The Spring House
Both Abraham and Sarah had grown very old, and Sarah was past the age of
childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself and said, “I am past bearing children
now that I am old and out of my time, and my husband is old. “The Lord said to
Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child when I am
old?’ Is anything impossible for the Lord? In due season I shall come back to you,
about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” Sarah lied because she was
frightened, and denied that she had laughed; but He said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
I buy bread from Jake Smucker every Friday at Gratz Crossroads. There is nothing remarkable about this farmers’ market where the Amish from the surrounding District Churches come to sell; it could be any one of many scattered throughout the abundant central Pennsylvania farmlands. But there, three years ago, in the midst of produce stalls and butchers’ cases, I saw an old Amish man and his wife selling bread—the bread Jake now bakes—and I was so struck by their appearance that I approached their stall, wanting grace.
It happened to me once, in Notre Dame de Paris, at the communion rail. Following the elevation of the host, the priest put the wafer on my tongue and said, “Corps du Christ.” I looked into an old cleric’s eyes and received grace. It has not happened since, and when I tried to make it happen—to see grace in a simple loaf of bread—I thought I had found it, but it was only my imaginings.
I suppose my mistake was believing I could make it happen, thinking grace was something I could take as easily as buying a loaf of bread. I imagined it simple, like a wafer on the tongue. But the loaf was no sacrament. It did not change, although I insisted on its elevation and tried to make it something holy. When I ceased to look for the mysteries I imagined hidden in the loaf, I saw instead its makers’ plainness: two simple Amish women and two half-brothers with the same bright blue eyes. If there is grace, it is in Jake’s and Isaac’s eyes, not in Emma’s determined face or Suzie’s arresting smile, and it was never in the bread.
Isaac and Suzie Smucker, who first baked the bread, appeared as beatific and perfect in their earthly goodness as if they had stepped off the face of a holy card. But if goodness radiated from them, protected them, as prayers tell us goodness protects the saints, why did their house burn down, and why did they move away? After the fire, Isaac sold the bread business to his younger half-brother, Jake, a mason with more work than he can do. Why he wants to get up at 2:00 A.M. to mix and bake bread I can’t imagine, unless it’s to keep the business in the family, the Community. But that’s the way it is. Now Jake and Emma bake the bread.
Isaac and Suzie Smucker moved back to Lancaster County. Now that they are gone, no one in their Amish community speaks of them. It is as if they never lived here, never existed. Their position is inferior to those who have simply died, and although Isaac and Suzie are not dead, I must speak about them in the past tense.
Last winter I spent the short hours of February afternoons with Isaac in his workshop, where he taught me how to plane boards smoothly by exhaling with the drag of the plane, as in a meditation. He was a small man, in his early seventies, with the slight build of those Pennsylvania Amish who have intermarried for generations. His hands were the competent, careful hands of a master craftsman who has made furniture all his life for the young Amish girls who marry each year in the flurry of November weddings. Isaac made beds and dressers, deal tables, sometimes a corner cupboard, but mainly chests, those standard storage pieces of all Pennsylvania households, both plain and fancy. He worked his cabinetry in white oak, a wood without pretense that lends itself to simple, functional designs. He worked in a watchful silence, but his blue eyes spoke to the wood as he patiently matched and planed the smooth white boards. Whether speckled with sawdust from his carpentry or with flour from kneading the loaves that Suzie baked, Isaac’s face had an indefatigable, often mischievous, cheerfulness. When the wood shavings in his beard caught the light of the late winter sun, he looked like a sculpture in progress—an august icon of Amish hard work.
Suzie was a few years younger than her husband. With her elegant carriage, delicate, rounded cheekbones, and perfect teeth—so white they looked false but were not—she was striking. But when I try to remember Suzie, to fix her image in my mind from those times I saw her selling bread or bringing us refreshments in Isaac’s workshop, all I see is her smile. I could not tell you the color of her eyes. Her smile was so forthright, so guileless, that it pulled me into it, away from her eyes and seemingly further. It hypnotized me. Suzie’s smile proclaimed, “Look! This is all there is and all there should be; there is nothing more.” It was both startling and mysterious, a smile I have not seen in art—”images of the World,” as the Amish say. I have never seen God, but I imagined that Suzie’s smile reflected the grace of someone who had, it was so radiant.
Suzie’s smile both captivated and disturbed me because I saw ecstasy in it. Face to face, I never thought it false. But since Jake told me why she and Isaac went back to Lancaster County, I have asked myself, Was it artifice—a mask to hide what it was not?
I have only seen Emma twice. I first saw her at the market, after she became baker of the bread. She is a small, fine-boned woman in her forties, some years younger than her sister-in-law, with only a touch of gray in her hair. Emma’s delicate features would make her beautiful if not for her knitted forehead, the visible tension at her mouth. Emma looked tired and careworn that raw May day as she pulled her insubstantial shawl tight against the wind and hurried inside to escape the cold. Her face told no Good News, professed no acceptance of her earthly lot, unlike the animated face of her sister-in-law with its startling smile. As she hurried past, I wondered whether, for Emma, baking was simply another chore in a life of chores that she performed without comment, unlike her sister-in-law, whose work seemed to be a form of prayer. But Emma’s bread is just as good.
Buying bread from Isaac, with his indefatigable cheerfulness, and from Suzie, with her arresting smile, became something more than simple necessity. In my imagination, I transformed the Smuckers into the saints I wanted them to be, and in their presence, I experienced the feelings some report when confronted with personalities like Mother Teresa. They had a charisma I had never encountered. Their presence affected me with feelings of unworthiness, even self-doubt, and by simply buying a loaf of their bread, I felt elevated.
Once during my preoccupation with the Smuckers, I saw Isaac and Suzie at a farm sale and I spent the day watching them instead of the auctioneer. Farm auctions in central Pennsylvania are held outside, on the lawns of the farmhouses. The auctioneer’s helpers pass the goods through the open windows, move them out, line them up, get them ready for the next bidding. At these auctions people bring folding chairs and form an expectant audience seated in a semicircle, their attention commanded by the auctioneer and his goods. Isaac and Suzie had only one chair between them, and Isaac sat while Suzie stood patiently behind, her hands resting on her husband’s shoulders. I offered Suzie my chair, but she declined to take it and stood throughout the auction.
All morning the young Amish men who wanted to purchase the farm or its equipment came to Isaac for his advice as an elder of their Community. From a distance, I saw a tableau vivant of righteousness, and I tried to name the source of their grace, to take in their goodness, to believe as I had once believed in the worn holy pictures in my child’s missal.
In my obsession—a staring I felt drawn into—I tried to penetrate their aura, but I could not. Some days later I asked Mima, the unmarried Amish girl who comes to dean my house, about Isaac and Suzie. Although they were in her District Church and one of Mima’s sisters had married a Smucker, she did not know them well; they had moved only recently from Lancaster County. What Mima did say was that Suzie and Isaac were unusual in their Amish Community because they were childless. Among the Amish, Mima remarked, children are seen as a blessing from God and large families are common. Some childless couples she knew took in foster children—even cared for AIDS babies from Philadelphia—but the Smuckers had not.
When Amish District Church holy days fell on Fridays, Suzie and Isaac did not come to market. I missed my bread if I neglected to buy ahead, and I always forgot Ascension Day—when Jesus Christ left the earth and went up into heaven to be with his Father. Although not as widely celebrated in Pennsylvania as in Europe, Ascension Day is, for the devout, still a holiday of closed businesses. Old-fashioned Lutheran families picnic in the woods, and the Amish go fishing. The day of the fire was Ascension Day, so I didn’t know something had happened until the next week.
“The Smuckers lost everything—absolutely everything!” Mima reported about the Ascension Day fire when she came to clean the following Monday. Through Mima I gave what she and I thought the Smuckers could accept: money, sheets, and towels. Because I am not Amish, I was indirect about my small gift; Mima took it to the elders of the District Church. Then—it was the same week as the fire—Isaac and Suzie Smucker disappeared.
“They’re gone,” Mima said, fixing her eyes on her soup when I asked about the Smuckers at lunch the next Monday. She was obviously uncomfortable talking about them. I thought it strange, but I didn’t pursue it. A week later Mima reported that the District Church had rebuilt the burned house. I asked why, since the Smuckers had left.
“A house belongs to the Community,” she explained. “When one is lost, we replace it. Another member of the Community will move into the house.”
I didn’t ask, and Mima didn’t volunteer, who that might be.
As I bought strawberries that Friday at the stand that Mr. Steele, my Mennonite neighbor, tends at market, I overheard fragments of gossip in Pennsylvania-German dialect: “. . . drying apples on the stove, and the schnitz rack got hot, caught fire,” someone said; “. . . not away, not visiting his father in Lancaster County at the time of the fire,” Mr. Steele remarked. Why had he left the Lancaster County farm where he had lived all his life, moved north, built a new house? a woman asked. “He had another fire in Lancaster County,” Mr. Steele said.
I carefully inspected Mr. Steele’s crates of strawberries for as long as I could without attracting attention, but no one mentioned Suzie. Was that the role of Amish women: in the background, outside comment?
Monday morning, Mr. Steele pulled into my driveway and made me a gift of a second crate of strawberries—his wife had no more room in her freezer. He told me what he had learned about the Smuckers.
“When I offered to help the District Church rebuild the burned house, they said my help wasn’t needed,” Mr. Steele reported, still stung by the rebuff. “All the District Church did was buy the Smuckers a new set of aluminum cookware!” Mr. Steele, who never speaks ill of anyone, added, “A gift like that is mean—out of proportion to their tragedy. My Amish neighbors on the next dairy farm down the valley won’t even talk about the Smuckers. All they said was that Isaac’s half-brother, Jake, would take over the bread business. Jake’s a mason. What does he know about baking bread?” Mr. Steele asked of no one in particular. “But,” he concluded, throwing up his hands and climbing back into his truck, “who can understand the Amish?”
