Monday, January 20, 2014

Scenes from a Long Good Friday

Don't mess with my cushions!
One Thursday morning our neighbor Thea woke up blind.  She was understandably freaked out, but maintained her calm as Michael drove her to the local eye doctor, where she was examined.  The doctor came into the waiting room, stood before Michael and gravely announced: “She needs to go to the emergency room at the eye clinic in Miami. Right now.” 
   Michael called me at work to say that he was heading to Miami with Thea. What else could he do? Whoa! On a busy holiday weekend? There had to be a better way! I made a dozen phone calls, to the hospital, to the ambulance company, to the helicopter people. Turns out that waking up blind, as terrible as that is, does not classify as a life-threatening condition. Therefore, the only way to get Thea to Miami was to drive, on the eve of Good Friday. I joined them, and around 2 we headed to Miami. We arrived in the city, and into the maze that is Miami’s hospital district, just after rush hour, and found our way to the clinic by nightfall.
    In the waiting room there were others with eye emergencies even worse than Thea’s.  A kid on a stretcher with one eye heavily bandaged. (A victim of the famous BB gun incident our parents warned us about?) A baby, wailing, in the arms of his horrified parents. And other, quieter catastrophies. Like Thea’s -- all of them waiting for their turn with the doctor.
    By midnight Thea had been examined, her blood tested and her body injected with steroids. She was told to return in the morning, bright and early. Which meant checking into a hotel located somewhere in the maze of dirty streets and tall buildings.
    After another day of waiting rooms and treatments, Thea was released from the clinic. The roads were a glut of 3-day-weekend traffic. The source of Thea’s sudden blindness remained a mystery, although a course of treatment had been prescribed. As we made our way out of Miami, the tension, disappointment, and Thea’s fear traveled with us, like an elephant in the back seat. There was little to say, and so we said little. Our relief, at arriving home, was profound.
    Sometimes life in Key West is more like a movie than real life, as in you can’t make this stuff up! It was one of those times. And we had one more scene to go.
      As Michael eased the car into our narrow driveway we noticed an unfamiliar bicycle propped against our house. Unlocked. Who does that? While I walked Thea home, Michael investigated. He quickly returned to the front door and said,  “Call the cops!”  The tone of his voice sent chills up my spine.
    “Why?” I asked, dialing 911.
    “There’s a body on the deck,” he said.
    “A body? You mean a dead body?”
    “It’s all wrapped up,” he said. “I can’t tell.”
    He encouraged me to not look, so I didn’t. A policeman soon arrived. He was all business. With his right hand resting on his gun, he walked through the house with Michael leading the way. He saw the mummy on the deck and agreed that the thing wrapped in a quilt beneath the schefflera tree might be dead. Or alive. 
    “Hey,” he said, poking the body with his foot. “Hey, you!” 
    He did this for a minute or two until finally, the thing moved.  It was alive. It was a man and the man wanted to be left alone.  That’s what he said.
    “Leave me alone, please,” he moaned, and as he exhaled this plea fumes of alcohol filled the air. Michael and I staggered back, but not the cop.
    “You gotta get out of here,” the cop told the man. “This is private property. You’re trespassing.”
Our friends from Up North always get a kick out of our outdoor laundry room. 

    I realized that he was wrapped in the heavy quilt we use to cover our washing machine. Beneath his head, I recognized the porch chair cushions. He’d opened the gate, come into our yard, onto the deck, and bundled himself up nice and cozy. He hadn’t been there for long, I knew. Otherwise, that bike would have been gone, like all unlocked bikes in Key West.
    “Man, I told you to fix that gate lock,” I hissed at Michael, as the man slowly rose from the floor, moaning gruffly, polluting the air with his barroom breath.
    “Can I take this shit with me?” the man asked, clutching the quilt to his chest.
    “Yes,” the cop said. “Take it and go.”
    By now we were totally punch drunk with exhaustion. The situation was suddenly hilarious.
    “Wait a minute,” Michael said. “That’s my shit!”
    What made it all the more hilarious to me is Michael swearing. Michael does not swear.
    “No, you can’t take it. That’s Mr. Keith’s shit!”
     And then the cop. More hilarious still. 
    “How about these pillows?” he asked.
    “No!” I yelled.
    The drunken man surrendered our stuff. The cop walked him around to the front of the house where he slumped on the steps, and wearily held his head in his hands. He was not a bad man, I thought, just a defeated one. The bike, he said, in response to the cop's questioning, was his. He’d been in Key West for four weeks.
    “You want me to run him in?” the policeman asked. “It’s up to you.”
    “No, we just want him out of here,” I said, talking as tough as I could muster.  “But he’d better not come back here because this is Florida and if I see somebody on my property, behind my gate, I have the right to shoot!”
    “Did you hear that?” the cop said to the man. “Mrs. Keith says if you come back here again she’ll blow your head off.”
    With that the man rose from the step, and slowly climbed onto his bike, moving as if the effort pained him greatly. 
    “Hey, he’s riding drunk!” I said, as the man headed toward Duval Street and who knew what next.
    “Yeah,” the cop said. “I’ll probably be seeing him again tonight.”
    “Just like a western," Michael said. "This is where the cowboy rides into the setting sun.”
    Then we three stood silently, watching, and waiting for the credits to roll.



