Missing Person


Loneliness with the World – George Grie 2009

Note:  Going through my old blog, Late Empire Ruminations, before I let it lapse and disappear from cyberspace, I ran across this narrative describing what I went through when I discovered my wife was a missing person.  Now its last sentence seems much more poignant than it did on the day I wrote it.

I’d like to think I take very little for granted.  After all, as a literature teacher, I have spent some time surveying the hellscapes of tragedy – Thebes, Elsinore, Casterbridge, Oceania, Yoknapatawpha – so I’m aware that horror is forever hovering and might descend at any moment via a drunken driver or cerebral hemorrhage or natural disaster.

As my friend Tom Evatt used to say with a wink and a smile, “I’m no stranger to heartache.”

One day he awoke with a bit of a limp.  Within a year he was dead from ALS.

Tommy at lake

Tom Evatt

In the mid-Nineties,  I myself via clinical depression descended into the underworld, a place I once pretended didn’t exist as I stupidly cajoled the despondent with banal observations about how they were living in the wealthiest, most carefree civilization in the history of the planet.  Of course, as someone who had read Hamlet, I should have known better.

I have of late [says the despondent prince]—but wherefore I know not,—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?


The Song of Ophelia, artist unknown

After dropping thirty pounds in ten days,* spending my afternoons on the floor of my study weeping, suffering nightmares that would send Alfred Hitchcock screaming out into the dark, I discovered that, no, depression is real, as real as a heart attack or a car jacking or ALS.

*Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of those weight losses when colleagues come up to you saying how good you look but instead ask, “Have you been sharing needles with your Haitian boyfriend?”


If you’re lucky, if you emerge from the darkness of depression, you might come back with some secret information like Odysseus received from Tiresias in Hades, info that helped him steer between Scylla and Charybdis.  I came back up with the idea that I would try to savor my allotted moments, to try to detach myself from illusion, to attempt to follow the Golden Eighth Fold path.

Again here is Hamlet, talking to his pal Horatio regarding his misgivings about his upcoming fencing match with Laertes, a contest that unbeknownst to him is booby-trapped and will lead to his death:

If it be now,

’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be

now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the

readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he

leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?

* * *

Last Wednesday at break as I was placing my coffee cup in the dishwasher in the small kitchen that abuts the boardroom, I heard someone softly say my name.  It was our receptionist Kyndra, as far away from her desk as it is possible for her to be in the building.  She was pale and looked disconcerted.

She asked me if I knew where Judy was.  Of course, the answer should have been no – she could have been at her rural Berkeley County school or her suburban Summerville school or driving between the two – but I said, “She’s at work.”

Kyndra gently shook her head.  She said calmly, looking me in the eyes. “She’s not at work.  The school has called.  She was supposed to be there for a meeting at 7:30.  They’ve called the other school.  She’s not there. They can’t get in touch with her.” She handed me a small blue slip of paper with a number on it. “This is the school’s number.  They want you to call.”

I don’t remember the walk from the boardroom to my classroom.  Did I run?  Did I walk quickly?  I felt a sudden – this is difficult to describe – a sort of sudden metallic sinking of my soul like a ship going down.

Did I know where Judy was?  No, but I could guess –  not likely a stalled engine or flat tire given cellphones.  A wreck seemed more likely, but she had left home at 6:30 and now at 9:50 that would mean a bad one or one in a location that had no cellular reception.  Then I thought of carjacking, kidnapping.

I now was hunched over the phone in my room dialing  Judy’s cell.  I had moved the chair from behind my desk earlier in the day, so I couldn’t sit down or stand straight up because of shelves hanging over the desk of the phone.  It occurs to me now that I could have more comfortably used my cell, not had to dial 9 for a ringtone, but I’ve been using a cell phone for only a month, and it doesn’t come naturally to me.

No ring.  Straight to voicemail.  “You’ve reached Judy; please leave a message.”  Hearing her voice was the opposite of comforting.  It occurred to me that I might never hear her voice again.

