Poor Boy, Long Way from Home

 

from left to right, Charlie, I-and-I, Concha

I said “Listen brother poor boy
Don’t be worry crime
Somebody, somebody, somewhere”

Jeff Buckley version of Bukka White’s “Poor Boy Long Way from Home”


Wish I could say I taught Charlie Geer, but I can’t. I worked with him on the school magazine, but that’s about it. We’re talking mid-80’s when my boys were in diapers, and Charlie was like an undersized Atlas hauling around the sins of the South, [warning: trying to visualize this salad of mixed metaphors could trigger an acid flashback] spiking the cauldron of his tragic vision with vitriol, developing a brilliant sense of humor to ward away the absurdities of Charleston, which he was later to bring to life in his very underappreciated novel Outbound.[1]

In his early years, Charlie dabbled in various trades and professions: worked as a country schoolteacher, a circus roustabout, a carpenter, an orchard keeper, a shrimper, a college professor. Like his work, his friendships span a democratic demographic that extends from members of the St. Cecilia Society to patrons of Florida juke joints. Now he lives in Andalusia with his beautiful wife Concha, so I only get to see them in August when they come to Charleston to visit Charlie’s relatives. It’s interesting how age democratizes relationships. I consider Charlie my contemporary, and I suspect he feels the same about me.

We brothers now.

In between essays and a memoir he’s working on, Charlie has created a character called Henry Heppleworth, whom I wrote about here in October of 2016. Henry came to being after Charlie read WJ Cash’s The Mind of the South.[2] You wouldn’t call Henry, a Trump supporter, deplorable, no not at all. In fact, I find him sympathetic. Henry, like Charlie, is a sensitive soul, who laces his dialogues with “durns” instead of “damns.” And over the course of his ten-month existence, Henry is developing, become more human.  Cracks are forming in the foundation of his ideology.

With Charlie’s permission, I’m sharing three of the videos here so you can sort of chart Henry’s progress. I encourage you to hop on YouTube and check them out. If you do, you’ll get to meet Concha as well.

Okay, here’s the very first one, Henry’s background story.

Poor boy, long way from home. He takes up his guitar.

Of course, there’s obvious irony here. Henry is an immigrant-hating immigrant. In Spain, he’s living in a much more socialistic society, which, of course, is the bane of the rural Trump voter who relies on the emergency room for his wellness plan and despises them inheritance taxes them 1%ers suffer.

After his meeting a nice lady at a festival, you can detect a shift in Henry’s perspective. And in his most recent video, you can tell it’s starting to dawn on him, it’s bullshit. It’s a sort of a sigh of a song/poem. A tragic vision tempered with humor, for sure.

Henry deserves more exposure, y’all. Click away.


[1] Do yourself a favor and hit the link and check out the video on Charlie’s Amazon page.

[2] It’s a goddamned classic.

Positive Vibrations

 

Jah foot soldier circa 1982

It was the summer of ’76 when I first heard the effervescent syncopation of a Bob Marley recording:

Pop-a-top-a, pop-a-top-a, irie ites, whoa whoa.

Wit dat proto-Gullah Belafonte tone to it, mon. Wit dat religious reverberation, mon. Lyrics conflating African slave descendants’ displacement in Kingston with the biblical Babylonian captivity.  A revelation.

     The sun shall not smite I by day

     Nor the moon by night.

This mythic element provided a depth rarely encountered in pop music, which usually traffics in blooming young love or sexual swagger or the pitter patter of tear drops.  Check out these lyrics by the Melodians from the soundtrack of Jimmie Cliffs’ movie The Harder They Fall:

 

For the wicked

Carried us away captivity

    Required from us a song

    Now how can we sing King Alpha song in a strange land?

“Psalm 137” in a percolator.

