Saturday, October 24, 2015

Saturday Musings(tm), 24 October 2015

Good morning,

Except for the ringing in my ears, the neighborhood has fallen silent.  Jackhammers assaulted our air far into Friday evening, shattering the silence, driving me off my front porch.  I closed windows and doors, turned the television volume higher, and called the police.  But progress evidently marches forward despite the ruination of the environment of those who've made Astor Place home for decades.

And now I am thinking of progress; of houses raised, of buildings demolished, of trees torn from their roots.  When I get back to St. Louis, I search for apartments where I laid my head after nights of drinking or late hours at the library but all have succumbed to the whimsical dictates of urban planners.  I wonder what my parents' house looks like now; I remember my house in Winslow, Arkansas which Brian, Trudy, and I saw a few years ago.  On Monday work begins on my upstairs bathroom here.  I'll take pictures before the contractor starts his work.  Future owners of this house will want to know where it began.

Where it all began.

A by-the-week apartment on Russell Blvd, east of Jefferson, St. Louis, Missouri.  Summer 1974.  I enter the stairwell with a bag of groceries, my pocketbook, a handful of keys.  The apartment door opens on the front stoop of the building into a stairwell the leads directly into my living room.  I kick the door shut with one foot, rattling the glass, and start my climb.  I'm 18; as strong as I will ever be, because I'm working as a camp counselor out in Jennings where my parents still live, using their address to qualify for the job.  The soccer coach has taken me on as a mission and is teaching me tricks on the weight machine.  The stairs to my apartment seem almost easy.

A little group of neighbors had been standing in the yard of the four-family flat when I parked on Russell.  My landlady stood among them.  They eyed me but offered no help.  I twitched the sheaf of hair on my back and smiled as I walked beyond them.  Their conversation resumed when I unlocked the door. They probably find me arrogant but I don't care.  I know I'm not.  I'm just  a different kind of person than they are.

It's that way, in St. Louis, in the 1970s.  If you come from the County, the folks in the City find you perplexing.  And vice versa.  North Countians like me don't evoke as much suspicion as those from West or South County, but we're still considered oddballs.  Outcasts.  Interlopers.

My friend Hank has invited himself for dinner.  I like Hank.  We met during my first year of college and became friends over drinks at the Pub.  He's strong and smart and funny, and we've never even hinted at dating or romance; we're just friends.  An eighteen-year-old girl who's moved from Jennings to the city to go to SLU needs man-friends; he's walked into a few tense situations and steered me out of trouble.

I need a friend more than ever, this particular evening.  I've ended my first-year-of-college relationship with a man who accused me of dumping him because of his race.  "You think I'm breaking up with you because you're black?" I asked.  He glared at me.  "Do you think it took me a year to notice?"  

Three days later, the exchange still stung.  Hank understood.  He listened for hours on the phone.  He knew first-hand that I had no prejudice based on skin color. He'd heard about Ray's insecurities, about my concern that dating me had lulled him into overlooking his medical school studies and his obligation to the Army which paid his tuition.  He knew that I had made my decision after agonizing debate, mostly with him on the receiving end of my logic.  He'd asked me, finally, the day that I did the deed:  "Do you want to keep dating him?  Because all that sounds like flim-flam to me.  You want the man?  Find a way.  You don't want him?  Let him off the hook now."

A rap on the door breaks my reverie.  I look down the stairwell, see Hank, start down.  I reach the entry just as the argument erupts.  The landlady and two men from down the street have confronted Hank.  I can hear the harshness in their voices as I open the door.

Hank looks at me.  I meet his eyes; grey to brown; knowledge passing between us.  He shakes his head just enough for me to see, slightly enough for me to ignore.

"Is there a problem," I ask.  Three voices start; two stop.  The neighbor men defer to my landlady.

"We didn't want this. . . guy. . . to bother you, Miss Corley," she simpers.  She doesn't say "guy".  She uses a word that never crosses my lips.  A word that starts with "N" and ends with "Not-Our-Color".

I gaze at her stocky figure, the lopsided hem of her cotton dress, the piles on her sweater, the stiff pincurls marching across her head.

"He's not bothering me," I reply, voice quiet.  "He's my dinner guest."

I  open the door wider and gesture for Hank to enter.  He shakes his head, touches my arm, moves to the stairs and start to climb.  He knows me well.  He knows both that I will say something and that it would do no good to caution me.

"Something wrong?"  Just two words, from tenant to landlady, spoken beneath her shocked stare and the snarls of the men standing with her.

"We don't like that kind here," she snaps.  She trembles; powder falls from her cheek to her bosom.

I assume the look of someone determined to resist.  "What kind," I ask.  "Handsome? Young? Smart?  Or is it cops you don't like; my friend is a police officer.  Which kind is it you don't like here?"

"A good girl oughtn't put herself out for one of them kind," she tells me, and her condemnation hangs in the air between us.

I hear my name called, and turn.  Hank stands at the top of the stairs.  "Come on up here, woman, I'm starved and you know I don't cook."  He's willing me to avoid the confrontation.  I let him have his way; I close the door.

At the end of the week, the landlady gives me a notice to vacate.  She's dumb enough or bold enough to state the real reason on the hand-written letter shoved in my mailbox.  I take it to the city.

She's made to pay my moving costs and a fine, which I offer to split with Hank.  He declines.  But he's proud of me. Funny thing:  The note she wrote complained that I had a black boyfriend.  And she meant Hank.  We both find that hilarious.  As for Ray, I don't get to tell him.  He drops out of medical school and leaves the area.  It's Hank who helps me pack; Hank who comes to the city housing hearing; Hank who carries my boxes up to my next apartment. 

Every young woman needs a friend like Hank.

Forty years later, I can still tell you Ray's whole name but I've forgotten Hank's surname.  I can picture them both: I see Hank most clearly standing in the doorway to my apartment stairwell.  The yard and the landlady and the neighbor men loom beyond the glass of the front door.  Hank wears a blue polo shirt, jeans, and a brilliant smile.  It occurs to me, now, looking down on him from this greater distance, that Hank might have been gay.   Wouldn't that have shocked the old biddy.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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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.