The Fear Year (Part 2)

•March 15, 2019 • Leave a Comment

[Second of three posts.]

“I’m all for Lawrence Welk. Lawrence Welk is a wonderful man. He used to be, or was, or—wherever he is now, bless him.”
George H.W. Bush, on the campaign trail

For those who remember it, 1992 was a political year. Bush I was up for reelection. Of course, the Democratic contender was Bill Clinton.

On Nov. 6, 1992, I wrote in the journal: “It’s now the Clinton era. A new beginning, but I don’t feel it gets going until I get into it. Until I’ve thrown myself into The New Life. I’ve made numerous steps today…”

That was the day I’d gone to see the place I eventually moved into at month’s end on St. Paul’s Summit Hill. Rent was $300/month, but included a “work program” whereby renters contributed to restoring the 1885 mansion for reduced rent. I was probably overestimating I could do that and run a new freelance business in desktop publishing that I’d dubbed “Available Light Creative.”

The rest of the story of how the Fear Year of 1993 began leans on the debut newsletter Available Light created that winter, Front Burner, including how the “Goofy Year of MegaMorphic Change” morphed into “How Can I Best Avoid the Pitfalls of a Start-Up Process? or, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Future.”

In the above image (from Front Burner, click to enlarge), we’ve met “The Scumlords,” so now let’s meet the rest of the cast:

The Unsuspecting Tenants…

In the mansion…

First, Andrea U.,
Ahmed D.
Then, Mike M.
Jenny B.
Eric W.

In the basement…

Smiley
Chris
Then, Dennis D.
Previously, John D.

In the penthouse…

First, Yvonne
Paul S.
Then, “Shad”
Later, Bill M.

In the carriage house…

Two doctors, nearly always unseen

Before I left my job for good on Dec. 7, 1992, I spent a couple weeks looking at apartments in St. Paul, where I had decided to live. I looked in the Highland area, Merriam Park, Mac-Groveland, along Grand Avenue, even Frogtown. I thought about Ramsey Hill, and I was knocked out by Summit Avenue. On November 5, I called this ad: “SUMMIT, help renovate mansion. Immed. Discount rent. Must qualify.” The woman I talked to, G.S., had told me to stop by 295 Summit Avenue, just around the corner from the University Club and up the road from the Cathedral and James J. Hill house.

When I saw the place the late afternoon of the 5th, I was amazed. It was impressive. A brick mansion built in 1885 by Albert H. Lindeke. …I had knocked on the front door to no answer, then waited about an hour in my truck for someone to show up. They never did. The next day I set up a time with G. and showed up on the morning of November 6th.

I thought G. was more than a little fawning, now that I look back on that day, but at the time I thought she was being nice. She was an overly made-up paunchy woman in her mid-to-late 40s, nasally voice, and coarse, forced conversational style. Not what you’d consider a “people person.” Her husband T. presented himself like a CEO of some large company. He wore a suit and tie, had thin longish hair, glasses, and the distracted look of someone who wants to “get on to the next thing.”

The mansion had huge oak doors and a front foyer that opened into a living room with fireplace on the right or left into a locked front office where [the landlords] conducted business. That office was cluttered with boxes, papers, furniture, lamps, posters, so much so that walking around in it was difficult. Through the foyer was a sweeping staircase that led up to the second-floor rooms, past a brass chandelier and gigantic window facing the German Kulturhaus to the southwest. At the top of the stairs on the right was the first room, Andrea’s, follow by Jenny’s room, both of which shared a bathroom with jacuzzi and shower, then the middle bedroom, which became mine; down the hall to the right, Ahmed’s room and across from that, Eric’s room. At the end of the hall was the bathroom shared by us three. They showed me the rooms and mentioned that the room I liked, the large middle bedroom, would be $300 a month, plus a flat utilities charge of $75 a month. All this on a 50-hour-a-month work program.

