Saturday, January 1, 2011

Saturday Musings, 01 January 2011

Good morning,

The gentle sound I hear is the little dog's carefree snoring. She sleeps in her tattered bed, head askew over the edge, oblivious to the passage of time and the turning of a new year. She knows only that her beloved boy has not made it home, and so she won't go into his room to sleep amidst the covers, without his long, lean body beside her.

My son received many admonishments to stay put last evening. The potential that he might consume alcohol and drive didn't worry as much as the potential that he might encounter someone else who had. His sleeping on a few feet of floor in a home where he spent many nights as a child seems more reasonable then venturing out into a city filled with amateurs attempting to navigate the city streets with impaired systems.

As for myself, I stayed home most of the night, after an early dinner with my son and fiance at Charlie Hooper's, where the jukebox played a curious mix of old Grateful Dead and more modern rock, while the waitresses sashayed in time to the music. I don't have much use for the kind of tipsy reveling that characterizes the heralding of the new year. I am content. I've unpacked a few boxes for the newest resident of the house, and culled out a round of nonmatching dishes to make way for his, which do.

All of this unpacking stirs memories of the many times I moved before I bought the Holmes House in 1993. I stop for a moment, raised coffee cup in hand, counting the places I've lived, and thinking aboutf my first real apartment.

On Russell, east of Jefferson, the shotgun flat had two bedrooms and rent due each Sunday. My living room windows faced north, the view consisting of a long stretch of other four-family flats, brick, with their curved German-style windows. In the '70s, the street's occupants were middle-class working people, who left each morning early and came home each evening late, tired and dirty, wanting nothing more than a heavy meal and a cold beer. I did not know any fellow St. Louis U. students who lived that far east. I chose the apartment for its rent and spaciousness, for the clean if old kitchen, and the well-kept hardwood floors.

I had spent one-and-a-half semesters living in a hastily-found dorm room, after an unpleasant conversation with my mother in late October. I'm going to be late, probably won't be home for dinner, I had said. She barked at me in reply: If you are not home by 5pm, don't bother coming home at all. I took her at her word, to her ever-lasting chagrin. My work-study job in the Financial Aids office garnered me an increased grant that covered the cost of a dorm room until the end of second semester, and that first summer, 1974, I sublet the apartment of a friend at Russell and Grand. When she returned from home for the fall semester, I found a place on down the road, far from campus, far from the clusters of apartments in which my contemporaries lived.

That year, I dated a medical student named Ray. We usually met on campus and went out together from there, so he rarely visited my home. He would bring me back to wherever I had parked for class or work, and I made my own way home. I only have one memory of Ray ever being in my apartment, and that was after our relationship had ended, in the spring. You broke up with me because I'm black! he shouted at me, in a raw, accusatory voice. Ray, Ray, do you think it took me a year to notice??

During the same time period, I had a friend, purely platonic, also black, named Hank. Hank, unlike Ray, freely came and went at my apartment. We fixed meals together, made fun of pop singers in loud, raucous conversations, and sat --- cozy, quiet, companionable, far into the night. Hank had strong, firm features; a short, sturdy body; and liquid, knowing brown eyes.

One Saturday, that spring, Hank rapped on the glass door to my apartment, hard and urgent. I lived on the second floor, and had to descend a long narrow stair to admit visitors. He knocked again as I came down the stairwell. Hold your horses! I called to him. I could see him through the window, glancing over his shoulder, worried, fearful. His polo shirt pulled tautly across his back and shoulder as he twisted around, and when he turned toward me, I caught a stab of the deep terror in his eyes. I opened the door. What's your problem? I asked. He put out a hand to urge me back up into the flat, and I had just a few seconds to see what kind of demon might be following him. I saw only my landlady, who lived in the flat below me, standing in the yard with two rough, heavy men from across the street. As I watched, my landlady folded her arms across her wiry body, and gave her head, with its row upon row of tight pin curls, a jerk in my direction. I could not read her expression.

Hank continued past my living room into my kitchen and opened the metal door of a cabinet, taking down a silver aluminum glass. He filled it with cold water from the tap, and drank: long, deep, without pausing to breathe. He set the empty glass down on the counter. I stood a few feet from him, not speaking, watching him stare at something in the sink. Finally, he faced me. I'm sorry, he said. I'm afraid I've caused you trouble.

I shook my head, disbelieving that this gentle man could cause anyone trouble. He rushed past me and paced around the living room, agitated, insistent, telling me that the landlady and neighbors seemed upset by his presence. Sit down, here, sit down, calm down. I touched his arm. He jerked away and continued his pacing. I stood, helpless. Don't be ridiculous, I assured him. What do they care who my friends are?

But care they did. The next day, my landlady awakened me with a series of forceful, insistent bangs on my front door that reverberated through the apartment and penetrated the thick fog of sleep. I stumbled down in my flannel nightgown, long, wiry hair tumbling over one shoulder, spastic legs protesting at such strenuous work before the synapses had stirred. What is it, I grumbled. Is the house on fire?

She handed me an envelope. It's your notice, you gotta get out. I stared at her, not awake enough to protest but aware of the ridiculousness of being evicted from an apartment with no more class than to cost fifty dollars a week. Why? I asked. We can't have no coloreds here, she snapped back at me, and turned on her tight little heel and walked over to her own stoop, disappearing into the door of her apartment.

I climbed the steps and sat in my living room. I looked at the shabby furniture that had come with the place -- a broken rocker, a bowed brown couch, a scuffed coffee table which appeared to have been used as a cobbler's bench and bore deep, scandalous scratches. Evicted. For having a black friend. And not even Ray, who had at least been my boyfriend.

I made my way into the galley kitchen, and put the percolator on the stove. As I waited for the first hot burst of coffee to appear in the little glass knob, I tried to get my mind around the landlady's comment. We can't have no coloreds here. In 1976. In a tacky little rundown neighborhood, east of Jefferson, in south St. Louis, where most of my Corley relatives wouldn't even want to be caught dead.

I spent the day gathering boxes for the move. I considered asking Hank to help, but thought that might just get him hurt. I had broken up with Ray by then, so I didn't have the muscle of a paramour on which to depend even if I would have asked, which I wouldn't have, for the same reason that I didn't ask Hank. I called a couple of my friends from North County instead, and started looking for somewhere to move.

One of my friends had a lawyer father. She mentioned my situation to him, and he suggested a complaint with the city. I pounced on this idea. The net result found a few hundred dollars in my pocket, which I used for a deposit on the next apartment, in Laclede Town, behind the University. My landlady admitted the reason she asked me to move. I don't think she even felt embarrassed. I'm not sure she knew why anyone would question her motivations. She didn't even have the decency to lie.

Hank had graduated, and left town shortly after my move. Though his full name has faded into the recesses of my old mind, I have not forgotten our friendship, or the hours we spent ruminating about the world, or that one, brief insight into what it must be like to face genuine hatred. I have not forgotten my glimpse of the fright in his eyes, or the electric feel of panic in his touch as he urged me back into the flat, as he pushed the door closed between us and that small, tight circle of angry neighbors on the sidewalk.

The dawning new year surrounds me, with its fresh, clean cold and the broad stretch of a pale sapphire sky. I shake away the memories, and get up to pour myself another cup of coffee. I've several loads of laundry to do, and New Year's Resolutions to make. After awhile, my son will come home, and I will hear all about the party he attended, on the last day of 2010.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

1 comment:

  1. On this first day of the year, one of the things I am doing is counting my blessings. One of them is getting re-connected with you. There is so much more to share about where we've been and where we believe we are headed. You are one of the first things on my list of "new blessings." love, marcella


The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.