Monday, September 16, 2013

How I Found Enlightenment in the Walmart Parking Lot

Twenty-four hours after we woke up in the Walmart parking lot look who's still laughing.
Back in March, as I reserved and paid for plane tickets and a rental car for a trip to Canada Michael and I were planning to take in August, he viewed my early planning as an unattractive symptom of my controlling nature.  I am hyper-vigilant, for whatever reason. My school teachers often described me as “high strung,” which seemed to me a good thing. Better high strung than low strung, right?
     As our August departure date loomed, I urged Michael to secure our lodging for the Friday night we arrived in Maine. I needed to have a bed waiting for me at the end of a long day of travel.  As a high strung person, I need my rest.
      “There are lots of motels in Maine,” Michael said, “I want to wait and get one when we get there. Maybe we can get a same-day discount.”
There are motels all over the place!! 
      “But the motels are selling out,” I said. “I’ve been looking. There aren’t many rooms left!  Please choose one now!”
      Then came that look and that sigh from Michael. Oh June. Poor, high-strung June. I decided to work on developing a more laid-back attitude about the motel reservation. This is often what I do when these sorts of issues arise in my marriage. Michael is, after all, a far more worldly guy than I.  He’s been around, and, as he likes to remind me, been to Georgia on a fast train!  He’s educated at Furman, the Harvard of the South.  His feet don’t sweat.  He is laid back. So I figured Michael was right. We didn’t need reservations. I needed to get ahold of myself and steer clear of stringing myself too high.            
      On August 2 we flew to Maine. We took possession of our rental car, a sleek, white Sonata. We drove into the cool Portland sunset and all the way to Augusta before stopping for dinner. We asked the waitress if she knew of motels in the area.
      “They’re  everywhere!” she said. “I mean it’s Augusta, Maine.” She shrugged, shaking free the remote possibility of us finding ourselves without a roof over our heads for the night. But she was wrong. There were no motel rooms in Augusta, Maine that night. Or in Bangor either.  Turns out it was the weekend of the Lobster Festival, the state’s biggest tourist event. The motels were full and we were out of luck.
      In Brewer, Maine, we found a Walmart open till midnight. The nice clerks told us that we were welcome to spend the night outside along with the other campers in a tree-lined corner of the parking lot. People stayed there every night they assured us. How bad could it be?
      A wonderful thing happens when you surrender to the inevitable. It’s a sweet release; the knot in your chest unravels; your breath comes freely and you reclaim your sense of well-being. I jumped off the high wire then. Yes, we’d sleep in the car. We’d buy pillows and quilts and nest for the night, cupped in the soft leather seats of our lux car. Why not?
      “Baby,” Michael said, as we wandered the empty store, punch drunk with exhaustion, giggling like fools as we shopped for car camping supplies, “Pick yourself out a nice warm quilt.”
      We parked next to a very nice camper. There were a few.  A man walked his dog. A stiff breeze whipped the American flag flying over the land of the free. It was 60 degrees. We cracked the car windows for a rush of fresh, clean northern air, wrapped ourselves in our quilts, pushed back our seats and tried to sleep.
      Around 2 a.m. a Toyota Corolla pulled into the parking place next to ours. Inside the little car two people unabashedly performed the top ten positions of the Kama Sutra. Every once in a while they turned on the car’s engine, apparently to warm the car. They didn’t have quilts after all. Or curtains. What a show!                                            
      Maybe we slept for 2 hours. At 4 a.m. we were awake and chatting and laughing. I got out of the car to pee.  Maybe the folks in the fancy campers watched me do it. Maybe they didn’t. At 4 a.m. it was too late to care.
     “I peed on my feet,” I told Michael as I jumped back into the car, shivering from the cold, and shimmied back into the warm cocoon of my quilt.
      “Too much information,” he said.
     At 5 a.m. we drove to the all-night Tim Hortons for real bathrooms and coffee. At 6 a.m. we were on the road to New Brunswick, where we checked into a motel and slept for 18 hours. My equilibrium was shattered but my spirits were high.  Bottom line, we survived.
This boy has been to Georgia on a fast train, y'all!
      Now that we’re home in Key West, the trip is done, and life is back to routine, I think about that night. It was a fluke for us, but not for all who spend nights in their cars with no place else to go. I think about them. One night of homelessness was very hard on me.  It required a difficult period of adjustment, and then a longer period of recovery. I did it, but I don’t want to do it again.
      Now I see that flying above all that minutia — my need to control, Michael’s stubbornness, our silly egocentricities — is the clear solution, as obvious as that flag flying wildly in the Maine wind. There is truth in acceptance. I cannot manage every outcome in my life and it is a relief to admit that to myself.  Getting older is something I can do nothing about. The tyranny of time overrules our most carefully made plans. But I am lucky enough to be able to buy myself a very nice quilt. And so that’s my new serenity prayer: God, grant me the wherewithall to always have a nice, warm quilt as I surrender to the inevitable passage of time.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Hoka Hey Hell


