A Statistical Foray into the Funkification Ratios that Separate Folly Beach, SC from the Isle of Palms and Sullivans Island (Not to Mention Kiawah)

bill's art installation

photo by Caroline Tigner Moore

To say Folly Beach is peculiar is to say the sun is hot, night is dark, and that Marty Feldman never graced the cover of People magazine as the “Sexiest Man Alive.”  After all, Folly Beach is – in the now famous phrase coined by my friend and former boss Bill Perry – the Edge of America.[1]

marty

the late great Marty Feldman

 

I’ve always liked the sound of the word peculiar. According to my very own OED  (whose print Superman with telescopic vision would have difficulty decoding), peculiar comes to English from the Latin peculium, originally meaning “property in cattle.” That cow over there – let’s call her Elsa –  belongs to US Representative Devin Nunes. She’s peculiar to Representative Nunes in that she’s his alone. She’s peculiar to him.  But it’s also peculiar that Devin Nunes is suing the cow known as “Devin Nunes’ Cow.” I’m not making this up. [2]

Over time, as words are wont to do, the definition of “peculiar” branched out from the pasture of private ownership and took on the meaning of being different from others. Not surprisingly, being different acquired somewhat of a negative connotation, because to many, especially those intent on keeping up with the Joneses, being different (or unusual) is often not a good thing.

No PR person would ever come up with the phrase “Edge of America” to promote Kiawah Island. Kiawah doesn’t mind being different in an exclusive or unique way, but it certainly doesn’t want to come off as edgy, and it’s succeeded. Kiawah is about as edgy as Jack Nicklaus.

Not to be confused with Jack Nicholson.  I remember seeing an interview with Jack Nicholson not long after the actor Hugh Grant’s arrest for solicitation. The interviewer (maybe Barbra Walters) asked Jack why someone rich and good-looking and married to a beautiful woman (i.e., someone like Hugh Grant) would require the services of a prostitute.

“Peculiarities,” Jack said with his trademark leer, “peculiarities.”

So another denotation of peculiar  – actually the number one denotation – is “strange or odd,” like walking in “polka dots and checkered slacks,” to borrow a phrase from Elvis Costello (and to avoid examples of possible outré sexual inclinations that might have prompted Mr. Grant to seek peculiar connubial pleasures outside the bounds of his marriage).

Good God, I’ve wandered far afield from paragraph one. Actually, what I want to know is what makes so Folly different from its barrier island neighbors, the Isle of Palms and Sullivans Island?  What is it about Folly that makes it so peculiar?

folly pc

IOP pc

 

usa-south-carolina-sullivans-island

To attempt to find the answer to this ultimately useless question, I did some googling on Yahoo (mixed metaphors is where it’s at) and compared the demographics of the three island communities.[3]

Population:

Folly Beach  2,623

Isle of Palms 4,322

Sullivans Island 1,921

That tells us not much at all, except that Folly is the median and the mean population is 2,955.

Racial Composition

Folly Beach  White: 99.32%  Black 0.68%  Asian: 0%  Others 0%

Isle of Palms  White 94.75% Two or more races 2.85% Black 0.25% Asian 1.47%  Others 0%

Sullivans Island  White 97.11%  Two or more races 0.93% Black 0.28%  Asian 1.07% Others 0%

Who would have guessed Folly is the least diversified?

Median Ages

Folly Beach 49.7 (43.7 for males, 58.4 for females)[4]

Isle of Palms 56.2 (58 for males, 54.7 for females)

Sullivans Island 48.1 (45.8 for males, 49.6 for females)

Once again, Folly is the median.

Education

Folly Beach

Less than 9th grade 0% , 9th to 12th  1.98%, HS grad 11.05%, Some College 23.17%, Assoc. degree 4.29%, BA/S 38.25%, Graduate degree 21.27%

Isle of Palms

Less than 9th grade 0% , 9th to 12th  0.32%, HS grad 11.84%, Some College 14.05%, Assoc. degree 2.49%, BA/S 40.83%, Graduate degree 30.48%

Sullivans Island

Less than 9th grade 0% , 9th to 12th  0.77%, HS grad 4.95%, Some College 11.13 %, Assoc. degree 3.34%, BA/S 41.93%, Graduate degree 37.88%

All three probably better educated per capita than similar sized SC towns.

Income

Folly Beach

Average overall $49,495 ($65,714 male, $38, 324 female)

Isle of Palms

Average overall $53,782 ($74,714 male, $46,161 female)

Sullivans Island

Average overall $62,750 ($103,947 male, $38,913 female)

Wow, the average Sullivans’ male makes $38, 233 more than the average Folly male, the difference being a mere $91 less than the average Folly female salary. Is that peculiar? No, it’s what you’d expect.

Conclusion

So let’s face it. That was a waste of time. If you’re going to come up with an answer, demographics aren’t going to help. You need to go maybe to history or —

Wait, Caroline just popped into the drafty garret to ask what I was up to, so I told her I was trying to determine via demographics why Folly was more peculiar, funkier, than the IOP and Sullivans.

“More barstools per capita,” she immediately said.

