Oh, Those Old Southern Barbershops of Yore

Barbershop by Joan Estes

One of my favorite Tom Waits songs is “Barber Shop” from the 1977 album Foreign Affairs. It’s a jazzy, Beat poet-like monologue propelled by stand-up bass and drums. The song condenses a cascade of rhyming cliches into an archetypical visit to a Mid-20th Century barbershop.[1]

He sets the scene with one ass-kicking couplet:

Bay rum lucky tiger butch wax cracker jacks

Shoeshine jawbreaker magazine racks.

Then he treats us to typical idle barbershop chatter:

Morning Mr. Ferguson, what’s the good word with you?

[snip][2]

You lost a little round the middle and you’re looking real good.

[snip]

What’s the low-down Mr. Brown? I heard your boy’s leaving town.

[snip]

Throw me over the sports page, Cincinnati looking good.

[snip]


The hair’s getting longer, you know the skirts are getting shorter,
And don’t you know that you can get a cheaper haircut
If you wanna cross the border.

If your mama saw you smoking, well, she’d kick your ass.
Now you put it out you juvenile and put it out fast.

Well, if I had a million dollars what would I do?
I’d probably be a barber not a bum like you.

Still got your paper route now that’s just fine.
And you can pay me double because you gypped me last ti
me.

In Summerville, South Carolina, my hometown, going to the barbershop was not one of my favorite activities, right up there with visiting the dentist. In pre-adolescence, we patronized Homer’s, which conformed almost perfectly to Waits’s depiction. My father took me in those days because he thought women didn’t belong in barbershops – the way men didn’t belong in “beauty parlors” – because their presence would curtail free expression, whether it be an off-color joke by the males or juicy lady gossip by the females. 

At Homer’s you could get a shoeshine and a shave. I remember watching the barbers sharpen their razors on strops after they’d lathered the reclining recipients with soft-bristled brushes. To me, it looked scary. 

Mr. Homer, as we called him, employed another barber, Ben, a robust, heavy-set Filipino proficient but not fluent in English. Whenever someone came in with flipflops, he’d bellow, “How ‘bout a shoeshine?” and then laugh loudly at his own joke.[3]

At barber colleges, they must have a course in how to engage in small talk. Truth be known, I’ve never enjoyed Q and A small talk from service providers, whether they be barbers, dental hygienists, or the Porter-Gaud dad who peppered me with questions while performing my vasectomy. 

Also, sometimes small talk can seem like lying. 

“Don’t you think Gone with the Wind is the greatest movie of all time?”

“Uh, maybe.”

Anyway, in adolescence, I ditched Homer’s for a barbershop I think was called Bryant’s, which was owned and operated by African Americans, though think they only cut White people’s hair. It was located a couple of doors down from. Dr. Melfi’s Pharmacy, my go-to source for Mad Magazines

Bryant’s didn’t conform at all to Waits’s Homer’s-like barbershop. It had a New Orleans vibe with ornate shrines set up to honor JFK and MLK, Jr. with other photographs of less famous civil rights icons along with Hubert Horatio Humphry campaign buttons. It also seemed not as glaringly well-lit as Homer’s. On the other hand, I don’t think they offered comic books or magazines to flip through while you waited.

The barbers at Bryant’s weren’t all that big on small talk either, which suited me just fine. I think the last time I had my hair cut there was in August right before my junior year of high school. After that, I started cultivating a “freak flag” do and would get slight trims from girls I knew, just enough snipped so I wouldn’t get thrown out of school. Hair couldn’t touch your collar, and sideburns could only come down halfway down your ear. I had a friend named Gray who actually wore a short-haired wig to school.

The last old-fashioned barbershop I patronized was Gloria’s on Center Street at Folly Beach not long after we moved there in the very late Nineties. Like my ol’ man, I took my boys to the shop to get their hair cut. Gloria’s cat had full range of the joint, and although it didn’t seem all that hygienic, it was picturesque, and she only charged me five bucks because I’m bald. A proud lesbian, her small talk wasn’t all that small.

Now, of course, the building has been converted into a tourist bar. 

Ah, no; the years, the years; 

Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

On a brighter note, I’ll leave you with Waits’s song. Enjoy.


[1] In fact, when I taught the Beats in my American Lit class, I played the song for my students on a Porter-Gaud phonograph, a relic that nevertheless produced high quality sound, albeit not stereophonic.

[2] [snip] designates I’m omitting lines; though, I’ll confess, it’s an onomatopoetic play on the action of the song. 

[3] Interestingly enough, we children called him Ben, not Mr. Ben, the way we called our maids Lucille or Alice while they called us Mr. Rusty or Mr. David. 

The Danger of Being Different

photograph by Wesley Moore

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

                                    Oscar Wilde, “Ballad of the Reading Gaol”

In 1882, Oscar Wilde visited Charleston, South Carolina, a late stop on his tour of the United States and Canada.  Although the tour had begun triumphantly with a fawning press hanging on the Irishman’s every word and with Wilde’s having killed a bottle of wine with Walt Whitman at his Camden home, trouble ensued when Wilde shared a train from Philadelphia to Baltimore with Archibald Forbes, a Scottish war correspondent who, according to Richard Ellmann, “found Wilde’s knee breeches [. . .] particularly repellent” and who “stung Wilde with stupid jokes about the commercializing of aestheticism.”  