Rocky waiting for breakfast in Key West, 2006.
My adventurous brother Rocky is about to set out on his beloved Harley for the mother of all motorcycle endurance rides, the Hoka Hey. Hoka Hey Challenge 2013 zig zags around the U.S. and Canada, covers 7,000 miles of road, and wraps at a giant survivors party a week or so later. Competitors’ bikes are equipped with tracking devices, so that we, the riders’ anxious friends and/or loved ones may watch their progress on our computer screens. Riders must sleep out-of-doors, if and when they sleep, and are strictly prohibited from using any performance enhancing drugs. Marijuana is taboo, too, and at the end of the race urine tests are administered to check for signs of infractions. Getting a ticket for speeding automatically eliminates challengers from sharing in the winners’ pot. Reportedly, Hoka Hey organizers will know if riders deviate from the rules, and in previous years, just to be sure, lie detector tests have been administered, which many unfortunately failed.  Riders are given directions to their next checkpoint at consecutive Harley dealership check-ins along the way.  The route is a mystery until the departure time of 6 a.m., Sunday.
          The website explains that the Hoka Hey is designed to “test riders’ abilities to navigate, endure and persevere along some of the most technical roads in North America!”
           And here I have to ask: what is a “technical road?”    
          “One with pavement?” Michael, Rocky’s brother-in-law suggests.
           Not necessarily, but in as much as that is possible, yes, the route will be on paved highway. Occasionally there may be deviations, however. Previous contestants have reported the instructions to have been very confusing.
          Here’s more from the Hoka Hey website: “Join us as we venture north into the ARCTIC WATERSHED! Traveling to places that no other competition has ever gone before!”
          “Maybe there’s a reason why no competition has ever gone there before,” Michael suggests.
           The Arctic Watershed, for those without a clue – like me, I had to look it up – is way, way, way up in northern Ontario, Canada, at the very lip of the continent. I suspect it will be cold. There are no towns in this area, only outposts.  Surely it will be lovely to see. But it’s a good thing Rocky is carrying his food, a series of high-powered nutrition shakes designed by his dietitian. I don’t think he’ll find a McDonald's up there on the tundra.
Michael, June and Rocky in Malagash, Nova Scotia, 2004.
            The challenge, as it is called, is designed by a South Dakota attorney, Jim Red Cloud, and his wife, Beth Dunham. They do this to bring attention and hopefully money to the plight of Native Americans.  In the Lakota language, Hoka Hey means “it’s a good day to die” and is believed to have been the battle cry of legendary Sioux warrior Crazy Horse. Others have interpreted the phrase to mean “it’s a good day to ride.”  The philosophy behind this is a belief in living a good life, so that when you die, you are prepared, no regrets.
           Sadly, the Hoka Hey has received some seriously negative publicity since its first run in 2010. Key West was the departure point for the trip that year. The finish line was in Alaska. The advertised first prize was $250,000 but that prize was never awarded. Those first over the finish line were plagued by a myriad of disqualifying factors. What those factors were, exactly, is kind of hush-hush. Ultimately, some cash prizes were awarded, just not the entire grand prize to one person. It was divided among those who managed to finish the run in the prescribed amount of time. And those guys aren’t talking.
          One hundred and seventy-three riders started the 2011 Hoka Hey endurance race. Of those, 11 finished in time to be eligible for prize money.  There is no public record of the 2012 statistics. And reportedly, Jim Red Cloud does not do interviews. You can go on line and read the blogs of the more literary past participants. The stories are interesting, but frightening. A lot of crazy things can go wrong on the road. There are natural disasters, traffic troubles, and fatigue. Riders are expected to cover nearly a thousand miles a day. That leaves little time for napping on the side of the road. Most of the participants are middle-aged, like my brother.
Key West Heidi and her baby, Rocky.  Ft. Taylor, one Thanksgiving.