Damn!  Being so much smarter, why in the hell do women make so much less than men?

Yes, Caroline: Planet Follywood, Sunset Cay, the Washout, Jack of Cups, Drop-In, Loggerheads, the Crab Shack, the Surf Bar, Taco Boy, St. James Gate, Lowlife, Wiki Tiki (or whatever it’s called), Rita’s, the Tides, Snapper Jacks, Chico Feo.

I’m sure I’m leaving somebody out – and except for one, none of them smack of commerciality.


[1] Wisely, Bill copyrighted the phrase.

[2] https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-10-20/abcarian-sunday-column

[3] All data is from the World Population Review website

[4] Re. the wide gap in medial ages for males and females on Folly: I remember going into Planet Follywood several years ago where the clientele was quite a bit older than the folks gathered on the rooftop bar across the street. Planet Follywood is old school, caters more to locals than tourists. Anyway, sitting across the bar from me was an older woman – and by older I mean Methuselahian, way over the 14-year difference between male and female in the Folly data above. I noticed her looking over at me, excessively batting her eyes, in almost cartoon coquetry. I hate to be ageist, especially given that I myself am an aged man in a paltry thing sort of way, but being hit on by what very well might be the daughter of a Spanish-American War veteran creeped me out. As I was getting up to go, I sneaked a peek at her and discovered that what I had deemed flirtatious winking was actually some sort of spasmodic tic.

 

Romanticizing Defeat

hopper

Edward Hopper

Any sports fan who grew up in the Sixties has seen the intro to ABC’s Wide World of Sports hundreds, maybe, over a thousand times:

 

Of course, here, “the agony of defeat” makes better theater than “the thrill of victory.” Watching fans hoisting a futbol hero on their triumphant shoulders or a grand prix racer popping a cork in the winner’s circle lacks the high drama of witnessing an Olympian pinwheeling off of a ski jump ramp or a motorcyclist skipping stone-like across a lake of asphalt.

Even as exhilarating as it is to see a big wave surfer survive a precipitous drop and then ascend the crashing slope of a breaking avalanche, I’m still not sure that it produces the vicarious adrenaline rush of one of those Wagnerian wipeouts that make you grit your teeth and shudder in wonder. [Warning, in addition to harrowing wipeouts, this compilation has a soundtrack that might make Sid Vicious cringe].

 

* * *

If you’re a Southerner born near Charleston, South Carolina, in the early Fifties, you grew up in the shadow of defeat. When I was a child, the “War” my granddaddies talked about wasn’t Korea, or WW2, or the Great War, or the Spanish American War. It was the War Between the States.[1]

Among the fanatical, that defeat was a miasma that hung in the air like an enervating narcotic.  My friend Don Doyle convincingly argues in New Men, New Cities, New South: Atlanta, Nashville, Charleston, Mobile, 1860-1910 that citizens from Charleston and Mobile were so traumatized after Appomattox that they couldn’t bring themselves to do business with Northerners,[2] perceiving it as treasonous – unlike folk from Atlanta and Nashville. While those two cities readjusted to postwar changes and modernized, Charleston and Mobile stubbornly wallowed in the romanticizing of the Lost Cause, rationalized that defeat was somehow noble­ –  tragedy, after all, being the highest of literary genres.

As late as 1988, VS Naipaul in the New Yorker wrote about his visit to Charleston when he interviewed a non-Reconstructed blue blood celibate who monklike had abandoned all worldly pleasures for a life devoted to lamenting the fall of the Confederacy.  I think I encountered this person in 1978 when my late wife Judy and I lived on Limehouse Street, a block from the Battery. You could see this fellow – or one like him – assume catatonic postures as he stared out towards Ft. Sumter, not moving a muscle for something like twenty minutes. He almost seemed like an apparition.

So, if you grew up in this culture, a culture that had fetishized defeat, and you were cursed with a Romantic bent of mind, you might come to see defeat as inevitable, or worse, as preferable – defeat being more Romantic.  Yeats masterfully expresses that sentiment in a gorgeous ottava rima stanza whose beauty deepens the tragedy because you realize that Yeats’ canon, too, will be disappear when the annals of civilization are wiped away.

He who can read the signs nor sink unmanned

Into the half-deceit of some intoxicant

From shallow wits; who knows no work can stand,

Whether health, wealth or peace of mind were spent

On master-work of intellect or hand,

No honour leave its mighty monument,

Has but one comfort left:  all triumph would

But break upon his ghostly solitude.

                        “Nineteen-Hundred and Nineteen”

 

Indeed, there might be some truth to idea that defeat builds character in the Dostoyevskian sense of suffering being good as a regimen for redemption, or even if, like me, you think eternal life seems as about as likely as Dan Brown’s receiving the Nobel Prize in literature, repetitious disappointment can, if you live long enough, inure you, to reverse Gerard Manley Hopkins – “More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, [less] wilder wring.”

