Before There Was Such a Thing as Black Friday

This building as seen today once housed Mr. Pete’s and later Carolina Home Furnishers

When I was very small, there was department store across from the Summerville Post Office on Richardson Avenue called Mr. Pete’s, a cavernous space in a clapboard building. I think that Mr. Pete was a Greek immigrant, though I’m not sure. I am, certain, however, that he sold toys, and I remember a long bin along one of the walls filled with a variety of tiny plastic soldiers that went for a penny a piece. It had only been a decade since WW2’s close, and if my memory serves me, Mr. Pete also sold some army surplus items. I also recall dolls of both races standing on shelves staring blankly out over the merchandise.

Over the course of time, I amassed quite a collection of soldiers, which we would set up as armies on opposite sides of our bedroom floor, and take turns rolling marbles to knock them over, the winner being the one who “killed” all of the opposing general’s men. The last survivors were always those soldiers who lay on the stomachs pointing their rifles. You had to flip them over to kill them.

Also, among the items for sale for children at Mr. Pete’s was a Monopoly game that went for five dollars, which was a fortune back then when you could hop, skip, and jump a couple of blocks and cop a fountain Coke from Guerrins for a nickel. Anyway, my Aunt Virginia, who was only six years older than I, coveted that Monopoly game, and it was a monumental moment in my young life when she finally scraped enough money to purchase it. 

In her role as banker, Virginia was very meticulous when we played the game, counting aloud as she distributed funds or doled out houses and hotels. I was more accustomed to games like Candy Land and Kentucky Derby that featured concrete starts and finishes. Drawing cards or thumping a color-coded spinner determined your moves in time-restricted outcomes better suited to a four-year-old’s attention span. Often, Virginia had to bribe me to play.

I have no idea what happened to Mr. Pete or his store. I did, however, years later work in that building when it housed Carolina Home Furnishers, which was run by Weeza Waring, an absolutely wonderful and undemanding boss who regaled me with old yarns as we sat next to one another in recliners watching Perry Mason reruns. 

That’s what we mostly did, watch TV, the old reruns giving way to soap operas as the day matured. Customers were few and far between. My duties consisted of fetching the mail in the morning (and sometimes a bottle for Weeza from the liquor store in the afternoon), and sweeping and dusting. On Saturdays, if we had made a sale that week, the owner’s son Kirk Singletary and I would deliver furniture, or one occasion, repossess an item that the purchaser could not afford.

A few months ago, my wife Caroline and I travelled to Summerville so I could refresh my visual memory of these places for this self-indulgent project of chronicling what it was like growing up in a small Southern town during the Civil Rights era. Of course, we went to see the building, but it was the height of the pandemic, and the businesses there were closed. We didn’t get a chance to check out the interior of what now is now “Katie Mae’s Flea Market.” I wanted to look up out of the two small rectangular windows on the South Cedar Street side of the building.

I remember almost a half century ago, in the late morning of my life, dying for the workday to end, peering through those tiny rectangular windows at puffy white clouds drifting past.

Moments “that time allows in all his tuneful turning so few” as we wish our lives away.[1]

photo credit Caroline Tigner Moore

[1] Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill,” an incredibly beautiful poem, well worth a click.

Thanksgiving 2020, Let’s Make a Joyful Sigh

Rudy and Sidney serving up a real turkey

Another Thanksgiving is about to roll on past, this one in a year whose repetitious digits have come to represent calamity.

Google 2020 memes if you’re in the mood for some sardonic humor.

Q. If 2020 were a cocktail, what would it be?

A. Colonoscopy prep.

Still, we still have things to be thankful for, right?[1]

I’m thankful I retired when I did so I didn’t have to dismember my Brit Lit survey course, deep-sixing the Wife of Bath, giving Alexander his walking papers, lecturing remotely to the adolescent equivalents of Jeffrey Toobin.[2]

I’m also thankful that even though I was reared in close proximity of Birchers who compiled lists of “card-carrying communists” that included Lucille Ball, I’m not batshit crazy enough to believe that George Soros teamed up with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez (who has been dead for seven years) to create an algorithm that via a software firm called Smartmatic switched Trump votes to Biden votes from headquarters in Spain and Germany.[3]

I’m thankful it was I, the incredible rubber man, who stepped out on the deck that collapsed instead of other less-Buster-Keaton like loved ones. 

I’m thankful that this pandemic is not as deadly as the Ebola or the Bubonic Plague or Brady Bunch re-runs.

Yes, go ahead and call me Mr. Pollyanna. I’ve earned it.

[1] That is, if you’re not John Prine or Herman Cain.

[2] “The New Yorker has suspended reporter Jeffrey Toobin for masturbating on a Zoom video chat between members of the New Yorker and WNYC radio last week. Toobin says he did not realize his video was on.”  In fact, I’m thankful that I’m not Jeffrey Toobin.

[3] The tediousness of that sentence of explanation speaks volumes. Too bad they failed to switch those Senate votes while they were at it.

A Paean to Warren Zevon, Hivah!