           “The Hoka Hey Motorcycle Challenge is not your local poker run! It will try your tolerance for ambiguity. It will test your determination, your resolve and your stamina,” the Hoka Hey site says.
          This is a challenge my brother Rocky is apparently unable to resist. He’s has been bucking the odds since he was a little 5-year-old kid. Back then, to challenge the strength of a toy football helmet, he put the flimsy thing on his head, aimed, and ran as hard and fast as he could into the side of our house. Our mother, who’d been sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee with our Aunt Connie, thought a car had hit us. The women ran outside to find Rocky on the ground, out cold. Years later, when dared to climb up to the roof of the school and jump to the ground, Rocky complied, and broke his leg in several places. He once cut his finger off slicing Italian bread at a clam bake. The doctors sewed it back on. That was their challenge.
          Rocky was planning to participate last summer in Hoka Hey 2012. He drove to Las Vegas, the starting line. He partied with the Hoka Hey challengers. He was ready to go. Then he got a call from home that his son Keith had died of a heart attack at age 33. He didn’t do the ride. He went home to attend his son’s funeral. Rocky fell into a depression, made even darker by being laid off from his job. It was a rough time. But through it all, he looked forward to the 2013 Hoka Hey Challenge. He got a new job. Spring came, and with it, riding weather. Now it’s summer. He’s much more like his old, jolly self these days. And now it’s time.
Keith, Joey Rock, and Granddaddy Rocky. Connecticut, 2007.
          Today Rocky is camping with the other Hoka Hey contenders at the Senaca Indian Reservation in western New York. His ride is dedicated to the memory of his son. I can think of one hundred other things he could do to honor the memory of his son, none of them involving risking life and limb. But, this is Rocky, a man born to bend the laws of nature and good sense. He promises me he won’t push himself. But that big cash prize at the end of the road is pretty irresistible to my brother. How can he not push himself with his deeply ingrained American need to win? Rocky wants the bragging rights. He wants to prove himself to be shatterproof. (“I’ve already broken most of the bones in my body” he recently reminded me.)
          Sometimes I feel proud of my brother’s power, his tenacity, and his dedication to the open road. Lots of times I am very nervous. I once made him promise me were he to meet his end on the highway, he would die happy, no regrets. Hoka Hey! And he did promise. He has covered many thousands of miles on that bike, criss crossed the country a dozen times, and shown up to meet us on our own adventures in Arkansas, Nova Scotia and North Carolina. He truly does love riding, and works hard to support his Harley habit.
One of Rocky's New York friends did this a while ago.
    You can follow his ride on the Hoka Hey website http://hokaheychallenge.com/.  His tracking device number is 705. You can also pray for him and visualize him rolling triumphant, on July 1, back onto the Senaca Reservation, in one happy, jolly piece.
    I will spend this week thinking of my baby brother, calling him way too often, searching the Internet for weather reports, and dealing with a roller coaster ride of emotions. I will dwell in Hoka Hey Hell, and most certainly will suffer far more than the intrepid Superman, Rocky.            


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Dark Side of the Moon


RIP Victor Latham  (1973) 
Victor Latham died on Easter Sunday. I remember Victor well, and we have been Facebook friends for a long time. My ex-husband and Vic played a lot of racketball over at the Key West High School courts back in the day. I wrote this column about the Full Moon Saloon in the Miami Herald in 1993. My husband Michael suggested that we re-print it today. So here it is:

The Dark Side of The Moon

    When I read in the paper that the Full Moon Saloon was closing its doors for good, I felt as if I were reading the obituary of an old friend, an old friend with whom I'd gotten into lots of trouble. True, I hadn't been in the place for years. Nonetheless, I'm sure I'd fulfilled my quota of lost weekends there and certainly qualified as a bonafide "Full Moonie."
Full Moon Saloon T-shirt

    I quit the place because I quit drinking 8 years ago,  and though it was always a fun place to eat a fish sandwich or make a midnight rendezvous, none of that felt the same as it once had without a couple of the house's overly generous cocktails to guide you 'round the dark side of the Moon.
    But sobriety isn't the only thing that has kept me away from the Moon. Some of the darkest moments of my life happened there. 

    My first marriage ended at the Full Moon eleven years ago. The comedy team of Mack and Jamie was performing that night, and my husband and I had gone there to celebrate our fourth wedding anniversary. I wanted to see the show, but the waitress told us it was sold out.
    "Sorry, honey," my husband said, as if he meant it.
    Victor Latham, one of the owners of the place heard that we, two of the Moon's most dedicated patrons, wanted tickets to the show. He came to our table and offered us tickets as an anniversary gift.
    "No thanks," my husband said. "See, I'm expecting a phone call. We gotta get home."
    It was a lie. There was no important phone call expected; I was sure of it. Anger sizzled through me like an electric shock.
    "That's it," I said, not quite believing the words suddenly flowing from my mouth.
    "I want a divorce. "
    "Don't say it if you don't mean it," he said evenly.
    I meant it. Two weeks later I moved out of his house.
The Full Moon Saloon fish sandwich. Perfection!!