Mima, who is always friendly with Mr. Steele, was inside cleaning, but she never came out of the house.
I first saw Jake after he took over the bakery business at market. I asked after Isaac and Suzie: Were they all right? Did they need anything? The Smuckers were gone, and I missed them. Like Mr. Steele, I, too, wanted to know the reason. When I asked, Jake replied, “Those things happen,” with a shortness implying that I should not have asked. Jake did not offer to introduce himself, and this made our acquaintance seem strangely anonymous. The next two Fridays, when I came to buy bread, Jake Smucker greeted me with, “Where do you live?” and I replied, “In the big house in Greenbrier, over in the next valley.” So we began to watch each other.
I saw Jake at a farm sale. By then I knew, through Mima, that he was aware that the English man had made a donation to Isaac and Suzie. Yet all that day, Jake and I never spoke Isaac’s or Suzie’s or each other’s names. He acknowledged me perfunctorily, but when our eyes met, he conveyed what seemed a different greeting—a cryptic protocol. It was a raw May day, and a painful spring damp penetrated my clothing. I huddled in a doorway to protect myself from the wind. As I watched Jake talk with other Amish, I realized that his District Church members wore thin polyester year-round. I was miserable from the raw cold but determined to stay to buy a splint basket I spied at the bottom of a pile. I also stayed to spy on Jake.
I didn’t imagine it: Jake watched me throughout the sale. Why? To see to whom I spoke? To see if I knew silence? If I understood the degrees of silence practiced by the descendants of the German population of central Pennsylvania? The Lutheran and Reformed are highly sociable, ever ready for news and gossip. The Mennonites stand apart from this jolly fellowship. While they generally abstain from spreading news, they participate as eager listeners. The Amish, in the world but not of the world, exist in a nonspeculative reality of things as they are. They do not indulge in gossip and turn from it in silence when it presents itself. They do not testify in court or bear witness against their neighbors, and when they shun a member of their Community as a sanction against disobedience, they do not speak to or of that person.
That afternoon, Jake approached me and said he wanted to buy the electric stove to use in his bread-baking business. He explained that his District Church allowed the use of electricity outside the house. The bread business was now located in his barn. He asked my opinion about the ancient stove at the sale that stood in the corner of the hot farm kitchen where everyone had crowded to avoid the harsh wind. I told Jake it was too old—he would not be able to get parts—and offered to sell him, for a dollar, a newer stove I had stored in my attic since I had redecorated my kitchen and switched to gas. He accepted.
On Monday, Mima’s cleaning day, when I took her home, I stopped at Jake’s to deliver his “electric range.” After we put it in the barn, Jake walked me back to my truck, which was parked in front of his house. I saw Jake’s family, or at least part of it. On the porch were teenaged girls I had noticed helping him at market and a brood of little blond boys, the younger two identical twins. From inside, Emma appeared, issued a stern order in dialect, and the children dispersed and disappeared. A younger woman came out on the porch of the old house across the creek. “That’s my married daughter,” Jake remarked. She was as curious to see me as I was to see her. Slowly and deliberately, she shook her rugs, hung them to air on the porch railing and watched all the while I spoke to her father. It seemed that Jake and Emma had three families—three sets of children spread over some thirty years.
“What can I do to help you out?” Jake asked as I was leaving—his way of thanking me for the burners.
“Would you have a look at the mortar on my spring house before haying season?” I asked.
“I can do that,” Jake said. “That’s what I do: fix things.”
This summer is fine weather for haying. Rain alternates with stretches of hot, dry days, and a second crop of hay comes immediately after the first cutting. Jake calls from his phone in the barn—there’s none in the house—to say that he cannot come when we had agreed because there is more hay to cut. A week passes with another postponement, a cutting for a neighbor. I keep my silence. I hope I am passing Jake Smucker’s test.
Finally Jake calls to say that he can come to have a look at my spring house. Will I pick him up this afternoon? It has been two months since I asked. Over that time, I have worried more about our still anonymous connection than about my spring, which clearly needs attention. There is a crack in its tomblike enclosure—”Built by Amos Haas, 1932,” the inscription on the enclosure reads—and the reservoir has lost some parging. Still, in this dry part of the summer, the haying time, water pours reassuringly through the moss-covered overflow. I know nothing about my spring. It is a mystery, like Jake Smucker, whom I fetch in my red Toyota. As I pull into the driveway at Jake’s house, two older Amish women appear and as quickly disappear behind green blinds pulled down quickly from inside. Just as I decide to go to the door, Jake emerges. We shake hands, and Jake finally introduces himself by name, deliberately and formally.
“My name is Jake Smucker,” he says. He offers me his identity along with his hand and looks fixedly into my eyes as he did that day at the sale. I return his gaze. If we suddenly have a bond of trust, I do not know why.
“My name is John Binns,” I say. Jake’s handshake is firm, unreserved and unguarded.
It is as if we meet for the first time. Jake is relaxed and welcoming, and I feel inhibited by his reordering that I do not understand. Immediately, he invites me in to show me the stone home that he has built. Although the masonry on the outside is fancy, inside the house is Amish plain, sparsely furnished and immaculately clean. From the kitchen, I hear quiet conversation and the clatter of crockery as the women prepare food, but we do not go there, and I do not see Emma or the children.
Outside, Jake invites me to inspect his ingenious stone spring run that provides running water for his house—pressurized indoor plumbing. We climb up stone steps laid into the hillside, just above the house, and Jake proudly shows me his spring, securely housed within its stone enclosure. From the overflow, water pours into a deep catch basin; at the bottom, an underground pipe directs water into the house. Jutting out from the steep slope, the catch basin overflows in a strong cascade into a stone watering trough for Jake’s mules and horses. Jake has built around his water and protected its source. I remember an old Bible lithograph of Hagar and Ishmael’s well in the desert. In this cool oasis, Jake’s carriage horses stand by their elegant watering trough and switch flies with their tails in the afternoon heat, while an arrogant peacock marks his territory by uttering a shrill call over the peaceful sound of falling water.
For the site of his new home, Jake has selected a hidden dale with a clear view up the valley. His new house is off the road—close, yet remote. To the east, the white spire of Klinger’s Lutheran Church, as diminutive as a crèche toy in the distant, green, rolling landscape, shimmers against an indigo sky. From Jake’s farm, no other house can be seen except his daughter’s, across the creek.
Jake removes the tethers from the horses and leads them to their stalls in the barn. The three boys I saw two months ago—without their hats, their hair is the color of cornsilk—emerge quietly but expectantly from the house and cluster around my red car.
“Would you like to come with us?” I ask. Jake nods his assent, and without a word, the boys immediately slip into the back seat in a silent, orderly, almost single motion.
We drive up the valley. As we pass the burial ground of Klinger’s Church, Jake’s stonecutter’s eyes see tombstones, and farther down the road, bridge footers, culvert drains and the foundations of old barns. From the back seat, the three boys discuss road kill and ask Jake whether a now indistinct patch of flesh and fur is a skunk or a raccoon. Jake answers, “Ein Rakoon, ein weiss-and-braun starbt Rakoon” A raccoon, a white-and-brown dead raccoon.
Things are. Things happen.
Jake says we have had a “stalled introduction,” and, as if to make up for it, he becomes quite talkative. He says he is “twice an immigrant.” His people, Swiss Mennonites, came to Pennsylvania in the 1740s. Until four years ago, when he came north to find land that was “open and not so full of people,” Lancaster County was Jake’s home. He likes it here, just to the south of Mahantongo Mountain. It is a good place to raise the young boys. “It has been hard for Emma, as it was for Isaac, who never wanted to come up here and leave our father,” Jake says, naming his half-brother. “Emma misses her large family in Lancaster County,” he explains. “We have two houses in Lancaster County: an old stone farmhouse and a large Victorian. My father lives there, in the big house. Yesterday my father visited here. He is now eighty-seven.”
Jake’s thoughts pull him away, and he looks out the car window. The boys discuss the route and decide they have not been on this road before. I stop the car at the top of Hooflander Mountain so they can look south, through the gap in Mahantongo Mountain, at Spread Eagle and see where they live. I tell the boys that on a clear day, you can see forty miles to the south, all the way to Lancaster County.
“That’s where Isaac and Suzie went to live with our father.” Jake names them both and looks toward the Lancaster Plain that lies beyond the gap. We get back into the car and Jake says, “I’m glad to be out of Lancaster County. There, it is not what you English think. Among us here, it is important to help each other.”
Is he speaking of me or of other members of his Community? Outside his Community, I am the other. I am also the English man, who, Jake assumes, has an idyllic view of the Lancaster Amish. It is not true—it is beside the point—but I say nothing because what I hear is here andthere, and I wonder why Isaac and Suzie first left there, Lancaster County, and now here. I wonder about Jake, too. Why did he leave an elderly father? Two houses? Two farms?
“You are lucky,” I say, “to have family and live on the land close to your married daughter. I grew up on a farm. I’ve always been sorry I left, but now all my family is gone, there’s no one to go back to. That’s why I moved to Pennsylvania.”
Jake smiles wanly; his blue eyes flash. I have said the wrong thing, and he becomes quiet. I want to erase this silence I have somehow created. Was it the mention of family? Nothing to go back to? Perhaps it was Luck—something that has nothing to do with Jake, who has made choices. He joined the Church, married into his Community, stayed on the land, and moved out of Lancaster County. Luck is an English, not an Amish, word. What did luck have to do with his half-brother’s burned house? Jake’s eyes darken, and I try to mend my mistake. “Mehr Klug als Glück—More wise than lucky.” I make a poor joke in bad German. I regret having said anything, especially in front of the boys, the oldest probably nine, the twins six or seven, all old enough to understand that the English man means well but, living outside their Amish world, does not think or say the right thing—cannot see or understand.