IMG_8919

photograph by Caroline Tigner Moore

But let’s get real. Losing sucks, as does the pathology of obsessively dwelling on lost causes, whether they be wars, loved ones, or championships. Although the season of spring has been a time of loss for me in the past, I’m making the most of this spring’s beautiful weather, sitting each afternoon on the deck with my beloved wife Caroline talking about literature and art, checking out the play of light and shadow on the spartina, noting the mated robins who nest nearby as they dart back and forth, reveling in how much clearer the air seems, going through the photos Caroline has taken of Folly during the quarantine, discovering through them hidden gems never before noticed, treasuring the rich life afforded us on this funky, narrow strip of a barrier island we call home.

IMG_9185

 


[1] I never heard any of my people call it the War of Northern Aggression, and I always called it the Civil War myself without ever being reprimanded.

[2] cf. Southern governors refusing federal stimulus money.

 

Wild Kingdom 2020, Folly Beach Backyard Edition

bunting uncnscious

To tell the truth, I’m not a fan of nature documentaries. For one thing, I don’t need to be constantly reminded that exotic habitats are rapidly disappearing from our poisoned planet, nor do I enjoy the spectacle of claws, talons, and incisors ripping the flesh from scampering rodents, warthogs, zebras, giraffes, antelopes, or baby elephants. The whole Darwinian horror show of survival shivers me timbers, sends rushes of disgust up my spinal cord.

And who in the hell are you supposed to pull for?  The pride of lions with their adorable cubs and dead-beat dads need to eat, but the elands about to be preyed upon seem somehow more sympathetic. Inevitably, after the kill come packs of scurvy hyenas (who also need to eat) who chase off the lions and take over the flesh-ripping and ravenous swallowing. Yuck.

Not surprisingly, given my delicate sensibility, in my youth I became an avid indoorsman, an inept male incapable of stringing a rod and reel (or baiting a hook for that matter) but one who could distinguish Jimmy Cagney from George Raft, Buster Keaton from Harold Lloyd. Why go traipsing through insect infested swamps when you can read “The Big Two-Hearted River” while sipping on a peaty single-malted Scotch?

That said, I happen to live in a spot that provides wide open views of the Folly River, which boasts an abundance of wildlife. Out back I’ve seen dolphins, otters, a mink, herons, egrets, ospreys, bald eagles, wood storks, bats, racoons, and rats. About twenty years ago, my late wife Judy Birdsong cajoled me into building a bird feeder, which consisted of a sheet of plywood positioned on a metal pole in the backyard. Judy would scatter seeds there, and birds would visit, chasing each other off until that fateful day when a red-tailed hawk swooped down and snatched one of the birds while the rest frantically peppered the plate glass windows that provide us our views. Afterwards, Judy insisted I disassemble the feeder, which suited me fine.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against sunlight, consider vitamin D an asset. In fact, my favorite watering hole Chico Feo is an al fresco bar that closes when it rains or gets too cold. So now with Chico Feo shut down during the quarantine[1], my wife Caroline and I spend our happy hours on our back deck enjoying a couple of pre-dinner libations. This April has featured unusually low humidity, and it’s enjoyable looking out over golden sunlight dappling the greening marsh and watching merchant ships in the distance sliding past the Morris Island Lighthouse in and out of Charleston Harbor.

IMG_4125

 

IMG_3083

So there we were yesterday sitting on our deck enjoying our ridiculously highbrow conversation (was Wallace Stegner’s Lyman Ward a more sympathetic amputee than Hemingway’s Harry Morgan) when Caroline suddenly stood up cried, “Oh, no!”

“What’s the matter?”

A bird just slammed into the window and dropped to the ground!”

“What kind of bird?”

“I think it was a cardinal,” she said.

“Oh, it’ll probably come to,” I said, unmoved (and unmoving), but Caroline was already scampering down the steps to comb through the Asiatic jasmine for fallen bird, which, amazingly she found in a couple of minutes, a male painted bunting, not a cardinal, inert but not dead.

IMG_3117

Caroline picked him up and placed him in a net we use for scooping out our water garden and placed the net in the middle of the yard. We watched intensely, hoping for some movement, but there was none. Then the shadow of a large bird darkened the deck, and sure enough, we looked up to see a red-tailed hawk cruising.

So both of us went down and placed the net in a wax myrtle for greater camouflage. The bunting was now standing, but otherwise not moving, looking like the taxidermized Carolina Parakeet (long extinct) that was displayed in the Old Charleston Museum off of Calhoun Street.

Caroline noticed that maybe his claw was entangled in the mesh of the net, and as she reached down, the bunting flew off into a thicket of Elaeagnus, where I think he and his mate nest.

We cheered!

The gorgeous fellow will live to see another day –– maybe.

IMG_3123

And as far as the red-tailed hawk is concerned, let him eat rats.

hawk 3 (original)


[1] You can on some days still get takeout.