What was this “work program”? They weren’t terribly specific, nor did they seem concerned about who could do what for them. They said I could start by stripping paint off the two doors of my room, the bathroom and the closet doors. Then in the spring they had planned to start on renovating the kitchen, to the back of the house. The kitchen was nearly up-to-speed, paint needed to be stripped, drawers replaced, a wall knocked out, and linoleum pulled up. Yet there was a dishwasher, a washer and dryer, a stove that worked well enough, and two refrigerators for the tenants of the 2nd floor mansion to use. Adjacent to the kitchen was the pantry, stuffed with plaster bags and paint cans, discarded woodwork, jars, tubing, wires, shelving; leading into the dining room into which was packed floor-to-ceiling with mattresses and box springs, bedposts, furniture, mirrors, chest-of-drawers, banquet tables, clothing, tools, equipment, boxes, folding chairs and other junk. Eventually they said they wanted to clean out this room.

“A horror of cardboard, plastic and appalling colors, a construction of solidified chewing gum and idiotic fairy tales lifted straight from comic strips drawn for obese Americans.” —Jean Cau, novelist, describing the new Euro Disney theme park

So, in keeping with that plan for The New Life, I was honest with them about what I wanted. I thought I saw an opportunity to help them put their place in order in exchange for a nice address out of which to run my new business.

It felt as far away from the corporate life I knew as I could imagine. It was intoxicating and confusing. I signed the lease for 18 months, thinking it would take at least a year to set up my business and establish clients, and that would also lock-in the reasonable rent.

I was set to move November 15.

The Fear Year (Part 1)

•March 8, 2019 • Leave a Comment

[First of three posts.]

Life is filled with big and small decisions. It gets complicated when the small decisions turn out to be big and the bigger ones were, in the end, just small potatoes. Time works its magic and sometimes you’re able to see it all in perspective.

My first real personal and career challenge—one I set for myself—came in 1992. Since 1985 I’d been bored at my corporate job and taking some university classes (at the behest of the ’rents), and furiously job searching. When I realized I could also try my hand at freelancing, I planned to quit the day job, move out of my Hopkins apartment and over to St. Paul where nearly all my friends lived at the time.

Seemed like a plan, right?

Well, I still needed to run it by my family. Although I’d been on my own as an adult for nearly ten years, I still worried about what they thought. I probably still do, and they’ve been dead for a decade. We’re all just anxious children deep inside, I guess.

This story is timely since I’m again risking another move to a newer (and hopefully better) living situation. Not quitting my job (that, I learned the hard way, is tricky, especially when dealing with landlords, banks, or anyone who depends on your income), so for the foreseeable future I have a reliable income.

Researching this post, I read forward in my 1992­­–93 journal to recall the immediate effects of my decision—and it caused me to shudder. Once I’d left corporate on Dec. 7, 1992, I wouldn’t find solid financial ground for another nine months after that.

It really gave me pause. But then I remembered that things improved. It just didn’t happen right away.

On June 20, 1992, I wrote in the journal: “My decision day, Stage One of Three for the next two months … I got to thinking that maybe I can make these changes by Sept. 1, but they needn’t be so dramatic yet, that is, I could make sure I pay up all my debts by the end of August, then find a cheaper place to live, Uptown maybe and then, after a few more months wading into freelance work, downshift part-time [at the corporation], then quit. It’s certainly another option. But I do know that change is in order.”

So, “wading into change” was in the mix—surely wise, so that I wasn’t making a hasty decision. (I had some debts, but not a lot.)

But nearly four months later, at the beginning of October, I’d “determined that if I don’t get the job [at a local ad agency] I will move to St. Paul and start up the freelance business by December 1st. I’ll have to by then because that’s when I have to be moved out of my apartment. I put my 60-day notice into the office yesterday.”

Again, a shudder when I look over this old yellowed journal. I peer into it like it’s a crystal ball, when it’s as opaque as ever. The words on the page were written in ignorance of the future. There I still see my younger self’s crackling sense of will power leaping off the ruled lines.

