.
“Oh no, I don’t know. I guess I’ll need to go back to town and buy lots of tinsel!”
But suddenly Ed smiled. Ed is brilliant really, he’s an old stunt man from Hollywood, and he has a world of experience like no other person I know. “I know how to decorate it. We’ll decorate it with snow!”
“What?” My mother was confused.
“Ivory Snow! You and the kid go to the grocery store right away and buy as many boxes of powdered Ivory Snow as you can get. And tinsel, lots of silver tinsel. No lights, we won’t need lights, just one lamp to back light the tree.”
“What the heck are we gonna do with Ivory Snow flakes?” I piped up the only way a teenager could pipe up.
“Just go with your mother!”
The tree was in the house when we got home. Ed and the guys had pulled it in through the French doors and unfurled its boughs from its burlap wrapping only to figure out they had no way to stand the thing upright! They went out into the barn and found a two by four which Ed sawed in half. He nailed the two pieces to the bottom of the tree making a large X. It was slightly unwieldy. My mother looked at it askance. “Don’t you think we ought to secure it with some rope? I would hate for a drunk to bring it down on all of us tonight!”
“Jesus Sandy! Now you have regrets?”
“No, its gorgeous!” My mother and I started taking the boxes of Ivory Snow out of the grocery bags.
“Four boxes? You could only get four boxes?”
“Ed, we’re lucky we got that, nobody uses powdered Ivory Snow anymore. So what are we going to do with all this?”
“Kid, go get me bucket in the barn.” Ed was opening the boxes an rifling through the kitchen drawers. “Sandy, where’s the egg beater?”
So I brought Ed the bucket and he rips open the boxes of soap and pours them into the bucket. He puts the bucket in the sink and adds some water, not alot of water, but a little at a time so as to make a paste. “Kid, get the tinsel. And see those scissors? Start cutting up the tinsel into tiny pieces, I mean tiny, like confettI”
“So Ed, what are we doing here?”
“We’re making snow a la the Waldorf Astoria!” Ed’s father was the manager of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel while Ed was growing up. Like the anti-Eloise, Ed grew up in the hotel among the staff and the great food and the famous visitors. “We used to have Christmas trees all over the hotel at Christmas time and decorations were very expensive and fragile and tended to get stolen. One of the staff told us that he and his wife decorated their tree with Ivory Snow during the Depression, because that’s all they had...all they had was soap. So we used to mix great vats of it and decorate the trees all over the hotel with it. You’re not cutting the tinsel small enough, real tiny, and put it in the bucket.” Ed used the egg beater on the paste to whip it up into a fluffy tinselly concoction that looked like meringue. It looked good enough to eat.
Once he made the first batch he told me we had to work fast or the snow would harden in the bucket. Ed got a ladder and he worked at the top of the tree and I worked at the bottom. “Now spread the snow on top of the boughs, just like snow would fall onto a tree. No too much, or it weighs the boughs down and the whole thing will droop!”
So we worked all afternoon, making snow in the bucket and spreading it on the tree. My mother would come out every once in a while from the kitchen and make exclamations of joy.
Evening fell, the horses were enjoying their Christmas Eve mashes and the guests began to arrive. Ed and Sandy and I had washed all the residual snow from the floor and swept up the tinsel. The guests were astonished by the tree, especially my godmother Ginnie who hailed from Savannah. She was the Master of the Foxhounds and owned several thousand acres on which my mother and everyone in Southern Pines hunted and rode their horses. “My goodness,” she said in her Savannah drawl, “That has got to be the most spectacular Christmas tree I have ever seen!” And it was the most spectacular Christmas tree. Its stood proud and covered in freshly fallen snow which caught the light of the party candles and reflected in the ice cubes in the party goers glasses of cheer.
We partied late into the evening, with stories of race horses and fox hunting and some of the adventurous things my mother had done when she was young and some of the insane things Ed had done in Hollywood. We stayed up so late that although the guests had arrived on Christmas Eve, they departed on Christmas morning.