I listened to a lot of reggae and ska that year and actually made it down to Jamaica a couple of times careening in a rented car along winding roads in the left lane with the car radio blasting calypso, ska, and reggae.  At Beverly’s, the record store in Mo Bay, you took LPs out of their sleeves and test ran them on a turntable before you plopped down your Jamaica currency for a Yellowman or U Roy disc.

photo by Wesley Moore (note punching discs at Volcano records was not a precise science)

At Rick’s Cafe before it got all touristy you’d see dread-locked natives who looked as if they’d been carved out of ebony hit on spliffs the size of Louisville sluggers.

Judy Birdsong all alone at Rick’s Cafe

Hertz car-rental clerks in the airport trying to sell you ganja.

Women carrying baskets of fruit on their heads trying to sell you ganja.

House bands trying to sell you ganja.

Hitchhiking entrepreneurs lean forward from the back seat offering to take you to see their plants with  “buds as big as your fist, mon”  while you skim past wrecked cars abandoned on the side of the road.  You round a bend that suddenly opens to a glinting expanse of turquoise that looks as if it just might be pirate-infested. Up ahead coming in the opposite direction a barreling Opel almost clips your right side rearview mirror.

Exotica fueled adrenaline.

And, yes, Babylon, too.

In Negril, next to the funky Sundowner Hotel where Judy Birdsong and I stayed stretched the protective barricades of Hedonism II behind which, as rumor had it, a clothing optional beach offered unlimited daiquiris and nude limbo contests.  Having paid for everything up front, these people generally stayed inside of their little compound getting to know each other while JB and I would hit the local dance hall for the two-to-six super mix dance contest.  Back then, Jamaican dancers didn’t move their feet but sort of undulated to the rub-a-dub sounds percolating from ragged PA systems.

On road trips you could buy Red Stripe beer from shanty stores just a little larger than a Port-o-let.  Lightening crackled overhead along the crests of mountains.  We were, as David Bowie put it, young Americans, young Americans, young Americans (singing in our chains like the sea).

Years later, when I found out that Bob Marley was a goner, I suffered a Don McLean-like “Bye Bye American Pie”  Buddy Holly-less-ness.  Eventually the novelty waned, and reggae faded from my own speakers as I returned to  Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the Boss, Warren Zevon, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Lester Young, and Muddy Waters.

Yet, even today, whenever I hear Reggae, my mood brightens  No matter what the singer’s chronicling – the government yard in Trench Town, a Concrete Jungle, 400 years of slavery, or Johnny Too Bad – there’s that positive vibration bubbling beneath the pain and suffering.

 

The Swashbuckling Syphilitic and the Jolly Drill Sergeant

 

blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein

 

The swashbuckling syphilitic looks a little like

a walrus with that mustache of his.

 

The jolly drill sergeant is, of course, clean-shaven,

close-cropped, and he barks his orders like a ramrod ringmaster.

“Step right up and burnish that brass!”

 

The swashbuckling syphilitic and the jolly drill sergeant

don’t see eye-to-eye. “God is dead,” cries the former.

“I must have missed the obituary,” chuckles the latter.

 

“Gaze into the abyss,” intones the syphilitic,

“but don’t lean too far over,” warns the drill sergeant.

 

“Whoever does not have a good father . . . ”

“What’s done is done.”

 

The jolly drill sergeant

Puts his hand on the syphilitic’s shoulder.

 

“Enough of this nonsense.

The Shnapps’s on me.”

 

“Alcohol, like Christianity, intoxicates!”

“Okay, okay, forget it,” says the jolly drill sergeant.

 

And so they go their separate ways,

neither one the wiser.

Cool Runnings, Island Breezes

the porch at Island Breeze

When I was a kid, Channel 5, Charleston’s CBS affiliate, broadcast a locally produced American Bandstand-like dance show called Jump Time. Hosted by (I think) Big Bob Nichols, the show featured local African American teens dancing to the magnificent R&B and soul hits of the mid-60s. I tuned in religiously, and in between numbers, Big Bob (or whoever it was) would catalogue upcoming events in the exaggerated smoothness of his on-air radio voice. One of the most frequently mentioned party sites was Mosquito Beach.