Between Halloween 1992 and Thursday, Nov. 19th, with its handwritten “I’m all moved…” I’d neglected to write about an incident I remember well and only wish the journal would have recorded it. There’s a hint of it in an Oct. 11th entry: “Saturday I helped Dad out at the house.” It would’ve been at their Minnetrista farm, where later we had supper with Colin, my infant nephew, while his parents were on an anniversary date in Stillwater.

Sometime before Nov. 6, 1992, I had dinner with my late parents at a supper club in Spring Park, Minn., called The Mist. I’m fairly certain my brother wasn’t there as he was already married and living with his wife and child. We sat in a corner booth overlooking Lake Minnetonka. I can’t remember if I sat next to Mom or Dad, but there are only three possible configurations: me all alone one side, the folks on the other (not likely); Mom and me on one side, Dad on the other; or me and Dad together and Mom on the other side of the booth. I’m going with me and Mom opposite Dad. At that meal I told them my plan to leave the sleepy corporate job, move to St. Paul, and do freelance desktop publishing. It was the first they’d heard of it.

Dad hit the roof. Voices were raised. Restaurant patrons eyed us. It was very uncomfortable.

My father’s objection was I wouldn’t make enough money to pay for insurance, health care, rent, you name it. I was disheartened he had so little faith in me, and it made me angry. Looking back on it now, he was probably right to be concerned.

In the end, I wanted a change. They ended up helping with the move, Dad loading what little furniture I had in the back of his Dodge Ram pickup.

Leaving the day job was a blur: signing some paperwork, transferring out a retirement account, throwing a send-off party in downtown Minneapolis. But moving into the new place—a bedroom in a St. Paul Summit Avenue mansion just blocks from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthplace—was another thing altogether.

In the above photo, winter light from December 1992 (or heck, it could’ve been January 1993) shines through my new St. Paul bedroom window, along with a description of the property and a postcard sent by housemate Eric Wulfsberg three months into the new year, when we’d both moved out … to escape what had become the first nightmare of the Fear Year of 1993.

My Father’s Bathrobe

•December 14, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Its thin, navy blue plaid 100% cotton wasn’t very warm. “One size” (fits all), the label read. Rolled cuffs, tattered sash. Brand name: Van Heusen. Made in China, of course.

It was Dad’s bathrobe, probably the last one he owned. I had it hanging on my bathroom door since he died, first at my condo, then at the apartment. It was the only bathrobe I owned. Then I realized it wasn’t really my bathrobe.

And I didn’t want it anymore.

2018 has been the 10th anniversary of losing Dad, in September 2008. Mom died in May of that year. For the longest time I kept thinking: Why do I still have this? It’s not particularly warm or comfortable, and it’s not the kind of thing I would wear now. It had become a psychological drain I no longer wanted around.

So a couple weeks ago, along with some old clothes I didn’t want or that no longer fit me, I brought it to Goodwill and gave it back to the universe.

I admit this not to reject my dad, who was a big bathroom guy. I’ve written about it before, but that’s not the point. Every bathroom with that robe hanging on the hasp above the door was like his bathroom all over again. And I needed that to end so I can move forward with my own life and whatever that may include.

Morning time was Dad’s “golden hour,” no doubt.

He awoke early, turned on WCCO-AM radio for the jokes, the Boone and Erickson banter, the weather and “hog reports,” and once out of his bathrobe, he sang in the shower, “Rise and shine, and give God the glory, glory…” or, most of the time, “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” from Disney’s Song of the South. “…My oh my what a wonderful day/Plenty of sunshine headin’ my way/Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay!

I can still hear his voice now, ten years later.

Dad was happiest when he was in control of a situation—and morning, I think, availed itself to that more than any other time of day, except when he came home after work to go fishing before dinner. At the time I felt buried under the shadow of all that “controlling energy.” I had my own ideas of how I wanted the world to work, and I could get pretty dreamy and obscure about that. For example, I felt happiest late at night, with moody rock music and DJs who spoke directly to me. Dad’s world seemed too proper, too normal, too early. But I think he was satisfied with it because he knew he was providing for his family. It was important to him.