I dialed the number on the blue slip of paper.  Got through immediately.  Heard Kyndra’s delayed message first hand from a woman with a sweet Southern voice accustomed to addressing elementary students.  She told me that  it wasn’t like Judy not to show up at a meeting.  No shit, I thought, but said instead.  “No, it’s not.  I’m terrified. She left at 6:30, before I did.”

Again, I punched 9 for a dial time and dialed home, hoping to get Ned to see if there was a message on voice mail.  “Once again, I heard Judy’s voice.  “You’ve reached the Judy and Wesley.  Please leave a message.”

I turned around, and there was Kyndra sitting at the opposite end of the Harkness table.

room 101

My classroom.  Kyndra was sitting in the near end chair.  I was standing behind the black desk in the upper left.

“How can I help you?”  Kyndra asked.  “Do you have a class coming up?”

“No,”  I said.  “I’m free.  I’m going to call Ned on my cell.”

I looked at the calls I’d received.  Thought I hit “Ned.”  A  recorded stranger’s voice told me I had reached a series of numbers.  At the beep, I said, probably too loudly, “Ned, there’s been a emergency.  You need to call me.”

I really didn’t know what to do.  Get in the car, trace Judy’s route to Cross?  That’s what my body wanted to do, but my head told me to call the highway patrol, the police.  My wife was a missing person.  “Oh, this is it,” I thought, “the terrible severing.”


As I headed towards the hall to retrieve a telephone book, Traci Miller, another staff person, walking briskly approached me and said, “Judy’s signed in at her school earlier in the morning.  She’s there.  They think she might be testing a student.”

“What?”  I was having trouble processing.

“Judy’s at work. She signed in hours ago.  She’s probably testing a student and has her cell phone off.”

I looked at her dumbfounded.

“She’s okay.”


Portrait of Judy Birdsong on the Edge of America

I went back to my room and realized that I needed a drink.  My cell was ringing.  “Wesley, this is Jake.  Did you mean to call me?  There’s an emergency?”  Instead of Ned I had called Jake in New Orleans.  I explained the snafu.  I walked over to my laptop and wrote Judy an email.  All it said was “Are you alive?”  Almost as soon as I sent it, the land phone rang in the room.  It was Judy.  Apologetic.  No, she had been at School since 7:30.  Several people had seen her.  She was so, so sorry.

It was her live voice, music to my ears.

* * *

I’ll give you the quick Perry Mason post trial explanation like when he and Della Street and Paul Drake explain how the murder had actually gone down.


There was no meeting at the rural Berkeley County School, but a mother was there looking for Judy who was in a meeting with the assistant principal.  A teacher, thinking it was a meeting, tried to find Judy.   Concerned, she called the suburban Summerville School who called my school. A series of unfortunate miscommunications.

At any rate, I hold no ill will.  The ten or so minutes of existential dread I suffered were almost worth it as I looked out of the window at the premature spring, then at the stack of graded and ungraded essays on my desk.  Thanks to my calling  Jake in error, Ned was spared.  All of the petty problems I had been stewing over took their rightful place in the basement of the pyramid of importance.

The only real after effect is that like the ancient mariner I feel compelled to tell this story to everyone.  Maybe this writing it out will expiate it.

And, of course, it’s merely a reprieve, because if it be not now, yet it will come.


The Fates


Stephen Foster Is in the Cold, Cold Ground – But Then Again, Not Really

foster sitting

Now that I’m retired, I begin each morning with a leisurely stroll through the pages of  “The South’s Oldest Newspaper,” the Post and Courier.  One of my favorite features is “Today in History,” which chronologically recaps the high-and-lowlights that occurred on the day the edition appears.  For example, today, the 13th of January, we have in 1941 Puerto Ricans gaining birthright citizenship and James Joyce succumbing to an ulcer less than a month before his 59th birthday.