Back then Folly was off limits for blacks, so they came up with their alternative. When I was watching Jump Time, I’d conjure images of a strand with a pavilion swarming with dancers listening to the likes of Rufus Thomas live. The name, Mosquito Beach, enhanced the air of mystery, its negative connotation for me reversed the way African American argot tends to flip negative denotations and turn them positive, like funky connoting not the odor of mullet-gone-bad but the syncopated riffs of Jimmy Nolan chopping away at “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”

Mosquito Beach back in the day (courtesy of the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History an Culture)

Truth is ain’t no ocean at Mosquito Beach, though it does front a gorgeous Lowcountry marshscape. Unfortunately, over the years, the beach became rather notorious for black-on-black violence and developed the reputation of being a place where white people weren’t welcome.

I have a pal who owns the funkiest spot on Folly, Chico-Feo. Hank had mentioned before that he used to hang out at this black roadhouse on Folly Road called Phas 2. I asked him if he’d ever been to Mosquito Beach, and he said sure. He offered to take me out there to introduce to Norman and Nora, owners of the Island Breeze, a kickass cool bar/restaurant with a huge backyard that boasts a covered stage.

I’m the kind who doesn’t like to share. I didn’t dig it when loudmouth attendants of a destination wedding party showed up at Chico, and I’m very leery of getting the word out about the Island Breeze. Like most natives of this area, I like things to remain the same. Heading down Sol Legare Road to get to Mosquito Beach is like driving through a time warp and entering the 60’s, like driving into a Jonathan Green painting. I’d really, really hate to see it ever “developed” by Charleston real estate magnates.  I’d hate to see Island Breeze overrun with tourists.

On the other hand, keeping the Island Breeze a secret borders on Scrooge-like selfishness.

Here’s yesterday’s menu. You see those prices?

Here’s what the finished product looks like.

It’s delicious!

Norman, who hails from Ocho Rios, and Norma, a James Island native, are as nice and welcoming as they can be. You got rub-a-dub reggae pulsating from the speakers, a pool table, a porch, inside dining, and very comfortable bar stools. So if you’re reading this in Charleston, you really ought to check it out. Tell Norman or Nora the Teecha with the hat sent you.

Confessions of an Impulsive Procrastinator

 

people say I’m the life of the party

Certainly, I’m no stranger to what Eliot called “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender.”  One of my few memories of my family’s 9-month stay in Biloxi, Mississippi, is leaping from a chest-of-drawers onto a rocking horse Roy Rogers style, an act of derring-do that produced buckets of blood and pain so intense that it is pointless to even attempt to describe it.[1]

Alas, I could enumerate more recent acts of stupidity spurred by impulse rather than contemplation, whether it be driving my MG Midget down steps leading to the campus police department, an act of bravado that cost me a reckless driving fine of $200 dollars, an overnight stay in an establishment with bars (way too many in fact), and six points from my license. Even more recently, in the present century, impulsiveness has led to my machine-gunning undiplomatic emails and cc-ing everyone from the Pope to Mr. Peanut.

On the other hand, when it comes to everyday non-academic living, I’m the worst type of procrastinator. For example, my upper-story AC unit shut down last Wednesday, and I’ve just set an appointment to have it fixed tomorrow. The handle one of the doors leading to screen door has been broken longer than Barron Trump has been alive.[2]

Often when things do get repaired, it’s thanks to my neighbors. Friday, I was piddling around in my sweltering study upstairs when I heard banging below.

It was next-door neighbor Jim and his pal Gino working on the door. This morning another neighbor Whitney, whose landscaping company provided our yard maintenance before she and her husband sold Good Natured Gardening, arrived with a fellow to offer a quote for cleaning up the vine ridden back yard (think of Faulkner’s Miss Emily’s yard in Jefferson).

Asiatic jasmine, not a lawn, is hidden beneath the vines.

I did get a couple of things done. Went to my new classroom to draw it for my friend Kris who’s going to feng shui it. I contacted Judy’s life insurance company to hear the welcome news that after 12 weeks the claim is finally in the process of being processed. I also deposited Judy’s social security death benefit check, $255 dollars that I will no doubt spend unwisely.