Wilde was, in fact, on his way to attend a lecture by Forbes entitled “The Inner Life of a War Correspondent,” but after suffering Forbes’ slings and arrows, Wilde decided to skip the lecture and head to Washington.  This slight spurred Forbes to mock Wilde in that lecture and in letters to various newspapers. This negative publicity spilled over to influence other philistines of the press who found Wilde’s clothes and manners effeminate and ostentatious.

Forbes
Wilde

I say who is without ostentation cast the first stone.

At any rate, by the time Wilde rolled into the Holy City, he was an inviting target for smug homophobes like the News and Courier reporter who provided the following story excerpted from  Oscar Wilde in America, The Interviews:

Of course, that Archibald Forbes and the unknown Charleston reporter are mere footnotes to Wilde’s story would not surprise Wilde, who said about his treatment by the press during his tour:

“I have no complaints to make.  They have certainly treated me outrageously, but I am not the one who is injured; it is the public.  By such ridiculous attacks the people are taught to attack what they should revere.  Had I been treated differently by the newspapers in England and in this country, had I been commended and endorsed, for the first time in my life I should have doubted myself and my mission.”

As a former teacher in a middle and high school, I am all too familiar with this ostracizing of people who are different, and I warned students that bigoted impressions they make could become indelible, and though I won’t name names, I consider several people of classes who graduated in the early years of the previous decade cruel, the latter-day equivalents of Archibald Forbes, that boorish metal-bedecked blowhard Lilliputian pictured above.  Unfortunately, for him, his boorishness lives on whereas those student bullies’ acts of unkindness will be merely remembered by their victims. Perhaps they have changed, but perhaps they’ve merely become more circumspect in expressing their contempt.

The good news, however, is that, for whatever reason, students today are so much more open-minded, especially towards homosexuality, than ever before, which no doubt is part of the sea change that has occurred in this country in the last three decades.

Tolerence, on the whole, is on the rise.

Shadow Self-Portrait with Judy Birdsong at Wilde’s tomb.

With Her Myriad and Sunken Face Lifted to the Weather

Here’s Faulkner’s physical description of Dilsey Gibson from The Sound and the Fury, Dilsey, the Black caretaker of the fucked-up[1] Compson clan, as dysfunctional a collection of kin you’ll find this side of the House of Cadmus. 

She had been a big woman once but now her skeleton rose, draped loosely in unpadded skin that tightened again upon a paunch almost dropsical, as though muscle and tissue had been courage or fortitude which the days or the years had consumed until only the indomitable skeleton was left rising like a ruin or a landmark above the somnolent and impervious guts, and above that the collapsed face that gave the impression of the bones themselves being outside the flesh, lifted into the driving day with an expression at once fatalistic and of a child’s astonished disappointment, until she turned and entered the house again and closed the door.

A remarkable human being, Dilsey, transcendent in her morality. She stoically endures subjugation, poverty, and the day-to-day depredation of having to tend to the Compsons[2], all the while doing her best to raise her own grandchildren and by proxy provide damaged teen Quentin Compson some desperately needed love. Dilsey’s just passing through this vale of tears, her degradation a temporary burden before the everlasting glory commences. She’s seen the first and the last, she says.

Like the woman in Douglas Balentine’s painting Cargo II.

Cargo II

When I saw the painting for the “first time in the flesh” at Douglas’s home last Saturday night, I thought immediately of Dilsey. There she is in the center of the canvas, transplanted from Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi, to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. She’s traded her Mississippi ratty Easter Sunday purple for something more African, but the expression is hers, Dilsey’s, “with her myriad and sunken face lifted to the weather.”  She, too, has seen the first and the last.

The freighters on the right side of the canvas heading to the harbor follow the path that brought Dilsey’s ancestors to Charleston as beachcombers loll about, attempting to darken their skin. The woman lying on her stomach between the two freighters seems to be developing a sunburn. These folks remind me somewhat of Edward Hopper’s People in the Sun, though they’re much more rigid than Balentine’s more relaxed and fleshy beachgoers. 

Cargo II is truly a beautiful, thought-provoking painting. I absolutely love it.


[1] Generally I’m not one to lob f-bombs, but the phrase “the fucked up Compson clan” sounds so right you can almost dance to it, and I can’t think of a more apt word to describe their situation. . 

[2] Okay, let’s start with Benjy, the thirty-three-year-old castrato with an IQ in the teens; then there’s his banished sister Caddie and her neglected way-damaged teenaged daughter Quentin, named for the Compson son who drowned himself at Harvard. The youngest brother Jason makes Bull Connor look broadminded. And, lastly, maybe the worst mother in American literature, the matriarch Caroline Compson, lying in dark rooms huffing on camphor day and night in a wallow of self-pity.

Excerpt from Today, Oh Boy – in the Principal’s Office

photograph by Joseph Szabo

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

Speakerbox: (crackle) 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 Anderson.

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. Stat!

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 freckled 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 up and encounters 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, Judeo-Christian Deities; purchasing and hiding Playboy magazines 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 . . .