I didn’t see that at the time. I see it now.

When I think of Dad’s bathrobe, it’s like a second skin, like a coat you wore in the wintertime to protect you from the cold, to warm your shoulders before you got in a hot shower. It reminds me of that saying, “You gotta be comfortable in your skin.” You can instantly tell people who are not that way.

Sometimes Dad seemed comfortable, sometimes not. If he wasn’t getting his way, he’d get angry. He had expectations, and those expectations had to be met. For my part, I still struggle to feel comfortable in my skin. I’m not a kinetic person―I’m incurably cerebral. In many ways, as contrary to Dad as I believe I am, I am still my father’s son.

You see, years later while living in Hopkins, I was able—for the first time in my life—to create a workspace in my apartment I had absolute control over. The studio unit had wall-to-wall carpeting, so I put down a plastic floor mat below the drawing board so my desk chair easily shuttled between sketch pad and electric typewriter. I’d rigged up an architect’s lamp and T-square, where I could write and draw and do the oddball party announcements I made for friends at the time. My Olivetti typewriter was ready at the flip of a switch for those screenplays and stories I desperately needed to write.

Well, I wish I had a better connection between me and my father’s old bathrobe, but that is probably it—the Hopkins apartment creative space.

It was like Dad’s den on Casco Point, where we lived for nearly ten years.

He awoke with Mom in the master bedroom, crossed the living room with its stone fireplace and low-pile carpet, trudged past the Zenith color TV and down the hallway to turn left into the den. Once there he switched on the radio, entered the adjoining bathroom, slipped out of his bathrobe, took that shit, shaved and showered, then slapped on some Aqua-Velva and got dressed for work.

He sang, he laughed, he got ready to meet the day.

I must adopt a cheerfully hopeful attitude like Dad’s, if I can.

Jackie’s Boys

•October 19, 2018 • Leave a Comment

[Dear reader-friends: I’m back from a too-long hiatus over the summer of 2018, where I changed jobs and took a break from my planned 1990s posts here. It being the tenth anniversary of my parents’ deaths, I’d been working on posts about each of them. This is the first.]

My late mother, Jacqueline Adams, was an only child.

She was born on Sunday, Feb. 10, 1935, to Mamie Magee, her slightly neurotic third-generation Irish mother, and a well-to-do northern Indiana farm boy named David Raymond Adams. Her backstory: when Jackie was born, Daddy Ray had an affair with another woman (who remains unknown to Jackie’s first-born son—that is, me), and Mamie vowed to never have sex with her husband ever again (again, can’t verify the validity of that rumor).

I bring all this up now because 2018 is the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death.

September was also the tenth anniversary of my father’s death, so both anniversaries have been at the forefront of my mind since the year began. I published a memorial for Mom in the Minneapolis paper back in May, on the exact day she died. In the memorial I used the third photo in this post, which occurred on a momentous day in my life: when my only brother Brian was released from the hospital (he’d been born a premie), in February 1962.

It’s an odd sensation to see these photos over 50 years later, after all the experiences that have passed through my life, realizing there was a moment when this actually happened—when I got to meet my new brother for the first time (below right of me on the sofa taking in the sobering fact I was no longer star of the family). Dad likely took the photos, but it could’ve easily been Grandpa Ray, who was every bit the shutterbug throughout his long life.

The thought that’s been running through my mind is something that probably didn’t occur to me much while my mother was still alive: how isolated she must’ve felt living in a household of two boys and a husband, as well as a still-present conniving and charismatic father. The only other woman was her mother, who as mentioned had her own issues with men. Mom’s “sister” was her first cousin Lois, as they were only a year or two apart and were raised somewhat together.

