The Sweeny’s bartender leaned across the bar to me and whispered: You know who that is over in the corner, don’t you?
I turned around. There was a man in a tie and a sport coat and a black Irish fisherman’s cap, writing intently in a notebook
That’s August Wilson, the bartender told me. He writes plays. That’s probably some dialogue that he’s writing down right now.
Maybe something he overheard you say, I suggested to the bartender.
You got that right!
In St. Paul, in the late fall, with the Great Communicator at the helm of the ship of state and the unemployment numbers rising higher than the High Bridge, I read in the Pioneer Press of a room for rent in a house on Portland near Dale. It was a slim ad in a slender paper, and when I called the number to find out more details, the owner invited me to come over and check it out for myself.
An hour or so later, I stood on the sidewalk in front of a waist high chain link fence, and looked up at a nondescript, somewhat sinister looking house, facing the world wearing a sickly green and cracked asbestos siding. The shades had all been drawn. It wasn’t an uplifting sight, but I rang the doorbell and stepped back, because there was a room inside that rented by the week, and I had just enough cash to cover one week.
A short man in a thick sweater opened the door. He was wearing a Cubs cap. He had been expecting me. He’d been waiting for me. He wondered (because I was ten minutes late) if I’d had any trouble finding the house. He asked me to clean my shoes on the rug in the hall. I did as he asked, vigorously shuffling my shoes across the rough rug. He asked to see the bottom of my shoes. Slightly humiliated, but desperately in need of a place to live, I held on to the banister at the bottom of the stairs so that I could raise each shoe for his close inspection. He then asked me to wipe my shoes again.
I followed the landlord up the dimly lit stairs. There was the faint sound of a radio talk show. The woodwork was impressive, but gritty to the touch, and in need of some polish. It was thirsty. My grandmother used to say that.
The hall was no brighter than the stairs. One bare light bulb lit the way. There was a smell of canned spaghetti, slightly burned. It felt like I’d entered a monastery for low-income hermits.
At the end of the hall he opened the door to the room and motioned for me to step in ahead of him.
A forlorn single bed—its mussed cover revealing a thin stained mattress—was shoved in the corner, as if being punished for some sexual indiscretion. The landlord opened the door of the rattling refrigerator while I stepped past him to look out the cloudy side window.
I just defrosted it this morning, he said.
He creaked open the oven door as I looked out the back window. It was then that I saw that if I took the room – which I almost had to – I would be living across the alley from the famous turreted row house where F. Scott Fitzgerald had written This Side of Paradise. I visualized the brass plate above the front entrance on Summit summarizing what had happened there once upon a time, as the landlord rattled off the house rules and regulations
Let me show you the bathroom, he said, as if the bathroom was the highlight that he’d been saving for last.
It was at the end of the hall, and featured a grimy but quite large claw foot bathtub that took up half of the room.
You’ll share this bathroom with the other renters on the second floor, and the ones down below as well, if they want a bath instead of a shower.
We stood in his bathroom – the landlord and I – admiring the cracked linoleum and the chipped claws and another hanging bare light bulb. There were more rules and regulations concerning the use of this bathroom, which featured a big bolt on the door to insure privacy, but as with the rules of the room, I daydreamed through them, preferring to concentrate instead on the one redeeming aspect of the situation that I found myself in: the proximity to the Fitzgerald house across the alley.
I followed the landlord down the hall and down the stairs and into a small room that I took for his office. As he was digging through a drawer for a rental agreement, I noticed for the first time his hiking boots and his colorful reindeer vest and his wool pants cuffed at the ankles. I’d been following an Austrian mountain guide up and down the halls and stairs. It was like a hike in the Alps, albeit a dark and musty and sour smelling Alps. He slid the agreement to me and I autographed his declaration of my dependence on him and he gave me a key.
After collecting my things from the bus station locker and moving in, I discovered that the noisy refrigerator blocked the view from the head of the bed, so I moved one of the two ripped and taped chairs in front of the window which faced the Fitzgerald house, and, despite my tiredness, set about memorizing the view by moonlight: the sturdy well-built traditional endurance of the house, bricks and mortar in place, fire-escape clear of debris, the tiled shingles nailed down for eternity.
It was a great feeling to be inside and warm on such a night, with the temperature in the teens, and the air sprinkled with snow. It was a place to start from. It wasn’t the best room that I’d ever lived in, but it was a location and an address and a place to receive mail. I put some piano music on my little tape player, and I lit some incense too. I watched a cat run across the alley. That cat became my vicarious unnamed pet. It felt like a moment to remember. I liked my situation. I felt there were possibilities lying in wait for me, that all I had to do was get a good night sleep.
