Sunday, February 23, 2014

Coffee at The Windmill Market

Judith Richards, Fairhope novelist who wrote this among other works, asked me to join her for coffee at The Windmill Market, the emporium for crafts, gifts, food, and, incidentally, coffee, and I jumped at the chance. Before I jumped I tried to think of things to talk with her about.

Surely she would want to know what I was writing, and I'm not really writing anything. I brought two old manuscripts that have been moldering in my various drawers, cartons, and file cabinets for over 20 years, on the pretext that maybe I'd get back to them someday.

Originally I had looked upon my Fairhope trip as an opportunity to write. I knew I could do some research in the library I've written about here, and maybe put some things together that have been percolating in my mind, stories about the women in the 19th century who paved the way for the voting rights act of 1920. The more I thought and talked about the project, however, the less interest I was able to stir up. I still enjoy learning all I can about the women, and maybe there's a book in there somewhere, but I became more and more certain that the world is way less riveted by the subject than I am, and that if I self-publish I will not be likely to find readers. Certainly not enough in Fairhope, my main market.

The two old manuscripts were different. One, begun in the early 1990s, was my first attempt at a novel, and it was only three pages long. They are exquisite pages, unlike anything I've ever written, somewhat poetic and very gripping. I was so excited about having written them I couldn't go any further. First of all, I didn't have a full outline in mind, no idea of a story or what my characters were going to do, what would happen to them, or even what the theme of the work would be. In the three pages I had introduced four compelling characters, including the narrator, who was clearly based on myself. Daunted, I shoved the pages out of sight, only to show them once in a while when I was trying to prove my worth to someone. They never failed to impress my carefully chosen readers.

My other work was a novel I embarked upon when Jerry Newell, my best friend from childhood, died suddenly at the age of 56. I wrote it in an emotional state, as a way to capture her personality, as a penance for being less worthy in my own mind than she always thought me. Jerry was witty, larger-than-life, one of those people you just can't imagine being snatched from the earth. In the novel Trav'lin' Light, I wanted her voice back, I wanted to make her real to the whole world. I wrote 50 pages and could write no more. So I brought it with me, with a promise I would look it over and see if I was inspired to transcribe it to my laptop and make something out of it. I began reading, liked it better than I expected to, and then began to do a rewrite on the first pages on my Mac. The next day I read what I had written and deleted it.

I did write and publish a novel about a schoolteacher who visits Fairhope in order to learn from the visionary teacher Marietta Johnson. This one was designed to recapture that vanished Fairhope in its utopian beginnings, and to resurrect Mrs. Johnson, an unsung hero of Fairhope and of the world of Progressive Education. I think to a point the novel accomplished what I wanted it to. That Was Tomorrow is still on sale online and at the indie bookstore in Fairhope and one in Starkville, MS. 

That Was Tomorrow is a valentine to the Fairhope I imagine from my knowledge of its history. It is romantic, slow-paced, and I tried to write as tenderly as I could about a group of people who banded together in a remote place with the aim of changing the world for the better.

I have a friend in Fairhope who loves all my books and blogs, but her latest soap box is that I should stop writing about Fairhope and create something totally different, prose that soars above subject matter and touches the heart. I wish I really understood what she thinks I can write, and maybe then I can do it, but as of now I'm perplexed and uncertain I can meet the challenge.

But surely Judith and I would be talking about what I might write and how to go about it. When I was working on That Was Tomorrow I had confided in her "I don't know who would read this..." and she said not to concern myself with that. "Just write," she said. "It's an adventure!" And so it was, and so I did.

So I thought I'd tell her about the women-of-the-19th-century project, and of the books I'd brought here with an idea of working on, and I'd ask how to motivate myself. I began planning what we would talk about, and thought it would be a good idea if I transcribed the three pages of the autobiographical novel to my laptop just to see if I could spark some internal interest. I reread the pages, began thinking about the obvious theme of my life as described in the three pages, and knew this was one I wanted to do. I changed a word or two and added four paragraphs.

