(This is the eighth chapter of my memoir, and the last one so far that's fully written. I'm now involved in a couple of other projects, and it may be a while before I return to this one. But return I will. I have promised myself to finish this--that is, to bring it up to 1993. A sequel will pick the story up from there and take it--well, I don't know where.)
As my parents pulled away from the curb in their long green Buick Electra, I burst into tears. This made no sense. For the three days of the drive from Whitehaven to New Haven, we had mostly sat in grim silence, in the grip of an unnameable malaise. All three of us seemed to be angry, but I think none of us knew at what; I certainly didn’t. Looking back, I wonder if we were just unhappy that we weren’t going to be together, however miserable we made ourselves together.
Behind me, Bingham Hall rose in mock-Gothic grandeur, filling with my fellow freshmen. Bingham was one of the relatively nicer residence halls (Yale did not use the word dormitory) on the Old Campus, the city-block quadrangle where all but a few freshmen lived. There were to be four of us in suite 1092, which comprised two bedrooms and an unusually large living room with a bay window overlooking the Green. None of us knew one another. Joe Seiter was a swimmer from Ohio, even greener than me. Simon Whitney was an eccentric intellectual from New Jersey, scion of a great intellectual family many of whose men had gone to Yale. (One of them, Eli, was the inventor of the cotton gin, the technology that had made possible the cruel culture into which my father had been born.) And then there was Rick Platt, whose Yale heritage went back almost to its founding in 1701: In 1718 the college had moved to New Haven, and one of Rick’s forebears was among the donors of land for it; Rick’s family had been prominent at Yale and in New York ever since. He had graduated from Phillips Andover Academy and was rich and knew everything about Yale and wore his comprehensive advantages without false modesty, and I was scared to death of him. He knew I was, and didn’t seem to trouble himself about it. I would soon learn that his blithe disregard of my discomfort was a conscious act of decency: To have recognized my distress would have been to condescend to me. That was the first of his countless kindnesses.
That evening we trooped into the cavernous Commons, where all thousand freshmen and many graduate students were fed three times a day. Rick knew and greeted quite a few guys, for Andover as usual had provided more of the class of 1969 than any other school. Ours would be the last class in which public school boys were the minority, but minority we were, by definition new and ignorant and, most of us, less well heeled, and we would in Yale’s nature’s way be silently demeaned as such. At least I wasn’t a bursary boy (a scholarship student, with mandatory on-campus employment), collecting others’ dirty dishes and mopping the floors. Rick introduced his three ungainly new roommates around with deft aplomb.
We absorbed much social information in those first few days, most of it from watching Rick’s ilk taking their places in the ecosystem. They seemed to me to do it effortlessly. The cultivation of that appearance of perfect ease was one of the most striking behaviors we could learn, or not, or disdain. So it was, by this and a thousand other half-conscious fine distinctions, that the freshmen quickly sorted themselves into categories, little knowing that most of them would wear their archetypes, like turtles’ carapaces, unchangeable through the next four years.
The smell of Commons also never changed, from morning to night or season to season. It was, most saliently, of soup—tomatoes, beef, celery, carrots, and onions its relentless theme—but also of disinfectant, bacon grease, old leather, polished oak, male adolescence, and spilled milk.
Milk was dispensed from heavy plastic fifteen-gallon bladders controlled by a valve that nearly always leaked a bit. Later in freshman year, when water-balloon warfare had come to define the common ethos of the Old Campus, Joe Seiter stood atop Bingham’s nine-story tower, wedged into the battlement and lifting one of those bladders over his head. Filled with water now, it weighed ninety pounds. He looked like Hercules. Below him—for word of his great act of daring had traveled fast—several hundred freshmen raised our voices in a raw animal cheer. With awesome strength he heaved the world’s largest water balloon into the air. It fell, twisting, and fell, and fell, and exploded. Water shot a hundred feet in all directions. It was magnficent. Never again would a bursary boy—for Seiter was one—be seen as less than a possible hero.
