In the summer of 1972, I went to work for Flack Jones Lumber because it was one of three establishments in Summerville that hired longhairs. To say I was an unskilled laborer would be an understatement. Driving a nail, much less running a power saw, transcended my meager talents, so I ended up bouncing around the lumberyard on a truck driven by a Black man who went by the name of Hambone. We performed odd jobs like moving stacks of boards and shoveling sawdust. Hambone, who had crinkly cottony hair beneath his green hardhat, was a man of few words, but I do remember his making this pronouncement one blistering June afternoon: “When I was young, I couldn’t wait to knock off work so I could go fishin’. Now I can’t wait to knock off so I can get me a drink of liquor.”
Surprisingly, my White coworkers were cordial, given that the early Seventies were fraught with clashes between blue collar laborers and longhairs, especially in the Deep South. Once a fellow who looked Scots-Irish asked if I thought a man’s hair could grow as long as a woman’s.
My hair was red, so I stood out like a sore thumb WC Fields’ nose.
“I reckon so,” I said.
I recall one particularly irksome task. Armed with a shovel blade, I crawled beneath a power saw and filled a plastic bucket with sawdust and then crawled out to dump the sawdust in a designated pile, and then crawled back under to repeat this labor until all the sawdust had been removed. Shortly thereafter, I decided Flack Jones wasn’t for me, though the hours were all right, Monday through Friday from 7 to 4.
I heard that Red and White, which also hired longhairs, had an opening, so I applied and was hired, joining my friends Joey Brown, David Kaczor, and Jim Collins bagging groceries, though actually Joey and David had worked their way up to stocking shelves.
On my very first day, I got yelled at by the owner’s son for overloading a bag with canned goods, and twelve hours later, when tasked with mopping the floor, the owner’s son chided me for my poor technique and demonstrated how to move the mop head in circles. So, of course, I followed his lead, only to be confronted by the produce man John Henry who told me I was doing it all wrong and modeled for me an alternate technique. moving the mop in S-like patterns. As I’d move up and down the aisles mopping, I’d keep a look out for my two instructors and switch back and forth depending on who was passing my way, though I preferred John Henry’s method.
“Now, that’s more like it,” one or the other would say.
Working at Red and White was less grueling than working at Flack Jones, but the hours sucked – two twelve hour shifts on Fridays and Saturdays and every other Sunday with afternoon shifts on the other weekdays with Mondays and Wednesdays off.
So, I quit to take a pay cut to work at Carolina Home Furnishers, the third place that hired longhairs, where I mostly sat in a recliner and watched daytime TV with my boss Weeza, a benevolent overseer who called me “darling” and sent me to the liquor store around the corner in the afternoons.
It seems that she and Hambone were on the same page.
Yes, I was lazy that summer, not to mention vain, and unaccustomed to working, but my leisure days were over. At USC, I worked at Capstone cafeteria after classes on weekdays and on Saturday mornings and bused tables at the revolving restaurant Top of Carolina during Sunday Brunch. The pay was $1.15 an hour, but I got one free meal. After I graduated and entered grad school, I stopped working at the cafeteria to tend bar at the Golden Spur but continued to bus tables on Sundays until I dropped out to seek my fortune in the Lowcountry.
Last week in the wee hours after my perpetual nemesis Ol’ Man Insomnia banged on the bedroom door of my slumbers and roused me yet again, I decided rather than counting sheep, I’d attempt to short circuit my tendency to fret about upcoming responsibilities by seeing how many names of former teachers I could recall.
My academic career began in the school year 1958-59 at Miss Marion’s kindergarten, a one-room schoolhouse in the backyard of her home somewhere near the railroad tracks in downtown Summerville. I don’t remember Miss Marion’s last name, and what I do remember about kindergarten tends to be negative – getting in trouble with John Lang for sailing girls’ tea set dishes like Frisbees, Bert Pearce’s falling off a swing into a mud puddle and having to sit in the bathroom in his underwear until his pants dried, breaking my Davy Crockett thermos by pouring Coca-Cola into it instead of milk, a student telling me that my mother chose a black instead of a bright yellow raincoat for me because she wanted me to be run over by a car. I also remember Miss Marion’s reading bible stories from a gigantic book propped on an easel and my falling in love with nursery rhymes, which would bode poorly for my future employment as I ended up as an English teacher and hack poet.
Yet, as happens so often in life, I didn’t realize how easy I had it at my cloistered middle-class kindergarten until I entered Summerville Elementary with its all white yet economically diverse population of older kids. I got lost before school on day two. Guided by my infallibly fallible sense of direction, I lined up on steps among unfamiliar faces. It was the second-grade entrance. Some kind soul, however, led me to my proper station, but the damage was done. School was a scary place.
Nevertheless, my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Wiggins, was nice and nurturing. If you think about it, first grade teachers provide you with more education than any other teacher of any grade. They teach you to read, to write, to add and to subtract. Back then I was always losing my crayons and books instead of like now when it’s passports and beers that go missing.
The child is the father of the man, as Wordsworth wrote.
My second-grade teacher Mrs. Jordan was older and gruffer than Mrs. Wiggins. Plump, white-haired, Mrs. Jordan read to us out loud. Some of the books featured an African American boy named Nicodemus. These books, written in dialect, were rife with stereotypes, and Mrs. Jordan sounded very much like an African American when she read them. Meanwhile, actual African American students sat in desks across town at Alston, the so-called separate but equal alternative to Summerville Elementary. I remember that Mrs. Jordan only gave white drawing paper to capable artists; the rest of us got lower grade stock upon which we’d create valentines.
The older I get in school, the less I remember, oddly enough (as the following shrinking paragraphs suggest).
