Recognizing what you need is easy, but your desires are often more difficult to truly assess. Alas, recognition alone will not make them real. What good is knowing what you want if you are unable to take action and make it a reality? Success can only come in finding a way to achieve both –identifying what you want then choosing the path that gets you there. Young, my heart’s desires and needs were so simple. I lived for days I could stretch out so that they seemed as long as eternity; when the wavering sun set, I mourned the darkening of its end.
Those uncharted days were always the sweetest. Lying on my back in the fresh cut grass, I gazed upward though the green yellow leaves of old oaks into a blue, cloudless summer sky. Squinting my eyes, I learned to make sunlight dance and I breathed heavy of the hot air, so humid, so thick in my lungs. I did not care that I would later itch, that I would smell of the dirt that would even wiggle its way into my braid, did not care that Mother would scold at the stains on my shorts, the tar caked soles of my naked feet. I was free, free to lie there and daydream to my heart’s content. I was free for the summer and its entirety. Oh, to experience the freedom of true happiness again.
As I walk across the park to throw away what little remains of the chicken and rice, I realize today has that free feel to it. Repacking my bag, I pause to tear out a page of my journal where I’ve noted other places I want to see in the village.
At the top of the list is Café Wha?, an old Bob Dylan stomping ground, located at 115 Macdougal Street. It was once the hub of folk music performers, and still draws a crowd, but I’ve no desire to go alone. If I had a friend with me it would be different; attending a performance there would make a great shared experience.
Only recently have I become a Bob Dylan fan. When I was young, his sound actually grated on my nerves and I couldn’t appreciate the man for the poet and lyricist he is. Several years ago, I read his autobiography Chronicles: Volume 1. Not only did Dylan articulate the vibe of the era, but like Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, he reflected on the rhythms of his writing, the influences on artistic inspiration. He gives a glimpse at his relationships within the business and the many musicians with whom he collaborated. Reading it was like going back in time, walking the village streets with him, sitting in on jam sessions where words and notes seemed to just magically appear. I sat with him during the dead times when nothing came at all; when Dylan, briefly human, faced that dreaded blank funk.
Only my son Isaac, who is eleven, shares my love of Dylan. His current favorite is “Maggie’s Farm” and because I do not know a soul about, I quietly sing as I walk along. “Well, I try my best to be just like I am, But everybody wants you to be just like them…”
I’ve even learned to love the voice as well as the music. Music and food are both such an important part of culture; perhaps the greatest part, being as personal as one’s belief in religion or government. But, whereas the former two are based on ideals set by family and life circumstance, taste in music and food tend to be progressive, continually changing and developing as we grow and mature. I remember the asinine pleasure I found in letting my children try sharp foods on their undeveloped palates, the time I gave Anderson her first olive, her little face skewing up into an awful pucker. I still see that same look cross their faces when they hop in the car and realize I’m in the mood to listen to Carla Bruni or the Doors. As for taste in politics, I remember well the feeling of disgust when disappointment in a politician came beating on my door so soon after I’d cast a vote for change. I modify the thought. Our tastes in all things slowly change.
Before heading to Café Wha? I make my way to Chumleys, a decades old drinking establishment that began as a speakeasy in the early 1920’s. I find its unmarked door surrounded by scaffolding. How disappointing. The place is under renovation and temporarily closed. But, in reality this is not the Chumleys I want to visit. I wish instead to see the place back in the day, sit across the room where the writers we have come to revere held court, and talked of intellectual things and imaginings. I would like to have met Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger. But it is still a memorable place. With little trepidation I try the door and to my surprise find it unlocked. Along with old photographs, jackets of the authors’ books cover the walls; tiny lamps adorn each rough topped table. Debris gathers in the areas where the builders work, but several of the worn straight back chairs remain dust free as if occupied by cloistered, twilight guests.