As an elementary student, if he had been called to the office, Rusty might have feared that someone in his family had died or 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 high-top Converse All-Stars.  In the thin cavity of his chest, his heart pounds like timpani as he reaches for the cold handle of the main building’s 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. 

In the bright florescent light of the outer administrative office, he recognizes immediately that the employees are in an everyday mode. No one has died. No uniformed policeman with badge, billyclub, and handcuffs glowers in a corner waiting for him. Rusty clears his dry throat and approaches Miss Cartwright sitting at a desk next to Principal Pushcart’s door. As he nears her desk, a tiny pink bubble puffs out from her lips, then pops.

 “Mizz Cartwright,” he says, his voice unsteady, “I think Principal Pushcart wants to see me.”

“Now that’s an interesting shirt,” she says coyly, snapping the gum. “Where’d you get that?”  She’s dressed in a yellow alpaca V-neck sweater and a kelly green skirt, the official school colors.                 

Rusty had forgotten all about his shirt, a new acquisition, part of a service station uniform with the name “Buddy” stitched in an oval on its breast. It’s sure to exacerbate whatever vitriol’s brewing in Pushcart. Rusty realizes he’s left his Mr. Zig Zag denim jacket back in the art room, which is probably a good thing.

 “Uh, I got it from Buddy.”

  “Good ol’ Buddy,” she says smiling. “Mr. Pushcart and Mrs. Laban are expecting you.”

  She gets up and cracks open the door. “Mr. Boykin is here,” she says into the crack.

  The muffled bark of a drill sergeant.

  “Go on in,” she says.

The door creaks open squeakily like a coffin lid in a Christopher Lee movie. Sitting, leaning forward with his palms down on the surface of his desk, Principal Pushcart looks as if he might be on the verge of doing a hundred or so push-ups. Sitting across from him, looking over her shoulder, a frowning Mrs. Laban pumps her crossed leg like crazy.

“Yes, sir?”  

“Have a seat, son.”

There is an empty chair next to Mrs. Laban, a wooden chair, upholstered in some sort of dark green leather-like synthetic something-or-other, the kind of fabric (maybe fabric) that sticks to the back of your thighs when you’re wearing shorts in the summer. Principal Pushcart removes his right palm from the desk like some gangster in an old movie and positions it palm-up, sweeping it in a downward motion towards the chair as he nods his head in mock gentility. Across his pink scalp strands of brownish gray flimsily stretch to feebly hide his encroaching baldness. Rusty, dropping into the chair, sighs audibly in tune with the upholstery, which also sighs.

 “Now, Blanton,” he says, using Rusty’s baptismal nomenclature. “I want you to promise to tell me the truth.” The intonation isn’t all that unfriendly.

 “Yes sir,” Rusty says automatically. He’s a terribly inept liar anyway. 

 “You know,” Pushcart says, “that AJ was dismissed from homeroom to come to my office.”

 This is an easy one. “Yes sir, I was in homeroom this morning.”

 “Tell me. What did you think of the events of this morning?”

 “Think, sir? I’m not sure I thought anything.”

 “You didn’t think it was funny?”

 “I wasn’t paying all that much attention. I was sort of preoccupied. I have this really big Anatomy test today.” He looks over at Mrs. Laban for encouragement, but her features have hardened into a Madame Tussaud’s mask of unalterable unhappiness: Lucretia Borgia displeased with the consistency of her soft-boiled egg.

“Did you know that AJ hadn’t come to the office?”

 “No, sir.  Not till the announcement over the intercom.”

  “Any idea where he’s at?”

Rusty successfully stifles the impulse to say, “Behind the preposition.”

  “I dunno,” he says instead.  “Home, I’d guess. His daddy’s office maybe. I dunno.”

  Pushcart can see the little son-of-a-bitch is telling the truth. “Son,” he says, “are you aware that you’re out of dress code?”

  “It wouldn’t surprise me. I guess my hair might be.”

  “Where’s your pride, son?”

Rusty doesn’t begin to know how to answer this.  A trick question?  Of course, he possesses pride, that doom-laden quality that they talk about in English class every year, the moral failing that forces Antigone to break the burial edict, Ahab to pursue the great white whale, Macbeth to go all Charlie Manson on his kinsman Duncan.  

“I dunno, sir,” he says. “Yes and no. You know Alexander Pope called pride ‘the never-failing vice of fools.”’

As soon as the words are out of his mouth, he wants them back.  

“What!?”

“Nothing.”

“What did you say?”

“I meant sometimes pride can be a bad thing, so I was hesitant to admit I had some.”

“Well, Mr. Philosopher, I’m sending you home to get a haircut and to change that shirt. The dress code is rules, son. Not suggestions. Rules. When you look presentable, you come back here to report to me before you resume your education here at Summerville High. Consider it a suspension. Zeroes on all work missed.”  

“Yes, sir,” Rusty says. 

“I suggest you hurry.”

“Yes sir.”

 When he’s out the door, Paul looks over at Eula Lynne and asks, “What period is his anatomy test?”

 “Fourth.”

 “Well, then,” he chuckles. “I wish him God’s speed.”