I had Mrs. Montz in third, Mrs. Stall in 4th, and Miss McCue in 5th, perhaps the first pre-menopausal teacher I encountered. Redheaded and perky, she made school interesting. Unlike most years, I didn’t dread going to school in the 5th grade. In fact, I was chosen to be a patrol boy and got to sport a white chest belt with a badge, if I remember correctly.
Mrs. Altman was my 6th grade teacher, and it was in the 6th grade when arithmetic had turned into the new math and my grades began to suffer. Before the 6th grade, I could pretty much get straight As by merely listening, but those days were over, and the horrors of puberty just around the corner, along with Spann Junior High where I would witness an administrator bang two boys’ heads together in the lunch line Three Stooges’ style, but I’ll save that memory until a later bout with insomnia.
Listen, when I was young, I was reckless. Just ask my dead mother who in a Biloxi, Mississippi beach cottage circa 1956 scraped me screaming off a hardwood floor after I had leapt Lone-Ranger-like from the top of my chest-of-drawers onto a rocking horse that catapulted me face first splat.
Ask Joey Brown, whose Toyota I totaled in Hilton Head on a roundabout in August of 1976.
Or ask Jacob T. Williams II who two years later rode shotgun as I drove my MG Midget down a capital city sidewalk and made an ill-fated left down steps into a parking garage whose bottom floor housed the Campus Police of the University of South Carolina.
Given that regrettable history, you might think I’d grant slack to others who foolishly throw caution to the salt breeze of Folly Beach, yet, this afternoon, as I walked home from Chico Feo on East Erie, my tongue cluck-clucked as I espied a family of conservative-looking folks barreling past in a golf cart with a grandmother teetering on the back seat clutching a squirming child no more than six months old.
Yes, that’s foolish, I was foolish, but is it any of my business?
No, it’s not. They, though Darwinianly dense, weren’t endangering anyone but themselves (and their progeny), The odds were pretty good they’d get where they were going without a distracted texter, blind-as-a-bat octogenarian, or meth-crazed speed demon smashing into them.
No, it’s none of my business.
On the other hand, reckless people who refuse to get vaccinated or wear masks indoors in close quarters are everyone’s business. Their refusal, whether prompted by political lobotomization, laziness, and/or unscientific paranoia, has allowed the virus to mutate.. The needless continuance of contagion dampens sparks, snuffs out fun. Twice now, my 50th highschool reunion has been postponed – that and 1 out of 500 Americans has died of COVID according to the Washington Post.
So, c’mon people now, smile on your brother [and sister].
Everybody get together and get a vaccine right now.
Because if you roll the dice often enough, you gonna come up snake eyes.
Here’s Rickie Lee doing “The Horses”
 This little lark cost me a reckless driving conviction, 200 dollars, and six points off my license, not to mention a significant elevation of my insurance rates, but as Rickie Lee Jones so eloquently put it in her best song “The Horses,” “when I was young, I was a wild, wild one.”
 You know any writer who uses the verb “espied” has one foot in the ditch of dementia.
 And I don’t mean by “conservative” MAGA-hat-wearing gun-toting cretins but regular-looking Jesus-believing white Southerners.
 However, two blocks west of where I saw the golf cart stands a marker commemorating the spot where someone named Mark Riedel was killed by someone who ran a stop sign.
 The bad good news is that it seems that COVID has taken out a disproportionate number of rightwing radio personalities, which is okay with me.
 Of course, the odds of a vaccine holdout reading this blog are less than the University of South Carolina Gamecocks going undefeated this season.
Back in the early 50s when I first became aware of sensations, diesel fuel was a predominant smell, and I grew to savor it. My grandfather owned a service station, and early in my life for a year or so our family lived there in a commercial building that doubled as a domicile. We called this abode “The Station.” Out front it was all concrete, though there was a grassless backyard with one lone sycamore tree standing on the edge of the property.
A Doberman pincher named Ace roamed the desert domain of the backyard, and he was about as friendly as Cerberus, the three-headed canine guardian of the Greek Underworld. So I spent my days inside safe from traffic and attack dog, a preschooler cut off from nature. There wasn’t that much nature to see at the Station anyway. The only wildlife I remember encountering were a black snake sunning on summer pavement and bats zigzagging overhead at dusk.
At night, eighteen wheelers rushed past in swooshes, sounding somewhat like waves breaking on a beach. In fact, the Station was sort of like a barren island standing in a sea of cement. We lived in isolation.
What a contrast to the town of Summerville itself, “Flowertown in the Pines,” a garden of earthly delights where the sweet ephemeral smell of tea olive wafted in front and back yards among the other flowering shrubs, azaleas and gardenias.
We had moved from the Station to Laurel Street across from the Playground with its swings, sliding boards, a foot-propelled merry-go-ground, and a bell-shaped contraption we called the “ocean wave.” Unfortunately, I contracted rheumatic fever at Laurel Street and spent three months confined to bed after a weeklong stay in Dorchester County Hospital. Like Ace the Doberman and highway traffic, disease also kept me inside before I started kindergarten.
Did these early experiences of mandatory house arrest contribute to my becoming “an indoorsman?”
Dunno. Maybe? Whatever the case, a prefer the not-so-great indoors. I’d much rather hunker down in a dark basement bar in Asheville than hike the Appalachian Trail.
Now, however, I live on the Folly River, and the windows that line the outer walls of our house look out over the marsh to uninhabited Long and Morris Islands. Now I can’t avoid nature; it’s been thrust upon me, even in our air-conditioned living room. Sitting on the sofa or out on the screened porch or deck, I have witnessed owls, wood storks, ospreys, painted buntings, egrets, bats, deer, bald eagles, river otters, and minks, not to mention the frogs that inhabit our water garden and fill the night with constant croaking. Also, I’ve seen my share of Wild Kingdom carnage, hawks swooping down to snatch birds, ospreys lumbering over the house with fish in their talons.