    A year later I had a new lover. He managed a theater and told me how much he despised working with the actors there, whom he bitterly described as childish, demanding and self-centered.
    One night he phoned me to break a date we'd made earlier that day. He said he had to work. My roommate and I walked over to the Full Moon for a late supper. And there, holding the hands across the table and gazing deeply into the eyes of one of those childish self-centered actresses about whom he'd complained so bitterly, sat my overworked lover.
    He never saw me standing there. He never saw me crying into my Caesar salad. In fact, he never saw me again.
    I was thinking about those sad moments last night, when my husband Michael, his buddy Chuck Krumel and I drove past the darkened Full Moon Saloon. We'd just had a great dinner at El Siboney, and were full of good cheer.
    "Boy oh boy, I raised a lot of hell in that place," I said. "And now it's closed."
    "They had to close," Chuck said. "All of their customers are either in jail or in recovery!"
     "Maybe AA could move into the building," I said. And we laughed.

The songwriting team of Chuck Krumel and Michael Keith

     I told them about the night I decided to divorce my first husband. The memory just didn't seem very sad anymore. It just seemed awfully long ago.
    "He wouldn't even see Mack and Jamie with me!" I said. "He wouldn't even let me laugh."
         Around the time I first met Michael, Mack and Jamie were at the Pier House. I asked him if we could go and see the show. He said “Sure. Let's have some laughs." It was the right answer. So, I married him.
    I was in the back seat, and I couldn't see Michael's face, but I knew he was smiling as he drove our car down Simonton Street and I watched the Full Moon disappear into the darkness. 

Update, April, 2013: My-ex husband and I remain great friends. My cheating lover married that actress. They are divorced now, too. Chuck Krumel, who was larger than life, died of lung cancer in 2009, a heart-breaking loss to many. Michael and I are still laughing, and still married. And Vic Latham has gone to the moon.








 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Happy Easter, Survivors!

Reformed cancer survivor with morning smoothie.  
I was shopping in Publix. I was at the deli counter to buy sliced ham. A clerk told me he’d be right with me. I told him to take his time. He was finishing up an order of sliced corned beef, he explained.
“Here,” he said. “Try this corned beef. It’s so lean! No fat at all!”
     He laid out two big slices on butcher paper. It was delicious. I don’t eat a lot of meat. I don’t love meat. But he was so joyful, so enthusiastic, I had to eat the corned beef.
    “Hey,” another customer said. “Are you giving her samples of my corned beef?”
    “Oh! this is your corned beef?” I said. “Thank you. It’s really very good.”
    “I’m glad you enjoyed it,” she said, chuckling as she headed off with her cold cuts. 
    Before I was finished chewing the beef, the joyful man pushed another sample toward me. It was ham; two big slices on another piece of butcher paper.
    “Try it,” he said. “See if it’s what you want.”
In truth, I’d had enough. I was buying the ham for my husband, Michael, the Southern-bred meat eater in the family. But, again, the guy was so sweet and happy, like an old time butcher in a little town grocery store. So, with my other hand, I picked up a piece of ham. Now I was a two-fisted meat eater.
    “Are you June Keith?” a woman new to the scene asked. 
Easter, 2011. Puleeese let my hair grow back!
    I know this woman slightly. She is a nutritional consultant, a guru of what to eat for maximum health, often in the local press. I think she has a radio show, too.  She is a great advertisement for her brand of healthy eating. She is bright-eyed, lean, and youthful. And there I stood before her, with two fists and a mouth full of meat.   
    “How are you?” I mumbled, through the salty beef.
    “I have cancer,” she said. “I just found out.”
    Dear reader, I hope you are seeing the tragedy and the comedy in this little slice-of-life drama. I, a cancer survivor, am stuffing my face with nitrate-laden, fat-streaked, carcinogenic meat, while this lovely woman who probably last tasted meat in 1968, tells me she has cancer.
    It seemed wrong to eat that meat as she told me her story. She is going on an extreme diet, she said, a diet that eliminates any carbohydrates whatsoever, because carbohydrates turn into sugar in the body, and cancer feeds on sugar.
My beautiful, young and healthy Mennonite neighbors in Nova Scotia, picking strawberries.
    I become very nervous when people tell me they plan to cure themselves of cancer with a severe diet. If only it worked that way! But that isn’t her plan, thank goodness.  She only wants to do what she can to discourage the cancer. She’s going to doctors to handle the job of killing the cancer cells. I told her I’m sure that’s her best chance for a cure.
    “I’m cured now,” I said. I told her it’s rough. My oncologist told me, at the very beginning of my treatment, it would be “no walk in the park.”  No, it was a walk in the valley of the shadow of death. But I survived. And she will, too. I’m sure. We will both live on to die of something other than cancer.
This opera singer lived to be 99 years and 9 months old. Smoking Chesterfields. Go figure.
    At home, when I told the story of our meeting to Michael, I told him that I am often amused at how arrogant we humans are in the face of our destiny. Before there was chemotherapy and radiation and PET scans, there was nothing but a person becoming sick, then sicker still, and then dying. This is how we’re made. Like a flower, that with enough water and sun, flourishes on earth. Till it doesn’t. And so it is with humans.
    I had a big checkup the other day with the oncologist. I thought it would be bigger than it actually was.  He felt my neck. Looked down my throat. Studied my blood test results, my lung X-ray and my PAP smear, and told me to call him if I found any hard lumps in my lymph nodes. No more scans. No more tests. No more regular six-month checkups. Today, I am cancer free, and beyond the reach of anything more modern medicine can do to me.
    The doctor did tell me that since I’ve had cancer once, I have a greater chance of getting cancer again. But hopefully, he added, the cancer will never come back and I will die of something else.
    Like what? Being hit by a bus? A heart attack? Old age? Stress brought on by worrying about my cancer returning?
    “The good news,” Michael said, “is you’re too old to die young.”
    I’ve already performed the miracle of rising from the dead. And very soon the burden of my medical bills will be turned over to Medicare. So pass the ham. And the marshmallow Peeps. And the chocolate bunny. And the Cadbury eggs. ‘Cause nobody dies on Easter Sunday.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