“That secretary of yours is almost as bad as the kids. Out there chewing gum.  I don’t know about that, Paul.  It sets a bad example. . . ”

Poolroom except from “Today, Oh Boy”

Here’s a very short excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Today, Oh Boy.[1]

An accident in the chemistry lab the period before lunch at Summerville High School on a Monday in October of 1970 has required that the entire student body be released early. Ollie Wyborn, a brainy, super rational, and dutiful transplant from the north who has yet become acclimated to the ways of the South, is on an errand to fetch poolroom hotdogs for three girls who have offered to give him a ride home. Ollie has a crush on one of the girls, Jill Birdsong. For weeks he’s been trying to summon the courage to ask to the homecoming dance, though he’s never been on a date and doesn’t know how to dance.


Like his parents, Ollie is a Doubting Thomas. To him, fire and brimstone are natural phenomena, not the elements of an infernal furnace. Yet when Ollie steps into the smoky gloom of the pool hall, he finds himself thinking of illustrations he’s seen of Hell. It smells weird in here, sour and sweet, body odor mixed with fryer grease, stale beer, and cigarette smoke.  Some of these people look damaged. Now he understands why girls won’t come inside.

There’s a cacophony of too-loud raucous voices with those strange vowel-rich inflections –  Whatyousaybo, a greeting sounding more like Swahili than English. An older man with sergeant stripes on his uniform talks to and rocks a pinball machine plastered with curvaceous cartoon women. Lights blink on and off – ding ding ding ding ding.  The metal ball rolls up the incline but now down again.  Flippers flip.  Up the incline and down again. Beneath the ding, ding ding ding dinging, the din of clacking pool balls, laughter, blended conversations. Recorded music blares from a jukebox, a familiar song spelling out a girl’s name: G-L-O-R-I-A. Someone hollers “Rack!,” and a young black boy around ten or so, scurries past Ollie with a wooden triangle in is hand.

About fifteen red swivel stools line a bar/lunch counter, every stool occupied by a male. There’s that old, grizzled character with a white cane and seeing-eye German shepherd, the Old Blind Man Ollie’s seen a couple of times at football games. Next to him in paint-splattered overalls sits a middle-aged fellow with a cigarette dangling from his mouth moving up and down as he talks. Others, all strangers, push their way between the stools to get a server’s attention.

Ollie might as well be in Mozambique as far as knowing the etiquette involved with ordering. There doesn’t seem to be a pattern. Only two people taking and cooking orders for twenty.  They should have a line where customers receive numbers like in a deli instead of this dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest. Ollie spots four guys wearing SHS shop overalls sitting adjacent to one another, so he decides to lean between two of them to place his order.

Who this is here sticking his head here?  Gotdamn round ol’ timey hippie glasses.

“Excuse me, excuse me.”

Ain’t his turn sumbitch. Gotdamn round ol’ timey hippie glasses.

Ollie tries to make eye contact with the older server.  Why the dimness?  Behind the bar a tin sign in fading red capital letters warns NO PROFANITY. There are carved coconut head monkey faces staring vacant-eyed from shelves next to a large jar of rubberized eggs suspended in a murky solution, also prints of dogs smoking cigarettes and playing poker.

“Well, X-cuse you,” a shop boy growls.

“Sorry, but it’s crowded in here.”

“Kiss my ass, Yankee.”

Circumspection.  Circum = around; spec = to look, as in spectacles.

Looking down the bar, Ollie sees a perhaps more convenient place to order, not as close to the door.

He thinks maybe he could dance to this song.  G-L-O-R- eye-eye-eye-eye A!

  J-I-Double L   B-I-R-D-S-O-N-G    

 Jukebox:     Knock on my door

                        Come in my room

                        Make me feel alright . . . 


[1] You can read other excerpts here and here.

2020, the Year in Review

Well, ladies and gents, despite this being a year of too many foul subtractions, too much self-isolation, and a cluster bombed political landscape about as verdant as a WWI battlefield, this blog has enjoyed significant success, if you count success in the number of visitors who peeked in and the total number of hits registered on the site.

A record shattering year with 37,840 hits and 22,969 visitors from 132 countries

Perhaps, we can attribute this growth in readership to the old adage misery loves company.

At any rate, here’s a look backward at some of what I consider the worthiest posts. To revisit the posts, hit the highlighted word, which will transport you to the piece in its entirety. In January I was ignorant that old man contagion was hiding behind a tree laying (sic) in wait to throw at brick.[1]Nevertheless, not realizing that many would turn to the solace of spirits (not to mention IPAs and spiked seltzers) in the coming months, prophetically I posted a pro-alcohol piece .

To counterbalance the somewhat positive with sort of negative, I also produced this piece on the great American songwriter Stephen Foster. 

February

On February 15th, Caroline and I visited Mosquito Beach’s Island Breeze for the last time, not knowing it was the last time. Alas and Alack!

By 29 February, the virus was flourishing, so I published this enlightening expose on vultures.

March

The Charleston community lost a richly talented English teacher, a learned Charleston historian, and lovely human being, Erica Lesesne.

Also, my pal the poet Jason Chambers allowed me to read and record on of his compositions.