At coffee Judy and I talked about our lives. I realized what a special person she is, how courageous and strong she is, how hip and bright she is, and the next thing I knew it we had been through our coffee and rolls and she had another appointment. We hadn't discussed my writing problems at all.

I came back to the laptop and wrote a couple of pages on the book. Funny how things like that happen. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Finding the Funky

We had a lulu of a thunderstorm last night. Heavy rains, flashes of almost-blinding light, loud crashes of thunder. It started about 3 A.M. and by 4:30 had tapered to a pleasant drizzle, coaxing sleep. Then a very loud clap to wake us up at the same time it blew out the electricity for blocks.

I went back to sleep without identifying that pop. I knew only that it wasn’t thunder and that it was very close to my cottage. When I woke up I saw there was no clock glowing, the lights didn’t turn on, and when I stuck my head out the door someone said, “The electricity it out—but it’s on over on Church Street.”

I dressed and gathered my laptop and drove to The Coffee Loft, one of the places I know is open for coffee before 8 A.M. I treated myself to sugar (raw) and half-and-half in my coffee, and a stale oat muffin that the server assured me was sweetened with only applesauce. I found a formica-topped table with a very lumpy chair, seated myself at my laptop, and never had a breakfast I enjoyed more.

Fairhope is full of chic new dining places. They don’t really have a place for breakfast and wi-fi, but The Coffee Loft works for me. I knew by the time I had done all my work on the Internet, checked the online edition of the NY TIMES, posted the pic of a formerly famous movie star on what would have been her birthday on Facebook, I could get home to the cottage and rustle up a proper breakfast.

I think the Coffee Loft probably reminds me more of “old” Fairhope than anyplace else in town, besides maybe Julwin’s, the old diner-style restaurant that has stood in the same place since I was a child. (It doesn’t have wi-fi, and its coffee is terrible, or I would have been there.) The CL has deliberately mismatched chairs, wobbly tables, and usually a rather large crowd. This morning I was early enough to have it practically to myself. Southern accents clashed around me, as men appeared to be discussing business, but they were not distracting or abrasive although I confess I may have been eavesdropping a smidgen as I tried to guess what they were talking about.

I’ve been driving around for two and a half weeks, hoping to find pockets of the funky Fairhope of my memory. I can come across a corner with a somewhat rundown house, but it is usually flanked by oversized new houses. Often there is a FOR SALE sign on the rundown place. Once in a while I'll spot a familiar neighborhood with a whole block that is almost untouched, but they are very rare. 

So when I find a comfortable, funky spot it is a bit of a revelation. In time, I won't be so preoccupied with what is gone or what is changing. I'll embrace what Fairhope is and shut up about what's been lost. In the transition to that happy adjustment, I pass the time finding what funk I can. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Letter to Elissa

The daughter of a childhood friend of mine read my blog post about the Fairhope library-before-last and was inspired to give me a piece of her mind on Facebook. I post what she wrote here:

I'm currently snowbound in an 1830s farmhouse full of books in Amherst Massachusetts, but I spent a lot of the winter of 2009-2010 in the Fairhope Library, and, although I love Mom's memories of the old, dark, mysterious library, I grew fond of the new, well-lit, overbuilt one as well.

I did my taxes online there, in company with others in the same boat, and that made the chore easier. I also did a lot of research on YouTube for an African drumming class I was teaching through the local Learning In Retirement program.

Plus I did a fair amount of people-watching, and noticed folks of all colors, degrees of physical mobility and social conditions using and enjoying the computers, DVDs, and books.

I don't know specifically that the older Fairhope libraries weren't integrated, but I know that the original Fairhope Single-Tax Colony was racially segregated - from reading I did in the new library.

I was raised to honor both beautiful architecture and the principles of freedom and equality - and access to information as a necessary ground for freedom and equality.

If I have to choose between the two, I'm going to go with access, freedom and equality.