How To Live Forever



Tennessee Williams with his beloved bulldogs
The other day Michael ruefully commented that the 30th anniversary of Tennessee Williams’ death had come and gone without fanfare in Key West, the town where Williams found solace and retreat. This does not sit well with Michael, for whom Tennessee Williams represents all that is holy in theater. On the day the news of Williams’s demise burned across the newsroom teletype machines of America, Michael was in Key West, rehearsing a play at a local theater. Some of the actors beside him that day had worked with Williams, and, some had even known him, at least peripherally. “Peripherally” seems to have been the only way that anyone knew Tennessee Williams in those final years of his life.


Williams’ reputation was as great a presence in Key West back then as Williams himself. There was the story of Tennessee Williams going to the dentist, in a state of extreme paranoia, to be fitted for a partial plate that he never wore because he died before it was ready. The dentist kept the plate as a souvenir, pulling it out of his pocket at cocktail parties, and recounting the stories of the great playwright's visits to his office. There was the story of the Tennessee Williams painting auctioned off at a Historical Society fund-raiser, a little sketch delivered to Richard Heyman’s Gingerbread Square Gallery, where Williams’ paintings were sold. The work, donated for the auction, featured Williams’ trademark signature, “TW.” It sold to a Miami couple for $750.  After the auction Williams, who’d been out of town and missed the auction, raged that the painting was a forgery, created by his friend, the great artist Henry Faulkner. Williams demanded to have it back. Richard Heyman, who’d brokered the deal, explained the story to the Miamians. Henry Faulkner?! That made it even better, they said. But Williams wanted the painting returned. So Heyman refunded the $750 out of his own pocket. The Miamians reluctantly returned it to Heyman who returned it to Williams, and the painting was never seen again.
Quintessential Henry Faulkner



There were sightings of Williams and Truman Capote at the Pier House, and at Captain Tony’s Saloon. One night, as he wobbled down Duval Street with a friend, drunk, singing hymns, he was shoved around a bit by late-night locals. Within 24 hours the greatly exaggerated reports of the aging playwright’s vicious beating circled the globe, as the world, always ready for dirt, hungrily gobbled up the news of another fallen idol. When asked by a reporter about the scuffle months later, Williams wryly suggested that the Duval Street ruffians had probably been a pair of New York drama critics.

Henry Faulkner with sailors

Williams named this "Fairy in a Wicker Chair"
On an island of Tom Wingfields, Stella Kowalskis, Big Daddys, and hot tin roofs, Tennessee Williams, and, for a while, his lobotomized sister Rose, easily fit in. In his later years, when drugs and alcohol fueled his terrible decline, and he only coasted on the fumes of the dazzling success of his youth, Williams devoted himself to exploring Key West’s seedy underbelly. Henry Faulkner gave him painting lessons in exchange for Williams coaching him in poetry writing. Faulkner was also a procurer, who delivered hopeful young men to Williams’ Duncan Street cottage where they would pose for Williams’ paintings and deliver sexual favors, in exchange for a boozy dinner or two and the chance to say they’d been a lover of Tennessee Williams.