I still spend an inordinate time cooped up in my study, which I have dubbed “the drafty garret.” Cut off from the outside word, I spend way too much time staring into an iMac screen reading depressing news stories and fiddling around with words.
However, I still savor the evocative odor of diesel and the memory-producing aroma of tea olive and the flora and fauna of the backside of the Edge of America. In other words, I enjoy being, whether indoors or out, thanks in great part to my wife Caroline and her daughter Brooks. Oh yeah, and KitKat, whom I’ve grown very fond of, a chihuahua terrier mix that wouldn’t have been my first pick of dog crossifications. Unlike Ace, her bark is worse than her bite.
Anyway, It’s summertime, and at least for now, as the song says, “the living is easy.”
 I was, on the other hand, an avid surfer until my mid-60s when old age made me feel as if I’d been in a minor auto accident after each surf session.
My college roommate and later housemate Warren Moise has written an extraordinary account of the desegregation of Sumter High School in 1971. He’s given me permission to post here the congratulatory letter I sent him this morning upon finishing the book.
Wow, man. I knew that The Class of ’71 was going to be good, but I had no idea that by the end of the book I would consider it a brilliant tour de force.
The weaving of personal anecdote with impeccably researched history produces a well-paced narrative. What we have here is not only a history of desegregation in Sumter, but also a mini history of the town itself, including a vivid snapshot of the transitional year of ’71. I mean, man, your compression of historical background is beyond remarkable, whether you’re cataloguing with precision the horrors of Abe Stern’s family’s journey from ghetto to concentration camps or the series of civil law cases that ultimately led to desegregation. I loved the mini biographies of historical figures as well. Moreover, you do a masterful job of blending second-sourced details of the segregation with your personal memories of those distant days. You compress a helluva lot in 162 pages.
Furthermore, your account is admirably nuanced. I suspect that most younger folks don’t realize that many Blacks resented integration, hated the idea of losing their traditions, their autonomy. I admire that you don’t whitewash (regrettable verb choice) such paragons as Thurgood Marshall or Judge Waring, but even as you criticize their foibles, you also laud their attributes. In short, The Class of ’71 is fair and well-balanced, non-polemical historical take on a situation fraught with internecine emotion.
Your personal anecdotes humanize events, bring to life that we’re talking about human beings here, not abstractions, and you balance well, I think, stories of both Whites and Blacks. Your friends and peers are brought to life with brisk physical descriptions and dramatizations. Whether you’re talking about athletics, your band, or adolescent love, your humility is ever-present. In addition, the personal reminiscences provide respite from the heavier portions.
I’ll end this paean with a note on style. I’m by training a critical reader when it comes to diction, syntax, and fluidity. I think I can count on one hand stylistic changes I would have made. I mean what’s not to like about sentences like these: “It was as if the 1960s were burning rubber in a Chevelle V-8 Super Sport on Highway 15 leaving town toward Paxville. At the same moment, the 1970s were rollin’ into town on Highway 15 North inside a Volkswagen van painted with slogans of peace, love, and daises.”
Bravo, my friend! It’s truly an honor to know and to have known you, and I hope the book gets the attention it deserves.
Here’s an abbreviated PG version from a longer post describing the summer afternoon when my brother and I were picked up hitchhiking by serial killer Pee Wee Gaskins. You can access the original post here; however, it’s R-rated because of language and violence.
I don’t remember how we — my brother David and I — ended up in the middle of the back seat on that beat-up old Buick. Did one of the boys get out and let us in? Did we crawl over the boy? We were seventeen and fourteen, and the boy maybe seven, but he had a cigarette in his mouth and a beer in his hand.
“Where y’all going?” The driver asked.
“Folly Beach,” I said.
“We’ll take you there then.”
He was a very short man chauffeuring a carload of Cub Scout-aged juvenile delinquents. There were four of them, all younger than David and I, all smoking, all drinking cans of Old Milwaukee.
For forty something minutes en route from Summerville, we had been stuck hitching on the side of St Andrews Boulevard across the street from a typewriter repair shop . It was David’s first time hitchhiking. Sure, the car looked sketchy, but we were desperate.
Once we were settled in the back seat, the seven-year-old next to me got out the empty casing of a Bic pen, loaded it with a spitball, and shot the driver in the back of the neck. He whirled around and stubbed the glowing orange tip of his cigarette into the boy’s arm, which immediately brought forth a yowl, tears, and a cacophony of spiteful laughter from the rest of the crew.
It was weird enough to witness a seven-year-old with a beer and cigarette in hand crying, but as I slouched down in my seat, I noticed that the driver had three spitballs lodged in the creases of the back of his neck.
The boys asked the driver to tell them about the [racial epithet] he had killed last week, but he wasn’t forthcoming. Then they asked him how many men he had killed in total. I assumed they were merely trying to frighten us. Throughout the twenty-minute trip, the boys liberally jettisoned trash, including empty beer cans from the moving car. I was hoping — how I was hoping — that a police car might pull us over but no such luck. Needless to say, their language was filthy.
But true to his word, the driver took us all the way to Folly. In those days, before the Holiday Inn obstructed the view, you could see the ocean itself as you crossed the bridges, and what a welcome sight it was. I told the driver to please let us out in front of the police station, that my daddy was chief of police, and he did, and then two of the boys tossed empty beer cans at us, and the car pulled away in a cloud of smoke.