I went home with a waitress the way I always do
How was I to know she was with the Russians, too?

I was gambling in Havana, I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns, and money
Dad, get me out of this, hiyah!

An innocent bystander,
Somehow I got stuck between a rock and a hard place,
And I’m down on my luck.
Yes, I’m down on my luck.
Well, I’m down on my luck.

I’m hiding in Honduras, I’m a desperate man
Send lawyers, guns, and money
The shit has hit the fan.

                                                “Lawyers, Guns, and Money”

image from Britannica

I miss Warren Zevon, his catchy tunes, his erudite cynicism, his geo-political obsessions. The first Zevon song I heard came blasting from an AM/FM radio in my cramped three-brother bedroom in 1977 when I had moved back home as a place to crash before getting married. I had just dropped out of grad school, didn’t have a job, and even though my wife-to-be was relatively wealthy, my mother insisted that every day I drive fifteen miles to the Temp Agency on Rivers Avenue to see if I could cop some sort of stopgap gig in construction, a trade I had never plied. It was, in a word, depressing.

And, of course, no one ever chose me, lacking both construction boots and biceps.[1]  

The song blasting from that radio on that autumn evening was “Werewolves of London,” a joyous, literate, tongue-in-cheek send-up celebrity society.

Well, I saw Lon Chaney walking with the Queen
Doing the Werewolves of London
I saw Lon Chaney, Jr. walking with the Queen
Doing the Werewolves of London
I saw a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vic’s
And his hair was perfect.

Those lyrics are perfect – slyly allusive, absurd, funny, like the howling ah-hoos of the chorus. With Warren I had a pal, someone I could relate to, a hip, literate compadre who employed humor to keep chase away the darkness that stalked him like an obsessive spurned lover.[2]

The majority of my hometown Summerville pals had moved on, and most of the ones who had stayed fell into the demographic of “white males without a college degree,” hard drinkers and pot smokers who wouldn’t know Lon Chaney, Jr. from Zeno of Elea.[3]

And as the years passed, I continued to follow Warren’s career and was lucky enough to see him twice, once in a bar called the Music Farm with a Canadian backup band in 1992 and a couple of years later in a solo acoustic show at Mynskens on Market Street. 

Although we would never have a conversation, he would continue to be my pal up to the very end when he accepted his death sentence of Mesothelioma with characteristic good humor. 

Warren Zevon is sitting at a table in a Hollywood hotel cafe, patiently waiting for someone to bring him a menu. Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes seep by. “At a time like this,” he says with an arched eyebrow and a low, rumbling laugh, “you really get the feeling of time marching on.”

David Fricke, “Warren Zevon and the Art of Dying”

I’m writing this on 15 November 2020 in the interregnum between Trump’s concession and Biden’s inauguration and could use a new Zevon name-dropping record to drop, something rhyming “Kayleigh” and “Tiffany,” “Giuliani” and “Proud Boy Army,” something with a resonant bass line, emphatic drumming, and lively guitar licks that would provide me the opportunity to show off my gold-capped molars in a wide ass sardonic grin.

Guess I’ll just have to settle for “Boom Boom Mancini,” “Desperado’s Under the Eaves,” and “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.”

[1] I did do some substitute teaching, though it was more like babysitting than pedagogy, and eventually through a set of divine missteps seemingly ordained by Tyche herself, landed a job at a community college teaching in one semester English 101, Technical Report Writing, and Business English. Obviously, they were as desperate as I was.

[2] In fact, a hade-sporting skull bogarting a cigarette became Zevon’s trademark. 

[3] Yes, I am a card-carrying elitist. Check this out: 

Inching towards Integration in Summerville, SC (1954 – 1970)

1970 Summerville Green Wave Basketball team

Note: Despite the academic-sounding title, I’m no historian, so the following is merely a personal remembrance of events that happened a half-century ago. Here’s a link to more legitimate article on Black history in Summerville. 

Like virtually every community in the South in the ‘50s and ‘60s, my hometown Summerville, South Carolina, was segregated. Black people could not patronize the town’s movie theater (when it was intermittently open), the bowling alley, restaurants, or laundromats. Even doctors’ waiting rooms were divided into “white” and “colored” sections, the way vets separate cats and dogs.  

Because the schools were “separate but equal,”[1] the only Black children I ever encountered socially were the children of domestics my mother and grandmother occasionally employed.[2] Racism was deeply embedded in my upbringing. Although my parents were kind to Black people – we actually once sheltered a Black boy in our house to protect him from abuse – my parents considered the African American race inferior.[3]

I remember one Saturday when our maid[4] Alice worked, she brought along her daughter Sallie who asked if she could watch Jump Time, a locally produced African American dance show modeled on American Bandstand. Jump Time wasn’t something we would have tuned into ourselves, but my brother David and I acquiesced, foregoing whatever Saturday TV fare we were accustomed to viewing at 1pm. After that visit, I made a point of watching Jump Time when I happened to be home watching TV at that hour. We’re talking the golden age of R&B, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin. And the dancers! They allowed the beat to lead the way, gracefully swaying and juking, turning what to me was a staid social convention into something primal and thrilling.