It was a little bed in a little room, and to sleep comfortably, we both had to sleep on our sides, she against the wall and me on the outside edge.
She was not impressed by the room. The first time she saw it, late at night, she took a quick look around and then turned to me and asked: Is this it?
That was it, and it wasn’t much.
She smoked a cigarette while I made tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.
The bathroom impressed her even less than the room had.
She was a romantic like Fitzgerald, and she even looked a little like Zelda, but this wasn’t the Jazz Age, this was another age, the age of Morning in America. She liked soft, imported clothes from Guatemala, and wine from Chile, and food with a Mexican flavor. La Cucaracha was just down the street, but we couldn’t always afford to go there. She was a small woman in her early twenties, with sparkling little eyes and a bright smile and hips that swung and hair that she swept and re-swept over her forehead.
Once when she came to stay with me, she was sick, and I took care of her, nursing her back to health in that room.
We knew the stories about Fitzgerald’s early life in St. Paul. We’d retraced a few of his footsteps, sitting in the art deco bar of the Commodore, the only customers they had on a quiet fall afternoon. Scott and Zelda had awaited the birth of their one and only child in this very hotel. We told each other the old tales that were part of the local folklore: how Fitzgerald had worked on the railroad (briefly); how he’d run out of the house and stopped traffic on Summit after he got the telegram from Scribner’s saying that they’d publish Paradise.
And now I live right across from where he used to live, I bragged to her. But she wasn’t impressed. I don’t think she found it even slightly enchanting.
She was a spirited woman: intelligent, knowledgeable, brilliant even, ten or eleven years younger than I was at the time. She had much better prospects than I. She was going to the university; she would get her Masters; she would go on for her doctorate out West, and end up teaching at a private school in the East. And the cramped little bed that she slept in a few times, and where I took care of her once? She’s forgotten about it—I know she has—because the impression it made on her was one that she wanted to forget as quickly as she could.
I tried to take her mind off of it, reading to her, playing Irish music on my tape player for her, telling her stories about New Orleans, cooking for her, drawing for her, giving her an orgasm—anything to take her mind away from the little bed in the little room. She screamed in the pillow. She got her pleasure, but then she was unhappy again. The room held no promise or hope for her. It was a room that could only be occupied by a hermit who was on his way down. And although she was a romantic, and read Bernice Bobs Her Hair in that cramped bed, her brand of romanticism was one filled with pleasant smells and gypsy music and watercolors with soft edges.
Fitzgerald too would have been appalled by the shabbiness of the surroundings – not just the rust on the refrigerator, but the cracks in the window glass and the squeaks in the bed springs and the dirty bathroom and the dark hall that you had to tiptoe down because you were already behind on your rent.
And yet, once, when she was visiting me, the time when she was sick, I turned around to look at her as I was stirring croutons into simmering chicken soup from a can, and her head was against the ugly yellow pillowcase, and she was lying against the green wall, her eyes closed, her hair covering half her face, a picture of sickness. But somehow she suffused the scene with her beauty. She had the power to do that, because of her personality, and especially her kindness, her thoughtfulness, her feeling for others, and her feeling for me. She breathed life into my room. She made it beat with her great heart, even in her state of sickness. A Degas or a Whistler, a Sargent or a Munch– those artists would have painted her on the spot, then and there. Especially Munch – I’m thinking of his Sick Child. They’d all taught me to see beauty, and so I recognized it right away when I turned around, stirring the canned soup and flipping the grilled cheese, and saw her head against the pillow, and felt that the shabby little room was being blessed by a great beauty.
The next day she felt better, and she left right after breakfast to ride the bus across town to the university. She didn’t come back again for a long time. As the winter dragged on, she stayed away. I called her from the pay phone in the rear of the drug store, and I would go to visit her occasionally–at her father’s when she was living with him, or at her apartment after she’d moved into it–but I always came home to my tiny room across the alley from the rump of the famed house on the acclaimed street, alone. It was a hermit’s room after all.
My rent wasn’t much – twenty five a week – but I always had trouble paying it. When I was more than a week behind, the landlord knocked on the door and pointed at my silver tea strainer and my Chinese tapestry. He stood in the doorway as I took the tapestry down from the wall and rinsed the strainer of damp tealeaves. The strainer had been a gift from my grandmother; the tapestry, a gift from my father. I handed them to him somewhat humiliated.