April

April is, as Eliot, put it, is the cruelest month, so I brought this post up from the dead land, the first post directly dealing with the pandemic

I also wrote a poem dedicated to my friend Richard O’Prey, who is alive and well I’m happy to say. 

May

My wife Caroline wrote this brilliant villanelle in memory of my first wife Judy Birdsong who died on Mother’s Day of 2017. There’s an audio clip of Caroline reading that accompanies the text of the poem.

I also bid farewell to Porter-Gaud’s Class of 2020 who lost out on the springtime rituals of severance they so richly deserved. 

June

With the year half done, I came up with this pandemic parody of of William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus.” 

July

In July, I began a series dedicated to my native town of Summerville. Here’s the most popular one that brings together two rather antithetical citizens of that once quaint village. 

August

Not much going on in August. Here’s another one from the Summerville series chronicling my first night ever spent in a jail.

September

For some odd reason, I had death on my mind

October

Another pandemic poem, this one on the wearing of masks. 

November

With the election seemingly over, I posted this celebratory poem

Also, here are a handful of videos celebrating George Alan Fox and Chico Feo’s  Songwriters’ Soap Box Open Mike Extravaganza.

 

December

Ah, those lazy crazy deathly dangerous days of college.

Thanks to all of you who stop by and read the blog, especially my regulars, Rodney, Bill and Dana, Furman, Sue, Gary, and, of course, my siblings, and my loving, patient, and beautiful wife Caroline.


[1] With apologies to Ry Cooder

Tales from Old Summerville

carolina inn

Old Carolina Inn, the first building in Summerville to have an elevator

Before the fast food franchises, before the Wal-Marts, before the sprawl, my hometown Summerville, SC, was a lovely, quiet village nestled in a pine forest 25 miles northwest of Charleston.  Settled just after the Revolutionary War and originally known as Pineland Village, the community in those days offered a haven for plantation owners seeking seasonal escape from malaria-bearing mosquitoes.

Eventually, Pineland Village became known as Summerville, and people started settling there year round. In 1847, Summerville officially became a municipality, and that very year the town council passed one of the first conservation laws in the nation, a statue forbidding cutting down trees of a certain circumference without permission.

Town-Hall-3

Town Hall back in the day

This passion for conservation and appreciation for the beauty of nature resulted in the planting of hundreds of azaleas, camellias, and gardenias throughout the town, both in its municipal parks and in the yards of the old clapboard whitewashed Victorian houses.  In the springtime, what is now called “the Old Village” or “the Historic District” has to rank as one of the most beautiful towns in the nation.  It claims as its official motto “Flowertown in the Pines.”

IMG_1211

St Paul’s Episcopal Church (photo credit Fleming Moore)

In 1950, the year my mother graduated from Summerville High School, the population stood at 3,312; in 1970, the year I began my senior year there, the population had barely grown to 3,839.  However, it almost doubled between 1970 and 1980 and grew a startling 247% to 22,519 from 1980 to 1990.  Since then, the population has doubled yet again, and according to a 2019 estimate, now 52,549 people call Summerville home.  When I go there nowadays, have lunch out or hit a bar, I recognize virtually no one.

However, in the old days, being a native and growing up “Flowertown” meant that everyone knew everyone else, which was a real disadvantage if you were a redhead like me.

“Did you recognize any of the boys?”

“No, but one of them was redheaded.”

“I bet it was Rusty Moore.  I’ll call his mother.”

Everyone in town knew everyone else, but outside of the town limits, there were a number of smaller unincorporated communities like Knightsville, which had its own elementary school, the Boone Hill community, Stallsville, New Hope, etc.  By junior high, children from these communities had matriculated in Summerville schools.  Unfortunately, a few of these rural children were dirt poor.  I remember shoeless White children hopping on the bus on the first day of school. We’re talking about the days of segregation when only a few handpicked African Americans had been integrated into our classes, and they were from downtown and academically talented.  Because academically, we were “tracked,” I rarely interacted with any of the disadvantaged kids from the rural areas, although I became good friends with several prosperous college prep kids from Knightsville.

However, when PE started in the 7th grade, I not only interacted with some of the disadvantaged rural kids, but I also showered with them, and since several had failed a year or two, some sported five o’clock shadows rather than peach fuzz.  PE  is where I first met Bobby Bosheen, the antagonist (and protagonist) of this piece.

My attempts to google Bobby Bosheen have turned up zilch.  I heard somewhere decades ago that he had been chained to a tree and bullwhipped and lost an eye.  Another rumor had him throwing a Hanahan boy off the Folly Pier and killing him in a tribal fight between rival high schools.  Although I doubt that either rumor is true, I don’t doubt that Bobby is no longer among the quick.  To say that he had anger issues is to say that Kanye West has ego issues.  Adjectives like volcanic and nuclear come to mind.  I would like to think that Bobby overcame his rage, that he turned out okay because deep down inside I don’t think he was a bad person.  He had this haunted look about him that suggested his childhood hadn’t taken place on Sunnybrook Farm.