One small step.

Of course, Brown versus Board of Education had come down years before in 1954, so Summerville Schools were not in compliance with the laws of the land in 1957 when I first placed my hand over my heart and recited the Pledge of Allegiance in Mrs. Wiggins’s first grade class. At some point – I can’t remember the year – as a sort of compromise, the powers-that-were selected a few African Americans to integrate Summerville Elementary School. I suspect these students were chosen not only for their academic talent, but also for their Jackie-Robinson-like ability to withstand a certain amount of bigoted abuse. From my immature perspective, the transition seemed to go smoothly, or at least there was not that public spectacle of abuse that had occurred in Little Rock where Whites stalked Black children, screaming at them as they were escorted to school on the first day of integration. 

Little Rock Seven

After passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965, our public parks became integrated, and my first co-equal social interactions with students from the Black high school, Alston High, began at the Laurel Street basketball courts. In the late ‘60s, a few of my friends and I joined the Blacks there playing on Saturdays and Sundays and sometimes after school. These Summerville High kids included Gordon Wilson, Tim Miskel, and a few transplants from the North whose names have faded from the fraying annals of my memory.

Players would choose a three-man team to challenge whoever had won the last game, and we played by African American rules. In my subdivision, Twin Oaks, you maneuvered  the ball to back court after a defensive rebound, but here you could tip in an opponent’s missed basket and receive a point. We counted by ones, and eleven was the winning score, though you had to win by two. I don’t recall even an iota of racial tension. 

One glorious sunny afternoon Richard Blalock, Gordon Wilson, and I won three straight games.

Unfortunately, after our third triumph, Carl Whetsell, a Black Summerville High student in my English class, asked me if I knew that two players on the other teams were starters for the Alston Tigers. I passed the info along to Richard and Gordon.  The next time we faced them, we immediately choked, never to beat them again, which suggests, to flip the cliché, that what you do know can hurt you. Anyway, we became friendly with some of our Black competitors, especially with a couple of kids known as Mookie and Tubby.

Once the high school was fully integrated in the academic year 1969-1970, knowing the Laurel Street Alston crew made the transition meaningful for me, and Tubby and Mookie joined us once at a party at Adam Jacobs’s apartment Boone’s Farm from person to person. Our parents would not have been pleased.

A much bigger step.

That year, the integrated basketball team, led by Summerville High’s Sherwood Miler and former Alston High’s George Cooper, made it to the State Finals. Although we lost that game, the very worst of the bad ol’ days of segregation were behind us. Athletics helped enormously in bringing the two races together in our sports-crazed town. People like to win, and when it comes to football, basketball, baseball, volleyball, and track, fielding an all-white team is a disadvantage. 

Black athletes like Harry Blake and Eddie Felder became local heroes in those days, though that is not to say that even they escaped the racial bigotry so entrenched in society, in both the North and the South. Most people weren’t then – and aren’t now – colorblind. The original sin of slavery continues to darken our days as the events of the year 2020 have demonstrated. Nevertheless, compared to many other communities in across the country, Summerville’s integration was, thank goodness, relatively peaceful.

[1] As I typed that phrase, my tongue was lodged firmly in my cheek.

[2] The fact that we were lower middle class suggests how low wages must have been. Of course, no social security taxes were involved. 

[3] This act of mercy was not popular with our neighbors. I was mocked at the bus stop for having a [racial expletive] as a brother. 

[4] I realize the word “maid” has fallen into disfavor, but it doesn’t designate a race and actually sounds better to me than “female domestic servant” or the euphemistic “helper.”  Imagine if Molly Maids changed its name to Dolly Domestic Servants or Molly Domestic Helpers. 

“No Joy in Mudville”

illustration by Kadir Nelson

When my wife Judy Birdsong received her death-sentence diagnosis of Peripheral T-Cell Lymphoma, I swore to myself that I’d never again let the outcome of a sporting event darken an otherwise sunny day. After all, just a few months before, I had allowed the season-ending injury to Gamecock running back Marcus Lattimore ruin an otherwise glorious afternoon in the mountain town of Saluda, North Carolina. Judy was healthy, bees were flitting among the flowers outside the loft we had rented, and the trees were, as Yeats put it, “in their autumn beauty,” a canopy of orange and gold beneath a deep blue cloudless sky. But there I was sullenly obsessing about a mere athletic event, a tribal association I have with a perpetually underperforming football team, peace and joy squandered, preempted by my agonizing over a goddamned sporting event.[1]

So I more or less gave up following sports, which given the cursed programs I pull for, including not only the hapless Gamecocks, but also the Atlanta sports franchises, was an act of wisdom. For me, “the thrill of victory” doesn’t compensate for the agony of defeat.” 

I followed the Atlanta Braves so religiously in the 90s that I would score the games at home as I watched them on TBS, my boys sitting watching with me as Judy puttered around peeking in every now and then. Eventually, it occurred to me that watching them wasn’t bringing me happiness but instigating anxiety. So I quit cold turkey.