We were the last all-male class of Yale College. We were the last class to wear coats and ties to every meal and therefore to most classes as well. We were the last to be graded with numbers, seventy to a hundred. We were the last to suffer under strict parietal hours—no girls in the rooms after midnight, their hotels locked down like high-security prisons. My teachers called me Mr. McNamee, and I addressed them as Mr., Mrs., or Miss; never were they referred to as or called professors. We smoked in class. Neither the liquor stores in the neighborhood nor the University itself observed the minimum drinking age of twenty-one. When our magnificent president, Kingman Brewster, rose to address us in his perfectly tailored double-breased suit and his deep patrician voice, he said his duty was to provide the nation with one thousand male leaders each year. Even the lowest of us were superior beings; the highest were like gods.
Tradition permeated life at Yale, and at least in the fall of 1965, conformity to it was largely taken for granted. We would buy a big wool banner to proclaim YALE on our living room walls. We would order Yale-crested stationery with our new Yale Station addresses. We would subscribe to the Yale laundry service (which may have sounded déclassé but made its student operators rich), the Banner (the yearbook), the Yale Daily News, The New York Herald Tribune, and The New York Times. In preparation for the mandatory Body Mechanics course at the gym, we were photographed nude with posture indicators sticking out of us like sparse porcupine quills; many years later I heard that there was a gay-underground trade in these images. We wore Bass Weejuns and Top-Siders and heavy wingtips, khaki or gray flannel trousers, oxford-cloth button-down-collared shirts, crew-neck sweaters, tweed jackets or navy blazers from J. Press, White’s, and Chipp in New Haven or Brooks Brothers in New York. In any of those stores we were waited on like royalty—you filled out a brief form, and could charge whatever you liked. We bought ties bearing the emblems of the schools where we prepped (Whitehaven High School of course didn’t have a tie) or our new residential colleges (there were twelve of these, where we would live after freshman year—we inmates of Bingham were already assigned to Silliman College). We went to Mory’s on Monday nights to drink Green Cups from old silver trophies and to hear the Whiffenpoofs sing old Yale songs.
To the tables down at Mory's,
To the place where Louis dwells,
To the dear old Temple Bar
We love so well,
Sing the Whiffenpoofs assembled
With their glasses raised on high,
And the magic of their singing casts its spell.
Yes, the magic of their singing
Of the songs we love so well:
"Shall I, Wasting" and "Mavourneen" and the rest.
We will serenade our Louis
While life and voice shall last,
Then we'll pass and be forgotten with the rest.
We are poor little lambs
Who have lost our way.
Baa! Baa! Baa!
We are little black sheep
Who have gone astray.
Baa! Baa! Baa!
Gentlemen songsters off on a spree,
Damned from here to eternity--
God have mercy on such as we.
Baa! Baa! Baa!
At football games, we sang incessantly the idiotic fight song that Cole Porter had written when an undergraduate here:
Bulldog, bulldog, bow wow wow! EEE-liii-Yale!”
Entirely unconsciously, I aligned myself with a crowd whom I deemed to be Winners—not the geniuses or the great jocks but those who would be Winners in Life. They were mostly preppies, mostly rich, highly ironical in conversation, brutal in the putting-down of grinds, nerds, and losers. Nearly all of them had silly nicknames. From them I learned new slang: quiff for girl or girls; helmet for the brown helmet of shit on one’s head administered by an unwilling quiff; a-m-a-a-a-zing for anything above moderately good; flamer (short for flaming asshole), a blowhard or showoff; doon, a moron; weenie, a weakling, a nobody, a whiner; blip (short for psychedelic blippo), a longhair or dope smoker (in use until we all started smoking dope also). A few of these guys were pretty openly standoffish toward me, my background being so far below their standard, but many more took particular trouble to guide me in the mysterious folkways of their ilk. One of my best ciceroni was Jeff Wheelwright—“Wheels”—a walking encyclopedia of insulting argot and inside information.
“You should know,” Wheelwright recalls, “that I take credit for Garry Trudeau's ‘Doonesbury.’ The original doon was my St. Paul’s classmate Charlie Pillsbury (who later roomed with Trudeau and my brother Joe in Davenport College). But I was the one who affixed Doon to Pillsbury."