It was just after Christmas, and in the depth of a recession – an icy gift from the Great Gipper – when the snow started to come down nonstop. All traffic came to a halt, including the buses. I was on foot, as usual, and walking down Grand Avenue when I spotted a snow shovel leaning against a row of dumpsters behind an apartment house. I don’t like to steal things. I only borrowed this shovel, and then went off in search of sidewalks and driveways south of Grand to scoop out. The big old houses were all snowed in, and I found enough shoveling to keep me busy until after dark. I had a sore back, but I was back at it the next day, because it was still snowing and I had to make hay while the snow snowed. I took breaks to trudge back to Grand and eat quickly in a restaurant. After my energy had been replenished, I returned to scooping. My pockets were bulging with cash. I paid my landlord the rent for the little room and got my sentimental objects back.
The snow had saved me. I was in love with winter.
Sometimes I was asked to step inside the front foyer of the big houses whose sidewalks and driveways I had just cleared. Let me tell you that those foyers were bigger than my little room in back of This Side of Paradise. As the owners were gathering up the cash to pay me, I would see what I could of the house within. I saw fireplaces with fires blazing, and I saw bookshelves filled with books, some of which I recognized. I saw Christmas trees with candy canes and multicolored bulbs and tinsel and fake candles. I saw paintings old and new, abstract and realistic. I saw boots and shoes, gloves and mittens, scarves and coats. I saw pets, friendly and unfriendly. There were birds in cages, cats on sofas, dogs on rugs, hamsters on wheels, and a rabbit in a box filled with shavings. I saw kids playing games, throwing balls, watching TV, throwing fits, laughing, crying, looking out the window, coloring. One little girl took a picture of me. She asked me if I knew that my cheeks were red. She said my cheeks were redder than a Santa Claus. She asked me if she could touch them. I bent down and felt her warm fingers against my cheeks.
Back out on the street, I went off to look for more jobs. An older lady stepped out of the door to her castle and waved to me from the bridge over her moat. She told me where and how much to shovel. Her instructions were precise and condescending. She watched me from her big front window. After I finished, she handed me a broom. I swept the snow until she could see the sidewalk. She wanted to be able to see the concrete, she said. After I’d finished she asked me to step in. How much do I owe you? she asked. I named my price. She said it was too much. She took a collection of tightly rolled bills from her apron and handed it to me saying: That’s all I have. I counted it. It was a little more than half of what I’d asked for.
I walked back up to Grand and went into a bar, propping my shovel against the wall just inside the front door. McCafferty’s was a plush Irish pub—everything in a green reminiscent of the old country—so I ordered an Irish coffee. A bunch of guys shouted at the TV–a referee had made a bad call. It seemed ridiculous, and rather beside the point. Sitting on that barstool, I could feel my sore back getting sorer. The Irish whiskey relieved it somewhat, but only temporarily.
The bartender leaned across the bar: You know who that is over in the corner, don’t you?
I said, No, who is it?
That’s Eugene McCarthy, he said.
Eugene McCarthy. He looked distinguished. More like a poet than a politician though. There was a crowd around him. They were listening to his every word.
As I left the bar, I discovered that someone had borrowed from me the same shovel that I’d borrowed from someone else. I thought I’d left it in a safe place. It had also stopped snowing. I bought a new shovel and revisited many of my customers in the midst of skimpy snowfalls, but the skies remained clear for the most part, and my business fell off to the point where my best account became the older lady who had nicked me and who continued to underpay me. Still, she always seemed to be able to find little jobs for me to do.
In my off hours, I wandered the old parts of town on foot, climbing up and down the stairs below the Hill Mansion, as well as all the other stairs, slippery in winter, that ascend and descend the Mississippi River bluffs. Winter in St. Paul is not a sometime thing – it goes on and on, with little variation in the ice and chill. You wait for the first thaw, you look out the windows of bookstores and libraries and galleries and cafes, but the windows remain steamed or even frosted over, and you go back to the book or paper or letter you were reading.
The landlord of my little room on Portland near Dale, in an effort to save money on his heating bill, covered the window in the room that faced Fitzgerald’s old place with a sheet of insulated plywood. I removed it whenever I was in the room. Once he knocked on the door and I let him in, forgetting that I’d removed the sheet. He wanted to know when I was going to pay my rent—I was several weeks behind again. The sight of the uncovered window made him furious. He left the room but quickly returned with a power drill to screw in the sheet to the frame. He was an oppressive little man.