We pull into the driveway, and my dog runs out to greet the boys. We trail the boys, who follow the dog back through the meadow to the spring house. It is half past seven and still hot. We make small talk about the weather. Jake laughs to hear the English man’s comments on the finer points of making hay. Today is a bright, magic day, probably the best day for haying of the whole year, so clear, hot and dry. As we walk up the creek bottom, the boys ask the name of every tree: shag-bark hickory, white oak, river birch, sour cherry, locust, walnut. I know the names; I could answer, but I am paralyzed by the boys’ quiet manner, their overwhelming blond youth and innocence. I defer to Jake, who knows the names of the trees both in English and in his Pennsylvania-German dialect. Listening to him instruct the boys, I withdraw into my own thoughts. Why has he come? Is it trust? Is it no more than business? With thoughts like these tumbling in my head, I am afraid to name things—to exist in the world of things as they are.
“I’m glad you’re here,” I say. “I’ve worried about my spring since I discovered the crack this May, just after the fire. Perhaps the spring has shifted and I’ve lost my water. The old spring next to the house did that: it moved.” Secure for over sixty years, a structure has failed, and foolishly, I believe this signifies something fundamentally wrong, a problem beyond mere mortar. It is my absurd thought, but there it is.
“Don’t worry. I’ll fix it. I understand springs—those things,” Jake assures me.
The boys bob along the creek bank like little yellow ducks pursued by my black dog. We watch them play fetch with the dog, and Jake’s eyes turn the deep, sparky blue they turned when I spoke of “luck” on the drive over. I am silent. I will not risk our tentative friendship by saying or wanting the wrong thing. Jake’s being here this afternoon is important to me—and not just because of the spring house. I am the fool looking for grace.
My spring house is built into a bank. It is surrounded by ancient arbor vitae and white pine. Only with some difficulty do we pry open its rusted steel door, which gives way with a great groan. It has been twelve years since I last opened the spring house, and I wonder what secrets lie inside.
“The water looks good and full,” Jake says, peering over the yellow heads of his three inquisitive boys. “I can fix the mortar. That will be easy, but I would not tamper with the spring. Springs, like people, are sensitive. You might lose your water.”
Things are better than I remembered. The spring bubbles up gently through an ancient circle of set stones, and, like Jake’s, its water runs through an underground pipe into a large reservoir. The race, formed by the overflow from the reservoir, is an orange-and-gold riot of jewel weed; the air around the spring is spicy from the fragile hay fern trampled by the curious boys, sharp from sweet nettle and watercress. Quietly and industriously, the boys inspect the spring’s environs.
“Has your spring ever run dry?” Jake asks.
“Not in the twelve years I’ve lived here,” I reply.
“You are lucky,” Jake says, repeating my word. “My oldest boy, who lives in the house we rebuilt—the house that burned—will come over next week to fix the mortar. You are fortunate to have a good spring. To have children and to be by good water is to be blessed in life.” Is Jake quoting some source, or is this his own homily? After a moment, he asks, “How many children do you and your wife have?”
“We don’t have any children,” I reply. I do not explain because there is no reason; it is something that did not happen. Comfortable with silence, no longer needing to know, I won’t ask how many children Jake has.
There is nothing more to say. Jake watches the boys peer into the spring house one last time. They gaze into the magic circle of stones surrounding the spring that has been pronounced fit by its magician, a better man than I to know its waters.
My dog decides it is time to go back to the house, and the boys tag along. Jake and I stay behind and listen to the sound of water pouring reassuringly out of the overflow. Time passes like a meditation. In the meadow, a breeze ripples the tall grass, and for a moment the boys’ image stutters in the heat, like a mirage. Jake’s eyes track the boys until only the tops of their heads are visible.
“Those boys aren’t mine,” Jake says. He speaks somewhat offhandedly, but he stares straight on with his bright blue eyes, so like Isaac’s, so like the eyes of the boys. “Those are Isaac and Suzie’s.
“Suzie looks older than she is, I suppose. She thought she could never have children. She was over fifty when she had the first—the older boy—then the twins. Of course, she couldn’t nurse, so Emma helped. Several women from our District Church helped her. When she had the twins, so late and not expecting them, she couldn’t accept it. She asked Emma to take them. She said she didn’t want them back. She laughed and said it wasn’t God’s grace but a joke. She became verloss—how do you English say?—lost, crazy. She tried to burn down the house with her and the boys in it. Not the house here, where they lived. There, in Lancaster County. We used to have three houses, my father, my family.
“Four years ago, Isaac agreed to let the farm go so Suzie could be near the boys. She didn’t want them back, only to be closer. When she burned the house here, the boys were supposed to be at home with her, but it was Ascension Day and Isaac decided they’d go fishing.
“They don’t know but that Emma’s their mother. No one speaks of it.”
Jake’s eyes catch the blue solar flash of the sun as it drops below the horizon of the meadow, into a sea of flaming grass. The sun and the boys have disappeared.
An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines
Interviewer: You’ve been writer-in-residence at the University of Southwestern Louisiana since 1984. What do you feel are your responsibilities as a teacher of creative writing?
Gaines: I approach the teaching of creative writing—if you can possibly teach creative writing—from the Socratic method. The students have their material ready on Tuesdays, and they will have read and written critiques of the material by the next time we meet. I write a critique as well. Each Tuesday night, we discuss two students’ work. The students who have stories being discussed that night read aloud for five or ten minutes so we can feel the rhythm. After the student reads, I open it up for discussion. I don’t lecture. I sit back and direct the discussion; if it slows down, I speed it up, or if no one has anything to say, I raise a question. This is my approach to “teaching” writing. I set requirements. I believe the students should all write critiques of each other’s work, and they must also discuss the stories in class. I feel students usually learn as much about writing from discussion among their peers as they do from me. I don’t assign books for them to read because they should read everything. I always recommend books—the Bible, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. My six words of advice to writers are: “Read, read, read, write, write, write.” Writing is a lonely job; you have to read, and then you must sit down at the desk and write. There’s no one there to tell you when to write, what to write, or how to write. I tell students if they are going to be writers, they must sit down at a desk and write every day.
Interviewer: The students read from their own work for the first few minutes of class so readers can get the sound of the rhythm. You’ve also said you write your stories to be read aloud.
Gaines: When people hear stories, they identify more closely with the characters. When I read aloud, people always come up to me and say, “I understand it much better now that I’ve heard you read it. I can hear the characters’ voices much clearer.” Many of the students use dialects or words and phrases we are not familiar with, but once we hear it, we tend to understand it much better.
Interviewer: Dialogue is something you’ve said you are proud of in your work.
Gaines: In dialogue, I’m dealing with the sounds I’ve heard. One of the reasons I often write from first person or multiple points of view is to hear the voices of different characters. Omniscient narration becomes a problem because, for me, the omniscient is my own voice narrating the story and then bringing in characters for dialogue.
Interviewer: There is a strength in the many voices in your work, a weight you give to each character’s voice no matter how small a role he or she plays. One very minor character, a drunk in In My Father’s House, gives Reverend Martin directions. When he speaks, his voice is as strong as any in the novel.
Gaines: My ear is pretty good. As a small child, I listened to radio a lot. During that time—this was back in the late ’40s—there were always great dramas and actors on radio. I liked listening to them because I had to follow the story through dialogue. I like reading plays, and I like listening to the ways people speak.
Interviewer: Does this oral approach help when you are editing your work?
Gaines: What I usually do is record my work on a tape recorder. If it sounds good, then it is. I never read my work to anyone else and say, “Okay, what do you think?” Editors recommend certain things, but usually, at this point in the game, I can stick to my guns and say, “This is how it’s written, and this is how it sounds.” I write about south Louisiana, and I feel my ear is pretty good for the dialects of that region, at least better than the people in New York who have never been here.
Interviewer: In The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, it is Miss Jane the reader sees and hears. How did you find Miss Jane’s voice?
Gaines: I did a lot of research to get the historical facts right and read quite a few slave narratives to see how the slaves expressed themselves and how they used their vocabularies. I grew up on a plantation on False River, Louisiana, and I was around older people—my aunt, who raised me, and the older people who visited her because she was crippled and couldn’t walk. Those were the voices I had in mind while creating Miss Jane Pittman. She was not based on any one person or any two people but on the kind of experience someone who lived during that time might have gone through. Her voice came fairly easily. I had read enough, and could recall the dialects and the limited vocabularies of the older people on the plantation where I lived, to create an authentic voice for Miss Jane. The first draft was told from multiple points of view, with people talking about her after she had died. I did that for more than a year and then realized it was not exactly right. I needed to get her to tell the story, so I concentrated on one voice rather than several.
Interviewer: Have there been some characters’ voices that were easier to get into than others?
Gaines: Jim’s in Of Love and Dust because I was thirty-three years old when I started writing that book, and I created him to be the same age. He’s uneducated, but he’s thirty-three years old. He uses the language I grew up around living in Louisiana. Also, it wasn’t too difficult to find Jefferson’s diary voice in A Lesson Before Dying because I wrote the diary after working on the novel for five years. I knew his character and what he would say, how he would express himself. Sometimes I have to rewrite and rewrite to get the exact phrases I want. I stick with south Louisiana, not places with unfamiliar accents.
Interviewer: How do you approach a novel like A Gathering of Old Men, with its distinct multiple points of view?
Gaines: I try to concentrate on voices of different people I knew as a child. I left Louisiana at fifteen but always came back. While writing A Gathering of Old Men, I could recall that different people spoke differently and they would never describe the same thing the same way; they never used the same expressions. So when I went from one of the characters in that novel to another, I had to concentrate entirely on that character and how he would express himself. Then when I went to another character, I would concentrate on another person’s voice and give it to that particular character.
Interviewer: You’ve said before that you were influenced by Japanese films, including Rashomon, the story of a murder told from several points of view.
Gaines: I saw Rashomon many years ago, and it has had some effect on me, as have Faulkner, Joyce and whoever else’s work I’ve read. They say if you steal from one person you are plagiarizing, but if you steal from a hundred people you are a genius. You don’t pick entirely from Faulkner, entirely from Rashomon, or entirely from Hemingway. You learn from all of them, just as all writers have done. You learn from people you read.