Off Folly Beach’s Beaten Path

rusted rooftop

I’ve never been one for neatness – in my dress, in my handwriting, in my housekeeping, in my prose.  I blame this lackadaisical attitude on the South’s losing what a few of our stubborn old folks still insist on calling “the War Between the States.”  Don Doyle’s fascinating study New Men, New Cities, New South: Atlanta, Nashville, Charleston, Mobile, 1860-1910 details Charlestonians’ postbellum refusal to do business with Northerners, unlike the folks in Atlanta and Nashville, who resumed trading with the victors and flourished.  Meanwhile, on the coasts, we sat around with empty pockets talking about the good ol’ days while the paint peeled from the clapboard of our houses.  With no money to keep up appearances, the heat aiding and abetting our lethargy, we became tolerant of  a certain sleepy seediness.  There are many exceptions, of course, but I am not one of them.

I prefer hodgepodge to uniformity, black-eyed susans to manicured lawns, the eastside to the westside of Folly Island (though the westside also has delightful pockets of funkitude). Although you constantly hear how Folly has changed – and it has – many homes and lots tucked away on the east side from Second to Ninth retain a rustic tinge – a vibe I have come to call paradoxically rural Folly.

Here’s a brief tour

clothesline 4

rusted wheels

vine house

the hanged man

I do not find/ The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.

8th st lantana

legalize it

Now that the majority of the mainland has been barred from the island, things are extremely quiet, no ear-splitting sirens, no whooping and hollering, no thumping bass notes blasting from climate killing jacked-up trucks.

Sigh.

Folly Post Office (original)

Partying During the Pandemic: Hubba, Hubba, Hubba, Hack, Hack

 

red death

Of course, whenever there’s a celebration on Folly Beach, I shed the fedora and don my pith helmet to study the folkways of the island’s men and women, whether they be our ancient, reptilian residents who seem to make up the majority of the population[1]; the younger year-round renters who often work in the food and beverage industry; the bourgeois house-renting vacationers; or the daytrippers, which include surfer dudes and dudettes, but mostly consist of young people eager to ditch their sobriety.  The question arose: what type of person (besides intrepid anthropologists) seeks out crowds during a pandemic?

I began my foray early, keeping at least six feet away from those as foolhardy to brave the great outdoors as I walked to Center Street via the beach. The strand itself was wind-swept, and the few cloud-bathers who braved the beach had placed their chairs and blankets on the leeward side of the concrete groins where they huddled and shivered. Most of the other beach strollers consisted of dog worshipers, who barely outnumber the host of young females who have chosen The Edge of America as the destination for their bachelorette parties.

Over the course of the day, I counted six different groups engaged in celebrating the waning days of some betrothed female’s singledom. Depending on the socio-economic situation, the attire of the ladies ranges from civvies to tee-shirts printed for the occasion. Although anthropologists are not supposed to let ethnocentric emotions like pity come into play, I felt sort of sorry for these chilly, less-than-festive seeming young women in short sleeves hugging themselves.  Who can blame them, having planned the events months ago not knowing it was going to be a Masque-of-the-Red Death weekend?

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Indeed, the numbers of revelers who decided to come out was scant. It was like, as Caroline noted, living in Charleston thirty years ago when parking spaces were plentiful and sidewalks easily traversed. I began and ended my fieldwork at Chico Feo with brief stops at the rooftop of Snapper Jack’s, St. James Island Pub, and the Sand Dollar Social Club (cash only).  Here’s a virtual visit for my social-distancing readers.

On a typical St Patrick’s Saturday on Folly, these venues would have been packed to, as they say, the gills.


[1] The overall median age of Folly residents is 49.7 years, 43.7 years for males, and 58.4 years for females.

 

Summer Solstice Musings

Ah, after the pyrotechnics of last night’s lightening strikes and Aeolian blustering, the longest day of the year has arrived with its magical moon that will drive the devotees of Dionysius from their dorms into frothing streets of the Holy City – but, no, wait, hold on; it’s the summer solstice! The College is out until August.

Praise Zeus!

That’s right, those dim-witted imbibers and garden urinators have returned to wherever in Off they’re from – Jersey City, Peoria, Cincinnati, Charlotte – and we say good riddance, especially if we live on Warren or George or Society Streets, where those sons and daughters of Belial are wont to dwell, reverberations from their self-indulgence echoing into the wee hours, disturbing the sleep of respectable burghers who live a life of not-so-quiet desperation, thanks to Bacchanalian cries of the inebriated.

In Courts and Palaces [Belial] also Reigns
And in luxurious Cities, where the noise
Of riot ascends above their loftiest Towers,
And injury and outrage: And when Night Darkens the

Streets, then wander forth the Sons
Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine.

Paradise Lost, Book 1 497-502

Jacobus de Theramo, Das Buch Belial. 1401.

Happily, Caroline, Brooks, and I-and-I live far from that madding crowd in our little jungle paradise on the backside of Folly Island, 10 blocks away from the front-beach Center Street shit show. Things have quieted since the alcohol ban seven years ago – a half-ton less of detritus is strewn about the sands, according to officials. And Folly Gras is a thing of the past, and a recent city ordinance has banned outdoor music after ten.  It seems our city government is trying to change Folly from “The Edge of America” to “The Beige of America.”  Whatever the case, I’m certainly in favor of less litter.