My room became even less attractive, and I began spending more and more time out of it. I often walked down the road at the end of Western Avenue, which skirted the bluff, eventually angling all the way down to the Children’s Hospital. I came to know this road very well. When I was walking along it I felt like I was out in the country, and therefore somewhat free.
I began going to a bookstore called Harper McKee’s. The front of the store was all windows, with a large reproduction of a painting by Maurice Utrillo in one of them. This painting set the tone for the whole store. It made me see the neighborhood—indeed the whole city—anew. The painting was technically about Paris, but it was actually about light. I began to realize that it was light that illuminates our lives, and I resented my landlord of robbing me of the little light that I had.
Ruth McKee, the owner, often ensconced herself in a small office of the bookstore. She had her two dogs with her for protection and companionship. I visited with her, bought a few books, and then, before I knew it, I was working for her. I started by lugging boxes of books down the steep stairs in the back room, carrying them down from the second floor storage room. The back room of the bookstore was one of the most fascinating rooms that I’ve ever been in. There were pictures and posters high above the shelves, and I remember W. B. Yeats staring severely down at me through his sky blue monocle while I shelved one of his books.
There was a children’s corner back there too, where a tall shy radio man and his even shyer gangly son perused the books on Saturday mornings. And there was a mystery section where a soon-to-be famous mystery author who was writing at that time for the Pioneer Press liked to browse. In the middle of the room, two couches faced each other with a little table between them, always piled high with books.
Ruth often asked me to take her two dogs for a walk, and so I’d take them down to the fountain at Irving Park, and then back up Chestnut past the plastics factory. This was the beginning of my long association with Ruth Harper McKee, which eventually evolved into endless discussions about books and music, cooking and religion, and history – above all else: history – both personal and impersonal. I didn’t realize it then, but my relationship with her was my ticket out of that cramped and oppressive little room, where I had studied and become quite familiar with the butt end of paradise, the one which Fitzgerald, despite all his poetic talent, had skipped over and ignored.
My world was filled with books now, arranged by category and alphabetized after a fashion. And what a world it was, filled with rhythms and beats and stories and travels and eroticism and insights and music and recollections. Every day I closed the door on my little room, breathed the fresh air outside, and took the Western extension down the hill, above the Italian looking house where the artist Clement Haupers lived, and where Clara Mairs, his artistic companion, and in every sense his equal, had once lived with him. I’d seen both their work at an exhibition at the Commodore.
There were art books at Harper McKee’s, and novels and poetry and books on fishing and cooking and religion. I shelved and rearranged and organized – I felt each one, looked at the front covers, studied the back covers, committed authors to memory, opened the more interesting ones, resisted diving in completely, set some aside to take home, and felt reconnected to St. Paul and the world.
There was music in the bookstore – classical music – especially Bach. We worked to Bach, conversed to Bach, sold and bought books to Bach. We might have been in Leipzig, except that we were only three or four blocks from the Mississippi in St. Paul. It was the end of winter, when there is true cause for celebration. It can be felt in the air, how it is suddenly lighter.
And so you go out to celebrate. Ruth and I crossed the street to McGovern’s, and we sat in a booth over our drinks and talked. She loved to reminisce, especially about her father, who had made his living playing music in taverns. He played the violin, and she could remember his sound and his tone from her earliest days, lying in the crib and listening. She listened until she learned how to talk, and then she became one of the greatest talkers that the world has ever known. Her voice alone was infinitely interesting, with all its shades and exclamation points and highs and lows. At McGovern’s, she smoked as she talked, rambling from politics to culture, and from memories to observations as if she was running through a vibrant garden where she had been asked to pick some flowers and not being able to decide which ones to pick, she picked them all. She was all over the place, but it was such an enjoyable trip that you wanted to be swept along in the joy and enthusiasm that she felt for nearly every topic. She had a spirit of liveliness, and if you were with her you couldn’t help but be infected by it. It was life and life only, as the poet sang, and she was a singer if there ever was one, and her song was experience, experience gleaned from every corner, but especially a corner filled with books.
The eternal cigarette smoked and burned between her lips, and the ashtrays were soon filled with butts. They must have stimulated her mind. We drank coffee or bourbon. The ribs had been ordered—they’d be out directly—but before they came, there was still time for a story about McCosh and his Dinkytown store filled with books and strange characters on winter evenings when it was dark by five and people who went inside to gather around books and discuss this or that philosophy, view, opinion, design, tale, jail, or books lost in the mail or under beds or in closets or behind doors or loaned out to unreliable folk singers who kept them when they left for New York to sing their songs for a larger audience and get a big record contract. Ruth had known such a person, indirectly, but then she had known a lot of people, and a lot of people had known her. And she took care of them, and they took care of her – that was the way it was, and that was the way it should be.