Happily, we ran into some friends from Summerville at the Washout so didn’t have to hitch home; however, I can’t say that I learned my lesson and continued to hitch until I purchased my first car at age 25, thanks to Ralph Birdsong, my soon-to-be father in law. [You can read about a subsequent and in many ways scarier hitchhike encounter here].
So, I more or less thought about the incident as time spent in a Flannery O’Connor story until my late wife Judy purchased for me as a whim Pee Wee’s autobiography from the dollar bin at a Mount Pleasant book store. To my horror, I read that Pee Wee used to take his nephews and their friends down to the beach occasionally but would “never do no murders on them trips” because you couldn’t trust kids not to blab.
I can’t say for absolutely sure it was Pee Wee, but I do know this: there was evil in that car. You could sense it; it was palpable.
I’m rereading Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, a roman a clef fictionalizing Bellow’s relationship with bipolar poet Delmore Schwartz, pictured below, looking as if a couple of bong hits of sativa might do him some good, you know, take the edge off.
I copped the photo from the text of The Modern Poets, an undergraduate poetry anthology from my sophomore year at the University of South Carolina. My professor, Thomas L. Johnson, was an excellent teacher and poet, a gentle, patient man whose love for verse was as pervasive as the cigarette smoke that wafted through college classrooms back in 1972. Before then, I knew next to nothing about contemporary poetry because we didn’t cover much of it in high school. I remember reading The Spoon River Anthology (which was published in 1915), a few of the typically anthologized Frost poems, a page or two of E.E. Cummings, some Edna St. Vincent Millay, and a smattering of Yeats.
No Beats, no William Carlos Williams, no Wallace Stevens.
As the contemporary poetry course progressed, it occurred to me that mid-century to late-century poets suffered higher rates of suicide per capita than any other occupation outside of the Kamikaze corps. Every other poet we studied either drank himself to death or ended her own life. This impression, of course, might have been an aberration based on a disproportionate sampling of neurotics covered in the survey. For example, if Seamus Heaney and John Ciardi had been substituted for John Berryman and Theodore Roethke, my impression might have been different.
In the table of contents, I placed a check next to the poets we covered. Here’s a partial list:
John Berryman – jumped from a bridge into the icy Mississippi River the year before I began the course.
James Dickey – drank prodigiously throughout his life, which led to erratic behavior. (Click here for an account of my semester with Dickey).
Randall Jarrell – struck by a car after being treated for mental illness after a suicide attempt.
Robert Lowell – spent decades checking in and out of mental hospitals.
Sylvia Plath – committed suicide at thirty-one after a life fraught with mental breakdowns.
Theodore Roethke – victimized by two nervous breakdowns, one in the 1930s and another in 1944, “and they became increasingly more frequent in the ensuing decade; by 1958, he was attending therapy sessions six times a week.” (Poetry Foundation).
Delmore Schwartz – suffered from mental illness, alcoholism, died in a flophouse where his body wasn’t discovered for three days.
Anne Sexton – committed suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning.
Dylan Thomas – died of alcoholic poisoning at the Chelsea Hotel in 1953.
I’m sure there must be studies galore that attempt to explain this phenomenon. I’ve read a memoir by one of Berryman’s wives, Eileen Simpson, which documented Berryman’s relationships with Schwartz, Lowell, and Jarrell, so maybe there was a bit of birds-of-a-feather going on. Anyway, my first exposure to contemporary poetry convinced me that versifying was hazardous to your health.
Again, perhaps I shouldn’t generalize. Several of the poets we studied seemed mentally healthy, even happy. For example, here’s a poem by one of the sanest writers I’ve ever read, Richard Wilbur, composed shortly after he ran across Delmore Schwartz’s obituary, which Wilbur considered too cursory.
To an American Poet, Just Dead
In the Boston Sunday Herald just three lines Of no-point type for you who used to sing The praises of imaginary wines, And died, or so I’m told, of the real thing.
Also gone, but a lot less forgotten Are an eminent cut-rate druggist, a lover of Giving, A lender, and various brokers: gone from this rotten Taxable world to a higher standard of living.
It is out in the comfy suburbs I read you are dead, And the soupy summer is settling, full of the yawns Of Sunday fathers loitering late in bed, And the sshhh of sprays on all the little lawns.
Will the sprays weep wide for you their chaplet tears? For you will the deep-freeze units melt and mourn? For you will Studebakers shred their gears And sound from each garage a muted horn?
They won’t. In summer sunk and stupefied The suburbs deepen in their sleep of death. And though they sleep the sounder since you died It’s just as well that now you save your breath.
At any rate, when I taught at Porter-Gaud, through its visiting writing program, I met, dined, and drank with several highly successful poets who seemed, not only not unhappy, but also not all that eccentric – Peter Meinke, Starkey Flythe, Jr., Billy Collins, Chris Forhan, Elizabeth Spires, Cathy Smith Bowers, James Longenbach, Jennifer Grotz, and Alan Shapiro – to name nine.
Then again, I attended a Robert Lowell reading in 1974, and he seemed perfectly equanimous, though of course, we didn’t go out for drinks afterward.
At any rate, I’m enjoying hanging out with Delmore Schwartz’s fictionalized counterpart Von Humboldt Fleisher. In his case, it’s a pleasure crawling in bed with a tortured genius, especially with one so learned. If manic-depression is occurring on a page rather than in three-dimensions, it can be a gas.
 The course was actually called Contemporary Poetry, which would be a better title for an anthology that spans from Frost and Pound to James Tate. After all, strictly speaking, Shakespeare is a “modern” as opposed to “ancient” poet. Most of the poets in the anthology were born in the Thirties. Virtually all, if not all, are now dead.