I witnessed Mom’s isolation growing as the years passed, and I’m certain she didn’t get much sympathy from either my father or brother—both of whom failed to understand her clinical depression. I became more sympathetic when I was diagnosed with dysthymia in 1987, but even that revelation didn’t bring us much closer. I may have resented it—I know I was in denial about my mood disorder for the longest time. Things came to a head in 1995 when I nearly took my own life. I’ll be digging into that awful event in the weeks to come, but for now let me just say my affinity toward Mom solidified after the mid-1990s.

My brother harshly criticized Mom and her depression, especially in the 1980s after he graduated high school. I hated him for it and tried to defend Mom whenever possible. But I know I failed in that and, toward the end of her life, it was largely because I was afraid of how her illness had consumed her—leaving just a shell of her former self.

My brother and I weren’t always so distant.

As toddlers, we scrambled underneath clothing racks in downtown Indianapolis department stores, hiding there while Mom shopped and we were eventually discovered by ladies sorting through the racks for deals. We were schooled by our parents to be respectful of our elders, so when we were showcased in front of our parents’ friends we were always quiet, attentive, and dutiful. You know, like “good boys.”

The thing is, I don’t really recall any solid bonding with my brother from an early age. We had (and still have) different temperaments. We gravitated toward different interests and friends. Brian was always more tactile and drawn toward objects and material things; I preferred music and reading and being in nature.

Since 2008, and losing both our parents, we haven’t grown much closer. Brian went through a divorce a couple years ago, and I suffered job setbacks and a disruptive household move. It’s been a very confusing decade. I’m certain our parents would be heartbroken by the state of things, both in the world and within our family. And I’m not sure what to do about it. How my mother (and, for that matter, my grandmother) would’ve regarded the “Me Too” movement is hard to say, but I know in middle age Mom read feminist literature and was plain-speaking about all forms of intolerance. I like to think I learned more about how to treat women from my father, who never disparaged anyone as far as I could tell.

I’m hoping life settles down and things change for the better. There’s some reason to believe that is happening. After all, my brother and I are still alive, still healthy, still exploring how we will lead the rest of our lives.

I hope he’s feeling as hopeful as I am.

My So-Called Decade

•July 13, 2018 • Leave a Comment

[Dear readers: I’m back from a hiatus in June due to a job transition and shake up that I’m happy to report turned out for the best. But it took a lot of my attention away from writing. I’m overjoyed to be back at it. Thanks for sticking around.]

Ask me about the 1990s and I’d probably shrug.

What’s to remember?

It was tough because I decided, late in 1992, to take “the road not taken.” Or better yet, “the road no one with any sense would take, you selfish moron.”

Okay, I’m being way harsh here, but two forces were at work on me: the sublime memory of 1989’s script-writing marathons all leading up to a two-week research trip to England around the time of my 30th birthday. The weight of that experience taught me there was a groaning banquet table full of life’s rich pageant just beyond the corporation parking lot.

The world did not begin and end in the backwater burg of Hopkins, Minn.

The pressure on the other end was: So if not this, then where?

What should I do with my new decade?

Where and how should I live?

Three journals ramp up to that transition, which I made on Dec. 7, 1992 (hard to forget, since it was Pearl Harbor Day). But it interests me now what was going through my mind prior to that landmark date: What have I forgotten that is just waiting to be recovered on the pages of those 1990-1992 journals?

It begins with financial stress, according to a Monday, Aug. 13, 1990, entry:

“I worry about money a lot lately. I feel detached and indifferent about old friends—and a little resentful of my isolation. Things go bad, but there’s no real sorrow in the loss, I’m not even the owner of my own sadness. There is one way of being that appeals to me: looking out from myself, rather than IN. IN says: ‘What do I look like? Hair’s too long, a bit dumpy in the face, scruffy, can’t concentrate, not connected to other people. A cesspool of self-consciousness…’ OUT says: ‘But there’s a whole world of other things TO BE! Why not change them? Cut your hair all the way off! Quit your fucking job! Just say NO to limiting ways of thinking…start doing things instead of thinking about them: write that new story, finish that script, paint that picture, buy those new clothes, read that new book!’ —That’s the voice I want to heed.”