Interviewer: What are some other important influences on your work?
Gaines: I’ve been influenced by the great French filmmakers of the ’50s—Truffaut, for example, particularly The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player. When I was writing A Lesson Before Dying, I saw a film on television with Danny Glover, and it had a tremendous effect on me. Danny Glover plays a social worker who visits prisons. There is one prisoner who will do anything to annoy him. The little things he would do to irritate Danny Glover made me think, “Hey, that’s good!” I’ve never been to visit anybody in prison repeatedly. A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with some kids in a jail in Orlando, Florida. These were murderers, dope peddlers. They were sixteen and seventeen years old. But I’ve never gone back and forth like Grant does in A Lesson Before Dying. Watching this film with Danny Glover, I thought, “This is what happens when you keep going back to a prison to visit one guy. He will always do something to irritate you.” That’s how I decided to have Jefferson not speak, or say something to annoy Grant. What I’m saying is that you learn from all these things. You learn from music, from watching great athletes at work—how disciplined they are, how they move. You learn these things by watching a shortstop at work, how he concentrates on one thing at a time. You learn from classic music, from the blues and jazz, from bluegrass. From all this, you learn how to sustain a great line without bringing in unnecessary words. I advise my students to keep their antennae out so they can pick things up from all these sources, everything life has to offer, but books especially, which is the main tool they have to work with. They should not close their ears or eyes to anything that surrounds them.
Interviewer: One book you’ve recommended is Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg. How do you feel about the hands-on style of editing, exemplified by Perkins, that doesn’t seem to be as present in the publishing world today?
Gaines: I really like Maxwell Perkins because of all the great writers who were around him. A. Scott Berg did a wonderful job with that book. He did a lot of research and brought out the different characters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. I knew some good critics and editors. Malcolm Cowley, who had the sense to rediscover Faulkner, was a teacher of mine at Stanford. Wallace Stegner was my mentor at Stanford. He was the person who brought me there. Ed (E.L.) Doctorow, who later became famous as a writer himself, was my editor at Dial Press. He was a very good editor. I have a good editor at Knopf now, Ash Green. These people are wonderful. They are not as famous as Max Perkins, and not all writers are fortunate enough to get great editors, but I’ve been lucky. You need a good editor because every writer thinks he can write a War and Peace, but by the time he gets it on paper, it’s not War and Peace anymore; it’s comic-book stuff. If you have an honest editor who knows what literature and writing are about, he can give you good advice. You don’t necessarily have to follow it all. It’s good to get the material away from you after you’ve finished something, to send it out and let another person comment on it. I had a wonderful agent, Dorothea Oppenheimer, and she saw everything of mine for thirty-one years. We had our fights. When she criticized me, I would say, “Well, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m the writer.” But I apologized later. I think those editors and agents are necessary. I didn’t get along with all my editors, though.
Interviewer: You began work on what later became your first novel, Catherine Carmier, when you were sixteen years old. It went through many rewrites and titles. What type of learning process was this?
Gaines: I tried to write a novel around 1949, which later became Catherine Carmier. Of course, I sent it to New York, to a publisher, and they sent it back. We had an incinerator in the back yard, and I burned it. I was falling back in my class work, so I started concentrating on school. When I was twenty, I went into the army. I wrote a little bit. I came out when I was twenty-two and I went to San Francisco State to study literature and theater writing. Then I went to Stanford. I was writing short stories during that time. Someone gave a lecture, and he told us that young writers without a name would have a hard time publishing a collection of stories. So that day, I put the short stories aside and said, “No more short stories. I’ve got to write something I can publish.” I didn’t have anything else for a novel but that one story I’d tried to write about ten years earlier. I started rewriting it, and I wrote about fifty pages and won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award, which was a local award given to residents of California. That helped me get through 1959. I got jobs at the post office, a print shop, a bank. I would write in the morning and get these little part-time jobs in the afternoon. From ’59 to ’64, I wrote that novel over and over. I must have written it more than ten times. Each time I rewrote it, I came up with a different title. I was always changing things: somebody would die in one draft, and another person would die in the next. Malcolm Cowley and several other editors saw it, but no one was ready to publish it. It is a simple story about a guy coming back to the old place and visiting the old people, and he has changed so much that he doesn’t fit in anymore. The model I used was Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. I was reading something from it every day. It’s about a young doctor who has just finished university and comes back to the old place and falls in love with a beautiful woman. He loses her and dies. My character does the same thing, but he doesn’t die. He has to go away again. I was using Turgenev’s novel as a model for how to write a novel.
Interviewer: In that novel, you explore a situation—a young man who leaves Louisiana to receive an education, then returns—that you examine again in your most recent novel, A Lesson Before Dying.
Gaines: My characters seem like they can’t get away. Miss Jane tries to walk to Ohio, but she never gets out of Louisiana. Charlie, in A Gathering of Old Men, tries to run away, but he has to come back. All my characters are like that; they go so far, and then they return. They must face up to their responsibilities.
Interviewer: They know they must accept responsibility and go on because it is the graceful thing to do.
Gaines: Yes. They have to make the effort to go on, and sometimes it brings death. But they must make that effort before the moment of death. In A Lesson Before Dying, Jefferson must stand before he will be executed. Marcus, in Of Love and Dust, can’t escape, but he rises before he dies and becomes a better human being. In A Gathering of Old Men, Charlie must come back, and he dies when he does. There are certain lines they have to cross to prove their humanity. I could not write about a character who did not have these qualities—a person who struggles and falls but gets up, who will go to a certain point, even though he knows he might get killed. That’s a common theme in all my work: those who cannot escape by running away, and those who go to a certain point, even if it means death. For example, in A Lesson Before Dying, Grant will not try to run away anymore. Vivian is going to keep him in Louisiana.
Interviewer: In A Gathering of Old Men, you give the reader both points of view—black and white—to show what each side is going through and how they are living.
Gaines: That’s what writing should be about: presenting as many facets as you possibly can. I’m not interested in seeing one side of anything. One of the reasons I make both Grant and Jefferson tragic figures in A Lesson Before Dying is because I wanted this to be a story about more than just a young black man sitting on death row. I needed someone to go to the prison and teach Jefferson, but also someone who would learn while teaching because he is also in a prison; Grant is in a prison of being unable to live the way he would like to live. I had to discover how he could break out of that. Jefferson, of course, finds release in death, and Grant must take on the responsibility of becoming a better person, a better teacher. I did not want a simple story about someone being executed; we have had lots of them, too many. I wanted something else, another added component to that novel.
Interviewer: In your body of work there are examples of almost every point of view.
Gaines: I change point of view when one does not work for me. A Gathering of Old Men was originally told from one point of view, that of the newspaperman, Lou Dimes. Then I realized he could not tell the story. He could not see Snookum running and striking his butt the way you would if you were trying to make a horse run faster. He could not see Janie going to that house, and so many other small things that could make the story better. He never would have known the thoughts of these people. So much of the story is internal. There is very little action. You don’t see Beau being shot. What you see is Beau lying there and all these other people talking and thinking. I knew I had to write itfrom multiple points of view rather than omniscient. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, as I have said, began as a multiple-point-of view narrative, but it did not work. I rewrote it as a first-person narrative. I recommend taking the easiest route in writing, not making things harder than they really are. If you can tell a story better from the omniscient point of view, then tell it that way. If you can tell it better from first person, tell it that way. I never say, “Well, I’m going to tell some first-person stories and some omniscient ones.” I think, “What’s the easiest way to tell my story without cheating?” I cannot cheat myself in writing.
Interviewer: Earlier, you mentioned that you were warned off trying to publish short-story collections when you began writing. The same warning is given to young writers today.
Gaines: Thirty-five hundred copies of Catherine Carmier were printed. Only about 2,500 were sold. The rest were remaindered. I had written the short stories that later appeared in Bloodline by the time I wrote Catherine Carmier. There are only five, so I may have been writing the fourth. I then wrote another one, the title story, which is the last in that collection. I sent it to Bill Decker at Dial Press, and I said, “Those stories are good; they will make my name.” Bill said, “Yes, we know the stories are good, but you need to be a name in order for us to publish them.” It’s a catch-22. They might make your name, but you need a name before you can publish them. Who’s going to pay attention to an unknown young writer? It was then that I wrote Of Love and Dust. I wrote the first draft in three months and sent it to Bill Decker. He said, “I like the first part of your novel, and I like the second part, but they don’t have anything in common. You need to make it either a farce or a tragedy.” I rewrote it in three months and sent it back to him. He said, “You’ve improved it ninety percent. Now I want you to run it through the typewriter one more time and do anything you want to do because I think you know where you want to go with the novel.” I did that and sent it back to him within two months. He told me, “I’ll publish it, then I will publish your stories.” The novel was published in ’64, and the stories were published in the spring of ’68. That’s how I got my stories published.
Interviewer: You have not published a story collection since Bloodline. Have you written stories since then?
Gaines: I’ve thought about it, but I never came up with any that were in the same class as those. Also, whenever I finished one novel, I was
always ready to start another one. I don’t have one in mind now, but in the past I’ve always had a novel in mind while working on another one.
Interviewer: The first story in Bloodline, “A Long Day in November,” was later revised and published as a children’s book with the same title.
Gaines: Yes, we cut out some sexual terms and then added illustrations to make it a children’s book. But it’s not a children’s book. My wife tells me it’s still an adult book told by a six-year-old child.
Interviewer: Whose idea was it to turn that story into a children’s book?
Gaines: The people at Dial Press recognized that I had two stories in Bloodline narrated by children, so they said, “Can you write a children’s story?” I said, “I can write a story from a child’s point of view, but I don’t know anything about writing children’s books.” Someone at Dial said, “Well, maybe we can take one of these stories.” I wish they had taken “The Sky Is Gray.” It would have made a much better children’s book than “A Long Day in November.”
Interviewer: Was writing something you always thought you would do?
