Wednesday, July 15, 2009
My first job was as a bus boy. That was at a Shoney's Big Boy in College Park in Atlanta. I stopped by there last year, and now its a Simone's Steak and Seafood. I was about 17 years old at the time, and just out of high school. My mom had moved my brother and myself there, partly to get far away from Dad, but I think really because it was in her nature. She simply didn't know how to stay put.
Shoney's was the beginning of my journey into adulthood. The waitresses liked me, partly because I didn't steal their tips, and they took me in. I was a shy kid but I had a gimmick. I could analyse handwriting. I was good. It was my window into the world of other people. Studying handwriting was my first experience with studying sycretistically and asynchronously. I studied several books at once. I also studied different parts of the books in coordination with each other, not always just front to back. One day I would be studying middle zones, three books at once. The next day upper and lower loops, three books at once. This has an interesting effect of blending disparate ideas together into a natural and intuitive hash. When I looked at a handwriting I was experiencing it in an intuitive way, and though living inside the person's skin, the way a musician would read a sheet of music. Picking up a customer's receipt, or a person's scribbled notes I could hold my thoughts quiet and let some other part of my mind feel and speak the meaning of the person's personality. I could break down the process into cause and effect if I had to, but what I was seeing was more like an image of the person's interior world. A thin middle zone, and exaggerated high zone - an idealistic romantic person. If also leaning far forward, an emotional person, passionate in love, but flighty. Something like that.
One day a waitress named Vicky saw me looking at her handwriting on a napkin in a vacant way, and asked what I was doing. I told her I was getting to know her from her handwriting. People aren't creeped out by this, they love it. She asked what kind of sample I needed. I told her the best thing was a sheet of unlined paper, written top to bottom. The words didn't matter as long as it was the natural way she wrote. After the lunch rush, she came into the break room with her paper and I went to work on it. She was deeply moved by what I told her and told the other waitresses. Soon I was flooded with samples of their writing, and then their husbands and boyfriends. I never charged anything, because by then we were like family.
A new waitress showed up around the middle of summer. She was a little chunky, with large intense eyes. She had a silly, moronic giggle you could hear across the room and a way of being in a dozen places at once. Her name was DeEtta. I exchanged a few words with her, not much. I quickly wrote her off as a fool. She had a little girl named Cathy about seven or eight years old, who came in after school, took a back booth and did her homework on the table, waiting for her mom to get off. She was a quiet, intense kid who seemed close to her mother, but never a father in sight.
Somehow I didn't see how she would ever fit in. She was just weird. Vicky told her about my handwriting hobby. "Can you do mine?" asked DeEtta, and waved a napkin at me with that toothy smile. I really didn't want to. I knew there was nothing interesting about her. I didn't want to tell her anything bad, but at the same time I didn't want to snub her. She was tenacious, and finally I said yes, but I needed a proper sample and explained to her how to do it. She came back with it the next morning and I stuffed it into my apron pocket and kept putting her off. I told her I'd look at it after lunch.
That was an especially rough day. I got into a huge argument in the dining room in front of the customers with the assistant dining room manager, a guy from Egypt named Salim. I was fired. My first job, and I'd gotten fired for arguing with management. Vicky told me to stay right where I was, just get coffee and wait in the back. The lunch rush had begun. The waitresses went on strike.
Would people do that for me now? I don't know, it was a different time in 1972. I was a different person too. The customers came, the waitresses elbowed the dirty dishes to the wall and took their orders. They refused to clean the tables. When the main dining room manager came in he saw the piles and yelled for me. I came out and he hollered "Garcia what the hell is this?" The waitresses, including DeEtta who suddenly looked very fierce, gathered around him. Angry waitresses are like wolverines. They berated Salim and complained about how he'd fired me. The manger stomped into the backroom. "Garcia - get in there and clean those tables. Nobody's fired unless I say so." I had my job back. After the lunch rush had cleared out I went to the break room and thanked everybody who came by for standing up for me. I had my coffee and took out DeEtta's paper, trying to think of kind things I could make up to say. It turned out I didn't have to.
I had never seen a handwriting like this. It throbbed with power. Everything was written with a pressure on the pen that pressed letters through the paper like braille. It was the hand of a brilliant mind, an intense and passionate soul. I would have never have imagined it could have come from the woman with the dumb grin, but her name was on it. A middle zone which showed critical thought, soaring imagination in the high zone. Full swelling erotic lower loops, a woman a man dreams of having in his bed. The words, the few I could even read, turned out to be a brief, slightly rambling discourse on Albert Camus.
DeEtta came in and threw down her apron on a chair. She sat down across from me with her Shoney's Big Boy coffee and folded her hands. "How are we?"
"Thanks for sticking up for me out there."
"Workers have to stand up for their rights or they'll run right over you. There should be a union."
"Right. Listen. I need to tell you something," I said. "This is embarrassing for me."
"You know, I had this idea about you. I don't know. Like maybe you weren't too bright or something."
Her eyes twinkled. "Okay. So?"
"Actually, you're really smart."
I had hoped she'd laugh. Instead she looked serious. "So now you think I'm smart? Should I be flattered?"
"No, I think you're like - really smart. I had you all wrong. At first I thought maybe you were like sort of a goofball or something. I'm sorry I guess is what I mean. I've never seen anything like this in my life." I waved the sheet of paper. She gave me an appraising look as if deciding whether or not I was worth rescuing. She took the paper from my hand and glanced at the little notes I'd scribbled on it.
"People sometimes think that about me until they know me. So you can really do it. That's nice." She folded the paper and put it away. "You going to be a bus boy all your life?"
"I don't know what I'm going to do. How'd a smart girl like you end up here?"
"You think the other women aren't smart?"