Did I heed it? That’s the $100,000 Question.

All I can say at this point is the 1990s were my roller coaster decade. The first couple years were ramp up, corporate frustration, then in 1992—boom, off on a cloud.

How I got there?

Well, stick around.

Decimations

•May 11, 2018 • Leave a Comment

What are my decades, that I’m free to just Deep Six them all?

Have you ever considered time this way, too?

After I returned from England in December 1989, I was determined the 1990s would be my decade.

There was a draft screenplay that needed rewriting, sure. But since I’d put it out into the world, others seemed to see its potential. I was sure I was onto something. No more in-the-closet dreamer stuff!

I was gonna make things real.

So, on Friday, Dec. 15, 1989, I wrote in the journal, “What have we done in the Eighties? The Nineties have to be better!”

I was back at the job, and hanging out with old high school friends. It was an odd transition.

“I wanted to write,” the journal continues, “about all the dreams I’ve had lately—every night: many dreams, some borderline nightmares—I wish I could recall one, but there’s a vague undercurrent: me & some attractive girl (British, it seems) but we can’t stay together. The melancholy I feel from waking! But the dreams are densely packed with Things: cluttered houses, toys, buses, clothes & underwear, garbage, emotions shift from disgust to curiosity and wonder. Hmm.” No mention of New Year’s Eve festivities from 1989 to 1990. I’d gotten so used to slicing and dicing decades that I wasn’t sure I cared anymore. It was a shock, as I recall. Changes were called for: Leave corporate life. Find my calling. Be in the world, as I’d done in England. That was entirely clear to me.

The journal doesn’t pick up again until Tuesday, March 6, 1990. That day I declared the 1990s “had begun.”

“I’d felt I was treading water going into my new decade,” says the entry, “[all] part of the shock of completing a first draft, traveling alone in a foreign country and coming back to NOTHING. I realized in the back of my mind that from now on I had to MAKE my life, I could count on no one to set things up for me.”

***

It is now “Twenty-Eighteen” (not “Two-Thousand Eighteen”).

It still feels weird to even say that.

My first decade was 1960–69: I’d call those 10 years “Hungers.” They’re still golden in my memory, even though some raw history passed by. And now I think I know why: I was loved as a child and felt it in every atom of my body (photo at right with brother Brian, late 1960s).

That’s the takeaway going into my second decade: “I was born into a loving family.”

Then came the 1970s: the “Decade of the Unhappy Teenager.” Because I knew I was loved, I tested my family at every turn. I was a churning cauldron of self-doubt, anxiety, early depression, and—well, also something positive: a young writer who was being read by his peers. During junior high lunchtime gossip, I passed my short stories around. Kids took them home and read them. Next day, they gave me feedback over the same lunchroom table. It was a big leg-up for my self-esteem. Later, in high school, I became co-editor of the student newspaper. I wrote a monthly column that tested the patience of school administrators, teachers, and—again—my parents.

Decade takeaway: “You will survive this. But how? Use it in your art, young Jedi.”

My third decade, where we are now in the 1980s, was all about “Blooming,” even though I didn’t realize it at the time. I gained skills that serve me to this day: typing, editing words, mashing up ideas, images, and my readings to create something new. I went to college but, failing to graduate, still landed a fulltime job in my hometown. I lived again with the parents until another college attempt in 1984, then yet another job and first apartment in 1986. The screenplay, which lead to the aforementioned British trip, started in 1988.

The ’80s big takeaway? “Your art can be anything: writing, photography, painting, drawing, music, philosophy. Keep building; keep blooming.”

So here we are at the end of 1989.

And soon it will be the end of 2018.

Wow. Three decades.

The years are decimating.