 I received a generous B for my slapdash efforts and a C on the original poems I submitted in lieu of a research paper, crap I dashed off in three or four days. In 1987, Mr. Johnson and I ended up in an anthology of James Dickey’s former students’ poems, and I bumped into him at a get together celebrating the publication of the book. We both recognized each other and had an amiable chat.
 In a letter to Elizabeth Bishop about a week after Jarrell’s death, Robert Lowell wrote, “There’s a small chance [that Jarrell’s death] was an accident. . . [but] I think it was suicide, and so does everyone else, who knew him well.”
When I was a child, I grew up across the street from Mr. Fagylalt, a Central European immigrant who owned and operated an ice cream truck. In the summers, he circumnavigated our neighborhood, his truck tinkling repetitive music that lured nickel-and-dime-toting children to the edges of their yards. Back then, even in the heavy humidity of a South Carolina August, we mostly played outside.
I doubt that Mr. Fagylalt could make it today with children ensconced in their rooms engaged in Mortal Kombat or OD-ing on TikTok videos. I know I would have stayed inside if I had owned Madden NFL 2020 instead of the electric football game we owned. Most of the vibrating plastic players merely rambled around and around in circles. With an open field in front of him, a running back would suddenly hang a hard right and run out of bounds. You passed the ball by putting a felt oval in the quarterback’s hand, pulling his arm back, and catapulting the felt in hopes of hitting the receiver. It was so boring I rarely found anyone willing to play it with me.
Anyway, in those days, people called mobile ice cream vendors “good humor men, ” and, sure enough, Mr. Fagylalt was always in a good mood when I talked to him, or rather, when he talked to me. However, now when I think of Mr. Fagylalt, the adjectives “dirty” and “old” have supplanted “good” and “humor” as modifiers. Let’s put it this way: although Mr. Fagylalt never attempted to molest me in any physical way, he did infuse my vocabulary with a host of Anglo-Saxon vulgarities, words that no one used (at least in front of us) in our house. He didn’t define the words; I picked up their meanings in context from the same old stories he told over and over.
Stories delivered in an accent as thick as Porkolt. One of his favorites featured a mutt named Champ and our neighbors the Foxes, who lived on the corner of Lenwood and Dogwood. The Foxes kept a meticulous yard with neatly trimmed shrubbery and manicured grass. They took great pride in their yard’s appearance, seemingly removing fallen pine needles on a daily basis. One day Champ got into some ice cream chemicals stored in the Fagylalt carport. He ended up slurping down the found treasure and urinating on the Foxes’ chain link fence. “Oh, zat, dog,” Mr. Fagylalt would say in an aside and launch into a side story about the time he saw Champ mount such-and-such a bitch vividly describing the apparatus involved in the procreative act. Eventually, he’d return to the main plot, to wit: Mr. Fox mistook the brownish urine staining his fence for rust until a rainstorm washed it away. At the end of these too-oft-told tales, Mr. Fagylalt laughed and laughed. I hated every minute but was too timidly polite not to stand there for at least one retelling. I don’t remember if I faked-laughed myself, but I doubt it.
Luckily, Mr. Fagylalt and I had a falling out. One summer, when the Fagylalts vacated their house for several weeks, some friends and I entered his ice cream truck, which was unlocked. When inside, we merely looked around to see what it was like in there, and I discovered to my delight that the truck’s music was produced just the way a jack-in-the-box makes music – with a crank that propels a rubber mechanism that goes around and around plucking out notes.
Unfortunately, others at various times also got inside the truck and engaged in a bit of vandalism. When the Fagylalts returned and made inquiries, someone noted that he or she had seen a red-headed boy over there, so Mrs. Fagylalt told my mother, who ended up taking my word that I had not vandalized the ice cream truck. I also think my parents (and others in the neighborhood) were hip to Mr. Fagylalt’s off-color ramblings.
When I left for college at eighteen, the Fagylalts still lived across the street. I remember bumming a ride home one Friday for a weekend in Summerville. Upon arrival, as I walked across our lawn with a sack of dirty clothes slung over my back, a swarm of kids on banana bikes were popping wheelies in our yard. As I shouted “hey” to my nine-year-old brother Fleming, he yanked back on the handlebars too hard and landed on the ground on his rear end.
“If you keep that up, you gonna break your coccyx,” I warned.
He looked up at me with a puzzled expression.
“Sounds like you’ve been talking to Mr. Fagylalt.”
 Even though this man and his wife must be long dead by now – they were older than my parents – I’m going to obscure his identity in the very unlikely event that one of his offspring were to happen upon this post. Just for fun, though, see if you can guess his country of origin, as I sprinkle hints throughout the post. Hint #1: his native language is not Indo-European in origin.
 In James Joyce’s short story “An Encounter,” the young narrator runs across a Mr. Fagylalt-like man whose stories also orbit in circles: “He began to speak on the subject of chastising boys. His mind, as if magnetized again by his speech, seemed to circle slowly round and round its new centre. He said that when boys were that kind they ought to be whipped and well whipped. When a boy was rough and unruly there was nothing would do him any good but a good sound whipping.”
 A meat and vegetable stew popular in Székesfehérvár.
Being shy and having been sequestered for three months by rheumatic fever, for me at first public school proved challenging. We lived on Laurel Street back then, across from the playground, and during my convalescence, I was confined to a wheelchair. If being in a wheelchair wasn’t bad enough, I also suffered the affliction of being red-headed, so in a town of only three-thousand or so residents, even children I didn’t know would approach me, once I was ambulatory again, and say, “Hey, aren’t you the crippled kid who was in the wheelchair?”