Alas and alack! I’ve fallen off the wagon, have started following the Braves again! And the Gamecocks!

Friday night, instead of going to the Moonlight Drive-In with my wife Caroline and stepdaughter Brooks, I opted to stay at Folly to have my hopes dashed as the Braves squandered a two-run lead with poor base-running and relief pitching in a game had they won would have landed them in the World Series. They had triumphed the night before, which felt pretty good, but didn’t have me awakening in the middle of the night with a warm glow of serenity. 

In the wee hours of Saturday morning, however, my inner superintendent switched on the lights of my consciousness, and the first thing I thought of was the Braves’ defeat. There next to me lay Caroline, fast asleep, looking angelic with her glorious hair cascading from her pillow, and there I was dyspeptic, again allowing what should be a happy moment shadowed by the missteps of multimillionaires playing a game.

I say Fie on it! Fie I say! 

[1] By the way, the Gamecocks play Auburn Saturday, a team they haven’t beaten since 1933.

Doom and Gloom and the Amazon: Halloween Edition

illustration from the Library of Congress

Well, my son Ned who lives in Nuremburg and contracted the Coronavirus early in its planetary conquest, informs me that cases in Germany are again spiking, and sure enough, my phone flashed during last night’s woeful Braves game with the news President Emmanuel Macron has slapped a 9PM to 6AM curfew on the great cities of France. These Post-Christian Europeans with their rational approaches to contagion have been much more adept than we mega-church-building North Americans at containing the disease, so if the virus has returned with a vengeance to that venerable continent, you can bet we’re in store for a not very merry Christmas nor all that happy of a new year.

Add to that dolorous prediction, the reality that roughly half of the US population is going to suffer despair this autumn because their presidential choice will not be inaugurated on January 20th.  

For the Trump faithful, a Biden presidency will bring about the destruction of suburbia. The well-trimmed hedges and lawns of planned communities will soon be covered in the choking kudzu of socialism, with its artificially high minimum wage ushering in hordes of immigrant workers usurping the American way of life. No one will be safe to walk the sidewalks as the police will be defunded and public safety left in the hands of patriotic militias roaming hellscapes in a never-ending dystopian action movie.

For Biden supporters, a Trump presidency means the end of the American experiment as our democratic republic follows Russia, Hungary, and Turkey into the realm of authoritarian kleptocracy. All too soon, they fear, Trump’s visage will appear on Mt. Rushmore while Ivanka’s profile will replace FDR’s on our dimes.[1] A never ending torrent of his mean-spirited and mendacious tweets will corrupt our children with the Trumpian ethos of amorality, and no one will be allowed to protest because fascist militias will terrorize hellscapes in a never-ending dystopian action movie.[2]

Envy, O my brothers and sisters, the tribes of the Amazon. Here’s a snippet from Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosas 1990 novella The Storyteller:

The great trauma that turned the Incas into a people of sleepwalkers and vassals hasn’t yet occurred [among the Amazonian tribes]. We’ve attacked them ferociously, but they’re not beaten. We know now what an atrocity bringing progress, trying to modernize a primitive people, is. Quite simply, it wipes them out. Let’s not commit this crime. Let’s leave them with their arrows, their feathers, their loincloths. When you approach them and observe them with respect, with a little fellow feeling, you realize it’s not right to call them barbarians or backward. Their culture is adequate for their environment and for the conditions they live in. And, what’s more, they have a deep and subtle knowledge of things that we’ve forgotten. The relationship between man and Nature, for instance. Man and the trees, the birds, the rivers, the earth, the sky. Man and God, as well. We don’t even know what the harmony that exists between man and those things can be, since we’ve shattered it forever.”

So, if once again, we find ourselves in lockdown, stuck at home in a quarantine, it might be a good idea to abandon our screens  – this blog included ­– and wander back into the three-dimensional world and pay a bit more attention to “Man and the trees, the birds, the rivers, the earth, the sky. Man and God, as well” as Llosa’s narrator Mascarita suggests.

Oh, yes, and to keep a wary eye out for those militias. 

photograph by Jason Chambers

[1] By the way, when is the last time you’ve meted out change on a counter to pay for something?

[2] Quick news quiz. Which of the five freedoms of the First Amendment was Judge Barrett unable to recall in yesterday’s Supreme Court Senate Hearing?

Illustration by Patrick Bremer via The New Yorker

Two Stanzas of Ottava Rima Written within Ear Shot of a Skateboard Park (a reading)

Two Stanzas of Ottava Rima Written in Earshot of a Skateboard Park

I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
WB Yeats

Willie B makes it seem so damned easy,
each iamb in it is appointed place,
but whenever I try it, I feel sleazy,
like a Wordsworth wannabe pissing in the lake.
Yet even to Yeats it didn’t come easy.
A line would take him hours. Better to “break
stones,” he whined, “in all kinds of weather”
than try “to articulate sweet sounds together.”