Gaines: I did not know I wanted to be a writer as a child in Louisiana. It wasn’t until I went to California and ended up in the library and began reading a lot that I knew I wanted to be a writer. I read many great novels and stories and did not see myself or my people in any of them. It was then that I tried to write. There were very few people on the plantation who had any education at all, especially the old people my aunt’s age and my grandmother’s age. They had never gone to school, and they didn’t have any books. I used to write letters for them. I had to listen very carefully to what they had to say and how they said it. I put their stories down on paper, and they would give me teacakes. If I wanted to play ball or shoot marbles, I had to finish writing fast. So I began to create. I wrote about their gardens, the weather, cooking, preserving, anything. I’ve been asked many times when I started writing. I used to say it was in the small Andrew Carnegie Library in Vallejo, California, but I realize now that it was on the plantation.
Interviewer: What impact have your many years of teaching had on your writing and reading?
Gaines: My students keep me aware of things around me, but I don’t know that my “style”— and I hate using words like that—has changed in any way, or that my views on life have changed in any way from teaching. I do learn things from certain students. Most of my students are middle-class white females. I learn about their ways of thinking and describing things, their backgrounds and social lives. So when I come to write something of my own, that knowledge is there to use, if necessary. For example, when I was writing A Gathering of Old Men, I had someone in mind just like Candy. In fact, she’s still on that plantation, and she knows I was writing about her in some ways. I am always getting information from the things and people around me, the sounds, the sights, the weather. I do learn from my students, but I don’t know how they have changed my view of writing.
Interviewer: In the past, you’ve said if you had a student come to you who had the potential and desire to create a great work, you would put the student’s work in front of your own. Do you feel being a mentor would be as fulfilling as working on your own writing?
Gaines: I can’t say that, but I would say the objective of teaching is passing on what you know. I am slowing down now as a writer. Most American writers slow down in their fifties, though some people say I wrote my best book, A Lesson Before Dying, at sixty. But I’m not as aggressive now. I’m not writing for five or six hours a day anymore. It’s possible to devote more time to a student, to a young writer, and not feel cheated at all. I think I was given a talent to be a writer, and I should use that talent. I don’t know that the student’s work would be more important than mine—that I would be able to quit writing and devote all my time to him or her-but I would give a heck of a lot of time to that work.
Interviewer: Were there goals you set at the beginning of your career?
Gaines: Well, I thought I would win the Nobel Prize. I thought I would make a lot of money and be able to send it back to my aunt who raised me, but she died many years before any of my work had been published. I told myself I would write for five, six hours a day every day and try to have enough money to support myself to write. I wanted to have enough money to write as much as I wanted to write, but I never set any goals to be rich or travel the world.
Interviewer: Your novels are all close in length, but The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman spans more than one hundred years, while A Gathering of Old Men follows characters through one day.
Gaines: I am proud to have accomplished this, to have concentrated on one day with flashbacks, and also to have written something as broad as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. The novels are all about the same number of pages, and the time span in most of them is the same. In A Lesson Before Dying, I had to stretch the time to what would be equivalent to the semester of school blacks were getting in the rural South; at that time, we were getting less than six months. I knew exactly the kind of time I had to put into that novel as far as story line, when it would begin and when it would end. But the other novels are all about the same size. I never decided beforehand how long a book would be. It just so happens I learned more from Turgenev than I thought I did in the beginning. His novels were very short compared to Dostoyevsky’s or Tolstoy’s. I feel after writing so many pages, maybe at most four hundred, there is nothing else to say, so it is time to close it down. I knew The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman would cover a hundred years and that it would be a longer novel than my earlier ones. I have been influenced by so many different forms of writing. I studied Greek tragedy at San Francisco State, and I’ve always thought the idea of having things in a single setting and limited to twenty-four hours was the ideal way of telling stories. For example, “A Long Day in November” takes place within less than twenty-four hours, as do “Bloodline” and “The Sky Is Gray.” “Just Like a Tree” takes place in three hours. It’s all concentrated. The Autobiography of Miss Jane was a different thing altogether.
Interviewer: Jefferson’s notebook is one of the most moving parts of A Lesson Before Dying. You get inside his head, but as readers, we know Grant doesn’t get the notebook until the end. It is powerful not only because of its content, but also because the reader sees the diary before Grant receives it. How did you decide on the placement of the diary?
Gaines: I did it so it would work chronologically with the rest of the novel. That book has been translated into German, and they moved the notebook chapter to the end. I thought it should be before the end, so you would still see Jefferson after he dies, after Grant is given the notebook. I’ve sold the rights to HBO. They are supposed to start shooting it in October of ’98. I have no idea what they are going to do with it or where they are going to film it. It has also been adapted as a play for the Alabama Shakespeare Company.
Interviewer: The novel is cinematic in the same way Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is. The reader sees every movement of the characters as if they are on a stage.
Gaines: One of the things I learned from Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons is that something is always happening in one setting, then you move on to something else. If you look at the chapters in that novel, I don’t think any one is longer or shorter than the others. I wrote a rough draft every week and then went over it. They would always end up the same number of pages. I had to write that book over a period of seven years, writing only half the year because I was teaching at USL. I would go back to San Francisco at the end of December and start in late January, writing until the end of July, when I was ready to come back to Lafayette and teach. A Lesson Before Dying is the only novel I’ve ever written that way, and it really scared me because I didn’t know how I would go back to it the first time I put it aside for six months. I was afraid the reader would see those breaks, so I worked on smoothing them out. It may have been good because if the novel had been written in three years, I might not have had as many different elements coming into the story. I don’t know if I would have had the notebook in the story. But because I was thinking about it over a period of seven years, those things just came into it.
Interviewer: You received a lot of publicity when Oprah Winfrey chose A Lesson Before Dying for her book club. How did you feel when you learned this?
Gaines: She called me personally, and I didn’t believe it was her. I had met her when the book first came out. She said, “We’ve chosen A Lesson Before Dying for the Oprah Book Club. This is all hush-hush until I announce it on my show.” I said, “It’s okay with me, just as long as I can tell my wife.” She came to Louisiana, to the plantation at False River. We spent two days together.
Interviewer: The novel had already drawn attention when it won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1993. Did you feel a rush of new readership because of Oprah’s influence?
Gaines: Oh, yes. Before, the book was selling well, but it was selling to high schools and libraries. With Oprah, it sold to the general public. There were between 800,000 and a million copies printed as soon as she announced it. Everybody knew The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, but they never knew who wrote it. Now they know Ernest Gaines wrote A Lesson Before Dying because they saw me on the show. I receive many letters from people all over the country and different parts of the world, and most of them are coming from white, probably middle-aged males. It’s the first time I’ve received letters from this particular group. Bill Gates said A Lesson Before Dying was one of his favorite books, along with The Catcher in the Rye. That’s good to hear, but he never sent me any computer stuff. I’ve always received many letters from students, but it seems A Lesson Before Dying has touched a lot of people.
Interviewer: How do you feel about all the attention?
Gaines: I’m happy people are reading the book, but other than that, I just do the same thing. I teach. My wife and I still go to the same restaurants. We still visit our friends, things like that.
Interviewer: Many people believe The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is an autobiography with an introduction by Ernest J. Gaines.
Gaines: Several people reviewed it as an autobiography, and many bookstores keep it on the autobiography shelf. There was a very famous magazine in New York that called me for a picture of Miss Jane because they were reviewing the book. I said, “You know, that is a fictitious character.” They said, “Oh, my God!” They had already written the review, and they wanted a picture to go with it. Once I was in Orlando, Florida, talking to some people, and a guy said, “Mr. Gaines, may I ask you a question? How long did you have to interview that old lady before you had enough material to write the book?”
Interviewer: What do you feel is your responsibility as a novelist?
Gaines: You try to not answer things but to perk the interest or the intellect of the reader and let him ask questions. Once the reader begins to ask these questions, he will get some answers that will lead him to other things so he can discuss it with other people. I don’t know how to give answers, and I tell my students that. I try to create characters who develop through the course of the novel, characters who will learn and grow before they die, and from whom the reader can learn and grow.
It’s bad enough I’m a nigger, but I’ve got to be ugly, too!” Words overheard a few months ago on a Canarsie-bound L train in the New York City subway: the speaker a teenaged black girl, talking to three or four friends on their way home from school. The other girls laughed, as she did; her tone was not bitter or angry but communicated a rueful good humour, as though she were acknowledging a joke that life had played at her expense.
How had we come full circle, to the most deprecatory word anyone, including a black, could use to describe a dark-skinned person of African origin—a word that, more than any other, echoes the experience of slavery? I, a white person, had spent over twenty-five years working for black equality, first as a state and federal civil rights investigator and then as a writer and fund-raiser for a wide range of nationally known black nonprofit organizations. Had I—and the hundreds or thousands of whites like me who had taken the civil rights struggle as our own, as America’s most important unfinished domestic business—just been wasting our time? Even more unsettling to contemplate, had we been doing harm when we thought we were doing good?
I had grown up in an ethnically mixed neighborhood in Manhattan’s upper West Side, had at least one Negro kid in all my classes right through high school, had known Negro and Puerto Rican kids who played ball on our primarily Jewish block after school. I had had a black roommate and a black close friend in college, and prior to working in civil rights, I had been a counselor in treatment centers for mentally disturbed or predelinquent adolescents in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and Hamden, Connecticut, where many of the kids in residence were black. I had also worked as a child welfare case worker, supervising the placement of state wards, many of them black, in Connecticut foster homes and treatment institutions. I thought, in other words, that I was pretty knowledgeable about the way Connecticut blacks lived.
What I discovered when I began work as a state civil rights investigator in Connecticut in 1968 was a society that was almost as segregated by custom as the South had been segregated by law. In the arms and armaments industries that were among Connecticut’s principal employers, and in the other traditional industries that lined the Naugatuck Valley, black employees had been confined to jobs as janitors or to the lowest and dirtiest occupations as unskilled laborers. Their lines of employment and seniority were kept separate from the lines of white employees, and the unions did nothing to bridge that separation. Just the contrary: office and sales jobs were all but hermetically sealed against blacks.