There were also formal organizations, seemingly hundreds of them—the Record (humor magazine), the Lit, the Political Union (every conceivable flavor of party, and much formal debate), WYBC radio, the Dramat, the Marching Band (proudly the most satirical in the nation—they would run onto the field in chaos before settling grumpily into formation), the Russian Chorus, the big whole-class teams in every sport, including some I’d never heard of, such as lacrosse, and quite a few others I’d never seen—polo, soccer, squash, rugby, and crew). Each residential college fielded its own team in all the usual sports plus fencing, sailing, wrestling, hockey, and bridge. Perhaps the topmost of all Yale traditions were the a capella singing groups. Everybody seemed to be joining something, or a number of somethings. Showing an early, inarticulable aversion to organization, I joined nothing.
I wrote long, passionate letters of love to Susan Love until she dumped me, by post, good and hard. My feelings were hurt plenty, but I had known it was coming. Now I could face the now. The quest for quiff obsessed us all; a great many of us were still virgins. As the days grew short and New Haven lapsed into its customary weeks on end of rain and fog, longing rose in the blood like rage. We piled into stuffy, smoky cars for mixers at Smith, Vassar, Mt. Holyoke, and farther. Girls came to our own dances by sassy busloads. Very few of us had girlfriends, and the preppies had very little experience of girls at all, so there was a lot of loitering at the edge of the dance floor silently pining, sucking down beer after rancid beer. The girls were fabulous, with long, straight, lustrous hair, short plaid skirts, pastel Capezio ballet slippers, silver laughs. I was a doon.
Eventually, despite all, a few connections were made, which led to others, à la “Your roommate should meet my roommate.” Through an old girlfriend of Rick Platt’s at Vassar I had my first actual date, with a girl a foot taller than me and the musculature of a fullback. I remember dancing with my nose between her breasts, which smelled rather nice. She was awarded a nickname, The Elk.
Then there was a very rich and very pretty girl from New York, who asked me to be her escort at her début. Deb party, deb party, I heard the term a hundred times a week. I had never been to one. This one was to be at the Plaza Hotel, and white tie. White tie, and I hadn’t even had a chance to wear my suave shawl-collared tuxedo. I took the train into town, found my way to the formalwear rental joint all Yalies used (well, those who didn’t already own a white tie), got suited up, and presented myself at the girl’s house’s door, in the East Fifties just off Sutton Place. Her little brothers’ and sisters’ toys littered the front hall, which was narrow and unprepossing; but then, as she came down the stairs in sparkling splendor, I realized that her family’s house was five stories high—like a real house turned on its end. My early years in New York had never introduced me to the concept of the brownstone townhouse.
In the next few minutes I learned how to hail a cab, how to pay, how much to tip, how a white-gloved arm rested ever so lightly inside one’s elbow as one mounted the stairs to the ballroom. My date had already rehearsed me on the promenade and presentation, and we got through that pretty painlessly. I saw a number of Yalies I recognized, but none I knew. She, however, knew nearly everyone, and much of my evening consisted of trailing along behind her, being introduced and then ignored in breathless conversations about wonderful people and divine places I’d never heard of.
The party turned out to be a charity ball, and therefore had a cash bar. This I had not been warned about. We drank a lot, and my exchequeur dwindled apace. Then there was the Brasserie, where we all went after the party, I thoroughly drunk but sober enough to be stunned at the price of the drinks, and how much everybody consumed. I believe there were a few in our group who splashed about in a fountain. By four in the morning I had just enough money left to get my date home in a taxi. Neither of us had had a very good time, and I never saw her again.
Rick Platt had arranged for me to lodge in the apartment of an old aunt of his at Fifth Avenue and Sixty-sixth Street. In the inkily empty city, with my return train ticket and not one dollar bill in my wallet, it was a very long walk from that brownstone. My only obligation to my hostess was to join her for breakfast at seven-thirty. I was still fairly drunk, and could not open my eyes properly.
“Where are you from?” demanded the grande dame, who clearly did not give a damn.
“Well, Memphis, but when I was a kid we lived in New---“
“Memphis. Ah,” she said, and rang a little silver bell.
A daintily uniformed maid—a white girl—served us a dainty little breakfast. I managed to choke down my eggs and drink my coffee and not be sick. I never saw her again either.