Frankie and Tennessee at cocktail time. Who do you suppose received this photo and message?


Merlo and Williams at 1431 Duncan St.  Check out the body language . . .
I knew one such man. His name was Douglas. He met Tennessee Williams when he was sent by writer Dotson Rader to meet Williams’ plane at LaGuardia and deliver him to his apartment at the Hotel Elysee, where the welcoming party was well underway. Douglas recalled that Williams seemed frightened, disoriented, and gobbled pills from the pocket of his tweed jacket on the drive from the airport into the city. Few young men, Douglas explained, spent more than an hour or two in Williams’ bed. And fewer still were invited for a second visit. There was one special person in Tennessee Williams’ life. That was Frank Merlo, a handsome Italian he met in Provincetown. For many years Merlo was Williams’ devoted caregiver, friend and lover. But the crazier Williams became, the more he detached himself from the people who most cared for him. After nearly twenty years, the years he called the happiest of his life, he dumped Merlo altogether. A year later, as Merlo lay dying of lung cancer, Williams wept at his bedside, crying, “I want my goodness back.”


"Frankie" by Tennessee Williams
There was a reading by Tennessee Williams at David Wolkowsky’s Sands Beach Club in the winter of 1982. I went with a group of friends to see Tennessee Williams. It was a cool night and the beach was packed with fans. I remember the fantastic excitement, the shivery thrill of being on that beach, waiting for all to be in place – the microphone, the chair, the script, his glasses – so the reading could begin. The wind was blowing off the ocean and Williams was perched on a pier, many feet from his audience. Finally he began to read in a thin, soft voice that was impossible to hear. He stopped. The microphone was adjusted. He tried again. But minutes after the reading had begun, it was over.  Williams was led off of the pier. He appeared to be unsteady, with people, one on each side, holding his arms. It brought to mind memories of Carl Sandburg reading at Kennedy’s inauguration, on a bitterly cold day. Or the Pope visiting Manhattan, so insulated by his handlers it was impossible to see the real man in all the throngs of people crowding around him. How can one aging human being, albeit a genius human being, satisfy the longings of so many? Is it so difficult to imagine this mass adoration driving a person mad?


Burt and Anna in Key West

A year or so after that night on the beach came the news of Williams’ death. On that day the Key West Picture Show theater on Duval Street, in a show of enormous respect and compassion, offered ‘round the clock free showings of The Rose Tattoo, Williams’ one and only happy-ending play, made into a film here in Key West in 1955, when Williams was at the height of his success, before he became victim to what he called “the tragedy of success.” Michael was there at the theater that day. And so was I. But we had not yet met. That happened a few years later. And when we met, we found common ground in our mutual love of Tennessee Williams’ plays, and in our worshipful study of his life and times. The genius of Tennessee Williams is like a diamond in candlelight, every glint and glimmer translating into a new slant on ... everything.


It’s all so delicious, picking over the bones of Williams, the salacious and the sentimental details of his nomadic life, made all the more tasty because we have in common with him this island that he called, and we call, home base. Tennessee Williams, his sister Rose, Henry Faulkner, my friend Douglas, are all dead now. Soon all of us who remember the tales of Williams, the Key West citizen, will be gone, too. But those born of the bright light of Williams' genius – Maggie the Cat, Blanche DuBois, Chance Wayne, Heavenly Finley, Alexandra Del Lago, Sebastian Venable, Val and his snakeskin jacket, (a character all its own!) live on forever. Ageless, as truth is ageless. And Tennessee Williams, the playwright, lives forever, too, right along with them.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Eyewitness To History

Michael Keith checking out his platter collection at WGST

Back in the early '60s I was a kid in junior high school in New York and my future husband, Michael, was working at Atlanta’s Radio WGST. In addition to his music program, he created a daily half-hour news show. It changed his life.  Michael had grown up in Greenville, South Carolina, in a world with very clear boundaries, in a segregated society. And while my world contained people of color, and the civil rights movement was something happening far away that we only knew from the six ‘o clock news, Michael did not go to school or even to church with people of color. The only black people he knew were the maids who worked for his family, and sometimes, the children of those women.

The Varsity Drive-in: WGST news team's favorite lunch spot in 1963.