Form versus execution. I hear the clatter
of skateboarders’ failed attempts at competence.
They flip the board, fall off, curse, batter
their knees as they try to perform the tricks
they see on TV — as if mind over matter
weren’t a myth, as if practice makes perfect,
as if talent can be willed. I say
time to shut down this computer, call it a day.

Excerpt from “Today, Oh Boy”

Today, Oh Boy is a comic novel that takes place at Summerville High School on a Monday in October 1970. From his homeroom, Alex Jensen, a rebellious student, has been sent to the Principal’s office for “disrespecting” the morning devotion, which, as the son of a liberal lawyer, he knows to be in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution. Instead of going to the office, he has sneaked away from campus and driven to see a friend, a high school dropout, Will Waring, who lives in a carriage house behind his mother’s larger house There’s an anatomy midterm today, but Alex and his friend Rusty spent the previous evening at Will’s house listening to records instead of studying.

Second Period

Between Classes 8:55 – 9:00

     Mrs. Eula Lynne Laban, who has second period free, waits for Camilla Creel, lost and lonely, dawdling, packing up her things.  Camilla, a poor girl from out Booneshill way, is wearing a thin linen dress with an ill-fitting white sweater draped over her freckled shoulders.  “Come on, honey,” Eula Lynne Laban says smiling, her foot tapping nervously beneath her desk.  “Let’s go! Giddy up! I’m on a mission!”

           Camilla looks up and reluctantly smiles.  She suffers from an enormous overbite and is painfully self-conscious about it, her surprisingly weathered sixteen-year-old hand reflexively rising to cover her mouth.  Her hair is Irish orange, coarse, bordering on frizzy.  Camilla, who doesn’t remember her father, lives in an abandoned school bus that has been fitted with a pot-bellied stove.  Most of the seats have been ripped out.  She and her sisters sleep at the back of the bus on pallets in spaces divided by hanging blankets.  Her mother also sleeps on a pallet.  There is an outdoor well, so they do have water, but not inside plumbing.  Hurricane lamps provide light at nighttime.  She walks about two-hundred yards through the woods to the school bus stop where she boards a bus much newer and nicer than the one she lives in. 

     Outside Mrs. Laban’s door, the halls reverberate with the trooping feet of students: leather boots, sneakers, pumps, desert boots, tasseled alligator loafers, brogans, buckled square-toed slip-ons, motorcycle boots, dirty white bucks, penny loafers, Hushpuppies: squeaking, scuffling, stomping, clomping, gliding along their communal and separate ways. 

       Eula Lynne figures she just might as well wait till the exodus is complete before striding down to the office to follow up on Alex Jensen.   Nothing’s sacred to that boy – no, not even the sanctity of human life – if that filthy magazine was any indicator. It’s one thing to possess freedom of religion, she’ll grant you that, but no one has the right to mock other people’s faiths, and that’s exactly what that boy was doing.  Born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Doesn’t bother to even bring his books home from school.  She’s seen him walking towards the parking lot with not a durn thing in his hand.  Eula Lynne’s daddy worked two jobs to send her to Teacher’s College, her mama took in sewing, and she herself worked as a waitress all during school.  You can bet your bottom dollar she doesn’t take her education for granted.  What she really resents is that air of superiority that practically emanates from the boy, a palpable air of superiority. She can’t tolerate that smug, mocking smirk on his face. A face crying out to be slapped!

     Alex’s pal, non-smirking Rusty, is at his locker, struggling with the combination so he can ditch his history text and cop his anatomy notes.  He’s conceived this brilliant idea for an art project: a neo cubist rendering of the human digestive tract that will provide him with a clandestine opportunity to study for his anatomy test.  Miss Turlock will think it’s clever, even if she sees right through the ruse.  And who knows? The painting could end up being really cool.  The embodiment of utilitarianism, you might say.  His short stint in art class has demonstrated to him that he has no artistic talent, so he has decided to go the abstract expressionism route where ideas seem to be about as important as artistic facility, if not more so, but the thing is, now that he has his locker open, he can’t find his notes.  The bottom of his locker is, like, a salad of detached loose-leaf pages from various disciplines, a French quiz here (74), an English essay there  (A-), a history test below that (98), then a math test (76), and the most recent anatomy test (57).  His frenzied search sounds like rats in a wall, rustling, clicking.  Ah, there they are, wadded beneath an old Mad Magazine in the corner.

       Across campus the boys in shop and agriculture pay no heed to the distant bell.  Clad in coveralls or blue corduroy jackets, they measure cuts and loosen nuts.   Or plant azaleas and apply insecticides.  They cuss and spit Southern-style, talking bout fightin’ and 440 Overhead Busch cams and making money and football.   Giving peace a chance ain’t up their alley.  For example, propelled by red-hot angry blood, Jimmie Jo Bosheen’s heart thrumps like a punching bag.  He’s one of the shop boys, a claw hammer in his right hand, his oddly spelt Christian name(s) stitched in yellow on the grayish green coveralls, which also display a sewn-on Confederate battle flag, the Stars-and-Bars. Jimmie Jo has developed a raw inchoate hatred for hippies, one of them in particular.  Red-on-the-head-like-a-dick-on-a-dog. Whap, he pounds a nail.  That gotdamn dungaree jacket and that gotdamn way of walking what makes his hair bounce up and down, flaunting.  Whap.  Jimmie Jo’s been picturing how much fun it would be to give that boy a barbering.  Whap.  He ain’t positive, but pretty damn sure he seen him riding round in a hippie van along with a black boy with an afro big as a basketball.  Whap whap whap whap.