One bright Friday afternoon we hung a sheet from our bay window, crudely lettered PARTY—GIRLS WANTED—FREE DRINKS. We cranked up the Rolling Stones and faced the speakers out the window. Crude gesture though it was, we managed to harvest a few townies (there was a nice Yale word), in one of whom I saw a possible opportunity to dispose at last of my virginity. She was ugly, young, and dazzled by Yale. We went on several furtive, sordid dates, and grappled in the dark behind Sally’s Apizza (she pronounced it ah-beets), which she assured me was New Haven’s best (Yalies pronounced it New Hayven). She maintained possession of her treasure. I was not nearly as ashamed as I should have been.
In sexual foolishness and insensitivity I had lots of company. In academic matters, we all began with consultation and cooperation—a wise, kind graduate student ordained to be our counselor lived just next door, the gracious Dean of Silliman College enjoyed dispensing advice, and Rick Platt had the skinny on just about every course on offer—but once we had chosen our curriculum, we were each alone.
I have not yet forgiven Rick for urging me to get out of Rocks and Stars (a semester of geology followed by another of astronomy, a notorious “gut” heavily populated with jocks) and to sign up for physics, a full year’s worth of serious study. Three mornings a week, the class began at an ungodly hour (eight) in the faraway altitudes of Prospect Avenue. The book, the teacher, and his scribbled formulae on the blackboard were incomprehensible to me. The guy I sat behind had on the back of his neck a gigantic, red, and oozing carbuncle, at which he worked his fingers angrily throughout the classes I was attending less and less often. At year’s end, the teacher would call me in to explain that the only reason he had given me a passing grade was so that I might not be seen on Science Hill again.
On the other hand, our Bingham counselor wondered, considering my performance in high school, why I had not signed up for a course more advanced than English 15. How, he asked, had I scored on my English A.P.?
My what? Neither I nor my Whitehaven guidance counselors had ever heard of advanced placement tests, which virtually all my Yale classmates had taken several of.
Well, not to worry, he believed I would do well in English 25, a survey of English poetry, and he made a particular request on my behalf. I have forgotten his name, but never my gratitude to him, for English 25 under Mrs. Finkelstein was sheer esthetic delight. In the swirl and murk of family discord, girl troubles, social disorientation, and the nurturing of my self-regard, I had nearly forgotten beauty. Mrs. Finkelstein began our first class by braying out the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales in an accent composed of three equal parts of Russian, Oxonian, and Middle English, replete with trilled Rs (Whan that Ah-prrril) and back-of-throat unvoiced fricatives (the drrroughte of Marrrch)—it was gibberish, but it was beautiful. Soon enough it would no longer be gibberish but a symphony that plays in my mind to this day. How could this big, bluff Russian have so entirely mastered not only the matter but also the magic of all of English literature? Who knew, but she had, and every class revealed another facet of miracle. She transformed Spenser from irrelevant antiquity to shepherds’ songs of aching heart and sweet repose. We discovered that Pope could be a laugh riot. In Milton we flew and plunged and raged with Satan, imagining imagining [sic] all that with blind eyes. With spring would come Wordsworth, and what at Whitehaven had been a pompous thee or thou would become, through Mrs. Finkelstein’s passion and precision, a vividly particular, exquisitely observed object or person. This beauty, I came to believe, was what I was born for.
With the leaden exception of physics, I floated through the academic months like a hot-air balloon, aloft on pure residual ego and the hot air with which I filled my papers and exams. I loved my French course and its urbane Parisian teacher. I loved psychology, its Skinner boxes and penis envy. I loved the history of music, dissecting a Bach cantata, plumbing the ramifying depths of the sonata form. I loved navigating the labyrinth of the country’s second-biggest library (after Harvard’s, natch). I loved that I could drink bourbon with one hand and read Pound with the other. But I had no discipline; I had never learned to organize an extended essay or to look deep into the heart of a poem. Luckily I learned the high value much of Yale set on bullshit. If you could say it well, and I could; if you could spin out a wacky, hopelessly complex theory from fragments of philosophy, history, and the classics, and I could; if you could stay up all night till you lost all conscious control and some blue muse began to babble bullshit through your pen, and at times I did—then you could stay afloat. But only for so long. Sympathy was deeply ingrained in Yale’s academic culture, as was kindness, as was tolerance for personal woes and teenage angst, but eventually—after the old Whitehaven boy’s struggle to be the new Yale Man at Christmas at home, after the crush and exhaustion of Reading Period, and at last with the January-bitter blast of exams—bullshit started smelling like bullshit, my balloon ran out of hot air, and the only voice left speaking comprehensibly was that of the numbers. As a scholar, said my grades, Tom wasn’t doing so great.