The aged sisters draw us into life: we wail, batten, sport, clip, clasp, sunder, dwindle, die; over us dead they bend. Joyce, from Ulysses

The 13th of January was an unlucky day for several other notables as well.  In 1962 Comedian Ernie Kovacs perished in an auto crash, and 16 years later, former Vice President Hubert H Humphrey died in Waverly, Minnesota at the age of 66.

The saddest death recorded that day, however, belongs to Stephen Foster, America’s first great songwriter, who, estranged from his wife, drunkenly slipped on a piece of glass while shaving in a flophouse in the Bowery.  In the fall, he accidentally cut his neck, was found on the floor in a pool of blood, and died at Bellevue Hospital 3 days later.  On the day of his death, his worldly possessions consisted of that razor, a comb, a few items of clothing, and a leather wallet. The wallet contained 38 cents in Civil War scrip, 3 pennies, and a scrap of paper with the words “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” scrawled on it.

fde9f7c912c359247e2c3a7c66c56e47.jpgI first heard of Stephen Foster’s music orally when my father would rock and sing me to sleep and from my Grandfather Kiki who sang  “Campton Ladies” while playing his ukulele.

‘Doo-dah, doo-dah.”

My father, a sentimentalist, told me about Foster’s sad life, often the fate of geniuses, he intimated.  Although Foster did write comic songs, the majority of them pulled on the proverbial heartstrings.

We have roamed and loved mid the bowers

When thy downy cheeks were in their bloom

Now I stand alone mid the flowers

While they mingle their perfumes o’er thy tomb.

Because he wrote for the Christy Minstrels, a Northern blackface minstrel troupe, and sentimentalized the plight of slaves, Foster is now a controversial figure. Defenders claim that Foster’s attitude was sympathetic and that he admired African American slaves.

Others, not surprisingly, disagree. In  2010 members of the Yale Glee Club refused to sing “My Old Kentucky Home” at a concert and later burned a copy of the song, according to Ken Emerson, Foster’s biographer, “[My Old Kentucky Home], he writes, “was actually inspired by “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a deeply abolitionist novel. And the sense of loss here, and the sense is because Uncle Tom is being sold down the river as he was in the famous novel.”

Ironically, Foster hailed from Pennsylvania and only travelled below the Mason-Dixon line once in his life on a honeymoon steamboat cruise to New Orleans.

Emerson, the biographer, goes on to say, “his politics were definitely not abolitionist, but his heart and his feelings were very strongly sympathetic with the African-American plight. This contradiction, I think, is – the conflict between sentimentality and self-interest is something that, I think, characterizes – has always characterized Americans.”

And the songs themselves reflect the ol’ melting pot metaphor, an amalgam of Irish, African American, Italian, German, and Czechoslovakian influences.  For example, “Oh Susanna” is rendered in a polka beat.

Again, Emerson: And I think he merged [the various musical influences] in way that appeals to the multicultural, mongrel experience of America in its history and culture.”

The bottom line is that Foster remains popular even today, a century-and-a-half after his death, a rarity for a pop artist. In fact, I own a 2004 tribute album that features such artists as Alvin Youngblood Heart, John Prine, Mavis Staples, Roger McQuinn, and Michelle Shocked.

The combination of those beautiful melodies he created and pathos he conjured can still mesmerize.

If Well Used: A Meditation on Alcohol


The Drunks by Ta Thimkaeo

Cassio: O strange! Every inordinate cup is
unblessed and the ingredient is a devil.

Iago: Come, come, good wine is a good familiar creature,
if it be well used.

Othello 2.2

My mother’s people, Southern Baptists, considered the use of alcohol a sin, so my poor Granddaddy Kiki was reduced to hiding his half-pints in shoes stowed inside his closet. A bantam rooster of a man, five-six at the most, he was literally a redneck in that having worked for decades at the gas station he owned, his head and neck had been permanently crimsoned by the sun, the redness coming to a point in a v beneath his neck. He wore those undershirts that have become known as wifebeaters, though I’m fairly certain he never lay a hand on my grandmother,  despite her reducing him to hiding his contraband like a child.