While the size of the current Fairhope Library building screams of people with money wanting to make sure we all notice, libraries these days are also a shelter and a free information and entertainment site for people without a roof to call their own.

A lot of the folks I meet at the soup kitchen have all sorts of interesting histories, non-mainstream political views, unsaleable areas of expertise in natural history or poetry or social change movements, nudist proclivities, OCD, and out and out schizophrenia.

A few of them are handed bus tickets South by the Town of Amherst in the fall - the guy whose turtle woodcut hangs in my bedroom is an itinerant homeless artist who spends his winters drawing the wildlife in the Appalachicola National Forest, and sells his art in Kendrick Park in Amherst in the summer.

And, given the increasing social divide in the US, libraries are a level playing field in ways that few other common social spaces can match.

All the offbeat characters of Old Fairhope can be found tucked in a carrel in the stacks of some town or university library or other - and the larger the library, the more privacy they have to simply exist in a place where no one one will ask them to move along until closing time.

So bring on bigger libraries. The 26 floors of the architecturally questionable WEB DuBois Library at UMASS Amherst are a bit of an eyesore, but the peregrine falcons who raise their chicks on the roof each summer think the edifice is a dandy cliff and pigeon reconnaissance perch.

I don't know if she understood my point, and am not 100 per cent certain I get hers, but I take it that my piece came over as another of those irritating essays by an old codger who is yearning for the past. In a way, I plead guilty, but I suspect she and I can find common ground in this. I wrote not to complain about the new library, but I assume it's clear I find it wanting in some ways even though I am aware that many of the things I miss are not found in libraries these days anyway. The more modern ones have some computers, as does the one in Fairhope, and there is no real virtue in smallness or inadequate facilities. 

It was just that there is a certain antiseptic quality in the new Fairhope library, as well as an awkwardness of the layout of its rooms--which seems to me to emphasize computers to the detriment of books. I don't care for the pea-soup color scheme much either.  Even the last library, the revamped supermarket that never was a fit for bookshelves, was user-friendly and had one cozy reading room with old artwork and books by regional authors flanking the walls.

I think the sentence that jumped out at me was, "All the offbeat characters of Old Fairhope can be found tucked in a carrel in the stacks of some town or university library or other..." which brings in a critique of something that is not intended in my blog post at all. So many people who have only heard of "Old Fairhope" make the assumption that it was a haven for eccentrics of the kind that exist everywhere. This is especially hard for me to take. I have written articles and books about the unique atmosphere of Fairhope in the 20th century. It is very hard to describe and as soon as someone says, "Oh, I know what you mean" I know I've probably failed to convey what I wanted to. The library-before-last could only have existed in Fairhope, and the Fairhope characters were intrinsic to the community that was here. Neither was celebrated at the time; they simply were part and parcel of the town. I know people in all small towns of the past loved their homes and cherish their memory, and that is fine. But too many people say, "My home town was the same." Your town may have had many fine qualities and an assortment of odd citizens, but if Fairhope was not singular in its mission, its raison d'etre, and the the kind of folk who swarmed to its warming flame, then I'm completely off the rails.

And by the way, the old library was white-only, as everything in Fairhope pretty much was. This is unthinkable today--I do not deny that progress has been made, but Fairhope is not and never was more progressive than the rest of the South in the old days on the subject of black-white relations. I agree that it's much nicer to have a racially integrated library, but in the few times I've been in the new library I would not say I observed a large number of blacks, Asians or Hispanics using the facility.

Big library, small library--that's not the matter here. It's having an active, relevant library that serves its community. In Fairhope it is not likely that the new library will provide a shelter or free entertainment for people without a roof to call their own. It serves the new Fairhope well, as far as I know, but just learning my way around its space made me miss the kind of library I grew up in. If the choice is between beautiful architecture, the principles of freedom and equality - and access to information, as you state, I too would choose access to information. Bravo all libraries, of all sizes and design!  