And yet. What I was learning from my peers seemed just as important as what I was not quite living up to in the academic realm. It was hard sometimes to swallow my envy. So-and-so had been skiing at Gstaad last month. Another guy’s dad was ambassador to Japan. Somebody was going to spend the summer doing marine research in the Antarctic or making wine in Austria. They had read War and Peace in Russian. They played the harpsichor, they played the drums, they played golf at St. Andrew’s. Their family had a hundred million dollars and five houses. Their mother was a movie star. So they knew stuff, and I soaked it up thirstily.
Simon Whitney, another of my roommates, had made a perfect eight hundred on both the verbal and the math Scholastic Aptitude Tests. His I.Q., someone said, was beyond measurement. His uncle was one of the greatest mathematicians of the century. His father taught economics at Rutgers, and advised presidents. His mother played the cello. What I learned from Simon was that there was no limit to eccentricity. When his dirty clothes piled too high on his bed, he slept on the floor. In order not to be disturbed at his homework, he made a turban of a towel and wedged a buzzing electric toothbrush into its folds. One winter afternoon, when I had been reading alone in the living room for a couple of hours and it was time for dinner, I went to the closet to get my overcoat, and there stood Simon, staring at me blankly, saying nothing, only the faintest glimmer of amusement on his face. He had stood in the dark at least half the afternoon just waiting to weird the hell out of somebody.
Rick Platt and I stayed up late talking almost every night, till we were hungry enough for a second dinner at a greasy spoon somewhere off campus. He seemed to know everything. Or what he didn’t know wasn’t worth knowing. My envy of him and his tribe began to melt away. The snobbery and really quite nasty putdowns that figured so prominently in the behavior of so many Yalies of privilege came to seem weakly defensive. I hadn’t been able to imagine the competitiveness among them: To me they had seemed a bloc of uniform privilege. Now I was starting to understand that their swagger concealed that especially anxious insecurity which is born of the closest differences in rank. And they themselves, some anyhow, were discovering, with difficulty, that kindness begat kindness, and that unfeigned interest was more productive than the reflexive brushoffs of the unfamiliar that were their inheritance.
I also began to sense that the nonspecific longing that attached itself to sex or money or social power could also do work inside a poem, and yield a greater reward there.
So I told myself anyway, when the better angels of my nature paid me one of their occasional calls. I was writing poetry, and seeking beauty not only in it but everywhere—in a breeze, a tune, a turn of someone else’s phrase. I went to New York to visit a guy I knew from Whitehaven, a year older, who went to Columbia. Columbia was great—brainy, intense, cosmopolitan—and my old friend had become all that too. The Beatles’ Rubber Soul was just out, and we shared a passion for it; and now we shared a marijuana cigarette. As is often the case with first-time users, the effect was so unfamiliar that I didn’t recognize. The prescription for such neophytes is to smoke some more, which I did. Still not stoned? Torch up another one. Now I got it. Now I heard and heard into the depths of the depths of the soul of the soul of the strange new music of the Beatles, with its droning sitars and underwater voices. One day long thence, pot would turn around and bite me, but that winter night it brought me beauty on a filigreed tray, nestled in thistledown, scented with divinity.