            Caleb Sanders, the A.M.E. preacher’s son, is making his way to pre-Cal, along with Jill Birdsong, Patsy Jenkins, Rozier Ravenel, and the rest of the talented math group.  They all skipped 7th grade math and took Algebra I in the 8th grade, so they’re on track to take Calculus their senior year – or they could skip math altogether – though none of them will.  They’re headed to college, maybe an out-of-state college.  Jill’s been looking at Davidson. Rozier’s headed for Sewanee, like every other member of the Ravenel clan dating back over several generations.  Caleb is a shoo-in at Howard, though he’d love to go to Duke, so he’s been practicing his S.A.T. on the side.  He lives in a black community called Germantown right outside of Summerville’s city limits.  His mama teaches third grade at Alston, “the separate but equal school” on the other side of the tracks.

    Camilla Creel, on the other hand, divides her classes among business courses and home economic courses, though Home-Ec is a waste of time because she already knows how to sew and boil a pot of grits (and pluck a chicken and clean a squirrel).  Second period for her is typing, something that she dreads because of her slow fingers and bad spelling.  She better hurry up or she’s going to be late, cause Mrs. Boatwater ain’t nearly as nice and Mrs. Laban.

     The Art Room is in a separate building that also houses the upstairs Band Room.  The Studio – as Miss Turlock calls it – boasts a large square space with rows of flat top paint-splattered tables and portable metal stools.  Of course, art is eclectically displayed: twisted torsos in clay, charcoal seascape sunrises, an impressive pen and ink rendering of Chartres Cathedral, a pasty-faced Joni-Mitchell-wanna-be self-portrait, squiggly psychedelic posters. There’s a pleasant sense of productive disorder amid the pervasive smell of paint.  Miss Becky Turlock is an unmarried thirty, and though she loves the kids, this year very well might be her last in Summerville.  Maybe a move to Atlanta, she’s not sure, somewhere more progressive.

     She takes her job seriously and never begins their time together without five minutes of communal instruction.  With only twelve students in the class, she can take roll visually, and only AJ and Rusty are missing, which might not be coincidental. There’s still maybe a minute before the tardy bell, which she enforces, because to her art’s as important as any other subject, and not being on time is one of a growing collection of her pet peeves.  She peeks through the narrow square window of the door and sees Rusty hurrying with a handful of papers cradled in his arms, and sure enough the wind snatches away one, so


Second Period 9:00 A.M. – 9:45 A.M.


                  he pirouettes and chases the sheet of paper.   It’s comical, the taunting wind snatching the sheet of paper away right when Rusty reaches for it, again, and again.  The sight reminds her of Charlie Chaplin in a silent movie.

      Inside, Miss Turlock’s art students, perched at their designated stools around various tables, quietly chat with their neighbors.

     “Is AJ not here?”  Miss Turlock asks.

      Althea constructs a rueful smile.  “Well, he’s at school, but not here.”  Although born in Summerville, Althea sounds like she’s “from off,” her voice a bit affected, somewhat patrician, distinctly hip.


       “Mrs. Laban sent him to Mr. Pushcart’s Office.”

       A small clattering of communal gossip arises.

       Miss Turlock: “Uh-oh.”

       The door opens, and Rusty flusters in, actually sweating though it’s a crisp 62 degrees outside.  “Sorry I’m late,” he says, clutching the papers like keepsakes salvaged from a burning house.

       “What’s the latest on AJ?”  Becky asks knowing that they’re often partners in crime.  “Dunno,” Rusty says innocently, plopping the papers on the table, shedding his blue jean jacket. “But this I do know: Dey haff wayz of dealing wit peoplez like him.”  

         The class laughs, and Becky herself smiles. She resents the Administration’s heavy-handed enmity towards the counterculture, having seen Pushcart practically push  (pun intended) Will Waring into quitting school, sweet-natured Will, about as dangerous as a Vanilla Coke.  Oh, it’s okay for the shop boys to sport hate symbols and pummel each other right on the school grounds, but Lord forbid an art student don a black armband in a national protest against an immoral war in accordance with the rights afforded him in the Constitution of the United States of America. No, that just won’t do.