Employment discrimination was complemented by housing discrimination that was, if anything, more absolutely rigid. A New Haven suburb, East Haven, only five minutes away by car and ten by city bus from a large concentration of blacks, had zero black residents. School boundaries were drawn in conformity with racially frozen residential patterns so that virtually all-black or all-white “neighborhood” elementary schools were the rule. Most local police and fire departments, including the state police, were hostile to employing any blacks at all and threw up barrier after barrier against hiring them. Employment testing exploded into massive use just as equal employment legislation went into effect. I came to understand that despite the civil rights revolution in the South and the sympathy it won for Southern blacks fighting legal segregation, in the North most blacks, although the pejorative word was rarely used, were still thought of and treated as “niggers.”
I also found a black community devastated by its experience of exclusion, hardly prepared to take advantage of the equality of treatment the new civil rights laws purported to guarantee. There were some blacks, frequently light-skinned and the scions of a black elite, who were ready to take immediate advantage of the opportunities opened by equal employment legislation. Some of them moved into government work to help enforce the new laws; others were snapped up by businesses with government contracts that needed to mollify investigators from the OFCC, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance, which was beginning to apply some noncoercive but annoying pressure. Still others, perhaps the least qualified of black college graduates, got jobs as “equal employment officers” in personnel departments where they specialized in dealing with other minority employees, were listed as “executives” and yet had no line authority over white employees. There was, in any case, an extreme minority of blacks who were capable of competing on equal terms with whites for employment. The lifting of external barriers, to the extent that they were really lifted, did not make blacks, who had been excluded from such competition for generations, ready to compete.
A few unhappy experiences have stayed in my mind from those early days of civil rights enforcement. A young black couple was told that a house in a small town north of New Haven had already been rented. White friends of theirs called and were told the property was still available. The enforcement machinery worked perfectly: an injunction was issued within a couple of days, a court hearing was held within two weeks and the landlord was ordered to rent to the couple. Within six months, though, the couple had broken up, the man had moved away, and the woman was eventually evicted for nonpayment of rent.
A night watchman position in a warehouse was not given to a black applicant with previous guard experience. To settle the complaint, the employer agreed to hire him; within a month there was a spate of unauthorized absences and a couple of alleged instances, not contested by the employee, of his coming to work drunk. When he was discharged, another black was hired, and he, too, turned out to be unreliable and alcoholic. I don’t recall whether the employer was constrained to try a third time.
Much more bleakly revelatory than these isolated instances was a meeting I held, at one of their homes on a Sunday evening, with a group of seven or eight black employees of a Naugatuck Valley manufacturing firm. They had all worked for twenty years or more on an assembly line, producing a variety of mechanical home products that white salesmen sold and serviced. The whites were actually trained by the blacks to do the repairs. When a black asked about possible promotion to salesman, he was brushed off, threatened with discharge if he persisted in his request. The sales jobs were cleaner and paid much better, but the blacks were concerned that if they filed a complaint, they would lose the jobs they already had. These were middle-aged men who had built their lives around these segregated jobs. They owned their own homes, had nice furniture and cars, some had children in college. They had adjusted to second-class citizenship and were not prepared to risk what they had on the strength of a new law whose provisions against retaliation had not yet been adequately tested in the courts. They were so afraid that their employer would discover they had even talked to a civil rights worker that they had insisted on the Sunday meeting and on my using my personal car rather than my assigned state vehicle. I was too unsure myself to pressure them to take any action. The complaints were never filed, and as far as I know the men remained on the assembly line until they retired.
Many major employers, under both legal and moral pressure, and usually against the bitter opposition of whatever labor unions were involved, made legitimate efforts to open up their work force, including professional and managerial positions, to blacks. What happened all too frequently was that the policy of equal employment ran headlong into the unpreparedness of large segments of the black labor force. Black production workers were late or absent more frequently than their white counterparts; they were less efficient; they did not take orders well. Black office workers were deficient in spelling or simple arithmetic; did not understand or adapt well to routine office procedures.
The bulk of the complaints I dealt with in Connecticut and then a couple of years later, when I transferred to the more powerful federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), came not from job applicants but from present employees alleging discrimination in disciplinary action or promotion. And it was certainly true that in companies that had hired reluctantly or where lower-level supervisors were hostile to integration, blacks were dismissed for lateness or attendance problems when whites with the same bad records were retained. Blacks were discharged or penalized for “insubordination” where white employees who had behaved the same way were let off with a warning. Blacks were denied promotions for reasons that were not found applicable to white candidates.
One consequence of white employers’ overreaction is that it allowed underperforming blacks to brush aside even legitimate criticism of their behavior by calling it “racist.”
I have sometimes wondered whether the initial staffing of the EEOC, a new agency created to enforce Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, was a case of good intentions gone awry or a cynical ploy to undermine enforcement. The staff on all levels except that of attorney was predominantly minority, far from young, and drawn from other federal agencies. New hires were also predominantly minority. For the full period of my employment there I was the highest-ranking nonattorney white in the NewYork region.
The Connecticut Commission had been cobbled together with state employees from other agencies, too, but the director there, Arthur L. Green, a black, showed no hesitancy in transferring back or discharging the white deadwood he had been sent. Nor did he hesitate to discharge nonperforming blacks. And his new hires tended to be young and committed. The EEOC, by contrast, seemed to have no standards of performance for its own minority employees. In the view of the EEOC, minority underperformance did not, could not, exist. White supervisors, one of whom had been physically assaulted by a black employee shortly before I started there, were afraid to take disciplinary action for fear of being called racist and seeing their careers destroyed; black supervisors protected even the most unproductive of other blacks.
A few examples of what I found should be more than enough to illustrate the problems. The New York office, which handled all of New England as well, had no system for assigning cases. There were no priorities. Complaints could not even be investigated in chronological order because there was no filing system for new cases, just a row of cabinets into which files were shoved at random. Supervisors would simply go to file cabinets, take out an armful of case files, and distribute them a few at a time to the investigators. Cases that affected thousands of employees and might have had national significance languished in the files, while absurd or petty complaints (to cite the most extreme example, the case of an employee who accused her employer of “hexing” her were assigned for investigation. It took me months, once I had become a supervisor myself, to get the files in reasonable order and to establish priorities for at least the cases I supervised.
Right from its inception, one of the major complaints about the EEOC, both from the minority community and from white civil rights activists, was the incredible delay in investigating complaints and the enormous backlog of uninvestigated cases that kept growing and growing. The EEOC did set production standards for its investigators, but when two black probationary investigators failed to complete two cases each in six months, falling lamentably short of agency standards and without any indication that they would ever do much better, I was called a “racist” for suggesting they be returned to their former federal jobs, and a black supervisor found a way of doctoring their records so they became permanent employees. So many investigators proved unable to write up investigations in an acceptable way that a relatively junior white investigator was assigned to do the writing, and since the investigations were frequently incomplete because of inadequate supervision, he also took responsibility for telling the investigators what additional information they needed to get.
Even worse, to my mind—far more discouraging than the inability of many blacks at EEOC to do their assigned jobs in a minimally acceptable way—was the extraordinary indifference most of my black fellow employees showed to the complaints and complainants the agency dealt with. There was no commitment, no sense of urgency, no appreciation of the revolution that could be accomplished if the agency worked well. There was more talk about barbecue grills and automatic garage doors—middle-class suburban acquisitions—than about civil rights. One of the investigators referred to complainants with annoyance, calling them “those people.” Had she been white, she could have been called racist. Or maybe what she was most concerned about was social class. “Those people,” who worked with their hands, were not her people. She used to send thank-you notes to companies she investigated for the coffee or snacks they gave her during the course of her on-site visits, as though they had been social calls.
A number of the investigations I conducted or supervised resulted in cases filed in federal court by private attorneys or nonprofit law firms. There were positive consequences of any well-conducted investigation, too, in advance of any court action. The company being investigated would want to limit its liability, would make changes to conform to the law now, whatever its behavior might have been in the past. The job was not without real satisfactions, but toward the end, the only way I survived was by assigning myself cases as far from our office as possible: paper mills in New Hampshire—fly to Portland, drive the Presidentials; military contractors in Massachusetts—fly to Springfield, drive the Berkshires. Beautiful scenery to balance the permanent bad taste in my mouth.
My only activity at the EEOC that prompted legal action by the agency itself was a sex-discrimination case my wife filed and I shepherded through the agency appeal process. It resulted in establishing an important principle about the illegality of gender “preferences” and caused the New York State Employment Service to stop using different-colored application forms: blue for male, “salmon” for female job applicants.
All the black and civil rights organizations I worked for—generally via a profit-making consulting firm—after I left the EEOC relied heavily on financial support from the white community. My job was to help raise money from that community. I think most whites believed, as I did, that support for these organizations would bring us closer to the realization of two goals: firstly, an end to traditional white racism as it affected all aspects of black life; secondly, the provision of remedial and supportive services, especially educational services, to the black community to enable it to fully participate in the life of the larger society once the artificial barriers of discrimination had been removed. In other words, the hope was to address both sides of the double bind of white racism and black underperformance, to bring blacks up to speed while brushing racist whites out of their way.
Most whites, and possibly even many blacks, would probably agree that the defeat of traditional white racism has been largely achieved. There is no major aspect of American life in 1999—housing employment, education, public accommodations, voting rights—in which discrimination against blacks is not illegal. There are still violent attacks on blacks by vicious whites, but the law goes after these whites—even when the vicious attackers are policemen—as it never did during the first three centuries of black habitation on these shores.