All this intellectual and esthetic elevation was very nice, but it wasn’t getting me the thing I had most craved for at least the last three years, viz., laid. At the first surge of want—and these occurred about a dozen times a day—poetics, beauty, philosophy, and even the delights of getting high flew out the window. With both the townies and the Seven Sisters I had gotten nowhere. Now, along with virtually everybody else in my class, I invested three bucks in what I believe was the first computer-dating scheme, Operation Match. It had been invented at Harvard. Why hadn’t I applied there? They took only four courses to our five, and everybody, now including me, knew that Yale was much harder. Anyway, where was I, Operation Match. You assigned a value, one through five, to a list of your own qualities and then to a list of the qualities you desired in a match. Brains: self, five; girl, four. Looks: self, three; girl, five. Sex appeal: five, five! There were also yes-or-no questions: “Is extensive sexual activity (in) preparation for marriage part of ‘growing up’?” and “Do you believe in a God who answers prayer?’” After a very long wait (computers were slower then), I got a printout of six names, addresses, and phone numbers. Five of the girls being at Smith, I arranged to spend an entire Saturday in Northampton, meeting them one after another on the hour. Not one of them appealed, and I don’t think any of them liked me much either. The sixth name was that of a girl at Wheaton, a story for later. This was getting ridiculous. I had to make a plan.
It wasn’t really a plan, but based on careful consideration of the odds, I invited for the big spring weekend the music-loving girl from Whitehaven who had never quite been my girlfriend but whose intellectual bent would, I hoped, be impressed by this freshly minted Yalie. She was at Vanderbilt, no mean college itself though lacking, in my view, Yale’s je ne sais quoi of prestige. How Yale’s prestige would add to Tommy’s sexual allure I guess I hadn’t thought through. She flew up, she looked lovely, we danced, we laughed, we kissed, we drank, this was great. We were just plain comfortable together. Somewhere in a dark corner outside, we drank some more, kissed some more. A thin shell of fear I hadn’t known myself to have been wearing all these months shattered and fell away in a shower of ice, sublimated into air before it hit the ground. When we pretended to say good night in the lobby of the Taft Hotel, we agreed that I would sneak in, shortly.
It couldn’t have been more than ten minutes since our parting, but when she came to the door something had happened to the girl. Wobbling. Slurring her words. Eyes not quite matching in angle. She was just unbelievably shitfaced. This according to campus wisdom was to be considered a lucky break, if not indeed a necessary precondition. We lay down together, and I kissed her. When our lips parted, she was asleep. Well, unconscious. She began to talk, urgent nonsense, eyes still closed. She awoke, she looked at me, and a plume of vomit flew out of her mouth.
I put the ruined, stinking bedspread in the bathtub and filled it with hot water. I washed her face. I got her awake enough to drink a glass of water. I tried to kiss her, but she fell away, passed out again. This was not the plan.
She threw up again, all over her dress. Hm. Well, I had to take it off, didn’t I? And sent it also to the tub. I didn’t have to take off my own clothes, but I did. She put her head under my chin and resumed babbling nonsense, this time also crying—the only time I’ve ever seen somebody weep while unconscious. Did I consider fucking her while she was dead to the world? I did. But a Yale man would not stoop that low. So I told myself.
Sooner or later she was bound to sober up. The thing to do was for both of us to get some sleep. I took off her underwear, and then mine, so that we’d both be ready and randy when she returned to the planet bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and primed by half a night of naked contiguity.
I had no idea that she had eaten so much. By dawn the blankets, the sheets, and the pillowcases had joined the dress and the bedspread in the tub. I had found a rough extra blanket in the closet and wrapped us tightly in that. She half woke; I kissed her, ignoring her breath, which wasn’t easy. I guided her hand; it was limp, and so, soon, was I.
She had to make the Connecticut Limo to LaGuardia. “I’m sorry,” she said. She dressed foggily, and stuffed her clothes in a bag, leaving last night’s outfit behind in the vomit-soaked wreckage.
The student room rate was ten dollars for the two nights, which I had paid in advance. I now left ten dollars more on the bureau, with a one-word note for the poor maid: “Sorry.” Would I be hunted down and dunned a hundred, two hundred bucks? Which I did not have and could not ask my father for. Would I be expelled?
She left. Nothing happened.
I had been back home only a couple of days when, on June 5, 1966, the civil rights hero James Meredith, now a student at Columbia Law School, set out from Memphis on foot—carrying a Bible and an ebony cane, and accompanied by six friends—to march through Mississippi. His aim was both to calm his own fear, which still haunted him, and to encourage the nearly half-million Negroes of the state to register to vote, or try to. He made it one night and twenty-eight miles before he was shot.