Can you tell it hasn’t been feng-shuied yet?

However, these small victories were offset by failures.[3] I was rejected in my attempt to buy fill dirt for the almost always water-filled swale in my driveway that dips and rises like a ride at Six Flags.[4] My rejector suggested several other places to call, which I may one day. Also, I can’t find the red Chinese envelopes I need for the feng-shui-ing. Nor did I call a plumber to fix a toilet in the guest room bath, which I will get to tomorrow or the next day or the day after that. In fact, among today’s a dozen to-dos: “clean bedroom, read 50 pages, finish civil rights presentation, dispose of no-longer necessary artifacts “ all remain undone.

But I did crank out number 9 on the list – “create a blog post” — and accomplished something not even listed – boiling three pounds of peanuts.

So farewell sloth, hail gluttony.


[1] Okay, I can’t help myself.  Imagine vice-squeezed testicles (my landing on the saddle of the spring-loaded rocking horse) coupled with a bully taking you by the hair and slamming your face on the sidewalk (my face-first landing on a tiled-floor).

[2] Though Judy did get someone out to fix it 5 years ago but he fiddled with it for an hour, left, and never came back.

[3] Shut up, Microsoft word suggestion; that sentence needs to be in the passive voice.

[4] It does, however, dissuade tourists on golf carts to hang a right on my property.

A Pickpocket of a Poet Rips Off Wallace Stevens

circa 1940: A pickpocket at work in New York. (Photo by William Davis/General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

accompanied by a labored window unit

 

A motion, the sea voice fluttering, a cry

understood word for word, a summer sound,

tilting in the air, perishing, erased by rain.

 

A serenade, a night wind sigh, out of the spirit

of black waves, the virtuoso ocean

drowning out a song.

 

The wind blowing, a metaphysician

in the dark, a woman, drunk,

dancing a stumble on the shore.

 

Dee Dee Ramone, master of the mamba,

tell me in a doo wop how to get from East Erie

to the Commodore Club. All I know

it’s way above of the Crosstown.

Dee Dee Ramone

 

A Thing Called Perception: A Review of “Portraits of a Marriage” by Sándor Márai

[…] all that we behold

From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,

And what perceive.

Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”

 

Whether your sunglasses are off or on

You only see the world you make.

John Hiatt, “A Thing Called Love”


I’ve just finished at a former student’s strident insistence the Hungarian novelist Sándor Márai’s last work, Portraits of a Marriage. I don’t know if we lose something in the translation of the title, but the narrative might more accurately be dubbed: Satellites of Love or Chain, Chain, Chain of Partners or A Sociological Study of Class Relationships in Hungary from 1930 – 1950.[1]

The thing is that no title can do justice to the mighty compression of meaning that the novel holds. Divided into four parts, the narrative unfolds in the style of a Robert Browning dramatic monologue, with each section narrated by a different character. We are in a concrete setting, a bar or bed, and along with us there is someone listening to a monologue, but we never hear that person speak. Instead, we get remarks like: “Sorry . . . What did you say? Why I started weeping when I saw him just now?”

This auditory technique may be off-putting in a culture dominated by visual imagery where we expect cinematic quick cutting, and I admit the conceit does add a bit too much ballast to suspension of disbelief; however, the articulation of the perceptions of the first three monologists is at once meaningful and conversational.[2]

It begins in Budapest between the wars. Here is Ilonka, the first wife of Peter, an industrialist, describing to a female companion her reaction to finding a decades-old love token in her husband’s wallet, a token that predates her relationship with him:

And now I knew that whatever wonderful or terrible things were happening in the world, it was pointless to accuse myself of selfishness, lack of faith, lack of humility, pointless comparing my problems to those of the world of nations, the problems of millions suffering their various tragedies, because there was nothing I could do – selfish and petty as I was, obsessed and blind as I was – except to get out on the street and search out the woman I had to confront face-to-face, the woman I had to talk to. I had to see her, to hear her voice, look in her eyes, examine her skin, her brow, her hands.