Hit it, TS Eliot:

The [beach] bears [fewer] empty bottles, sandwich papers,

Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends

Or other testimony to summer nights.[1]

“The Waste Land” 176-9

our front yard

trash from the past

Yet, there’s something about the ripeness inherent in the summer solstice that cries out for revelry – the shedding of clothing, purple-stained mouth[s], ecstatic exclamations of pure joy.

It’s a day to celebrate Paganism – those all-too-human gods and goddesses – and their tolerance of the wild hair, their sanctioning of frenzy, their cult of fertility – latitude not afforded us via Hebraic mythology.

Santorini

Susya, a Palestinian Village

So beware, neighbors.  This evening you might hear some moon-howling, some blaring Zydeco music, the thumping of crazed dancers doing the Wa-wa-tusi:

Wow!

Ow!

Uh!

You know I feel alright?

Hah!

Feel pretty good, y’all

Uh-hah!


[1]Not to mention beer cans, dirty diapers, used condoms, discarded panties, fast food bags, abandoned flip flops.

 

The the Hoarse Wolf-Calls of Governor McMaster

Washout Folly Beach during Hurricane Bonnie

I had this post all mapped out in my head as I drove to Folly Beach from West Ashley this morning.  Since public safety is allowing only residents on the island, I have the beach to myself, more or less.  I drove to the Washout, Folly Beach’s premiere surf break, ready to write about the awesome swell and how twenty years ago I would have been right there with those well-warned surfers, struggling to paddle outside of the break, and once I’d made it, how I’d be eager to catch one of those monsters, hoping to make the drop and achieve stokification or, perhaps more likely, to suffer a crushing avalanche-like wipe out.

I was going to complain that now I was too old to even try, reduced to getting my thrills vicariously, like the old man in The Big Sleep. (I suspect that William Faulkner, who received partial credit for the screenplay, wrote this part).

The problem is here is the Washout on Day 4 of Governor Henry McMaster’s mandatory evacuation.  It’s as flat as a John Brown’s EKG.*

 

 

On Monday afternoon, declaring that even one life was too precious to lose, Governor McMaster, who refuses federal Medicaid money, ordered a mandatory evacuation of the South Carolina coast.*  Drop everything, close your businesses, find refuge with loved ones or at Motel 6 inland (which doesn’t sound all that safe to me).

And for the third year in a row the mandatory evacuation was completely unnecessary for Folly Beach.  Four school days down the drain.  Millions of dollars squandered.

A legitimate fear is that when a real storm comes a-callin’ some of the population might be too jaded to take warnings seriously.  I’m all for evacuating for deadly storms but not when they’re a week away and their paths uncertain.


*”John Brown’s body”, of course, “lies a-mouldering in the grave.”

Grief Counseling Noir

Five weeks ago my wife Ellie died of pancreatic cancer. We did the hospice thing, and the dying went fairly smoothly, thanks to the morphine. There were no eyes popping open and arms reaching upwards to invisible loved ones hovering around the bed, just a slow diminishing of breathing in the midst of a coma-like unconsciousness. She, unlike Dylan Thomas, went gently into that good night, which suited the both of us.

Our two girls are grown, 25 and 26, both in med school, so they were there with us, but now they’re back doing their residencies, one in DC, the other in Chicago. They both insisted I get some grief counseling, but I was resistant, that is, until about a week ago.

I had my reasons for not wanting to go to grief counseling. For one thing, I hate group activities. I’d rather watch 96 hours of consecutive Brady Bunch reruns than experience again that Lamaze class we went to when Ellie was pregnant with Lillian.

The girls informed me that you didn’t have to go group; you could go one-on-one.

I told them I didn’t want to go one-on-one either. “Look”, I said, “I’m a literature professor. My master’s thesis was Death and Dying in Yoknapatawpha County: Faulkner and that Undiscovered Country. I know all about death and dying. I was right there with Emma Bovary when she passed, right there with Lear as he carried dead Cordelia in his arms.”

“Plus, your mother was a psychologist,” I added. “Believe me, I know the drill. I’ve read pro Kubler-Ross and anti-Kubler-Ross. “

I did, though, promise that if I thought I needed help, I’d seek it.

Once the girls left and I was all-alone in the house with Ellie’s tops and skirts hanging in our walk-in closet, her jewelry in a jumble on her dresser, I started feeling more down than I had. Waves of sorrow would sometimes wash over me, and I would occasionally weep out loud with sobs that sounded like sardonic laughing. Right after one of those episodes when I was washing my face and lamenting the revival that my long-gone adolescent acne was restaging on the ruined contours of my already pocked-marked face, the phone rang.

It was a woman from the hospice following up to see how I was doing. Talking to her, my voice went wobbly, like a retiring coach’s voice as he blinks back tears in an interview after his final game. She mentioned that they offered grief counseling, but I resisted offering a less arrogant and pretentious reprise I had given my daughters.

I told her I had a lot of support from friends, colleagues, and former students, which was true.

She said, “Okay, bye sweetie.”