His wounds were not fatal, and his assailant was swiftly caught. The next day, June 7, twenty marchers renewed Meredith’s March Against Fear. In a sort of miracle, dozens and soon hundreds of people showed up and joined in, marching two by two down Highway 51. I held hands with a black girl of about sixteen who was literally shivering with terror. As we passed, white people lined the highway, spewing verbal abuse. Scary-looking Mississippi Highway Patrolmen were posted every few yards to protect us—a big change from not long ago. One old woman shrieked from the porch of her rundown little house, “Buzzards! Food for buzzards, that’s all y’all are!”
When I came home that evening and reported on my day’s activity, my father and mother both sat mute in frozen fury; and so the domestic tone for the summer, indeed for years to come, was set.
Fortunately I had plenty to do to keep me elsewhere. I was working full time at the Whitehaven Press—Bob Towery’s parents’ business, you may recall—and all my old pals had come home from their various colleges with terrific ideas for revelry and deviltry. We roamed in packs from party to party, smoking, drinking, dancing, flirting. My parents left town for a weekend, and the horde descended. In my own childhood bed, the younger sister of my blonde bombshell of the summer of ’64 granted my life’s deepest wish. She was so drunk that by the next day she had no recollection of that glorious occasion.
The clenched dread that filled the air of my home stayed in me for decades, sometimes dormant but ever ready to wake. It kept me afraid of reaching, of touching, of risking honest emotion. It led to poetry of labyrinthine obscurity, daring the reader—the poet’s ultimate parental authority—to understand it. It could not be understood, in fact, because it revealed so little of its maker. I wasn’t alone in this situation by any means: The Modern Literature I was now learning to revere—Faulkner, Eliot, Joyce—blew smoke in the face of the reader’s innocent longing to “get it.” Soon I would come to know music and painting of the same unacknowledged hostility. What did the tone row say but Fuck You? I would in time be a protégé of Leonard Bernstein, whose music, because popular and accessible and even beautiful, I was taught to deem cheap and vulgar. I did not have the courage, or let’s say the knowledge, to dream of beauty as a physical entity, a substantial being, a thing that I could touch and could feel. Fear lay coiled in my heart like a snake in the cold, waiting for sunlight, not knowing, in its darkness, even that it was capable of striking, and also of crawling out of itself soft and transformed and vulnerable. I did not know that the opposite of fear is love.
And then, in July of 1966, a couple of my buddies from Knoxville—fellow veterans of that fateful convention—were coming for a visit, and I needed dates for them, and because they would be visiting probably only this once, it would be okay to ask out on their behalf a girl already going steady with one of my old neighborhood pals. I tried a couple of new possibilities for myself, struck out, and ended up stuck with my sweet New Jersey ex-girlfriend, by whom I now fancied myself bored stiff. So at the last second I made a switch: The Knoxville guy could go out with her, she was fine for him, and I could indulge my curiosity about Louise Rossett (pronounced “rosette”), whom I had more or less known since I was seven and she was five but who seemed always, though charming, rather remote.
When I showed up at her door and announced myself and not the Knoxville guy as her date, her face clouded, for to continue with me would be to violate the terms of going steady with my old friend. In the end, because we were really just a big group, not a group of couples, she thought it would be all right. Proximity crawled out of itself to emerge as intimacy, and intimacy metamorphosed in an hour into rapture. This was love, oh, love, oh, yes, and would be forever.
For our first real date, the evening of Monday, July 18, 1966, I asked Louise to join me at a Congressional campaign rally that I had to cover for the Whitehaven Press. The candidate was one Ray Blanton, an achingly bad speaker who, years later, would be a convicted felon. It was a notably poor choice of venue, but I was in a hurry. Afterwards I took her to Leonard’s Barbecue, and, on her front porch one minute before Whitehaven’s universally acknowledged deadline for girls to be home, I kissed her. She kissed me back, softly, seriously.