I watched Conrack the other night and it got me to thinking. Conrack is based on Pat Conroy’s book The Water is Wide. I've seen the movie three times. I haven’t read the book, but a friend of mine, who is a teacher a Georgia, has read it. He hasn't seen the movie. So it goes with movies made from books. Its a story about teaching. Its a story about racism. However, its the racial aspects of the movie that reminded me of Tanya and Twanya.
Tanya and Twanya were twins. They were black. And I attended my first three years of elementary school with them. They were bussed from Bridgeport, Connecticut along with a small group of their neighborhood kids to attend all white Bedford Elementary School in Westport, Connecticut. It was 1971 and while our parents, and in my case, my grandparents, were very aware of the intricacies of bussing, the kids were oblivious. We were just kids and the world was new...we didn’t know that it was a big deal to have this bus make that long drive from Bridgeport to Westport everyday, hell, we didn’t even know where Bridgeport was.
As we grew older though, we learned very quickly that Bridgeport was poor and black and we never traveled there. As teenagers we called it “Bree Po” and made jokes that we didn’t fully understand. I remember being confused when my grandmother, who came from a very wealthy family that lost it all in the Crash of ‘29, told me her family’s winter home was in Bridgeport. Their summer home was in Greens Farms. It was a grand house that faced the Long Island Sound and was surrounded by a beautiful marsh near Burying Hill Beach. But when the leaves would turn in the fall, they would close up that house, load everything up on carriages and move to a smaller, but equally grand house in Bridgeport. The house staff would carefully pack the china and the silver and my grandmother and her five siblings would see their toys and books and clothes put into great trunks. They would make the 25 mile trip away from the shore to hunker down for the Connecticut winter in a more urban setting, one that my grandmother assured me was not populated by “colored” people. I asked my grandmother to take me to Bridgeport to see the winter home. She said it was gone, just like Red Oaks, the summer home, which had mysteriously burned down in 1968. There was a part of me that didn’t believe my grandmother, who was the most honest person I ever knew. There was just no way she was going to drive me to Bridgeport. It wasn’t a place that we belonged.
You know who came from Bridgeport? Robert Mitchum came from Bridgeport. P.T. Barnum came from Bridgeport. And so did Hogan’s Heroes’ Bob Crane. That alone made me want to see Bridgeport. But you know what? I never did. I never saw Bridgeport, only on a map and only as an exit off of I-95.
Tanya and Twanya were mean. Twanya was the meaner of the two if you want to split hairs. I imagined that when they fought amongst themselves, Twanya always beat Tanya. I learned to tell them apart not long after meeting them in my first grade class. They both wore glasses, but Twanya had a lazy eye and her features were slightly finer than Tanya’s. They were very beautiful and always wore matching clothes. But they were mean. If you glanced at them in the cafeteria or on the playground they would lean into your face and utter their trademark threat, “I ain’t playin’ with you girl!” and that was it, you were marked for a beating. The beating didn’t necessarily come at the moment of your trespass, it usually came when you were least expecting it, when you had forgotten that you had even invited the beating.
I was the kind of kid who got beat up a lot. Not just by Tanya and Twanya, but lots of kids, girls and boys beat me up throughout school. I know, I know, you’re smiling right now, you’re not surprised that I invited beatings as a child. I was small and blonde and really hyper, but quietly hyper. My mind was constantly reeling with thoughts and ideas, as it still does today, and I looked at people. I would stare at them and try to figure them out. And I was weird. I would go off on the playground by myself and play with my imaginary friend Indian Girl. Indian Girl and I had long conversations, with me on the ground and her, most of the time, up in a tree. She lived in the tree outside my bedroom window at home and my grandmother would catch me talking to her or reading books to her. Mom was very disapproving of my friendship with Indian Girl. She believed it was a true sign of insanity. But Indian Girl faded away eventually. I didn’t need her anymore.