I could give you the short answer on how the 1990s turned out.

Or you could follow along as I plow forward, continuing Completely in the Dark for yet another year. It’s a convoluted story and taking it all in one gulp is overwhelming. (For me as well as for you. But here’s a taste, at left: with nephew Colin, my brother’s darling firstborn son, in the mid-1990s.)

It’s natural to want to peer into the future, speculate about what might happen in the next decade.

But looking back at the time already passed, there are deeper layers that will probably become more exposed in the new decade. I don’t know, but I suspect that will be the case.

And I’m curious to see how the story unfolds.

The Year That Changed My Life (Part 6)

•April 14, 2018 • Leave a Comment

[This is the last of a multi-part post.]

Every journey must end, as the 1989 British screenplay research trip did after I “celebrated” my 30th birthday in London.

The journal picks up the story again here:

[Tuesday, Nov. 28] Abi left for work at 8:30, after stopping at the back room to chat with me when I woke up. I told her of my fears of him (Tass) and was anxious to leave the flat should he come round and be violent (he was after all highly irrational). At 9:00, I was packed and ready. I didn’t take time for a bath or even to wash my hair. I’d planned to meet Lindsay at her job across from Warren Street station on Tottenham Court Road at 4:00 today, so I had hours to kill. I took the tube from Wood Green to Green Park, where I had a roll and two coffees at a café in Mayfair. I was relieved just to disappear into the populous of London. I didn’t like the idea of lugging my baggage around London, so after breakfast I took the tube to Pimlico and walked down to the Tate Gallery, where I’ve been since 10 o’clock this morning. I checked in my baggage at the coat check and walked about looking at the paintings (most of them are down now, waiting to be rehung in Jan. 1990) and taking in a tour or two. It’s been peaceful here, after the events of last night. If I have a replay at Lindsay & Bill’s, then I’ll find a B&B near Gatwick and wait there until my plane leaves Friday early afternoon. But I don’t think lightning will strike in the same place twice. Hm?

[Thursday, Nov. 30] Another few days to backtrack to and retrieve. No, things are much better now. I got to Lin’s office at Maple House off Tottenham Court Road at around 3:30—she was looking cheerful and I told her the story of my rough two days at Abi’s. She had to work another half hour, so I repaired my map of London with some scotch tape. After 4:00, we made our way to Victoria station where we caught the train to East Croydon. They have a nice two-bedroom flat not far from the train depot in an area of office blocks, but it’s quiet—very quiet at night. I met her husband Bill—when we came in he was doing the dishes—he’s a nice fellow, and we all talked cheerfully for a while. After a bit, Lin ran up to the stores and Bill and I took a walk down to the video store to return a rented tape, After we got back we had two McEwan’s Ales, then Lin cooked some supper and we watched the news. I was dead tired from all the stress of the previous day, and so turned in early.

About Wednesday, Nov. 29: I tried to catch the coach at Victoria Coach Station to Guildford at 11am, but the coach left without us. I was standing with a sixth-form high school kid named Steven who was due for an admissions interview at the University of Guildford, so we both hiked over to Victoria tube station and caught it round to Waterloo station. It wasn’t a long wait for the train to Guildford, but I paid out more money that morning than I’d planned to. We arrived in Guildford at around 1:00, and I called Richard Jefferies from a shopping mall and caught the next local bus out to the Museum, at 2:00.