We can’t blame Peter for fleeing such suffocating obsession, and in the second section he tells a colleague what that first marriage was like and how he fared in his second marriage to a servant girl of his household named Judit, the girl who had given him that token, a peasant who literally grew up in a ditch. In England, after she leaves the household, she transforms herself into a highly credible Pygmalion-like creature who knows which fork to pick up. Upon her return, Peter defies social convention and marries this underclassling.[3]

Here is Peter describing the object of his obsession:

It wasn’t a “lady” or a glittering socialite I yearned for. I hoped for a woman with whom I could share a lonely life. But she was terrifying ambitious [. . .] wanting to conquer and take occupation of the world.

The only things she fears is

[h]er own hypersensitivity to offense, some mortal wound to the pride glowing in the depths of her life, her very being. That was what she was afraid of, and everything she did by word, silence, and deed was a form of defense against it. It was something I could never understand.

So what we have here is the Rashomon effect, contradictory accounts of the same event. In the course of these dialogues a quarter of a century passes; we see the class stratification of Hungary before the war, Budapest’s leveling during the war, and its Soviet occupation after the war. All of our principals but Ilonka become ex-pats.

It’s Judit who devours the narrative scenery, talking to her latest lover, a jazz drummer whose stage name is Ede. They’re in Rome in a hotel bed after one of his gigs.  Judit possesses the most experience, having risen from abject poverty to enormous wealth. She’s the least socially conditioned one, and she is able to look upon the events of her life with a sort of anthropological detachment:

High culture, it seems, is not just a matter of museums but something you find in people’s bathrooms and kitchens where others cook for them. Their way of life did not change, not a bit, not even during the siege, would you believe it? While everyone was eating beans or peas, they were still opening tins of delicacies from abroad, goose liver from Strasbourg and such things. There was a woman in the cellar, who spent three weeks there […] on a diet, a diet she maintained even when the bombs were falling. She was looking after her figure, cooking some tasty something on a spirit flame using only olive oil because she feared that the fat in the beans and gristle everyone else stuffed themselves with out of fear and anxiety might lead her to put on weight! Whenever I get to thinking about it, I marvel what a strange thing this thing called culture is.

There is one other character, Lazar, who doesn’t get his own monologue but who appears in every section. He’s a writer, perhaps Márai’s alter ego. Of course, I identify with him because, not only is he bald, but he’s also a pessimist (and who wouldn’t be scrounging around a bombed out city).  He has several quotable passages throughout, but I’m going to have Judit describe him instead of having him speak for himself:

What’s that? Was he a snob? Of course, he was, among other things, a snob. He couldn’t stand being helped because he was solitary and a snob. Later I understood that there was something under this snobbish manner of his. He was protecting something, trying to preserve a culture. It’s not funny. I expect you’re thinking of those olives. That’s why you laughing? We proles, we don’t really get the idea of “culture,” sweetheart. We think it’s a matter of being able to quote things, of being fussy, of not spitting on the floor or belching when we’re eating, that kind of thing. But that’s not culture; it’s not a matter of reading and learning facts. It’s not even learning to behave. It’s something else. It was the other idea of culture he was wanting to protect. He didn’t want me to help him because he no longer believed in people.

As I was reading through the individual sections, I found myself put off by these people’s egocentricities, their obsessiveness, but once I got halfway through Judit’s monologue, the cumulative effect suddenly came upon me like revelation. What we have here is a deep meditation on love, loneliness, obsession, culture, family, and perhaps most profoundly, the limitations of personal observation.  The gulf between these people’s perceptions of themselves and others’ perceptions of them is an unbridgeable breach.

This might not be a great novel – I won’t judge until a second reading – but if you’ve reached this final sentence, you’re likely to find it worth your while.


[1] In Spanish the title translates into “The Righteous Woman”

[2] The 4th narrator Ede, a jazz drummer-cum-bartender, lives in “a pad.”

[3] Let’s not forget that Hunagry in the early part of the previous century was not L.A. I can’t come up with a good analogy. Prince Phillip marrying Billie Holiday?

Sándor Márai as a child