For some odd reason, one Saturday, I let my friend, the late Gordon Wilson, talk me in going to Boone Hill Methodist Church to engage in unsupervised tackle football with the natives of that region.  Bobby was among the crew and had a jolly time swinging elbows, crushing ball carriers, and piling on.  Even though I enjoyed the game about as much as I would a root canal, I think my participation reaped the benefit of Bobby’s vaguely recognizing me and therefore not targeting me as an adversary.  True, he did punch me once as I was sitting in a car at the Curve-Inn Pool, but he was rip-roaring drunk and started fights that night with numerous revelers, including Kenny Reese, a popular basketball player.  The very next week I saw Bobby at Tastee Freeze, and Gordon asked him why he had punched me, and Bobby actually apologized, lamenting, “Whiskey and beer don’t mix.”

tastee freeze

The Old Tastee-Freeze

What really solidified my self-identification as a coward was Bobby’s girlfriend, a large, stringy haired bruiser with discolored teeth and the calves of a linebacker.  Unlike, Bobby, she hated me, hated me viscerally on sight. This was in ’70 or ’71, and I had started to grow my hair long and dress like Neil Young.  She used to position herself outside the entrance of the back of the main building and threaten me.  “I can’t wait to cut your ass, you red-headed bitch,” she said one day with arms crossed blocking the entrance.

red neck gal

I suspected she could have, given that she outweighed me and I hadn’t been in a real fight since the fourth grade, so I turned tail and found another entryway.  Whenever I saw her, I avoided her.  She scared the shit out of me.

The last time I heard something concrete about Bobby was in ’75 when I was bumming a ride back to college with one of my mother’s colleagues, a teacher at Newington Elementary School.  As we passed Morris Knight’s, a beer joint, the husband of the teacher, a non-Summerville native, mentioned that he had made the mistake of going in there one time to shoot pool and had been assaulted and actually beaten with pool cues.  He told me that he had pressed charges against the assailant, who was convicted, but that he couldn’t remember his name, that is was something funny sounding.

“Bobby Bosheen,” I suggested.

“Yes, that’s it!  Bobby Bosheen!”

Of course, Bobby’s anger had to come from somewhere.  I suspect at home he was no stranger to corporal punishment.  Perhaps, like Pee Wee Gaskins, he had been strung upside down naked and beaten with a two-by-four.  If he had been born to one of the families living on Carolina Avenue in a Victorian house with a spacious porch beneath moss draped live oaks among the azaleas, I suspect he and the rest of the world would have gotten along much better.

sville house

Fun Enough Outings Near Charleston International Airport (CHS) for Those Too Impatient to Wait Two Hours for a Delayed Flight in a Soul-Slaying Cafeteria-Like Space Where You Can’t Purchase Alcohol

Chances are if you’re waiting at the so-called International Airport in Charleston, SC for a loved one’s arrival from a cancer treatment junket in Houston the day after you discover water dripping from a lighting fixture over your breakfast bar (the consequence of two tropical storms within 6 days having bitch-slapped[1] the barrier island you call home), you might come to the conclusion that your karma sucks, that the odds of your loved one’s arriving on schedule are about the equivalent of Donald Trump’s announcing he’s dumping Melania for Caitlyn Jenner.

if only

if only

And in my case, you’d be right.

Of course, I could have just sat there among those perhaps Pentecostal women in their fusty Little House on the Prairie outfits and watch them stare into their cell phones, or I could decide to make Amoretto Sours out of lemons, to grab the jazz combo by the horns, to get the hell out of there.

It was 7:30, and the flight was now rescheduled to arrive at 9:00.

Go west, Old Man.

map

Okay, here’s my advice if what happened to me last night happens to you.

Exit the airport and head straight past the Boeing plant, past the 526 on-ramps, straight on International Avenue towards Montague. Keep going until you see the first brightly lit strip shopping center to your left located on Tanger Outlet Boulevard.

That’s where we’re headed, to La Hacienda, specifically into a small barroom inside the restaurant.

the bar inside La Hacienda

the bar inside La Hacienda

I sat in the fourth stool from the left.  Two stools over sat a diminutive African American who reminded me of a hatless Thelonious Monk and to my right stood a tall Ricardo-Montalbán-looking cat who was drinking one of these:

cerveza-rita-small-corona

 

I ordered a small Dos Equis on draft and paid in cash.  Thelonious was reading a newspaper, working on some chips, the bartender conversing with Ricardo in Spanish, so I decided to leave my beer on the bar and boogie over to Mr. K’s Used Books and Music, conveniently located two stores down.  The joint is brightly lit yet cavernous, feels more like a library than a bookstore.   I found the non-fiction section and bought a copy of David Sedaris’s When You Are Engulfed in Flames.

Back at the bar, Thelonious had been replaced by a different African American, a handsome twenty-something wearing a baseball cap cocked to one side and sporting gold caps on his front teeth.

So I reclaimed my seat and flipped to an essay entitled “Solution to Saturday’s Puzzle.”  The essay is about Sedaris refusing to change seats on a flight to Raleigh as a favor to a woman “wearing a T-shirt and cutoffs” so she can sit with her husband.  The woman is the opposite of gracious. Once in the air, she takes off her shoes, and Sedaris, who’s doing the Saturday Times crossword, notices “her toenails were painted white and each one was perfectly sculpted.”