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Library Before Last

One of my vacation projects is to research what I can of women in the 19th century. This means some time in the nearest library, poring over encyclopedias and what books I can find in the Biography section. Yesterday I ventured into the clean and rather sterile and extremely large new public library in Fairhope, looking for familiar objects, books, and perhaps even discover a retread of the pleasant reading room dedicated to Fairhope's librarian Marie Howland in the last library.

I did find some biographies of women of the 19th century, sat down in a comfy chair and read some of them, and then wandered about, looking for the material I remembered from the Howland room--all books by denizens of Fairhope in its early days. On the wall of an empty alcove I saw the reproduction of a picture of Mrs. Howland, and facing her on the other side, a sketch by later Fairhope librarian Anna Braune of Robert Bell, the writer who collaborated with me on my first book Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree. I had donated Bob's picture, so I was glad to see it on the wall. I continued to wander around, looking for the books on Fairhope, and looking, I realized, for the library before last, pictured above.

The atmosphere of that particular  Fairhope library, like so many booky places, was homey and musty. There was a fireplace in the front room, with a circle of chairs in front of it. There was an odd "museum" in one room off to the left, with glass cases of arrowheads and artifacts, including stuffed natural-history items such as owls. This museum was dismantled later and the collection destroyed, when a new librarian took over, and it was years before another Fairhope Museum was established.

And when a new library went up where Delchamps had built a modern grocery in the 1960's, there was tremendous controversy that this new librarian had had the bad judgment to put a copy of The Joy of Sex on the shelves. The feeling was that this book was unsuitable for children, who might happen into that section and lose their innocence. The librarian was fired and the mayor refused from then on to put any city funds into the maintenance of the library. Calvin Trillin came to Fairhope and wrote an article about the incident for The New Yorker, from the viewpoint that this once-radical reformist enclave--where freethinkers and nudists once congregated on vacation--was becoming conventional and hidebound-conservative. Our local library was at the center of it, and would thereafter be funded by committees and volunteers.

The next city administration wasn't downright hostile to the library, but when the mayor referred to it as a "toy" in discussing funds for a new building, Fairhope's citizens were sufficiently outraged to raise a small fortune in order to overbuild. The budget for the new library grew and grew, and at last the massive edifice was completed. It has a very large center room full of computers and a number of
side rooms with names over their doors "TEENS,""PERIODICALS" and "NON-FICTION", etc. There are spacious lecture rooms, and upstairs there are offices. It is pleasant enough, but the word homey is not one you would use to describe it. Books do not seem to be the main reason for its existence.

But I did find the old Fairhope books. My heart warmed as I pulled a few off the shelf; some were all but crumbling in my hands, and I feared for their lives as I know they probably should be protected from rubberneckers like me. I am aware that libraries have rules for things like this, and that it won't be long before these treasures are discovered and placed somewhere where they will not only not be handled, they will no longer be seen at all.

So I'll go back to the new library. I must read what I can of women of the 19th century, and I want to take a look at that Fairhope section some more and try to recapture the mood of my favorite library, the one before last.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

My Portable Self

Fairhope Sunset, photo by Susan Stein

I first realized how portable my life is on 9/11/01. I was visiting friends in Los Angeles when the twin towers came down and a certain level of panic and disbelief swept the nation--what would happen next, and where?

It seemed to us all that after New York City, the next target would likely be Los Angeles. I said at the time, "That was their best shot--but it probably wasn't their only shot." Scheduled to fly back to southern Alabama on 9/13 I quickly cashed in my plane ticket--airports felt dangerous, and flights were being cancelled right and left--and grabbed a cross-country bus. I packed my small bag with enough things to get me through a three-day bus ride and checked my big bag all the way back home.

This was the first time I felt I had my life together in a little cocoon that I could take with me everywhere. It was before I even had a laptop, but when I pull my cocoon together now it is just me, a small bag of essentials, my laptop and a kindle stocked with books I can't wait to read. I have a cell phone now, and that goes in my handbag, along with some fruit and a bag of trail mix that I put together from health-food-store nuts and raisins. With this I'm home wherever I am, Fairhope included. With this month in a moderate climate, I keep up with New Paltz, Rosendale, and Kingston through the Internet, the television, and phone calls from my daughter.