Watts Gallery is nestled in the Surrey countryside just outside Guildford in the sleepy little hamlet of Compton. I was greeted at the door by a young woman named Hilary, dressed in peasant clothes, with a neckerchief over her head and shawl around her shoulders. I saw two or three cats purring around the place (one was named ‘Simpkins’) and the walls just covered with Watts’ paintings. I met Richard Jefferies, a younger man than I expected, in his mid-40s at most, with longish dark hair and mutton-chop sideburns and beard. I’d felt as though I’d stepped briefly into the 19th century. Richard Jeffries is a pleasant, humorous fellow—and very knowledgeable about art, history, and literature. I looked at [Watts’ painting] Found Drowned and Hilary, who I’d gathered was his gallery assistant and secretary, looked over my script. We had a pleasant time discussing it and, after they started to see what I’d attempted to do by it, were enthusiastic. At one point Mr. Jeffries had to run up to town to pick up his young daughter (who later slunk about, seemingly fascinated by me) and later I met his wife, a short, quiet woman who shook my hand and disappeared. Later, he, Hilary (who occasionally got pedantically strident about her opinions on art) and I sat and drank tea in his Victorian-cluttered office, joked about Britain, art history, antiques—he even played Bishop’s “Tell Me My Heart” on an old player. He drove me to the train station at 6:30 and I got back to Bill & Lin’s by 8:00, beat but elated.

Friday, Dec. 1: This is probably the last entry I’ll make in Britain this trip. It’s a slightly overcast day here—another one frosty cold. I’m sitting at the writing desk in the back room of Lin & Bill’s flat. I’m looking forward to going home, the last leg of this strange journey—it turned out pretty much as I’d imagined it would be, like a strange dream, with joyous and nightmarish images mixed. It’ll hit me the hardest after I’ve returned home, I’m sure.

About Thursday, Nov. 30: My last day in London, and it was a beautiful day, sunny and somewhat warmer later on. I was out the door of the flat by 10:30 and on the train up to London I thought I heard someone mention the name Ellen Terry, an older voice. Then I heard a man’s deep and distinctive voice and glanced back to see sitting just behind me an actor who’d played a flea catcher on “The Good Life” [the late Michael Robbins]. When the train stopped at Victoria, I told him I enjoyed his performance and he shook my hand. “Those are about the only parts I get,” he said dryly. I took off for the American Express office in Victoria Street to exchange a travelers check, then caught the tube for Holland Park, down Melbury Road and over to Addison Road where I found St. Barnabbas’ Church (built 1829) where Nelly & Watts were married in 1864. I talked to a young man at the Rectory door who showed me in and I got a photograph of the inside of the church. After photographing the outside of the church, I walked back up to Chester Place and to Holland Park, the juncture of which I imagine was the site of Little Holland House (no longer extant). I walked up past old Holland House, then through Campden Hill, back to the Kensington High Street station. I got up to Leicester Square, poked around a bit at the Reference Library there, then walked down to the National Portrait Gallery through Trafalgar Square, and looked at “Choosing” one last time. I stopped into a few pubs on the way into and out of the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden (disappointing lack of memorabilia) and outside of Covent Garden at a pub I met an Irish couple (younger than I) who were working in London for a while, but had been staying in Boston, in the States. They bought me a half of Guinness. I had to race through Oxford Street at rush hour to get to Aldgate East station to meet Lin & Bill at the Seven Stars Pub (pictured above left) for a drink before supper. I had a pint of the cider, Bill had a whiskey and Lin a half of cider. Then they bought me supper at an excellent kosher restaurant on the corner, down from the pub and at around 7:00, we went to the AYH Auction at Toynbee Hall. It was an amusing evening; I bought two candlesticks (made in England) and a few books. Later, I joked with a few of the members there and Lin, Bill & I caught the train back to East Croydon by 11:00.

****

I’m cheered to read and remember that it ended so well. It occurs to me now that had I flown back immediately after the birthday night fracas, it would’ve permanently ruined what was a productive and happy journey. Fortunately I stayed with the plan to meet up with Lin and Bill, and was rewarded with generosity and community. It was marvelous.

And that exchange with the actor Michael Robbins on the train lends a sweet coda (even down to thinking I’d overheard someone say “Ellen Terry”) to the screenplay research part of the trip. Robbins, I’ve since learned, died three years later of prostate cancer.

My 30th birthday trip to England was like a strange dream, “with joyous and nightmarish images mixed” in.

A lot like life, no?

 
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