Eighteen across: “Not Impressed.”

Eleven down: “Whore.”

I wasn’t even looking at the clues anymore.

I chuckled a couple of times, but when I hit this paragraph, I let loose one of my godlike laughs:

It’s always so satisfying when you can twist someone’s hatred into guilt — make her realize that she was wrong, too quick to judge, too unwilling to look beyond her own petty concerns.  The problem is that it works both ways.  I’d taken this woman as the type who arrives late at a movie, then asks me to move behind the tallest person in the theater so that she and her husband can sit together.  Everyone has to suffer just because she’s sleeping with someone.  But what if I was wrong?  I pictured her in a dimly lit room, trembling before a portfolio of dimly lit X-rays.  “I give you two weeks at the most, the doctor says,  “Why don’t you get your toe-nails done, buy yourself a nice pair of cutoffs and spend some quality time with your husband.  I hear the beaches of North Carolina are pretty this time of year.”

The fellow with the baseball cap to my left said, “You sho seem to be having fun.”

“This book’s hilarious,” I said.

Just then my cell rang.  The scoop with Judy, my beloved, is that even though an hour ago her flight was circling Charleston, it had to turn around to refuel in Charlotte.  She was calling me to let me know they were getting ready to take off for the thirty-minute flight.

“But I’m having fun at La Hacienda,”  I whined.  “Why don’t you just take a cab home?”

She laughed.

“I’ll see you in about half hour,” I said.

The man to my left said apropos of nothing that he had beer at home but no liquor and that he just wanted a taste of liquor before he went home.  He was drinking something cranberry-colored in a short glass.

I asked the bartender, who called me señor instead of sir, for the tab and told him to add the fellow’s drink to it.

“Thank you,”  my friend to the left said.  “That’s a blessing.”  He shook my hand with the lightest of handshakes.  He finished before me and tapped me on the shoulder to thank me again as he walked out.

I asked Ricardo about his drink, which was essentially a margarita getting slow-dripped by a pony Corona.  It’s delicious,”  he said with an elegant  Spanish accent.

“Well, so long,”  I said once my Dos Equis was history, having successfully resisted the impulse to say “adios.”

When I hit the airport the arrivals sign now said the flight would arrive at 9: 30, but just then I got the text “landed.”

So I waited for Judy, who eventually appeared, wearing her wig, trudging exhaustedly.  Over at the baggage area stood the five pioneer-clad sect members.  I told one of them that my wife could literally see the island where we live when the plane turned around to head to Charlotte, that it was like a Marx Brothers movie. They found the entire episode amusing and were happy now that Emily had joined them.

And Judy’s bags were the first two off.  Maybe our luck was changing.


[1] I’ve searched the Dewey Decimal System of my pre-digital vocabulary for a better descriptor than bitch-slapped, but pounded, drenched, scraped, etc. seem too much or too little or too inappropriately concretely rake-like, so I’ve opted for an admittedly sexist cliché rather than going with the weaker synonym backhanded.

Deserts of Vast Eternity

TIME.2No one’s left to answer the questions I have about my first memories, scenes that take place in the gas station/house of my maternal grandparents in the year 1954 or 1955.

World War II has been over for ten years now.

I am two, maybe three. My grandparents, my aunt, maybe my uncle, live in a building that’s part commercial enterprise, part domicile. It’s not a home — or even a house – but the Station. What should be the front yard consists of a narrowing triangle of concrete featuring an island of gas pumps, the apex of the triangle marking the fork where Highway 78 splits into West 5th North Street and Richardson Avenue.   Diesel smells hover as cars swish by night and day, day and night. Out back, a wire fence encloses a treeless dirt yard where an unfriendly German Pinscher prowls.

No nature boy, I-and-I.

It seems at the time of these first memories that my mother and father are living at the Station, too. The upstairs, if subsequent recollections are correct, consists of one ark-like bedroom that has two or three beds and a stand-alone sink. There must be a bathroom downstairs, but I don’t remember it.

My first memory ever is of my parents’ leaving each morning. I descend the steep stairs terrified I’ll fall. I lead with my right foot, step after step, right foot first, until I’m about four steps from the bottom. Then I leap into my father’s outstretched arms, and he slings me around in circles. I don’t want my parents to leave me, but they do, and I spend the rest of the sibling-less day in the domestic section of the building while my grandfather pumps gas or fixes flats and my grandmother works the counter cash register. I can remember feeling sorry for myself as I sat sideways on the bottom step with my knees up. I remember thinking that the day would never end.

Of course, it did, and the one after that, and the one after that . . .

At two-and-a-half, I’d experienced fewer than a thousand days, so in that frame of reference, a day looms large. Now, I have weathered approximately 24,759 days, 2063 full moons, 66 Christmas Eves. Yet, even though my frame of reference of a day has shrunk 2,000-fold, the days – especially, the weekdays  — still seem long.

Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock . . .

But not the years — the years zoom past like cars on a freeway.

Blink, just like that I’m engaged to be married and attending a party with my mother during her 25th high school reunion weekend. My former classmate Emma Jo Mellard is there with her mother as well. We make small talk, comment on time’s winged chariot’s terrifying swiftness.