Rusty is sketching out the rudiments of his utilitarian masterpiece that 

he has tentatively entitled Progress Through the Guts of a Beggar:

Althea is sitting next to James Hopper, who is composing from an old postcard a startlingly precise and detailed rendering of the old Custom House in downtown Charleston. James has known what he wants to do ever since he can remember. Architecture, of course, is the most enduring of all the arts, and you don’t have to go the starving artist route. Despite all of the grief he suffers from the homophobes he encounters in his daily life, James, is arguably the best-dressed boy at Summerville High with his black silk shirt and black chino trousers and quite expensive black alligator belt and matching alligator shoes.  He’s the only child in a divorced family, a rarity in Summerville, and his mother spares no expense to make her son as happy as she can.  His father, whom he rarely sees, is in real estate in Atlanta and has a young new wife named Brandi whom James detests.

     Althea, who is a big Led Zeppelin freak, is mentally drafting her satiric rendering of a Friday pep rally, flying the spacecraft imagination through the constellation of her collective unconscious, seeking images from the Great Memory, ancient corollary embodiments of contemporary evil.

     A loud electronic crackling occurs.   The red light of the intercom flashes.  Never a good sign.  Every class has one, a rectangular speaker box mounted somewhere on the wall.  Another crackle.  It speaks.

            Speakerbox: Miss Turlock, Principal Pushcart.  Is Alex Jensen in your class?

            Miss Turlock: (looking up at the intercom, addressing it as if a person) No sir.  It was my understanding that he was there with you.

            Speakerbox:  Who told you that?

            Miss Turlock:  Althea Roebuck.

            Speakerbox:  By any chance is Rusty Boykin in your class?

            Miss Turlock (still looking up, still addressing the intercom):  Yes sir.  He’s sitting right here working on a drawing.

            Speakerbox: Send him to me, please.   Right away.

            Miss Turlock:  Yes sir.

            Speakerbox:  Crackle.

        All pencils, brushes, kneading hands have halted.  Rusty’s on his feet, a look of panic stamped on his face.  James Hopper glances at Althea, who is frowning. Rusty casts a rueful glance at his crude rendering of the digestive tract lying next to his open Biology II notebook with its hurried, smudged, barely-decipherable, and misspelled anatomical terms.  Then, he looks to encounter Miss Turlock’s sympathetic, blunt, open features. 

       “Run along, Rusty. You can leave your things here for now. “

      “Okay,” he says, oblivious to the students’ staring faces, oblivious to the clay torsos, oblivious to the smell of paint, oblivious to the splattered tile, oblivious to the silence.  He’s pushing open the door and stepping into the cool autumn air, oblivious to the yellow disc of morning sun suspended above distant loblolly pines.  He’s deep, deep, deep inside the auditory darkness of a cave of dread where an echoing voice catalogs his various crimes and misdemeanors: smoking marijuana; drinking beer; mocking (though behind their backs) administrators, teachers, students, the Mighty Green Wave, Congressmen, Senators, Vice Presidents, Presidents, television shows, movies, various deities; purchasing and hiding Playboy magazines to use as visual aids in acts of self-pollution; masterminding a high stakes scheme to run away from home; receiving stolen goods in accordance with the above-mentioned scheme; not living up to his potential. 

     The list goes on and on.

     As an elementary student, if he had been called to the office, Rusty might have feared that someone in his family had died or thought that he was being summoned to receive an award, but his name in conjunction with the initials AJ can only mean trouble.  He’s forgotten his signature walk, the freak flag flop, and leans forward, head down, oblivious to the pebbly paving beneath his Thom McCann desert boots.  In the thin cavity of his chest, his heart pounds like timpani as he reaches for the cold handle of the outer double doors.  The hall is virtually void, the only sound clacking heels, out of sight, dopplering into the distance.  His hand shaking, he grips the handle of the glass doors of the administrative offices, pulling outward . . .  

Irony and Karma, A Comedy Duo for the Ages


Okay, as I write this, President Trump languishes at Walter Reed Hospital battling a virus he claims was a “hoax” and would “magically disappear.” Four years ago, he mocked Hillary Clinton’s locomotion and coughing as she suffered from a short-lived bout of pneumonia. 

Ironic? Karmic? Or both?

I like to think of karma and irony as a sort of comedy duo, a married couple, Karma, the female more powerful and profound, and Irony as male, wisecracking, cynical.  They travel hand-in-hand around and around the crumbling empire of post-Modernism, she acting, he reacting, she detached, he involved.  It’s a symbiotic relationship that can help educate us about the benefits and perils of good and bad behavior, so it’s helpful to be able to distinguish one from the other, to discern their similarities and differences.  

Trump Mocking Hillary’s Pneumonia

Irony, of course, is often misunderstood, mistaken for coincidence, as it is throughout the Alanis Morrisette song “Ironic.” 

[Irony’s] like rain on your wedding day
It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid . . . 

Of course, precipitation on your wedding day isn’t ironic, that is, unless it’s a destination wedding in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica.[1] A free ride when you’ve already paid isn’t a free ride. The song “Ironic” isn’t ironic, which stupidly makes it sort of ironic. 

Bone fide irony is all about incongruence, the discrepancy between expectation and reality.