Black underperformance, though, especially academic underperformance—to which other social woes are crucially linked—has shown remarkable tenacity. It has been both announced and demonstrated to the black community that college scholarships and the prospects of good jobs afterward, entree into the American middle class or beyond, are available to blacks who do even moderately well in high school, not just to the academic stars. Black college students know that graduate schools will compete to enroll the top tier of black college graduates, but despite all the active encouragement that has supplanted discrimination, blacks continue to do poorly on both high school and college achievement tests. Even in the lower grades, the results can be disheartening. Why should this be the case when white racism has largely transformed itself, however temporarily or grudgingly, into white benevolence? And when tens of millions of white charitable dollars have gone to support black educational institutions?
There are a number of identifiably black colleges in the United States, mostly in the South. They fall into two major groups, not counting Howard University, which is a special case. One group, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) schools, consists of private institutions, many of them started by Northern church groups during Reconstruction, to provide educational opportunity to the newly freed slaves. There are around forty of these schools, some of the better known of which are Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, Morehouse, Fisk, and Spelman. These schools have always been open to white students and faculty and have never, to my knowledge, been subject to any kind of desegregation order.
The other group consists of approximately forty state colleges in nineteen states, including Delaware, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, that were the separate and unequal black portions of segregated state systems of higher education. These systems were ordered to desegregate by the Supreme Court over thirty years ago; the case that covers them, and has lasted about as long as Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in Dickens’ Bleak House, is now called United States v. Fordice and has created terrible problems for the black civil rights community, especially for its leading law firm, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF).
The principle that allowed the LDF to win Brown v. Board of Education—that separate is inherently unequal—applied exactly to these state schools. In terms of faculty training, physical facilities, and educational outcomes, these identifiably black schools lagged atrociously behind their white counterparts. Black civil rights agencies sued to have the systems merged, only to discover tremendous resistance on the part of the black population, not just current students or faculty but whole communities for whom these segregated colleges had been major cultural institutions. These schools had deep roots in the black community, had traditions—marching bands, football teams, fraternities and sororities, the whole college panoply, all of which might be swallowed up and destroyed by the stronger white schools if the systems were to be merged. What jobs would there be then for black faculty and administrators? Wouldn’t they just be pensioned off, their useful lives cut short?
The civil rights organizations backed away from U.S. v. Fordice, and these schools, still overwhelmingly black, still academically inferior, supply seventy-five percent of all college degrees earned by blacks in public colleges in the United States. The UNCF schools, a goodly number of them anyway, are academically weaker than the black state colleges, and even the best of them are being preserved not because of their academic strength but because they are black institutions and have histories inseparable from the black experience in America. I am talking about the institutions through which a group defines its own identity. What their graduates do on LSATs or GREs may be a relatively minor matter.
Many blacks who have emerged from the ghetto into successful professional life, many teachers in inner-city schools, many forthright black community leaders, will acknowledge that a black kid who does well in school, who studies hard, may be subject to scorn and harrassment, possibly even to physical abuse at the hands of his schoolmates for “acting like whitey.” Is this sort of behavior simply sour grapes on the part of youngsters who know they are going to fail and don’t want to be shown up by a classmate’s success? Or does it cut much deeper than that, have resonance with Southern blacks’ support for their traditional schools, roots in a genuine desire to preserve black identity? And what might that identity be?
The American black community is extraordinarily diverse. It has important currents flowing from the Spanish-or French-speaking Caribbean as well as from former English colonies such as Jamaica or Barbados. Different parts of the North received migratory flows from different regions of the South in two separate major waves coinciding with or immediately following the two World Wars. Differences of skin tone, reflecting the sexual predations of white planters and carrying forward the “privileges” of a “café au lait” mulatto class, still play a complex role, putting black identity under great strain from within. The methods used by sociologists or census takers, or test evaluators, for that matter, are completely inadequate to describe or quantify the complexities of black experience. What most unites this community is the shared history of slavery and segregation, of abuse and humiliation, of being treated as moral and intellectual inferiors, objects of fear and contempt, second-or third-class citizens, by whites who have acted as if dominance were their birthright. To what extent is “acting like whitey” an acceptance of that dominance, a betrayal of black identity?
Slavery denied black men the right to support and raise their own children. And still, today, in the ghettos, black men in great number, because they are unemployed or addicted or in jail, do not take responsibility for their own children. Black women were not allowed, as slaves, sexual modesty and control of their own bodies. And still, today, in the ghettos, multiple fathers for multiple children and widespread promiscuity are commonplace. Blacks in slavery and for generations afterward were kept illiterate or nearly so. And still, today, in the ghettos, learning to read well, to study hard, is “acting like whitey.”
Identity forged by oppressors is still identity. The lives that those black assembly-line workers in the Naugatuck Valley built for themselves as second-class citizens were real lives, with values to be defended and preserved. Even the black supervisors at the EEOC who chose to retain less-than-competent trainees may have been affirming a personal solidarity among blacks that was far more meaningful to them than conformity to job standards imposed on them by a white bureaucracy.
The last several years have seen a tendency in many black communities to use political power to undo Brown v. Board. of Education even at the grade school level. Blacks will do a better job of insisting on high standards for their own children, this view asserts, than will whites, many of whom will simply let black students drift because they do not believe blacks are intelligent enough to learn. A black teacher who insists on high standards for his pupils, who criticizes their shortcomings, can hardly be called a racist, although he or she will may have to get past accusations of “acting white.”
If the historically black colleges were dependent for survival on the gifts of their own alumni rather than on state and federal subsidies or white charitable contributions, they would have to provide their students with a competitive education. As things stand—with white money pouring in from outside—these black schools maintain both low academic standards and the nation’s highest rate of student loan default.
There is a substantial black middle class out there, the product of the last thirty years of civil rights activity, that has to decide whether it wants to invest its money and skills in making black institutions—not just the traditionally black colleges but also the NAACP and the Urban League and the Legal Defense Fund and a host of other presently white-funded organizations—both truly autonomous and not second-rate. There is nothing autonomous about black studies departments in white-financed universities. White funders, corporations, foundations, government agencies, and, I suspect, even universities, are exceptionally soft on black-led organizations, demand little in the way of performance, not even financial accountability, and are afraid perhaps, and not without reason, of being called “racist” if they ask too much.
In terms of autonomy, the most successful black institutions that exist today are the membership-funded professional organizations of black engineers or computer programmers or businessmen, or even of black policemen and firemen protecting their interests in bigoted urban departments.
Above all, and most successful to my mind, is one of the very few black national organizations that does not have deep roots in slavery or segregation, that rejects second-class citizenship and that scorns white help. I certainly count on making no new friends among its membership, but I’m sure that if that girl on the subway or her family had belonged to the Nation of Islam, she would never even have dreamed of calling herself a “nigger.”
A Yankees Fan in the Floating World
WHILE I WAS AWAY at college, my parents bought and sold a couple of houses and changed their address three times, covering a distance of several hundred miles. By the time I graduated and moved back in with them, they were living on the twenty-ninth floor of a high-rise in midtown Manhattan. They’d taken a two-bedroom apartment, partly because of the significant expense involved if they went for something larger, but also as if they knew in advance that once the children went off to college none of them would ever come back to stay long. Both of my brothers had a couple of years to go at school, so there was maneuvering room. We staked out territory, my father occupying my parents’ bedroom, my mother the living room, I the spare bedroom.
I had majored in English, but it turned out to be even more useful that I had excelled at typing in junior high. I landed a job as an editorial assistant at a university press and set about the business of becoming a grown-up. My two bosses treated me as if I were bright enough, one in particular reminding me that she had started off as an editorial assistant herself. They acquired books, and I typed their correspondence with a variety of authors. They had interesting jobs, but I liked it better over in copyediting, a warren where women in glasses polished text like old silver, working in the intricacies of language until they brought it to a shine. There was a woman I liked particularly, with silvery blond hair and silvery blue eyes. She lived quietly by herself on Long Island and commuted to work every day on the train. In my head, I filed her away as someone I might grow up to be much later. Meanwhile, I wasn’t staying. I took a paycheck every two weeks and put most of it away. For the moment I didn’t want to be much of anything, and couldn’t imagine that I ever would.
In April I took my first sick day to go to Opening Day at Yankee Stadium. During two years of remodeling, the Yankees had shared Shea Stadium with the Mets, but now they were coming back to the Bronx. I left the apartment a little after nine. The game was a sellout, but bleacher tickets were going on sale at eleven.
The 4 train runs underground up the East Side of Manhattan and into the Bronx, but at Yankee Stadium it rises out of the tunnel onto elevated tracks. That morning we burst into sunshine, and I could look into the stadium and see the differences. The view-blocking pillars were gone, and the blue of the seats was brighter. I stood on the platform for a moment, as people swirled around me, and waited while the train pulled out and I got another view of the stadium. I could see that the old façade had been pulled down, painted white, and made into trim in the outfield. I’d been away a long time.
The grass stretched out unblemished in front of the bleachers. The fences had been pulled in; the monuments, which had been a center fielder’s nightmare, were back behind the fence. Despite the changes, however, there was more the same than different: the green grass mowed into a grid of interlocking rectangles, the foul lines and batters’ boxes lined bright white against the dirt, the large, clean diamond laid out on the ground. For the first time, I felt like I’d come home from school.
Looking at the mostly unfamiliar names on the scorecard, I found out that the new young second baseman, Willie Randolph, was three months shy of his twenty-second birthday. I was three weeks older. I sat in the bleachers, watching batting practice, watching Randolph, number 30. All my life, I’d been used to thinking of ballplayers as grownups, myself as a kid, but that afternoon in Yankee Stadium, I realized that I was catching up to them. They’d solved the mystery, it seemed to me, of how to be, stumbled into it, or looked inside themselves and found it, or been tapped on the shoulder. They were able to go forward, not just because they were good at something but because they were able to devote themselves. Years later, I’d read an interview in which Randolph said that growing up, he hadn’t been the most talented player in his neighborhood, Bushwick, in Brooklyn, but he’d been one of the few to stay with it, work at it. But that afternoon I watched Willie Randolph take ground balls and shook my head. It was too hard a puzzle for me. I was just there to watch a baseball game.