Blink. I’m swinging my sons in circles above my head.

Blink. I’m looking at a photograph on Facebook of members of my high school class who will attend their own reunion next year if the pandemic abates.

These classmates are wizened, unfamiliar, old, like my own visage in the mirror.

O what shall I do with this absurdity –

O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,

Decrepit age that has been tied to me

As to a dog’s tail?

Blink.

A Rural Funeral

Funeral ProgramWhat they call Main Street in Jackson, South Carolina, isn’t what I would call a street — it’s more like a road running through farm fields, past a row of handsome houses standing on generous lots subdivided from what was once a pecan grove. The only businesses I saw: some type of mechanical repair shop with a hand-lettered sign and a defunct “Super Market.” There appear to be more churches in Jackson than businesses, at least on Main Street. We’re talking the Deep South, the Bible Belt, country music, V-8 engines, spiritual people.

I was at Jackson to attend the funeral of my first cousin Debbie, Uncle David’s second daughter, and although as a youngster I asked God to bless Elaine, Debbie, Pamela, and Scarlet each night as I recited “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” we rarely got together in childhood and virtually never in adulthood, unless we were visiting the terminally ill or, like yesterday, laying a departed family member to rest.

For whatever reason, my branch of the Moore clan isn’t close — even my siblings and I don’t see each other often — so it isn’t surprising that I can count the memories of visiting my cousins on one hand. However, when we did get together, we had a blast playing pick-up sticks and softball or listening to German-born Aunt Maria play her accordion. We simply enjoyed being together because there’s something about blood, about seeing hints of your features stamped on someone else, knowing you have sprung from common roots.

Elaine Ackerman Moore

Elaine Ackerman Moore

Roots like our irascible great granddaddy Luther Moore (“I’m deaf and blind so there’s no need to come up and talk to me!”), our sweet great grandmama and great granddaddy Ackerman, whose daughter, our grandmother, the beautiful Elaine Ackerman Moore, died before we were born and for whom my father and Uncle David mourned for the rest of their lives.

Blood, like they say, is thick.

Perhaps the most memorable event of our cousinhood occurred when Mama sold Uncle David a pony my father had bought and tried to keep in our backyard in a subdivision not zoned for farm animals. This pony was the equine equivalent of Homer Jo Roberts, Summerville’s town bully, who once punched 24 different people one night at the Curve-In Pool (I was one of them) because, as he later said by way of apology, “ Whiskey and beer don’t mix.”

This pony kicked, bit, brayed. I doubt John Wayne would have the courage to put a saddle on him. More problematic was the pony’s penchant for busting out of the make-shift fencing Daddy had erected by nailing some 2x4s to trees in our backyard. This transformation of our backyard into a farm helped to solidify our status as not-ideal neighbors (we also had tied to a tree in the backyard a wingless Ryan PT-22 airplane that we had to crank once a week to keep the engine from freezing). Neighbors were particularly unhappy when the pony got out and trampled their flower beds or deposited unsought fertilizer on their lawns.

So, Uncle David to the rescue. He drove from Jackson to Summerville with a horse trailer and relieved us of the nightmare, or, if you will, night-pony, whose behavior seemed to have improved remarkably the next time I saw him in Jackson safely enclosed behind well-constructed fencing.

I learned at her funeral that my cousin Debbie was a devout animal lover and had left behind two beloved dogs, Smoky and the Bandit. I already knew of her generosity because when Daddy was dying, she took off work and stayed for days with Mama. While she was there, she fixed mama’s broken washing machine and rewired the utility room. Debbie was a first-rate mechanic who could repair anything, who could replace the floor of a trailer, who could hold her own working beside anybody.

However, until yesterday, I had no idea of the breadth and depth of Debbie’s generosity. I learned it through reminiscences delivered during the service by her nephews, a niece, and a co-worker. I learned of material gifts galore and also of the gift of time devoted to others, the gift of love bestowed.

For example, when one nephew had to sell his beloved yellow Camaro, Debbie insisted on buying it herself so she could, unknown to him, leave it to him upon her death. I learned of her extraordinary work ethic, her meticulousness, her courage in butting heads with authority figures (a Moore trait for sure), her stoicism in enduring with grace the ravages of cancer.

I also learned of her sense of humor, an attribute that she kept right up to the very end.

For example. during her last week on earth, she was helped out of bed into her wheelchair, donned a wig, and when the nurse came in, Debbie asked her what she had put in her IV bag.

“Nothing special, just the regular.”

“Well, look what it’s done,” Debbie said. “Whatever it was, It made all my hair grow back.”

What I learned most profoundly is how much I had missed by not really knowing Debbie. Watching her nephew Steven manfully deliver an eloquent, heartfelt eulogy, I felt love manifested palatably in that sanctuary. The entire funeral from start to finish underscored the power of love and faith (something I certainly lack). How moving to hear Debbie’s brother-in-law Jeff sing to the accompaniment of his own guitar a medley of “Amazing Grace” and “My Chains Are Gone.”

On the front of the program for Debbie’s funeral are the words “Love is my gift.” How fitting.