I sometimes run across the phrase “irony is dead” when a commentator is highlighting some blatant act of ignored hypocrisy. However, the failure of people to perceive the incongruences that create irony doesn’t mean that irony is dead; it merely demonstrates that irony is dead to them.[2]

Yes, Trump’s calling a disease that smites him a hoax is somewhat ironic, only somewhat because you might not be surprised that a foolish man who flips off science ends up regretting it. However, it is ultimately ironic because, unlike rain on a wedding day, getting ill from a virus you claim is a hoax is incongruent.

What’s not ironic is that Trump’s flaunting of safety protocols, like not wearing masks and eschewing social distancing, has resulted in his infection. That’s karmic. 

Karma,  कर्म in Sanskrit,  means action; karma’s all about cause and effect, as in the cliche “what goes around comes around.”  Is mocking Hillary’s illness the reason Trump’s now fallen ill?  Is it karmic? Only in the sense that it’s indicative of his modus operandi of defying human norms of decent behavior, of embracing a hubris that distorts his perceptions of reality, of cultivating a false sense of invulnerability. Actions such as these will eventually, as the vulgar say, “come and bite you in the ass.”

Irony is surprising; karma is not.

[1] Average rainfall a year 0.00 millimeters.

[2] I remember fondly Misahn Bootay’s response Donald Trump’s tweet proclaiming “The Democrat [health] plan would obliterate Obamacare” during the 2016 midterm elections:

“Not only is irony dead,” he tweeted, “but it’s grave has been dug up and it’s been dressed in gaudy finery and paraded through the streets like the decaying corpse of a medieval pope.”

A Dollar, A Day

Alexander’s Dry Goods (photo courtesy of the Jewish Merchant Project)

Some Saturdays during my preadolescence, my friend Paul Smith and I would ride our bikes from our subdivision Twin Oaks to downtown Summerville and squander our allowances in the shops and drug stores along Main Street. In those days, a dollar and three cents went a rather long way. If you spent judiciously, you could draw out your expenditures for hours before exhausting your funds. 

We’d ride up Lenwood Drive across the canal and the quiet two-lane road that is now Berlin Myers Parkway. From there we pedaled up Rose Hill where we would cut through the Sullivans’ yard and down a leaf-strewn path through woods that led to the black neighborhood on the outskirts of Summerville Elementary. Here in one of the unpainted houses lived my friend Gene Limehouse’s Dah,[1] an ancient cotton-haired woman who smoked a corncob pipe and wasn’t to be messed with. Also along this stretch lived a kid everyone called Squeaky, whom my brother Fleming hung with during the earliest days of his juvenile delinquency, a sort of latter-day Huck and Jim duo.[2]

We’d ride our bikes on the sidewalks in front of Summerville Elementary (i.e., across the street from Beasley’s), past what then was the High School, continuing along the white wooden private school Pinewood and down the big hill in Azalea Park where the sidewalk snaked between two oak trees. Paul and I would pedal as fast as we could down the hill and negotiate the oaks like slalom skiers, then stand up pumping until we hit the commercial district[3]

What used to be Pinewood School is now a seminary

Although our routine wasn’t the same every Saturday, chances are Paul and I would order a six-cent fountain cherry Coke at Guerin’s and sit at one of their wrought iron tables. We’d hit both Ben Franklin and Poppleton’s department stores, buying maybe caps to bang with a hammer, peashooters, or a thin-toothed contraption my mama called a “cootie comb.”  We didn’t venture into Alexander’s or Barshay’s, not being in the market for shoes or looking to rent a tuxedo, but my parents certainly patronized those stores.

Down the lane from Kramer’s was Dr Melfi’s Pharmacy where you could cop a Superman comic for a twelve cents or a Mad Magazine for a quarter. Dr. Melfi displayed pharmaceutical instruments and powders, which gave the establishment an exotic, downright alchemical vibe. It smelled authentic, as if potions were being concocted.

Usually, we’d end our spree at a more prosaic drugstore, Kramer’s, where we’d slide into a booth and spend the rest of our change with a thirty-cent banana split or milk shake. 

Being a red-blooded American, I lived from allowance to allowance, not possessing the self-discipline to save for a baseball glove or board game. Although the nation was in turmoil, we only heard about it distantly in newspapers or the nightly news, Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley. I remember a “white’s only” sign over one of the lauderomats. Even doctors’ offices were segregated in those days.

Of course, the ride home wasn’t nearly as much fun. We’d pedal back on the other side of Main,  struggle up the big hill we’d sped down a couple of hours earlier. Plus, we might be loaded down with merchandise. Still, it was a good feeling coasting up to your front door, especially if you’d bought something worthwhile to read, like a Mad Magazine or a fifty-nine-cent cardboard bound copy of The Swiss Family Robinson or Treasure Island

I can still almost conjure the delightful smell of the crisp pages of those books. 

[1] Gullah for nanny.

[2] Of course, Fleming would later become well-known as a singer/songwriter and actor.

[3] One day when I was by myself, I encountered a woman in the park with her panties around her ankles peeing directly on the sidewalk. It was thrilling!