Kiki was a wiry man, fun-loving, could stand on his head in his 70s.  Acrobatic, he could also fall stiffly face first to the floor by cushioning the impact with his palms. He had been in a singing quartet as a young man and enjoyed yodeling while strumming on a ukulele. So when he drank, he went whole hog (as he himself might put) disappearing, sometimes for days, but eventually returning to the Fury of my justifiably outraged grandmother.

Perhaps he should have chosen someone a bit less religiously rigid, but if he had, obviously you wouldn’t be reading this because I would not be I.

Although not Baptists, my father’s parents also didn’t drink – or at least I don’t remember ever seeing them imbibing. Like Kiki, Granddaddy Moore lived to be a lithe old man and in his 70s could shoot his age at golf, but I never saw him take even a sip of alcohol. His sister, however, my Great Aunt Lou, would get sloshed on sherry every afternoon, repeating the same old stories over and over again as we pretended to be hearing them for the first time. She was a fiery old woman, but the sherry seemed to have a mellowing effect.

So no one I know of in my parents’ and grandparents’ generations ever suffered from what I would a serious, chronic drinking problem, at least the type dramatized this abbreviated sad song by The Kinks:


15 February 2018 French Quarter

But even if you don’t suffer from a serious, chronic drinking problem, one solitary bender can get you in an ark-load of trouble [cf Cassio and [see here]]so I started wondering what three universally hailed sages from three different cultures and centuries have to say about drinking. After all, why even start something if it might get you in trouble?  Is having, as Iago says, “a good familiar creature” at your beck and call worth the risk of the creature turning on you?

Birth of Dionysus Zeus Thigh

The birth of Dionysius from Zeus’s thigh

Not surprisingly, since one of their most important deities was Dionysus,  the Ancient Greeks thought drinking produced at least some salutary effects, especially when practiced in moderation.  The word symposia literally means drinking together.  Symposia might be described as ritualistic drinking parties with singing accompanied by a flute girl, who, according to my sources, wore little or no clothing. As midnight turned to dawn, things could get out of hand.

As the evening went on, the wine had gone around the room in a particular order and so had the songs, the members became progressively drunker. This was when the flute girl “was liable to be groped by the men”. According to Prof Davidson and Dr Fearn, “we don’t know when they stop singing but certainly they get drunk. They talk about banqueters as if they are fellow voyagers on a ship and gradually the sea gets more and more turbulent and they start to get seasick or throw things out of the window, break furniture and grope the flute girl. Eventually they will emerge from the house in a kind of festival conga, go to another house with the flute girl accompanying them and try to cause riots there as well.” It was an out of control pub crawl.

“Drinking in Ancient Greece” from the University of Warwick website


In Plato’s Symposium, most of the participants are suffering from hangovers from the night before, so they decide they’re going to take it easy, dismiss the flute girl, but end up drinking all night and talking about love. The mode of narration is appropriately very convoluted; the conclusion is that the pursuit of wisdom and beauty is the ultimate object of love.


The Symposium by Anselm Feuerbach

Montaigne, in his essay “On Drunkenness,” offers this encapsulation of Plato’s views on drinking:

Plato forbids children wine till eighteen years of age, and to get drunk till forty; but, after forty, gives them leave to please themselves, and to mix a little liberally in their feasts the influence of Dionysos, that good deity who restores to younger men their gaiety and to old men their youth; who mollifies the passions of the soul, as iron is softened by fire; and in his Lazes allows such merry meetings, provided they have a discreet chief to govern and keep them in order, as good and of great utility; drunkenness being, he says, a true and certain trial of every one’s nature, and, withal, fit to inspire old men with mettle to divert themselves in dancing and music; things of great use, and that they dare not attempt when sober. He, moreover, says that wine is able to supply the soul with temperance and the body with health. Nevertheless, these restrictions, in part borrowed from the Carthaginians, please him: that men forbear excesses in the expeditions of war; that every judge and magistrate abstain from it when about the administrations of his place or the consultations of the public affairs; that the day is not to be employed with it, that being a time due to other occupations, nor the night on which a man intends to get children.