That sealed the deal. I wasn’t going with anyone who called me sweetie, anyone who was going to infantilize my suffering. So I went on google to check out counselors in the area and frankly didn’t like what I saw, mostly younger, attractive women with bleached teeth who “empower” and “help resolve” a laundry list of personal issues like anxiety, self-esteem, family issues, and grief.

Then I ran across this ad.

 

I did some snooping on my own with Marlowe.  His degree was legit, but he had been fired from MUSC after only two years for insubordination.  He had lost his wife Linda Loring early in his marriage (steeple chase, broken neck) so he’s been around grief’s mournful block of consignment shops, hole-in-the-wall bars, pawnshops, and laundromats. His office/apartment is located on Folly Beach over an outdoor bar called Chico Feo on the corner of Second Street and Ashley, you know, right across from that mural of the pirate painted on the side of Berts.  I went ahead and made the appointment.  A secretary with one of those irritating interrogative lilting voices hit me up for Friday at 11:30.

You go up some rickety outdoor stairs to get up to his office. Two beautifully hand-painted signs hang next to the door. The top one reads: “Philip Marlowe, Psy.D.” The one below: “Yes, smoking, a lot of smoking in here, unfiltered Pell Mells. If you don’t like cigarette smoke, turn around. I wish you the best of luck. Otherwise, come on in.”

The door has a small set of wind chimes attached that tinkle/jingle. Inside there’s an old oak desk in desperate need of refinishing with a neat stack of forms on top, a jar with a variety of pens and pencils, and an ashtray in bad need of emptying.  Behind the desk a wooden slatted office chair on rollers.

On the other side of the room a green corduroy sofa and two chairs around a coffee table.  On that table a neat stack of New Yorkers diagonally situated in its center. No framed diplomas on the wall, only a strange, amateurishish painting (pictured below). A black curtain whose rod runs along the length of the room separates this office space from the living quarters. In a word, this joint is seedy and reeks of stale smoke.[1]

 

When I entered, there was no sign of Marlowe. I went back to the door, opened it, and waggled it back and forth creating a tintinnabulation. Marlowe’s head appeared between the curtains. An ocean breeze billowing them in and out. “McNully, right? I’ll be right with you. Grab one of the forms on the desk, a pencil, and have a seat. My girl called in sick with a hangover.”

The head disappeared but reappeared. “By the way, nice fedora.”

I sat down in one of the chairs, picked up a New Yorker to to support the form.  What you would expect.  Date of birth.  Date and cause of death.  Occupations.  Your medical history.

In three or four minutes, Marlowe returned dressed in a retro double-breasted coat and tie. The picture on the ad wasn’t current.  He’d aged since then. Here’s what he looks like today:

He grabbed the ashtray, emptied it in the metal trashcan next to his desk, and placed it on the coffee table next to me. After shaking my hand, he plopped down on the sofa, offered me a Pell Mell from his pack. “No thanks,” I said.

He placed a cigarette directly from the pack to his lips, retrieved a box of matches, and lit one from the bottom of his shoe.  He ignited the cig, took a deep drag, tilted his head back, and then expelled the smoke through his nostrils as he dropped the match into the ashtray..

“How about a drink?” he said. “A shot of rye? I could make a new pot of coffee.”

“No thanks, a little early for whiskey and a little late for coffee.”

A tic messed with his mouth. “Mind if I do?”

“Help yourself,” I said.

He produced a pint bottle from his side coat pocket, unscrewed the cap, and took a long slug. Then a short one. Then another long one.

He screwed the top back on and placed the bottle on the table. The label read “Templeton Rye, aged 4 years.”  He then picked up the form I filled out and gave it a cursory once over.

“Mr. McNully, sorry about your loss. I read your wife’s obituary. Remarkable woman. Even though now you feel like shit, you’re a lucky man, if you know what I mean.“

“Yeah, I think I know what you mean. I feel the same way, sort of.”

“Some days you feel okay; some days you feel like, Niobe, all tears, right?

He paused to cough, a dry hoarse smoker’s cough.

“Not so much the latter,”  I said when he had finished,  “But feeling ‘like shit is fairly accurate.’”

“You’re an English teacher, right.”

‘A professor,”  I said.

“Then you know different people are going to react differently to grief. Faulkner’s Caroline Compson isn’t Hemingway’s Frederick Henry. On one extreme, you got your Niobes, your Caroline Compsons, your basketcases, weeping unceasingly or taking to bed, doping up with camphor, and on the other extreme you got your tough cookies like Frederick Henry in A Farewell to Arms. You’ve read that, right.”

“Coincidentally, I did my thesis on Faulkner, on death and dying in Faulkner,”  I threw in, rather awkwardly, which seemed to throw his rhythm off a tad.

“A hopeless rummy.  Anyway, you know Hemingway?”

“Better than most,”  I said, almost wishing I had opted for the hospice counselor.

Remember the ending of A Farewell to Arms?”

“Yeah, the nurse dies in childbirth.”

“Here’s the last paragraph. I’ve memorized it:

But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying goodbye to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

“Yipes. I’d forgotten that.”

“I’m guessing you fall somewhere in between Niobe and ol’ Frederick. Am I right?”