So Tanya and Twanya would stalk me, somewhere beyond the swings and the kickball field. They would chase me and when they caught me, they beat the crap out me. Once they trapped me in this large concrete pipe -- the school had three or four of them on the playground for us to play in. The pipes were painted in bright colors and they were great refuges to sit in with friends and talk about the questions of life. But on a winter's day Tanya and Twanya chased me into one of those pipes and I will never forget the echo of their voices. Tanya at one end, Twanya at the other and me in the middle. “We ain’t playin’ with you girl!” and they crept in and pummeled me. I never told on them. How could I? The beating I would receive for tattling would certainly bring me close to death, so I just kept my mouth shut. And I witnessed the beatings of other children. Tanya and Twanya did not discriminate in their beatings -- they beat girls and boys, black and white. We were all terrified of them.
They did get caught once though. I had received the kiss of death from Tanya in art class -- there I was scribbling away with these marvelous crayons Mr. Clark used to give us and I must have looked funny and Tanya whispered in my ear, “I ain’t playin’ with you.” Mr. Clark was our art teacher, my first real live hippie. He had long black hair that he kept in a pony tail and a handlebar mustache. He collected Clark Bar wrappers and he had a terrible temper...which is very un-hippie like, but I guess the Westport brat scene would just drive him over the edge sometimes. He would snap like twig and beat our desks with a yard stick and heaven help you if your hands were in the way. But he gave us all these magical crayons -- they were the size and shape of a domino and they were made of melted crayons of every color, so that when you laid them to paper, they made rainbows.
Later in the day, I was in the cafeteria, a place I hated more than anything in those days. I hated the crowd of kids, the food, the noise...I always felt vulnerable in the cafeteria, a feeling that continued through high school. I set my tray on a table and proceeded to sit down, but as I sat, my chair was swiftly pulled out from under me. I hit the floor and felt a sting that zanged right up my spine and continued out my eyes. I turned to see Twanya holding my chair and smiling at me. But her smile was wiped cleanly from her face by Mr. Clark, who was on lunch duty. He saw the whole thing. I was sent to the school nurse, who called my grandmother. Next thing you know I was in the doctor’s office and they determined that I had bruised my coccyx bone, I was mortified and what was worse was that my grandmother started asking all these questions about the girl who had hurt me. Suddenly the adults were involved and this was never a good thing. Tanya and Twanya continued their beatings, but under the cover of shrubs in the playground and in the back stairwell of the school. I played dumb when my grandmother’s questions came, “I don’t know who that girl is. She never hurt me before...”
I became best friends with one of the Bridgeport girls in the third grade. He name was Sheryl and we met on the playground every day. She knew Tanya and Twanya and wasn’t afraid of them. She didn’t fight them, she just ignored them. T and T were in another class in third grade and so I hardly ever saw them, they were just like a bad dream at that point and Sheryl seemed to be some sort of protection for me. Maybe T and T moved on to other things by then, their bullying days perhaps were over.
One spring day I asked Sheryl if she wanted to come to my house after school. I had a pony I wanted her to meet and maybe my grandfather would let me take Sheryl for a ride. Sheryl said she couldn’t come to my house because she had to take the bus home. She became quiet. I said no problem, my grandmother would drive her home. Sheryl balked again and said she would have to ask her mother. When I went home that afternoon I asked my grandmother if my friend Sheryl could come over after school one day. “Who’s Sheryl?” I explained that she was a girl in my class, that she took the bus from Bridgeport, but couldn’t she come over and then we could drive her home before dinner? My grandmother said this wouldn’t be possible. And when I saw Sheryl the next day, she told me that her mother said no to my plan. I was completely perplexed by the whole thing. But I understood later on. You see? Bridgeport was another world, it was an island, and the only place we were to mix our worlds was in school.
Bedford El closed down in 1974 and so all of us who were attending the three story old fashioned school would be divided up around the district into nicer and more modern facilities. I never saw Tanya or Twanya or Sheryl again. I might have changed schools, but something remained the same. You could count the number of black students in the school on one hand. This trend continued through junior high school. By the time we got to Staples High School, you could count them on two hands. There weren’t enough blacks in my school to cause racial tension, but I know there was racism and they were so outnumbered that I cannot fathom how they must have felt. They were prominent students and memorable and good characters in my memory and some were my friends -- outgoing achievers academically and in sports, they seemed happy enough to be with all of us white kids, but I am certain they had days when they hated us.