However, Montaigne himself calls drunkenness “a gross and brutish” vice and quotes Lucretius:

When we are conquered by the strength of wine,

Our limbs grow heavy, our legs intertwine;

With sodden mind, slow tongue, and swimming eyes,

We reel amid the hiccups, brawls and cries.

Montaigne admits, though, that he wishes he enjoyed alcohol more because it’s one of the last pleasures available to the aged.


To turn to England, my hero, Samuel Johnson, has much to say about intoxicants. He tells Boswell, “I have no objection to a man’s drinking wine, if he can do it in moderation” but admits he tends to go in excess. Of course, he disdains drunkenness, but on one occasion justifies it.

I [James Boswell] called on Dr. Johnson one morning, when Mrs. Williams, the blind lady, was conversing with him. She was telling him where she had dined the day before. “There were several gentlemen there,” said she, “and when some of them came to the tea-table, I found that there had been a good deal of hard drinking.” She closed this observation with a common and trite moral reflection; which, indeed, is very ill-founded, and does great injustice to animals — “I wonder what pleasure men can take in making beasts of themselves.” “I wonder, Madam,” replied the Doctor, “that you have not penetration to see the strong inducement to this excess; for he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

Anecdotes of the Revd. Percival Stockdale; collected in “Johnsonian Miscellanies,” edited by G.B. Hill.

Walking up the High Street by Thomas Rowlandson

My late mother-in-law, Dot Birdsong, was the wisest drinker I’ve ever known.  Each day at five, she prepared hors d’oeuvres and drank exactly two glasses of Dewars on the rocks. In fact, she continued essentially to the day of her death, though by then heavily diluting the Dewars.

And as it turns out, the Mayo Clinic informs us

Moderate alcohol consumption may provide some health benefits, such as:

Reducing your risk of developing and dying of heart disease.

Possibly reducing your risk of ischemic stroke (when the arteries to your brain become narrowed or blocked, causing severely reduced blood flow)

Possibly reducing your risk of diabetes.

So I guess it all depends on who you are, your constitution, your powers of self-constraint.  Poor Cassio knew he couldn’t hold his liquor but caved in to peer pressure,  poor Charles Bukowski had his demons to subdue, but happy Dot Birdsong took her small sips of that delicious amber-colored liquid and enjoyed companionship.

One size doesn’t fit all.


O.T. Talking Points





Once upon a time,

and a very good time it was,

God walked in the garden shooting the breeze

with Adam and Eve.


In the cool of the day he walked

with them in the garden.

Eve and Adam were naked,

and I suspect he was, too –

he’d have to be —

it would have been too awkward otherwise.


We have no record as to what they talked about –

the symphony of birdsong,

the perfume of the never fading flowers,

the always perfectly ripe fruit hanging like ornaments in the golden light?


That was before the fratricide

and the subsequent drowning of the puppies and kittens

followed by the sad days of fruit rottened and raptors shrieking,

the reeking carcasses bloating.


Knowledge, begetting, circumcision, covenants, sacrifices, oracles, famines, plagues, deserts, laws, kings, concubines, wars . . .


Much later, according to the Hebrew arrangement of scrolls, God spoke his last words to man, addressed to Job, regarding the awesomeness of whales.


Nilla Puddin’: The Return of Rap’s Most Inept Practitioner




Y’all hear that thumping bass line, boys and girls,

That means that Nilla Pudding’s about to take a stab


Let’s start the New Year right, dat right, right,

Not wrong with some sappy tune.