“Happy to say, closer to Fred than Ny.”

“Okay, Prof, I want you to study that painting over there on that wall. It’s an allegory of grieving.”

I thought but managed not to say, “You gotta to be kidding me,” but instead “Okay?” in that tone my students use when trying to express incredulity.

I stood up, walked over, and looked at the painting, which I only had glanced coming in. I stared at it for about a minute. “You say it’s an allegory on grieving?”

“Look, Prof, I’m going to save you some money, cut to the chase and explain the symbolism rather than pulling it out of you with Socratic questions.”

“Suits me.” We hadn’t discussed remuneration, but I assumed it charged by the half-hour.

Now he was standing next to me, pointing with his cigarette. “Okay, the Lighthouse represents the earth’s axis; it’s centered, phallic, pointing upwards. The ocean represents the female, suffering, the unconscious, you name it.”

I inwardly rolled my eyes.  This was simplistic, sophomoric analysis.

“You see those whitecaps; the ocean is rough. Did you notice those legs sticking out of the water?”

“What legs? Where?”

He pointed. “Those are Icarus’s legs from the Breughel painting.”

“You mean Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the painting Auden alludes to in his poem,”  I said as if I were a character in a B movie.

He was supposed to say “precisely,” but instead,  replied, “You got it, prof.”

 

 

Cupping the cigarette in his hand, he took one last drag, leaned over, and crushed it into the ashtray.

”Okay, follow the diagonal line from Icarus’s legs, to the man battling the rabid weasel, up to the dame running towards shore, to the mermaid sitting on the rocks.

“Yes?”

“That’s grief’s progression, simplified.  It immerses you; eventually you stick your head out of the water, only to be attacked by whatever you want those weasels to stand for, guilt, depression, numbness.  But note he’s battling those weasels.  Has one by the tail.  Soon as he dispatches that one, he’ll reach for the one gnawing on his neck.  He’s gonna have scars, for sure, but scars heal and eventually fade, even though, they never really go away.”

He reached for another cig and offered the pack almost reflexively.

“No thanks.  But I have a question.  I’m assuming the woman on shore is part of the progression.”

“Right.”

“Why not make her a man and the mermaid a merman?

“I’ve got female clients, too. It doesn’t mean that grief makes you change genders, though it might make you take on some of the traits of the other gender.  Of course, you got grief going with sons and dads, moms and daughters, queer couples.  As it turns out, most of my clients are queer.”

He rubbed his hand across his chin.

“So, you probably realize that it’s not linear like this, but it’s eventually the progression.  What you’ll become with time is the mermaid on the rock – or, in your case, a merman on the rocks — a creature of both worlds.  Note her expression of detached interest.”

“I see,”  I said.

“Good, That’s it. I could waste your time and money by going on about this shit, but this is really all you need to know.”  Once again his tic jerked the corner of his mouth.

“That’s it?

“That’s it.

“How much do I owe you?”

“Fifty bucks.”

“Do you take credit cards?”

“No but Charlie or Hank can accept on my behalf at the bar below. Seems like nobody carries cash or checks nowadays.”

“I could write a check.”

“Perfect.”

As I descended the steps, I looked over my shoulder at the ocean across the street. It was gray with a nasty riptide. It occurred to me that Marlowe wasn’t exactly the perfect role model for recovery.

It was noon, so I went over to the bar and sat down on a stool and grabbed a menu, ordered a Pabst on draft and a Mahi taco. The lager and taco were good, as Hemingway might say. I asked the bartender, a thirty-something sporting a lumberjack’s beard and a shaved head, the scoop on Marlowe. He rolled his eyes. “He’s okay when he’s sober but a pain in the ass when he’s drunk. He can be a mean drunk.”

“Does he get drunk a lot?

“The bartender grinned. “Is the pope a commie from Argentina?”

“Yes, I reckon he is,” I said.

“Hey,”  he said.  “Sorry about your loss.  I lost my brother in Afghanistan.  I’m still not over it. ”

As I left, I glanced up at the porch, and there sat Marlowe with his coat off, his pants supported by suspenders, his retro 40’s tie loosened at the collar. Smoking one of his Pell Mells, he was staring out at the ocean, his eyes hidden by wrap around shades.


[1] Marlowe would probably point out that’s six words.

 

 

Tales of Bad Parenting

As my regular readers know, I possess an incredibly delicate, depression-prone sensibility. I find large “family friendly” crowds especially nerve-wracking, particularly if those families come from “all walks of life.” I can handle “non-family friendly” gatherings just fine. Heavy metal rock concerts, ecstasy-fueled raves, St. Patrick Day’s pub-crawls, and violent protests don’t bother me a whit; however, a day trip to somewhere like Six Flags hurls me headlong into Sylvia-Plath-like pits of deep despair.

We’re talking Mariana Trench, Dante’s Malebolgia, i.e., super subterranean levels of depression.

Imagine my horror, then, when one Saturday twenty years ago around noon, my 8th grade son Harrison asked if I would take him and his 6th grade brother Ned to the Coastal Carolina Fair.

“It’s the very last day,” he added.