"I - "
"You should use this talent to change the way you look at people. Don't you think so?" That was a phrase I would hear a lot from her, that Socratic challenge - Don't you think so? "Well, I'm about thirty and I just got divorced from Cathy's father. I don't know what I'm doing here, but I probably won't stay."
"This thing you wrote. Who's Cam -us?"
"Ka - MOO. Have you ever read Camus?"
I told her I'd never heard of Camus, who was he? Existentialism? No, hadn't heard of that either. Did I read? What did I read? Ray Bradbury? She used to read him, but she'd outgrown him. Had I read any of the classics? Did I read poetry? Shakespeare? Not even in school? Mark Twain for god's sakes?
She invited me to walk home with her and Cathy. We went up a long flight of wooden stairs into a rented second floor walk up that looked at first as if someone had broken into it and trashed the place. Clothes were tossed around, including a very impressive bra . A small TV, some toys. And books. Books everywhere. There was a box of encyclopedias it turned out she had carried with her hitch hiking from Arkansas. There were books in Italian. She loved Italy, had spent the last few years living there. When no college would admit her she had jumped the iron fence of a prestigious school run by nuns and demanded admittance and they had accepted her on the face of her determination to learn. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, King Duncan says "There is no art to read the character in the face." How true in her case. But I didn't know anything about Shakespeare. Not yet. DeEtta would fix that. While Cathy played with their cat "Poo" (short for "poop"), DeEtta sat me down on her bed. She reached under and hauled out a box of old paperbacks and gave me two of them. "You're bound to like one of these." One was "The Stranger" by Camus, her favorite book at that time. The other was "The Last Temptation of Christ" by Nikos Kazantzakis. "Try Camus first. If you don't catch on to him, try Kazantzakis."
I never did get Camus. The Kazantzakis book set me on fire. Even today, it is still the only book that has the power to make me weep.
For two years, we were inseparable companions. Although I felt a secret passion for this exciting, earthy woman, she kept everything very chaste, a scholarly elder sister and her obtuse but bright younger brother. In those two years she became the great teacher of my life. She was working on a novel, which she showed pages of to me from time to time. I was the only one she trusted with it. It was hard to write, she said, she hadn't found her voice. In time she would.
One day we were walking the railroad tracks, discussing the songs of Woody Guthrie which she had turned me onto, and the subject of poetry came up.
"Which poets have you read?" she said.
"I don't read any."
"I don't get poetry, I tried in high school, but nothing sticks."
"That's because you need to read good poets."
"I tried a few. I just can't get into it."
We went to her apartment and she made me jasmine tea and sat me back down on her bed, which in its way had become our classroom. From a stack on the window sill, she pulled out a paperback of Dylan Thomas. "This is how you learn to read poetry. Listen. You and the poet have to meet on the same level. You can't do that in the beginning, because you don't have the experience. Find a poem in here that catches your eye and memorize it. You don't have to understand it, just remember the words. That's all. It has to be a poem you like. Someday you'll be doing something or going through something and the words will come back to you and then you'll get at the what the poet has experienced. It's telepathy, it's the only telepathy there is." I took her book home that night and memorized most of "Fern Hill".
We took meditation classes together. We visited a psychic together who said that she had been my mother in a past life. She schooled me in different writers in those celibate evenings laying on her bed together, hips and elbows touching, Cathy next to us, talking and debating the great questions of life. Meanwhile the world was moving on around us. Karma was calling. We were on our way somewhere else. My Dad offered to help me get into college if I came back to Minnesota. DeEtta told me this would be a good idea and she was going to Seattle to start over again. There was nothing for either of us in College Park, which is neither a college or a park. She had a sister and a brother in Seattle. So ist das Leben, as Nixie says. So it goes.
She went to Seattle. I went to Minneapolis. We wrote letters every week, sharing the news of our lives, and our rambling ideas. I lived for her letters. I sent her stuff I was writing. I wrote down my dreams for her. She met a guy. I met a religious sect and moved in. DeEtta didn't like the theology which was too fundamentalist. The sect didn't want me corresponding to strange women who didn't want to join up. They were my life now. The old world had to be cut off. DeEtta wrote furious letters, objecting to my leaving her out of my life. But what could she do? God was calling me away from the world, or so I thought. She called me Icarus, flying too close to the sun. My wings were doomed to melt. Twenty years later they did and I fell a long ways down.
A few years ago, though a lifetime later, I was loafing on the Internet, looking through books on Amazon. I wondered if she had ever written her novel and I did an author search on "DeEtta", since I couldn't be sure of her last name. There aren't many women in this world named DeEtta, which helps when you're doing a name search. Only one name came up. This author DeEtta had lived an adventurous life, she had lived in Italy and written screen plays. She had a new book "The Force of A Feather" detailing her search for the life history of a freed slave named Biddy Mason. (Which turned out to be an excellent book on the subject of slavery.) A search through the libraries of San Antonio where I was living turned up a copy at a library near me. This would be a hard back book, which would mean there would be an author's photo. I drove there after work and found it on the shelf. Even after a gap of thirty years, she didn't look that different than the way I remembered her. It was my old friend.
I bought a copy and sent it to her through the publisher, with a long adoring letter detailing how she had changed my life, and turned it around more than she could know. After a long time Igot my book back with an autograph. A terse post card, polite, coolly friendly, but without invitation. She wished me well.
The world had moved on. Timing is everything, and time had separated us beyond healing.
The young single mother with the demeanor of a bimbo and the penmanship of a steel trap mind. The earnest young man, looking for a great purpose to devote himself to. But she had left her thumbprint on my brain forever. There is not a book I ever open without remembering her with longing. She had opened doors to me and given me the gift of a life of the mind.
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
from "Fern Hill" Dylan Thomas
See - I get that now.