She counseled me about my relationship with my friend who had quit coming to visit me in my little room. She said that it was important to keep busy, to keep the mind occupied. She said that things changed, and people changed, and that maybe I should find someone closer to my own age. She said that I should find another place to live, an apartment with lots of windows. She said that I should wash those windows the minute that I moved in, because there’s nothing like clean windows for fostering inspiration. She said that the sea is filled with fish, or used to be. She said that I should read the Germans and the English and the French and the South Americans, and then write my own books. In fact, she said that I should start writing right away, that I didn’t have to wait ‘til I read all those books, because she could see that I had something to say, and so I should start saying it. Don’t wait! I took her advice to heart.
That night, after that particular conversation, which took place at McGovern’s at the end of a day when she’d decided that she would have to close her store because she just wasn’t making it – that evening, rather than worry about her future and her prospects and her finances, she had brushed all that aside to take an interest in my life.
You’ve got to find another place to live! she said.
When you have very little money – when you’re living close to the bone – your senses are very much on alert – and you seem to notice everything.
After coming home late from McGovern’s one night, I noticed that my landlord had removed the plywood sheet from the window that faced the flip side of Paradise. I heated a pan of soup, and positioned my chair in the corner by the window so that I could look out and see the turret – a symbol for me of hope and creativity – in the moonlight.
That same night enough sentences to constitute a respectable paragraph came to me, and I got out of bed to write them down.
The next morning, in the claw foot bathtub down the hall, more sentences appeared on a horizon. I jumped out of the bathtub to hurry to my room to write them down, leaving a water trail. The landlord banging on my door broke the spell. He needed me to wipe up the water. When I returned to my pen and paper, the rhythm had vanished and could not be recaptured. I put on some music, but it was a poor substitute.
I took my little story – which was about a fun house clown who’s trapped in a little cage above the entrance to the fun house – and I hurried down the Western Avenue extension to Harper McKee’s, anxious to show it to her, and explain where I wanted to go with it – how this clown used to play the piano, but for a long time he’s been silent, for mysterious reasons.
When I got to the bookstore, I found it engulfed by book dealers anxious for bargains on the first day of her going out of business sale. They were like vultures – a look in their eyes – and I had to hurry to keep the best books out of their hands, carting boxes back up the stairs to the attic, to wait for a better day and a better price. I did this without Ruth’s knowledge, but with her best interests at heart, because I knew she’d have another bookstore someday.
Fitzgerald was the elegant novelist from the house across the alley. Authors of his ilk swam in fountains in formal attire and dipped their freshly written pages in bubbly champagne and hung up their soaked and dripping but still intact pages with clothespins and wrote novels that even poets admired and attempted to emulate. After they died, their books lived on in used bookstores in old buildings with cats and plants in the windows. People who love books work in these stores for next to nothing. Only greedy vultures get rich selling old books. I won’t mention any names, but I know where their stores are. They raise an eyebrow if you turn a page. They jump up and down if you crack a binding. They’ll grab their cane and wave it in the air and negotiate ‘til the cows come home over a penciled in price in the upper right hand corner of the page immediately preceding the cover. (Ruth was never a bloodthirsty used book dealer. She asked for and got a fair price, and nothing more.) They never lived in little rooms where the plywood covered the window. (Have I mentioned that the fun house clown’s cage was covered by plywood in the winter?)
Fitzgerald was that brand of romantic who goes to Princeton and lives on Summit and sends his manuscripts to Max Perkins at Scribner’s. I’m the neo-romantic type that lives in a little room in back of the big house with the big rooms, but thinks nothing of it, writing my manuscripts which I keep in the same drawer with my socks because I don’t know what else to do with them. I enjoy working in used bookstores selling works by prominent romantics because the passion rubs off and washes over me and I walk across long bridges over big rivers to get where I want to go because I’m a romantic. (I’m beginning to tire of this word, but Webster’s New World Thesaurus is curiously devoid of plausible substitutes.) And if I have nowhere in particular to go, I take the time to stop to pet stray cats and the odd dog lounging in the dying sun.
I went on to live in many more rooms. I lived in blue rooms where you could look out the window and see an ocean and a lighthouse and three ships side by side hugging the treacherous coast. I lived in red rooms with paintings on the walls and a red brick wall out the window and the sound of a busy city always there, even late at night. I learned something from every room I ever lived in. I learned a lot from that room on Portland near Dale in St. Paul.