Mental montage:

 

We were driving on Ashley Avenue in the small beach community where we live.[1] I looked over at my wife Judy whose expression was one that you might encounter if you had just informed someone that she was being sequestered for jury duty for a Gambino brother trial in Newark.

These words came out of my mouth: “You boys ever hear of Playboy magazine?”

They answered in the affirmative.

“Well, what if instead of taking you to the fair, I bought you a copy of Playboy magazine instead?

“You’re kidding, “ Harrison said, the glee in his voice approaching bicycle-under-the X-mas-tree levels.

“I’m absolutely serious,” I said. “By the time we return home, get ready, battle the bumper-to-bumper traffic, find a godforsaken place to park, trudge the five miles to the entrance, we’ll all be exhausted.”

“You’re sure you’re not kidding?”

“Watch me.”

What he left unsaid, but it registered loud and clear: “You’re the greatest dad in the world!”

So we pulled into Bert’s Market, and I found the magazine rack and secured the current issue of Playboy, which featured the German figure skater Katrina Witt.[2] The transaction was made, the product sheathed in a brown paper bag.

Once we returned home, the boys scampered into the room and slammed the door.

The next day, while they were out skateboarding, I slinked into the room with the intention of checking out the issue myself, but they had hidden it, as if it were contraband.

Finally, I had to ask them outright if they minded if I took a look at it. I promised to give it back.


[1] Let me hasten to add that despite the tale that is to follow, our two sons have managed to graduate from college (one has a masters in linguistics, the other makes 30K more than his old man who has 31 years of teaching the same gig). In other words, they no longer live with us.

[2] People often ask why both boys majored in German. It just occurred to me that this event might have played a role.

 

Blow, Matthew; Crack Your Cheeks; Rage, Blow

Winslow Homer:

Winslow Homer: “Hurricane”

Between foreseeing and averting change
Lies all the mastery of elements
Which clocks and weatherglasses cannot alter.
Time in the hand is not control of time,
Nor shattered fragments of an instrument
A proof against the wind; the wind will rise,
We can only close the shutters.

                              Adrienne Rich, “Storm Warnings”

As I type this, my wife Judy Birdsong and I are awaiting Hurricane Matthew’s arrival on a barrier island off the coast of South Carolina. Ominously enough, Folly Beach is the name of this island. Folly’s main historical claim to fame is that Union soldiers occupied the island during our Civil War[1] and Gershwin wrote the music for Porgy and Bess here while staying at DuBose Heyward’s beach house. Heyward’s novel Porgy, by the way, features a hurricane, but one that sneaked upon the characters in those simpler days before Jim Cantore became a household name.  Nothing against Jim and the well-meaning folks at the Weather Channel, but enduring the high keen of their histrionic prophecies is a bit of a drag for us seasoned veterans of what Adrienne Rich calls later in the poem quoted above “troubled regions.”  Also, no doubt, well-meaning, Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina shut down the state from the capital to the coast Tuesday evening.  She actually decreed all capital city schools be closed, including the University, even though the capital, Columbia, is situated 100 miles inland, and the order came over 48 hours ago.[2]

Here’s what it looks like right now from our bedroom window (i.e. 3:05 EDT 7 Oct 2016).

Our decision to defy Governor Haley’s mandatory evacuation order worries some of our friends, and it ‘s not surprising given the Weather Channel correspondents’ brow-beating and pleading. Perhaps because I am a native here, and this will be my sixth storm, I’ve come to resent the complete and utter lack of nuance we are subjected to during tropical events.

For example, we’ve been warned that there will be “storm surges that we’ve not seen since Hurricane Hugo,” which is true, though with Matthew the surges at Charleston are estimated to be 4 – 6 feet and with Hugo the largest was measured at 21 feet.

post Matthew damage on Daytona Beach

post Matthew damage on Daytona Beach

Sullivans Island post Hugo

Sullivans Island post Hugo

Believe me, if I lived in a mobile home or a one-story house on a slab at sea level, I would be long gone. However, we don’t, are in our 60’s, and as Judy puts it, “I  have cancer anyway.” In other words, we’re having fun, an adventure.   If only Fernando and Alameda Marcos could join us and sit in these throne-like stacked chairs hauled in from the screen porch.

img_0101

We believe in science. Matthew’s pressure has risen 9 millibars in 6 hours, our house was built to exceed hurricane codes, and its bottom floor is 30+ feet above sea level.

In fact, my biggest concern is that we’re going to run out of boiled peanuts.

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[1] AKA among the unreconstructed as “the War Between the States” or, worse, “the War of Northern Aggression.” As Hamlet put it, “though I am native here/And to the manner born,” I somehow ended up a liberal and acknowledge my region’s “manifold sins and wickedness” yet still somehow love Dixie, treasure my native soil. Go figure.

[2] Governor Haley, once the darling of Sarah Pallin, perhaps, to use hurricane lingo, has jogged to the left during her two terms, though it would appear that she’s not all that big on science. My son, who teaches in Orlando, much closer to the storm’s “wrath,” had a full day of school on Wednesday and a half day yesterday.