With most of my old friends still away at school, I explored relations with my fellow editorial assistants. Some of the young women I hung around with were just passing through, too, bound back to Howard or Dartmouth when their publishing internships were over. Elaine Weissberg, though, was there for the long term. Elaine was very thin and favored baggy clothes that were too young for her, like big jumpers over blouses with Peter Pan collars carefully buttoned to the neck. I hadn’t yet known anyone with the big knees of anorexics, but I suspected Elaine was hiding, or hiding something under her clothes. She lived about twenty blocks south of my parents’ apartment and had converted a closet into a darkroom. Her pictures were posted all over her walls. There was a hairstylist on Elaine’s block, and there was a particular mannequin head in the window that was always being restyled. Elaine kept tabs on the mannequin, named her Justine, and photographed her short, dark, smooth, long, blond, curly, and every permutation in between. Elaine shot in black and white and then took special crayons to her pictures, touching up the lips, or the skin, or shadowing the eyes, or leaving colored marks in places that looked random. Elaine herself never wore makeup, and her light brown hair was always blunt cut around her jaw, carefully styleless. I loved the Justine series. I didn’t quite know what Elaine was getting at with it, but I knew enough to recognize, watching Elaine with her camera, a person absorbed in her work, givig herself to it wholeheartedly. Elaine didn’t talk much about herself, but from Justine she held nothing back.
If there was anything I was capable of feeling committed to, it was the Yankees. I could bribe no one I knew into going to the stadium with me, and once a week or so, when the Yankees were home, I’d sit by myself in the upper deck, frequently, in April and early May, in two or three sweaters. I’d eat ice cream, pretending it was summer already, and watch the game play out on the field below me. If I was lonely, I didn’t know it. I watched Thurman Munson control the game from behind the plate, Billy Martin kick dirt on umpires, Catfish Hunter give up some of the biggest home runs I’d ever seen, almost always in early innings with nobody on, then settle down and make the opposition look feeble for the rest of the game. Baseball had changed in some ways from when I was a kid: they had the designated hitter in the American League; it spared fans both the spectacle of the pitcher hitting and the intricacies of baseball strategy, which I missed. It tipped the balance toward hitting, and I had always preferred a good 1-0 or 2-1 pitchers’ duel. They had divisional play, which meant a team could have the best record across the 162-game season and still not make it to the World Series. I was used to thinking of myself as a rebel, but when it came to baseball, I was a traditionalist. Fortunately, the Yankees also retained one player from my childhood, Roy White-a quick, switch-hitting outfielder with a pigeon-toed stance–and that helped ease me through the changes. Despite the alterations, baseball still rested on a foundation of well-executed fundamentals: hitting the cutoff man, taking the extra base, throwing a first strike to a hitter. I sat in the upper deck, suspended above the field, and looked down like one waiting for mysteries to be revealed.
At the beginning of September, I had enough money. I gave notice at work, bought a round-trip ticket on Icelandic Airlines where the return half would be good for a year, and invested in a warm sleeping bag and a backpack. I had thrown over a promising job, and my father refused to give his blessing to my trip, but the only thing I regretted was the Yankees, who looked like they would be winning the American League East, and possibly their first pennant since 1964. If I left town, I’d miss it, but I couldn’t hang around any longer inside my own skin. I had to get out.
Once in Europe, I traveled hard every day, as if I feared entire countries would fold up their tents and disappear before I could get there. Gradually, I slowed down. Except for minimal traveler’s talk for food, youth hostel lodgings, train schedules, I went days without saying a word to anyone. I was the only person in the girls’ side of youth hostels in some of the smaller towns in Belgium; I walked the streets wrapped in the comforting solitude that comes from knowing I’d recognize no face, no street corner, and, in the Flemish part of the country, not even a spoken word. My time was my own; I ate and slept according to my own whims, modified by the youth hostels’ rules. If I arrived somewhere and decided I didn’t like it at first or second glance, I went someplace else immediately. Every day I wandered strange cities, admiring their art, their buildings, their monuments, their town squares. I ate their food, french fries wrapped in white paper cones, crepes from a street corner, coffee in small bowls.
I never read a newspaper or listened to a radio. I wondered about the Yankees now and then, but mostly it was as if the world I had left had ceased to exist. Behind the everyday sensations, though, a kind of clock had started ticking in my head. If I’d gone to Europe to find myself, or at least someone who looked familiar, I’d better get to it.
The farther north I went, the grayer the skies became. On my last day in London, in early October, it started to rain, and it continued to rain almost every day while I made my way up through England and into Scotland. In Edinburgh, I woke up with a throat so sore I could hardly swallow, and found my way to the local hospital. The doctor checked me out, said it was just a bad cold, recommended staying indoors and drinking lots of liquids for a day or two. When I asked how to pay the bill, he explained the concept of socialized medicine. I had my thumb out again by afternoon. I felt lousy, but it was worse if I stayed in one place.
It took nearly a month to loop through Scotland, Ireland, Wales and back to London, where there was a thick packet of mail waiting for me at the American Express office. Standing there with the stack of U.S. postmarks, I suddenly realized the World Series was over. I sorted through the envelopes, finally pausing at a fat one addressed to me by my father. I slit it open, and there, neatly batched by game, continuations of articles stapled together, were three New York papers’ coverage of the 1976 World Series. The Yankees had lost to the Big Red Machine in four straight, but I read through anyway, drinking tea and trying to stay warm. One of the reporters had asked Reds manager Sparky Anderson how Thurman Munson stacked up against Johnny Bench, the Reds’ future Hall-of-Fame catcher, and Sparky had said that he wouldn’t want to embarrass anyone by comparing them with Johnny Bench. But Thurm wasn’t just anyone, and I felt a wave of righteous anger on his behalf, along with something else that just might have been homesickness.
Athens was where I was when I had less than fifty dollars in my pocket, and, according to a rule I’d set myself, that was the place where I looked for work. I cashed in the return half of my plane ticket for another seventy-five dollars and tried to orient myself. In the Athens youth hostel there was another young woman about my age, with long blond hair, an unfinished MA in architecture, and a kind of grim look around the mouth. She wasn’t going home either. Margaret spoke enough Greek that we were able to negotiate ourselves a basement apartment for forty dollars a month. I got work teaching English to two little girls, six days a week after school, and she got work cleaning house for the family of an American ex-astronaut who had once walked on the moon. In that basement apartment, with linoleum covering the water-stained walls, where the toilet made such strange noises we decided it was talking and named it Theobald, we hunkered down and saved our money. If Athens wore thin after a while, it didn’t matter; it was a cheap city to live in. We devoted ourselves to small pleasures: the libaray at the Hellenic-American Center; an occasional movie; the stupid deaths and dowry scams in the Athens Daily News. We were going to travel more, as much as we wanted, and we wouldn’t go home until we were ready, whenever that was. One October afternoon a little over a year from the day I’d left, I was standing in a small shop in the Plaka, that area of old, narrow streets and shops crunched at the foot of the Acropolis. I had enough money to travel for a few more months, but I’d be going home after that. The family I was looking to buy presents for I hadn’t seen in over a year. Considering the sweaters in the store, trying to think what my two brothers, my mother and father might like, I realized I was still inside my own skin. I’d lived on my own in a foreign country, I’d walked streets I’d previously only read or dreamed about, but if those experiences had changed me in any fundamental way, I had yet to see how.
I hadn’t expected a clear signpost, but with all the time I’d had to look inward, I’d have thought I would have gotten at least a hint as to what direction to take. Instead, I was going home, as far as I could tell, almost exactly the same person I had been when I left. I had my hand on a navy-blue cable sweater that might work for my brother Mike when the language on the radio station the shopkeeper had been playing finally penetrated my consciousness. English. It was the American Armed Forces Network, broadcasting the last game of the 1977 World Series between the Yankees and the Dodgers. “. . . Reggie Jackson,” the announcer was saying. “Jackson has two home runs already in this game.”
I stood still, listening to the call. Then I heard the familiar “tock,” the radio-filtered sound of a bat solidly hitting a ball. Reggie Jackson had hit three home runs in one World Series game, the first time it had ever been done. I hardly thought of Reggie as a Yankee, he was such a recent acquisition, but he was wearing a Yankees uniform, and the Yankees were winning. I looked out into the winding streets of the Plaka, my head full of the buzz of a stadium crowd and the announcers’ excited voices. For the first time in a year and a half, I could hear home calling me.
This full essay is not currently available online.
A year after I have been back on my feet, sleep deprived with a baby, I am watching television. I am laughing hard. Frasier and his father, Martin, are bickering as they reluctantly enter a hospital room. They tiptoe gingerly, comedic, bumbling, bumping into each other, not wanting to enter. I hope we’re not disturbing you, they say to the patient. This takes me back.
Poetry Feature: Adrie Kusserow
Featuring the Poems:
- Crossing Borders
- Hunting Down the Monk
- Orphanage, Missionaries of Charity, Kathmandu, Nepal
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Poetry Feature: Susan Terris
Featuring the Poems:
- Twelve: Rough and Unsugared
- Thirteen: The Iron Handle of Innisfree
- Fourteen: Bedtime Story
- Fifteen: Running Goose-Eye
- Sixteen: Tolling the Bell
Poetry Feature: Mori Creech
Featuring the Poems:
- On the Nature of Starlings
- The Heaven of Memory
- Landscape of Heaven
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Poetry Feature: Jeffrey Levine
Featuring the Poems:
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- One Month Before His 50th Birthday
- Penelope Draws from Life
- It Turns Out Circe Has Something of a Past
- Telemachos in San Miguel
This full sotry is not curretnly avaible online.
One has to ponder what he felt as he watched it fall from the sky, a dark spot that materialized from nowhere against endless pale blue. As moment by moment it increased in size, there was nothing to do but accept, because he knew it would somehow miss the entire Sea of Japan and strike and sink the small speck upon the water where he stood.