But here’s something important to know about Westport. It was a hard place for almost all of us growing up there. It was a wealthy town and it weighed heavily on all of us with its expectations. We lived among CEOs, scholars, and famous actors and actresses and renowned writers and artists. Westport was infested with Somebodys.
So even though the black kids were feeling weird about being black, there were plenty of us feeling weird because we weren’t rich or beautiful or popular or brilliant or headed to an Ivy League college. There were plenty of things to make you feel bad about yourself in Westport and being black was just one of them. After living in the South now for over 20 years, I’ve grown to believe that the North is just as racist as the South. But its a different kind of racism. In the South, you are White or Black or Mexican. In the North, you are White or Black or Mexican or Italian or Irish or Sicilian or Russian or German or Polish or Armenian or Jewish or Catholic or Muslim or Greek Orthodox...its an immigrant thing and a classist thing too...everyone is defined at some point by their religion and their heritage and their money and sometimes it works just fine and other times it causes a brawl.
In the summer after my freshman year in college, I went home to Westport. My grandfather set me up with a great job -- taking care of a barn of 12 polo ponies owned by Franco, a rich Honduran business man, who was a mediocre polo player. My partner for the summer would be a beautiful black pre-med student from Stanford University. Her name was Lisa and she was on Stanford’s women’s polo team. She stood five foot eleven and rode a horse like a dream. She looked like a super model. Her parents were both doctors in Manhattan and they had just bought a house in Westport. Lisa and I were going to have a blast. The barn was located on the grounds of the Fairfield County Hunt Club, a well known old club that had been in operation since the 1920s. My grandparents were founding members of the Hunt Club and my grandfather ran the polo program there for many, many years. I had grown up riding at the Club. We kept our horses at home, but I would hack my ponies to the Club to go to horse shows and to ride with friends. It was my playground as a child. I spent hours there and I knew every inch of every barn there and I had memorized the menu in the clubhouse. I was on a first name basis with the staff of the Club House and the barns. It was practically my second home.
The ponies arrived on a truck from Texas in early June. They were skin and bones. Lisa and I started in right away with my grandfather’s help on getting the ponies in shape. We showed up early every morning and mucked out all our stalls, six for Lisa and six for me. Then we would tack up the ponies and take them out to the polo field to exercise. Since we had 12 ponies, we would ride one and lead two, one on each side. This way we could work the ponies in sets - two sets of three for me and two sets of three for Lisa. By the end of June we had the ponies looking pretty good. Their coats were beginning to shine and their ribs and hip bones were now fleshed over in muscle. Franco would come to ride in the evenings and sometimes Lisa would go out on the field with him to “stick and ball”, that is, scrimmage with their mallets and a ball. I would just hang out on one of the ponies, because I never learned how to hit a ball off a pony. I could play a mean game of bicycle polo, but my grandfather, despite being a great polo coach never taught me to hit a ball off a horse, he didn’t believe in girls playing polo, at least not until he met Lisa!
When Lisa and I were done riding in the mornings, we would hay up the ponies and then head to the beach for the afternoon. We’d sleep in the sand and eat lunch and swim in the Sound until late afternoon. Then we'd head back to the barn to meet Franco and feed the horses supper. It was a good routine.
One day in late July, I got an idea. Lisa and I had worked all morning in the barn and it was hot day. I said, “Lisa, how about I take you to the Club House for lunch today, instead of the beach. I can still use my grandparents’ tab.” Lisa had never been to the Club House and she thought this was a grand idea. So we washed up and changed into clean clothes, like we did every day to go to the beach and we walked down to the Club House. It was apparent from the minute we stepped into the high ceilinged dining room that something was terribly wrong. The Club ladies who lunched there every day went silent, and the Hungarian sisters who had waitressed at the Club since the beginning of time gave me a funny look instead of the usual smiles and hugs that I was always greeted with. I suggested to Lisa that we sit by the French doors at the front of the dining room so we could watch people working horses out on the polo field. Helga, the darker of the two Hungarian waitresses came to our table. She greeted me tersely, “Hallo Shannon, ice tea for you and your friend?”