Dat there bass don’t seem enough

Let’s add some drums to the mix-ture


Oh yeah, that sounds better

Some guitar for the icing

Might make the mix more en-tertaining.


Uh-uh, now we’re crusining.


As you know, Nilla Puddin’ is my name

And rapping is my avocation


Busting rhymes left and right

Got a back-up sound that’s so so taut


As taut as a tick, it’s so so ill

Gonna give my posse a spine shudder


Diggin’ it sistah?

Gonna give my vocal chord a blistah


You catch the rhyme


I’m on a roll

Jelly Roll Morton


Dr. Thomas Horton


Beth Orton


The smile on her mouth

Was plagerized




Oh, shoot, I gotta go,

The grits be boiling overflow


Like I said Nilla Pudding is my name

And rapping is my avocation



My Second Second Line

Steve spenser

Olympia Jazz Band by Steve Spencer

If you’re lucky enough to be in New Orleans on a Sunday, google WWOZ and find out where the second line parade is going down.

Here’s a link for a brief history of the tradition, but essentially second lines arose in the 19th Century as African American citizens formed fraternal societies to collectively provide burial insurance and to sponsor jazz funerals for members who had cake-walked to the Other Side.

Originally, the first line consisted of family members and close friends of the deceased, the hearse and the band, while the second line was made up by mourners (or anyone else) who wanted to follow.  Nowadays, second lines aren’t necessarily associated with funerals; they’re hosted by neighborhood organizations for the joy of it. As Ian McNulty puts it in the linked article above, “Second lining can also refer to the type of dancing that usually goes on at these parades – a wild, strutting dance step to carry participants forward in pace with the brass band – so one can go to a second line, be in a second line and do the second line all at once.”

We weren’t in New Orleans for a funeral but for a wedding (which I officiated in my capacity as the Rockin’ Reverend Rusty).  So the day after, the father of the groom, Jake-the-Snake and daughter Anna; Jake’s sister Beth and son Ben;  Keefus Sanders, the best man at Jake’s own wedding; the Beasleys; and Entourage Moore featuring Harrison, Taryn, Ned, Caroline, Brooks, and I-and-I met up at the corner of 2433 Dryades where the parade picked up King Roller and Dukes at an establishment called Sportsman Corner.*


Here’s a video peek at the festivities:





*Do Lawd, retired English teacher, that’s a long awkward compound subject you got going there.

Christmas in New Orleans


This Christmas my immediate family gathered in New Orleans for the holidays to celebrate the wedding of my friend Jake-the-Snake Williams’ son Mac, whom I’ve known since utero.  Ned came all the way from Nuremberg, Harrison and Taryn from NYC, and, of course, Brooks, Caroline and I-and-I from Folly Beach, SC.

We rented a VRBO in Treme, two houses down from the Back Street Museum, which houses Mardi Gras Indian costumes and Second Line Parade outfits.

Renting a VRBO in Treme would be massively frowned upon by Davis McAlary, a character on the HBO series Treme, because it violates Davis’s paradoxically entitled notion that he should be the only white person allowed to infiltrate Treme because of his profound love for New Orleans’ African-American culture.

That’s our excuse, too.


I-and-I on the porch of the Back Street Museum

Here are some pix from our excursion to Walgreens to process photos and cop some razor blades. While Caroline and Brooks waited for photo processing inside the pharmacy, I wandered outside to check out the environs.




The black citizens of Treme could not have been more welcoming, Mr. Francis, the proprietor of the Back Street Museum, called a friend to find out where Sunday’s Second Line parade would originate so we could catch it. Rodney, the manager of the Lil People Bar just around the corner from our place, gifted us some toilet paper and invited us to a catfish fry Sunday to watch the Saints game.

What to do?  Check out the Second Line?  Eat catfish at the Lil People?


The great James Booker

I ain’t know.