After my recovery, I attended Miss Marion’s kindergarten, whose students were all middle-class and, of course, white. I don’t remember anyone ever even misbehaving, though once when we were told to stay off the swings because of a previous rain storm, Bert Pearce fell backwards out of one and landed butt-first in a puddle of water. He had to spend an hour or so in the bathroom in his underwear while Miss Marion dried his pants, a fate to me that made confinement to a wheelchair seem like a ride in Flash Gordon’s rocket ship in comparison.
In fact, the only negative experience I remember from kindergarten is pouring Coca-Cola in my Davy Crockett thermos, only to discover at lunch time that carbonation – or something having to do with the Coke – had broken the glass inlay of the thermos.
I entered Summerville Elementary in the fall of 1960, and my mother accompanied me to class on the first day where we met Mrs. Wiggins and the rest of my classmates, who were more economically diverse than my kindergarten peers. I remember one boy whose single mother didn’t have a car and walked with him to school and back the first couple of days. They lived literally on the other side of the tracks, so it was quite a trek. My mother, a kind soul, somehow got wind – perhaps we passed them on the way to school – and started offering them transportation until the school bus situation was straightened out. I recall that his smallpox vaccination had gone spectacularly wrong – he suffered an enlarged stomach-turning eruption on his arm. I also remember they had a handmade sign in their dirt yard advertising fish bait worms for sale.
I may have the world’s worst sense of direction. On the second day of school, I got lost among the swirling hordes of screechers and stood in line on the steps of the wrong entrance. Once I entered the hallway and couldn’t find my class, I was terrified, as if l’d entered a Twilight Zone episode. I don’t exactly remember how it got straightened out, but it did, but afterwards I emerged with a palpable dislike for school. I much preferred my shared bedroom at home to the light green concrete walls of Miss Wiggins’ classroom with our bubble-headed self-portraits displayed on bulletin boards. The boy who rode to school with us had scribbled slashes of purple crayon for his self-portrait, but it was displayed with all the rest with his name printed under it.
As it happened, in December, our family, which then only consisted of my younger brother David, my parents, and me, moved to Aurora, Colorado, where my father attended some sort of training program associated with his civil service job. We moved into a tiny three-room apartment in an establishment called The Big Bear Motel, located on Colfax, a busy four-lane highway. Although the school was only four or so blocks away, I would have had to cross on foot those lanes of heavy traffic headed to Lowry Air Force base, so Mama drove me to school in the mornings and picked me up in the afternoons.
Unlike Summerville Elementary, Aurora’s primary school, Crawford Elementary, employed two first grade teachers per class. I remember on my first day being introduced to the students and placed into one of the reading groups that sat in a circle and read out loud while the other teacher drilled the rest of the students in some other activity. They had divided the class into three reading groups based on skills and named them after birds – the Eagles, the Blue Birds, and the Crows. Perhaps because of my scruffy appearance (the only pair of shoes I owned were cowboy boots), my Southern accent, and that South Carolina ranked somewhere like 48th state-wise in education, they assigned me to the Crows. However, once it was my turn to read and I could fluidly decode the “oh-oh-ohs” and “look-look-looks” of the text, they immediately promoted me to the Eagles.
I loved living in Colorado in the winter with its mountains and snow. Unlike in Summerville, we ventured on family outings most weekends, visiting Buffalo Bill’s grave on top of Lookout Mountain and the mining town of Central City where we saw Face on the Barroom Floor, a painting rendered on the floor of the Teller House Bar. As the story goes, the artist, Hendron Davis, had been fired by the Central City Opera Association in 1936. He wanted to leave his mark on the town and asked permission of the bar owner to paint the portrait portrayed in the poem. They refused, but aided by an employee, he sneaked in after midnight and painted a woman’s face on the wooden floor of the saloon.
Another drink, and with chalk in hand, the vagabond began,
To sketch a face that well might buy the soul of any man.
Then, as he placed another lock upon that shapely head,
With a fearful shriek, he leaped and fell across the picture — dead!
But I digress. School for me in Aurora was great, both socially and academically. I gained a great deal of confidence and was eager to return to Summerville, now considering myself, if not a man of the world, a first-grader of the world.
Only a couple of weeks remained in the school year when we made it back to Summerville, and Mrs. Muckenfuss, the principal, explained to my mother it didn’t make much sense for me to return to class, but my mother insisted, and I did, very full of myself until I realized that I was the only one who couldn’t do long addition. I had no idea what carrying numbers to the next column was all about. Summerville Elementary was more advanced than Aurora Elementary!
No doubt the excellence of Summerville’s public schools has played an important role in its exponential growth. Now according to Wikipedia, Summerville is the seventh largest city of South Carolin (though, after reading a couple of articles on my hometown and one article on one of its famous citizens, I wouldn’t bet my mortgage on it). At any rate, I’m thankful for the education I got at Summerville Elementary, for teachers like Mrs. Wiggins, Mrs. Jordon, Mrs. Montz, Miss McCue, and Mrs. Altman.
 By the way, the spacecraft spewed fiery combustion in the void of outer space.
 The Moore and Blanton families’ addiction to Coca-Cola is legendary. In her adulthood, my Aunt Virginia lugged a 2-liter bottle with her everywhere.
 Back then, there were no public kindergartens, so we who had attended private kindergartens enjoyed a great academic advantage because we already knew our ABCs and could perform single digit arithmetic.
 After my niece’s Hanahan High graduation ceremony held at the North Charleston Coliseum, it literally took me over an hour to find my car, and I was able to do only because the parking lot was virtually empty when I ran across it.
 Actually, I don’t remember what birds designated what level of accomplishment.