      Do you remember where you were when you heard the news of JFK’s assassination? Michael does. He’d just had lunch with fellow radio man Dan Akens, at the Varsity, a drive-in joint on the Georgia Tech campus. The Varsity, which exists to this day,  featured car-hops with big personalities, like the one who for fifty years sang the menu to his customers, and the young Nipsy Russell who wore crazy outfits and entertained his customers and later became famous as a comedian.
President Obama ordering a burger at the Varsity today

     With President Kennedy’s election came awareness of the civil rights movement. It was the central theme of the local news in Atlanta. And Michael found a way to make it pay. The ABC Network paid for "actualities," short clips of newsmakers like Dr. Martin Luther King and Julian Bond expressing their views via the media. Naturally civil rights leaders like King made themselves available for reporters. And Michael, who received a tidy fee from the ABC network for each actuality used, was happy to help the civil rights leaders like King and Julian Bond get their message out. He spoke with them, and recorded their comments, regularly. Of course Michael also interviewed the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, because it was his job to balance his reports.  And ABC News paid him for those remarks, too.
The house in Atlanta where Martin Luther King, Jr. was born and raised.
     Michael was very naive then, though smart and ambitious, and possessed of an amazingly mellifluous voice just made for announcing. In Atlanta, reporting the news, he began to question the core beliefs of the society in which he’d been raised. Eugene Patterson, editor at the Atlanta Constitution, who died last week, wrote stirring editorials on the subject. Michael read them, and was swayed. After the Birmingham church bombing, in 1963, Patterson wrote an editorial so powerful that Walter Cronkite invited him to read it on the national TV news.

     “Patterson and others like him were taking the lead in standing up to the extremists who endorsed violence to maintain segregation,” Michael remembers. “It made you start to think. How can we allow discrimination to go on? How can people kill children? This isn’t America. The scales began to fall from my eyes when I read Patterson. I watched King’s "I Have a Dream" speech live on television, and I thought how can we deny people their right to the American dream because of the color of their skin?  I decided it wasn’t right. I wouldn’t be that way.”
   Then came the ah-ha moment.
"....explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see the tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children." (from Letter from a Birmingham Jail)
 
     "One day on the radio in Atlanta I heard a black preacher describe prejudice as 'that blind vampire of the mind that sucks the red blood of healthy hopes.' Today, I can't recall that preacher's name. But his words stuck with me.  I thought: how can people who are just like me, wanting to get ahead in the world, be put down and disadvantaged all of their lives for something they cannot control, and are not responsible for — the color of their skin? The injustice of it was brought home to me by that preacher’s graphic words."

     Michael wasn’t a leader, and he didn’t aim to be a hero; he was a just a cub reporter, with a wife and two kids to support. But he knew where he stood.

On his many years of teaching Julian Bond, (shown here) recently had this to say about his students: "I hope they learned that the civil rights movement was a movement of ordinary people, many of them just like these young people who were sitting in my class."
    Michael was on the scene in 1964 when three black high school boys decided to force their way into the Pickrick Cafeteria in Atlanta. The Pickrick’s owner, Lester Maddox, adamantly refused to allow black people into his restaurant, in spite of the newly passed Civil Rights Act. The media had been alerted to the planned confrontation. A mob of angry segregationists had assembled. Michael approached the three young men and said to them “You need to think this through. You’re gonna get hurt. This isn’t the way to do this.” The students retreated. And on the front page of the Atlanta Times the next day, there was a photo of Michael, microphone in hand, speaking to the black students.  He wasn’t being a hero. He was being practical, he says today.

    “I knew those guys were gonna get hurt,” he says. "It was as simple as that.” Weeks later a better organized group of college students hired an attorney to challenge the illegal segregation of the Pickrick. And they won.  Rather than integrate, Maddox closed his restaurant. On the wave of that publicity, he was elected governor of Georgia.
   
 He didn't go to jail. He went to the Governor's mansion.
     On one occasion Michael interviewed Martin Luther King in person. King had piercing eyes, Michael remembers. King was very angry that he was being criticized for his opposition to the Vietnam War. Michael recalls King’s anguish, and also the absolute courage of his convictions.

      Recently I spoke with Reverend Robinson of the Big Coppitt Baptist Church. When the pastor mentioned Reverend King, I told him that my husband had interviewed the man in the '60s.
    “I bet that is a day he will never forget,” Reverend Robinson said.
    I told Michael at dinner that night.
    “He’s right,” Michael said. "Who could?"

      I love talking with Michael about those times. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated a few months before I graduated from high school. By then Michael was out of the news business, and a student of history at Furman University. He was no longer naive. He knew how he felt and how he wanted to live.

     Martin Luther King, Jr. is a hero in our home. Our son Miguel, who shares a birthday with King, has grown up knowing that. When Miguel was a little kid he and Michael sometimes talked about those days before the Civil Rights Act, when black people were not allowed in stores, restaurants, schools and churches. It was astonishing to Miguel, a kid born and raised in Key West, to know that his parents had lived in those times and witnessed that world.
The speech heard 'round the world:  I Have a Dream. Washington, D.C. 1963.  Fifty years ago!







    “You know,” Michael said, “someday Miguel will tell his children about a time when people were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. That they fought for the right to marry the person they love. And you know what? Miguel’s children will be astonished to hear that.”

   
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