I brought some work to do. This morning I'll read a script a filmmaker in High Falls asked me to read for suggestions on how to make the female characters more sympathetic. (I like that assignment.) I'm going to the library later to see what books I can find about 19th century women's rights advocates, in research for a project that might become a book or books in the future. I've got a dozen of my books in a carton in my car to sell or give away on demand. There is more call for them here than in New Paltz, for sure. In New Paltz, by the way, you can order either or both on amazon).

Does everybody carry his life around this way? To some degree, I'm certain he or she does in this century, this point in history. It may not be as conscious, or contrived, in other lives, but in mine it's become a deliberate effort, even when going as close as the post office. I ask myself what portion of my portable self will I need on this trip? This comes from a lifetime of bringing wrong items and leaving behind right ones. But the principle is the same. 

I've got my foot in both worlds, a life in both places, and a self that I take with me everywhere. Don't you?

Monday, February 3, 2014


Saturday I left New Paltz for a month in the above cottage. There was one reason in my mind, and one alone: To escape the weather.

But I know that often the reason in one's mind is not the actual reason, and it takes time, sometimes years, to discover that. At the moment I'm basking in temperatures of 60° rather than those in the 30s. Tomorrow it will be 70° here and the high in New Paltz is predicted to be about 20. It's easy to say that I simply had to get out of the brutal winter we were enduring in the Northeast. The terrible freeze hit this part of the country too last week, taking with it many beautiful blossoms and driving the locals to distraction--but was nothing like the single-digits for weeks on end that gave me impetus simply to get the hell out.

I'm still ambivalent about my hometown, a scenic enclave with artistic pretensions, on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. That being said, it's my default go-to when I have to leave the cold. The ambivalence prevails because the town I grew up in is not in evidence any more. It was a funky, somewhat bohemian getaway for many in those days, not entirely unlike New Paltz today. There was an air of intellectual counterculture and conflict in a plain, parched utopia. Today that has been papered over and in its place is an upscale tourist and retirement destination, where the city changes floral designs on every street corner on a regular basis and new cafés and boutiques spring up like jonquils after the first frost. Everybody smiles way too much, in an almost-Stepford-wife kind of way, and tells you how blessed they are to live in such a beautiful place. Every day they post pictures of the sunset on Facebook, as if there are no sunsets anywhere else. There is a great deal of rhapsodizing about ordinary things.

It brings out the curmudgeon in me. I should be so happy myself, I suppose. Maybe I don't want to be, I don't know. I like it here, but what I like is what I know to be under the surface--the reminders to me of people who lived here in years past, of situations long resolved but once crucial. I am one of the few who knows that there was once a large old live oak tree in the middle of Oak Street--literally in the middle of the street--and a vote was held whether to remove it. Cornie and Margaret Gaston, a normally contented couple of old-time Fairhope citizens, were divided on the subject. She wanted to keep the oak and he agreed with the side who found it a traffic hazard. Margaret and the oak lost, and Fairhope lost a possible tourist attraction for the future. That comes to me whenever I drive or walk down Oak Street.

Stories like that haunt me as I walk through Fairhope. I guess I'll never be rid of them, no matter how many sushi restaurants, Italian restaurants, or other fantasy establishments appear. If I come here once a year I see a town transformed, bit by bit, into something totally different from the place I know so well. I am resigned to it, and I do my best to like it as well as I possibly can. I have relatives and friends I love who live here, and they do their best not to tell me how blessed they feel just to be here for the sunsets. Some of them sigh and agree with me. I keep hoping to meet kindred spirits, and before I leave at the end of the month, to return to what will surely be a chilly and dank March, I hope the weather and the welcome here will have thawed me out.