“Yes Helga. This is my friend Lisa. We have been working with Franco’s polo ponies this summer”
“Yes, we see you riding out there everyday!”
So things eased up a little and Lisa and I ate our club sandwiches. We tried to ignore the Club ladies who seemed to be staring at us as we ate. When we were done, I signed the check with my grandfather’s initials and a smiley face like I always did. Lisa and I stopped in the ladies room on the way out. We walked in and faced two of my grandmother’s old friends were primping their hair in front of the mirror. They were speaking in hushed tones and clammed up the second Lisa and I walked in. They wrinkled their faces as though something smelled bad. “Hello Shannon, how is your grandmother?”
“Just fine and how are you Mrs. Dee and Mrs. Rrrr?”
They barely answered me and spun out of the room. I looked at Lisa and she looked at me. We knew, but we wouldn’t say. I suggested we get to the beach as soon as possible, “Man, I need a swim, howabout you?” Lisa knodded and off we went. The salt water and the sun washed away the weird film we seemed to be covered with after having lunch in the Club House. And I had just about forgotten what had happened when I got home. My grandmother was sitting at the kitchen table reading the New York Times.
“Hi Dear. Do you want a hamburger?” Mom offered me a hamburger every time I walked in the door. It was the thing about her.
“Nope, I ate a big lunch at the Club today and then I ate again at the beach.”
“That’s nice Dear.” She didn’t take her eyes off the newspaper. But then the phone rang. “Will you get that Dear?”
“Yeah Mom...Hello?” The voice at the other end of the phone was familiar but it had a weird edge to it.
“Oh oh, Shannon? Its Joey. Is your grandmother there?” It was Joey T. She was on the board of the Hunt Club and a very old friend of my grandparents. Her husband was our family attorney.
“Oh Hi Mrs. T. -- yeah, Mom’s right here.”
Mom got on the phone and the first thing I heard her say was “But Shannon is a groom too...” and then I looked at Mom and could see her hackles going up like an a old fox hound bitch. Seems the conversation went like this:
“Hello Mabel. I hate to bother you with this, but the board asked me to call you. Shannon brought a groom to lunch at the Club House today. Grooms aren't supposed to eat in the Club House.”
“But Shannon is a groom too...you know she’s been working with those polo ponies all summer.”
“Yes, well, Shannon is different.”
“You mean Shannnon is WHITE.”
“Oh Mabel, no, that’s not it at all, its just that...”
“Its just that Shannon brought a black girl to lunch today and it set the world on fire, didn’t it?!”
“Mabel, I think you are over reacting.”
“I’m not over reacting. Do you realize what year it is? Do you know that ”groom“ that Shannon brought to lunch today is a pre-med student at Stanford and the daughter of two Manhattan doctors? Not that it should matter who she is or what color she is! I am outraged that you would think that it was proper to call me and tell me that Shannon did something wrong!”
That’s how the conversation went and then my grandmother, my pithy grandmother told Joey T. that she would never step into that Club House again. And she didn’t. She never went back there. And I didn’t go back until my grandfather’s death. The Club held a reception after Pop’s funeral and there I was back in that big old dining room.
I never told Lisa about the phone call or the number of phone calls that came from various Club board members and members after that. Lisa and I just continued on with our polo ponies for the summer and going to the beach every afternoon. But Lisa knew and I knew that we had, as my grandmother put it, set the world on fire by having sandwiches in the Club House. We just never talked about it. When my grandmother asked me about it, she asked me if I knew people were going to be upset? I told her I had no idea. That it was the furthest thing from my mind that day. I just wanted to take my friend to lunch. I felt so naive. And I felt as though I suddenly didn’t know the people I had grown up around. My understanding of how the world worked was turned upside down. But there stood my grandmother as solid as a rock and I was never prouder of her.