In the moonlit courtyard of the Brooks Art Gallery, the four marble Muses watched over us as we kissed and dreamed. I was certain that this was the girl I would marry. She was perhaps not quite so sure. I was certain that the recent loss of my virginity had at last made me a man, one worthy of Louise’s virginity. But she was sixteen—not yet an age when nice Whitehaven girls engaged in sexual intercourse—and though Louise was hot-blooded, she was not at all ready. We swirled around each other in an ecstasy of abstention, an ecstasy purer and probably more powerful than sexual congress itself might have been, unencumbered as it was with the complexities of bodies, timing, secrecy, fear, guilt, and ignorance that were to come. We peered into each others’ souls. I breathed the scent of her hair. She held me close, and we kissed and kissed and kissed and kissed.
We listened to the Memphis Symphony under the stars in Overton Park. To the Bitter Lemon Coffee House, Memphis’s most bohemian gathering-place, we went to hear the surpassingly strange and gifted guitarist John Fahey in his false identity as Blind Joe Death, wearing opaque round sunglasses and fumbling for his weirdly tuned guitar. We were thrilled when Fahey, now as himself, led our city’s own Furry Lewis onto that same stage, where, amply plied with whisky, the old man would flail at his slide guitar and caterwaul the rawest blues I’d ever heard. The Bitter Lemon served “cocktails” concocted of sweet juices in flamboyant parrot colors and served in brandy snifters. They were nonalcoholic, but nearby there was a pizzeria, run by an ancient Olympic bicycle champion—the walls were covered with photographs of his glory days—who, being Italian, found the American refusal to serve wine to minors an offense against civilization and who, therefore, with a gesture indicating his appreciation of our absolute discretion, would bring us with our pizzas little tumblers of harsh red wine he had made in the bassement.
As the summer was ending, and I soon to return to New Haven, not to see her again until Christmas, I decided to take Louise to dinner at Justine’s. Justine’s was a legend, a grand antebellum townhouse marooned in solitary splendor amidst warehouses in one of Memphis’s grimmest ghettoes, its façade unmarked by a sign. The idea was that if you didn’t know where and what Justine’s was, you shouldn’t try going there. It was expensive, and French, and most of the clientele came from the old Memphis gentry to whom Whitehaven, despite my mother’s social rise among them, was a backwater.
In those days, restaurants in Memphis were forbidden to serve liquor, wine, or beer; even to Justine’s you had to bring your own. The only place to obtain an alcoholic beverage legally was from a liquor store. I was under age in any case, but damn it, I wanted us to have a bottle of wine, and good wine too.
My friends and I had had some success in identifying ragged old men in parking lots who for a modest tip would acquire the vodka or bourbon or beer we desired, but hardly any of the liquor stores in Memphis carried much more wine than wino fuel. My research had now identified one store that had a wide selection of wines and would sell it to minors—only wine, and only if you seemed serious about it. I asked the man there to recommend a wine to take to Justine’s, and he asked me what we were going to eat and how much I wanted to spend. I said probably filet mignon, and five dollars. “If you’re willing to go to eight,” he said, “I can give you something you’ll never forget.” My love knew no limits, so I splurged.
The tall, starched, scowling maître d’hôtel at Justine’s slipped the bottle from its brown paper bag and started to hand it on to a waiter, but he paused a moment as his eyes fell on the label and his brows lifted. Justine’s invariable policy was to stick teenagers in a back room and serve them with icy distance, but now we were marched in state to a table in the old front parlor, beneath a crystal chandelier. The waiter replaced the regular wine glasses with huge glittering globes. When he poured me a taste of my wine, and its dark, sweet, soul-deep scent billowed into the room, I knew that this was going to be different from the screw-topped Lake Country Red which my friends and I swilled down at parties.
And oh, my. I had not known until that moment that anything could taste so good. I studied the label, telling myself to remember it. It was Château Lafite-Rothschild—a Bordeaux wine, I would later learn—of the 1961 vintage, one of the greatest wines ever made. Eight bucks.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
CHAPTER EIGHT: MORNING: 1965-1966
Posted by Tom McNamee at 2:37 PM
Labels: debutantes, James Meredith, Justine's, Louise Rossett, Taft Hotel, Whiffenpoofs, Yale
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