In December of 1974, my senior year of college, I lived with another English major on Fairfield Road in Columbia, South Carolina, at least a ten-mile trek from campus. Neither of us had cars, so we rode city buses to class and back home to our not-exactly-quaint two-bedroom house jammed between two rundown convenience stores [see above]. The buses quit running at eleven PM, which meant occasionally having to hitch a ride late at night.
Otherwise, riding the buses wasn’t all that bad because poverty can seem somewhat romantic to bookish people just starting out in life. On these trips, I encountered scores of ragtag citizens, some of them interesting folk with tales to tell. Of course, the bus stopped whenever someone wanted to get off, which you signaled by pulling a metal wire that triggered a bell. Smoking was allowed everywhere back then – even in medical waiting rooms – so the buses reeked of exhaled tobacco whose fumes had permeated the Naugahyde of the brown saggy seats. Of course, the fewer the passengers, the quicker the ride and vice versa. Predicting the duration was imprecise; you had to allow for sufficient time.
Anyway, it was the second week in December during exams, and I was sitting on the living room sofa reviewing my notes before trudging off to the chilly bus stop where I would dance around like a boxer to keep warm, vapor streaming from my mouth.
Suddenly, the backdoor flew open, the screen door banging, and in stormed a young married woman my housemate had been seeing, a petite, bordering-on-beautiful woman in her early twenties. She was a student in my TS Eliot seminar, so I knew her from class, though not socially, despite her affair with my housemate.
She was weeping. “Where’s that son-of-a-bitch?”
I don’t mean to brag, but I tend to be calm in crises, or to put it perhaps more accurately, I tend to transition into a robotic fallback mode of affectless inaction.
“I think he’s in the bathtub,” I said matter-of-factly, and, boom, she charged into the bathroom where the two engaged in some high-decibel communication, if you want to call hurling epithets, demanding answers, and shouting recriminations communication.
I gathered my books and put on my coat to exit this beyond-awkward situation when she came back in sobbing, my housemate following, completely naked, dripping, his face lathered for shaving.
They stood there screaming at each other as I squirmed on the sofa, my mental condition oscillating between amusement and horror. It’s like I had been caught in a collaboration of an SJ Perelman and Edward Albee production entitled Who’s Afraid of Harpo Marx. My housemate eventually went back into his room, threw on some clothes, and left, and once he was gone, his now-ex threw her arms around me, relating through sobs the rather sordid turn of events that I was sort of hip to because I had warned my housemate that his blabbing to her husband that they were having an affair seemed like a really bad idea.
I comforted her as well as I could and then asked if she would mind giving me a lift to school, given there would be no way I’d get to the exam on time if I rode the bus. During the trip to campus, I continued in my role as counselor, and when I finally entered the classroom to take the exam, I had an adrenaline rush-and-a half, just the thing for someone who had spent a semester with Prufrock, Gerontion, and Madame Sosostris.
What I didn’t know was that my housemate would leave Columbia that very day, not take any of his exams, and end up moving in with his parents, in other words, abandoning college his senior year with only one semester to go. Before all this happened, we had decided not to stay in that house, had agreed to find separate living arrangements, so I wasn’t exactly left in the lurch. My sophomore roommate Warren Moise and I ended up renting yet another two-bedroom clapboard house in a mill village a mile or two even further away from campus, which, as it turned out, ended up being a mistake, a mistake costing me money I didn’t have.
 This seemed ridiculous, two rival commercial establishments sandwiching a residence. Ironically, I don’t remember patronizing either. There was a much cheaper Winn Dixie on Fairfield within walking distance.
 In fact, one such occasion turned into a nightmare, which I have written abouthere [mature audiences only].
 The narrative to the above link above leads to offers an excellent example.
 I’ll forego the chore of untangling the love-fraught threads of why my housemate had chosen to kamikaze his relationship in an act of revenge.
Chapter Two – I Think They Done It to Pick on Me and Warren or “Please Don’t Murder Me”
It never occurred to me that two long-haired college students moving into an otherwise blue-collar community would be frowned upon by our neighbors, whose bumper stickers proclaimed them to be followers of Jesus. However, the admonition to “love thy neighbor” hadn’t exactly taken root with those brethren. And it wasn’t as if Warren and I were throwing raucous parties. Who in his right mind would drive all the way to podunkville to get hammered and have to negotiate the multiple lanes of North Main Street to arrive home safely?
Warren played in a rock-n-roll band and was often on the road, so I ended up frequently staying at the North Main house by myself, especially on weekends. Because he had provided the security deposit, Warren had earned the better bedroom. My bedroom, which was on the side of the house, had its own outside entrance that led to a small, sagging porch.
Not long after we moved in on a weekend when Warren was out of town, my girlfriend Margaret and I had gone to bed after a quiet Saturday evening of listening to LPs in the living room.
Around three a.m. a thunderous crash shattered our sleep. Someone had pounded once on the exterior door about ten feet from the foot of the bed. Margaret let out a startled cry, and I leapt out of bed to throw on some clothes. Instead, of opening the pounded-upon-door, I slipped around to the front of the house, sliding along the façade, trying to keep out of sight. Once I got to the corner, I peered around to see if the Reverend Harry Powell or John Wayne Gacy was standing there, but to my great relief the porch was empty. I went back inside through the front door and then went back to the bedroom and opened the bedroom exterior door to inspect it for damage. It was okay, a mere fist, not a hammer, had produced that sleep-shattering explosion of sound.
Now slumber was not an option. Margaret had gotten dressed, and we fretted about, my going outside numerous times to check on things. When we finally decided to try to go back to sleep, I walked out on the porch one last time.