Next on my list is the former residence of Edna St. Vincent Millay, located at 75 1⁄2 Bedford Street. I’ve read that the residence is easy to overlook if you’re not careful. And so it is. I pass it the first time down the street and have to double back. When at last I find it, I see it is only a narrow brick building noted by a small plaque. So this was the home of Millay. The only other notable resident of any interest to me is the handsome Cary Grant. Millay though is of great significance, a woman with a fascinating history!
“Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand: Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!” Second Fig.
Edna St. Vincent Millay was a lyric poet, dramatist, and short story writer. She gave reading tours, wrote freelance, made national radio broadcasts and created propaganda for the Writer’s War Board during the 1940’s. However, Millay is most widely remembered for her lyrical poetry and her unconstrained personality. She was well suited to Greenwich Village where she lived a very bohemian lifestyle and was openly bisexual. Millay’s poetry often reflects her individualism, nonconformity and outspokenness.
Millay has many memorable works. A Few Figs from Thistles is a well known volume of poetry that received much attention due to its feminism and open female sexuality. Another book of poetry, The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Millay also wrote the libretto for the American opera, The King’s Henchman.
It is raining again and I’m glad because I need the quiet. It is not the blanketed true silence that comes with snow, but the white sound of a steady delicate rain that stills a troubled soul. I meander through the village, up one street and down the other, then back over the same way again. Am I searching for something?
Suddenly I am soaked through, from rucksack to clothes, clean to the bone. My how the weather changes quickly here! But of course it is this way at home, where a warm April evening is often unexpectedly claimed by aggressive rain and wind. I remember one tornado season when my parents pulled the twin mattress from my brother’s bed and put it in the hall so that we might sleep there safely. That night I discovered that storms provide a source of excited energy for me; the harsher they are the better. Many times, I have thrilled at this uncontrollable power. The most memorable being in my early twenties, when out deer hunting alone I was caught and propelled through the woods and cut-overs by a violent, unexpected thunderstorm. The gale pushed me onward like a firm hand refusing to let me be. The savagery seemed to have come from nowhere and before the flux of adrenaline overtook my senses, I had become lost and disoriented. As I moved with it across the land, trying to maintain a sense of direction, I tried to keep my wits about me. I later found that this experience became one of “those” moments of sheer unrelenting excitement that would never again be replicated.
This, however, is a gentle rain, a calming peaceful rain, perfect as it is.
Wandering the streets lost in thought, I slowly become aware of my surroundings and pause to refocus. I’m not so sure that I’m in the village anymore. People move to stand under the canopies alongside buildings. Nearby several old men linger. Smoking in silence, the smoke from their cigarettes curls about them, temporarily suspended under the awning. They stand there just watching, observing perhaps people they know or don’t know or don’t care to know. Of these old men there is one dressed in layers, dirty layers, as if upon awakening he put on something somewhat clean, then decided, “Hell, it looks like it’s gonna rain” and went rummaging through his laundry pile until he found something extra to throw on just in case.
I walk near, but past them, change my mind and with a smile I ask, “Do y’all mind if I stand here with you until this shower passes on?” Even those I had not spoken to directly turn and look me over. Before they can even ask I laugh and explain, “I’m from Alabama.” The old man in the dirty clothes asks if I’d like a smoke and I tell him “Thanks, but no.” Yet, the Southern female in me takes hold and I change my mind mid-sentence explaining that I usually only smoke on my birthday and then only a petit cigar or a couple of clove cigarettes, but since it is only a couple of weeks away, why not celebrate early. So much nervous rambling is spilling from my mouth that I have to clamp down on my tongue and stop short with “Thank you”.
It’s funny how nervousness and smoking seem to join hands for me. There was that first time so long ago that I filched a pack of my Aunt Cynthia’s Salem Menthols, so sure she would not miss them. My cousin and I stole away to the garden, and down low among the rows of corn, bent our sunburned knees against the parched, long- since-plowed ground. The midday heat bore down, reassuring us we wouldn’t be found.