In the dark unseen someone was whistling a tune. Calmly whistling a tune.
Of course, when Warren returned later in the day, I told him of the incident, which made us both uneasy. About a week later when I arrived home after classes, I discovered the house had been broken into, vandalized. Books, clothes, bed linens were strewn everywhere, the stereo and record collection gone, but nothing else was missing. I walked into the kitchen where the vandals had opened containers and dumped all the food on the floor, including slices of bread. To top it off, a pile of human feces had also been deposited smack dab in the middle of the room.
Obviously, we had been visited by the “unwelcome wagon,” and their message was clear: “We don’t want your kind around here.”
Thinking back on it, I find it remarkable that we didn’t call the police on either occasion. Back then, if you had long hair, the police thought of you as the enemy. It was a lighter-shade-of-pale approximation of being Black, though, of course, not as profoundly prejudicial.
Happily, coincidentally, I bumped into my friend Jim Huff not long after, and he asked if I knew of anyone looking for a place.
Yes, as a matter of a fact, I did.
As it turned out, he had found a four-bedroom mansion on Greene Street for rent, just up from Five Points, within easy walking distance to the Humanities Building.
 I.e., the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division
Chapter Three – Here We Go Again
What a change in abodes, from the mill village vandal-plagued clapboard cottage we’d been run out of in North Columbia to the semi-stately, just-slightly-gone-to-seed edifice located on respectable tree-lined Greene Street!
Our new house, located at 1830 Greene, had been the boyhood home of the fellow who owned the real estate company that rented it to us. He took special care of its yard, bringing in crews to mow the front lawn and attend to the terraced gardens in the back where on a monthly basis they trimmed the shrubbery that descended the hill in tiers. Without those tiers, it would have been a very steep hill, difficult to negotiate. At the very bottom, tucked in the southeast corner, a hammock hung between two large trees.
 BTW, one of our next door neighbors was the Columbia artist Blue Sky.
The back patio was sheltered by a roof supported by six or so arches and boasted a giant brick barbecue pit. The patio’s concrete floor had a shuffleboard court painted on it, but we never found discs or cue sticks. There was also an unheated room under there, a sort of basement that Chris Judge, a local rock musician rented for a second or two.
The deal was that only four people would be living in the house, but I think at one time eight were staying there. My bedroom, long and narrow, was off the living room and had been used as a conservatory. The back wall featured two large windows looking out over those terraced gardens in the rear of the house. An air-conditioner, the only air-conditioner in the house, had been built into the wall between the two windows.
I only knew a few of my housemates, Warren, of course, Jim Huff and his high school buddy Phil Compton, a non-student cartoonist/artist Richard McCarthy from Beaufort, but the rest, John Robinson, and a couple of the others, I hadn’t met.
To move my furniture from North Columbia, I had borrowed by mother’s college roommate’s husband’s pickup, which allowed me in one trip to transfer my meager belongings – a bed, desk, chair, typewriter, books, knickknacks, and clothes. I had parked the truck in the driveway, and when I was trying to back up on Greene to leave, a car on the street stopped to let me out, then pulled in after me.
Margaret accompanied me on the trip to return the truck, and my mother’s former roommate, Jean Holler, was nice enough to give us a ride back. I’m fairly sure I didn’t have a key yet, and we hardly needed to lock the house anyway because with so many residents, someone would likely to be home.
Upon my return, after I turned the handle and pushed the door open, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The house had been trashed, just as the bouse on North Main had, with shit strewn everywhere. I marched straight to my room, which was also a wreck. Even the air-conditioner filter had been removed and flung on the bed, the clothes I had carefully put away scattered everywhere.
“Wow, Margret,” I said. “Those mill people really must hate our guts.” I actually thought I was being stalked by the xenophobes who had robbed us in our previous house.
I went upstairs, which was in the same condition. Not a soul was home, yet every light was blazing.
We didn’t have a phone, so I couldn’t call the police, though it seemed high time. As we were standing around contemplating our ill luck, Jim Huff showed up with the news that everyone in the house except for him, Warren, and me had been busted by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Department. They had stormed in with assault weapons, and after a mad-dash search, found two separate nickel bags of marijuana and a couple of hits of speed, not exactly a lot of dope given that seven or so students were living there.
As it turned out, the car that had let me out was SLED, so Margaret and I had just escaped arrest. Even though neither of us was holding, the law said if there was any dope in the house, it belonged to everyone.
The timing of my departure and SLED’s arrival was suspicious enough to have one of the housemates I didn’t know accuse me of being a narc. His parents made him immediately move out, which, despite the loss of rent revenue, suited me. I’m fairly certain I raised my voice in response to his accusation, an ugly scene too vaguely remembered.
The actual scoop was that the University’s newly installed president William Patterson had decided he was going to distinguish himself from his predecessor Thomas Jones, whom many believed mollycoddled the rioters who had taken over the University in May of 1970, so President Patterson and the Governor orchestrated a widespread raid to send a message the times are a’ changing – back.
So our house was only one of several that had been raided that night. Dozens of students were hauled in for meager stashes of cannabis. It made the front page of the State newspaper, but so far, I’ve come up empty in my google searches.
As it turned out, at least in my experience, Law and Order looked a lot like disorder.
Q. What’s the difference between vandals breaking into your house and a SLED raid?
A. SLED doesn’t shit on your kitchen floor.
So thus began my last semester of undergraduate school, a busy semester indeed. I was taking Shakespeare’s Comedies, Shakespeare’s Tragedies, Latin Literature in Translation, Music Appreciation, and French 101 as an elective.
Ah, those were the days, my friends, I thought they would never end.