Smoke pulled down deep suddenly nauseates and I am reminded why I’ll never be a smoker.The smell lingers on my fingertips as the nicotine swells within my brain. Just as regret registers, so does the knowledge that I would like to live without this feeling of regret, dissatisfaction, remorse. What completely negative words. They bring so much that I can do without.
And, so, I find myself standing under the eves of some back street, wet, caught between the easy banter of old men.
The nosy female in me arises and foolishly I begin asking questions like “How long have y’all lived here?”, “Where are y’all originally from?” and more importantly “What brought y’all here?” But they are reluctant to answer and I am reminded of how some things are just different up here than they are down home.
Offering me a smoke is one thing. Answering intrusive questions is quite another. The dirty one turns back to me with a request of his own. “Can you spare a five?” he asks. Although his request is harmless, it hits me the wrong way. I resent the question.
When at home, I almost never carry cash. In the South, there are still a few places that allow personal credit, not a credit card but a tally sheet of your purchases over a given period of time that will be settled at some later date of which you the debtor chooses, and at which time you decide the amount you desire to pay. These mom and pop groceries and family run businesses are now all but gone, another almost nonexistent reminder of what was once daily life in the South, when a gentleman’s or a lady’s word was gold, when one family knew their neighbor’s family history as well as they knew their own. But things change and have right along with the most common form of currency. Debit cards reign in my neck of the woods. I know only a few who carry cash anymore and they are all men.
Turning back to the dirty one, I apologize for not having the five to spare. It goes against the grain for me to give somebody money they haven’t earned. Seeing they each have a pack of cigarettes doesn’t aid his request. In fact, I know I will need it later. Although cash is no longer necessary back home, it is indispensable in this city. My guidebook specifies that most of the restaurants I’ve chosen to visit accept cash only.
As I walk away, I wonder what is it these men do? Have they ever dirtied their hands in soil that smells of God? Or do they toil inside all day?
The lives of my father’s people were directed by the seasons. The Mozleys (or Mosley, as it is often spelled) came over as indetured servants. Rather than keeping the agreement made they chose to high-tail-it south from Carolina and change the spelling of their name. The family later produced brick masons, a doctor and who knows what else, but mostly they produced farmers, men who worked the land. Several were probably share-croppers at some point. Others married, had children and became land-owning yeoman. When my father’s family moved to Gadsden from Sand Mountain, Grandpa got a job at U.S. Steele. After he retired, I often helped him in his vegetable garden. One day as we were weeding, I asked “Grandpa, do you miss farming?” I could see the smile beneath his straw hat. “Oh, no baby, what would anyone miss? All that hard work for so little money, the uncertainty of the crop?” He may have given up farming as a living, but the act of planting and the land had a deep hold on him until the day he died.
If I could go back and spend a day in my past it would be at my grandparent’s home, sitting Indian-style in the floor beside Grandpa’s recliner as he relaxed, sipped a cold beer and watched the Braves. GrandMosie, seated nearby in her plush Queen Ann chair, taught me the art of snapping peas. Having spent the better part of a hot day working in the garden, I would retreat to the seemingly cool shadows of the living room where the glow from the T.V. and the humming drone of the box fan across the room worked like some magical elixir, salve to my tired body. That evening, I’d lie in my bath and listen to the fans and announcers clamor over the remaining innings. Cheering with Chief Noc-A-Homa, I’d slice the water with my best Tomahawk Chop. Late in the night, fatigued from the sun and drained by hot water and excitement, I’d pull a quilt from the closet and walk the short distance down the hall to the back bedroom. The worn springs squeaked an awful racket as I stood on tiptoe to reach the string that hung from the bare light bulb. Extinguishing its brilliant glare, I lay down to slumber in that deep sleep that was the reward of a hard days work outside. The rhythm of my life when I was with my grandparents offered a sweet sense of security.