Losing the Laugher

Losing the Laughter

As a child growing up, nothing and no one could make me laugh till my sides split and my face hurt except my sister, Nanette.  I call her sister though we siblings from another mister if you will.  We grew up and into ourselves with each other from the age of eight. As rural kids we had a free and frolicsome life, running through the woods, riding horses for hours on end, playing in the ancient barn that always seemed unsafe and therefore magnetic.  It finally did fall down one Sunday morning when everyone else was at Mass and I was sitting on the porch, proving it truly was a terror in the making but hey, no animals were harmed in the watching of this incident.

Nan and I always had a unique ability to jointly see the absurd in life and were drawn toward people, places, and feelings that engendered a sense of delight.  The laughter followed naturally and grew over the years.

One Sunday supper, we were maybe 17 or 18, we were in the formal dining room assembled en mass, something the father figure tried to require as a family bonding time but there was such a vast gap in ages that getting us all together was difficult at best, and felt really odd and oppressive to the older contingent of us. There were fancy linen tablecloths, formal china settings and Maida, the grandmother doyenne, was in attendance as well.  It is fair to say the she was not a fan of children so having seven of them at table was already a challenge for her.  She was a New Orleanian through and through so Manners were paramount and we were frankly a feral herd at best.

Dinner was through, the oldest of us were planning our escape to go get stoned and head to the movies so fidgeting was flagrant.  Then Mike came in.  At the time, Mike was Nan’s boyfriend and would one day become the father of their amazing daughter, Brooke Corinne. For now, though, he was the scruffy, barely tolerated hippie who was undoubtedly corrupting their eldest child, so the reception was chilly but hey, it was Sunday, prayers had been prayed at Mass and over food so there was a largesse in the air. Mike pulled up a chair while we were finishing coffee and dessert. 

And then it happened.

Mike reached over Nan’s plate and took a sip of her coffee.  Out of her cup. At this point grandmother Maida could not contain herself any longer.  Someone needed to be the sacrificial lamb for the collective sins of the table that she had endured in silence thus far.  She spoke, acridly, and said

“You allow him to drink from the same CUP as you, Nanette???”

And Nan, the oblivious provocateur, replied:

“Well, I KISS him, don’t I?  Same germs.”

At this point, the oldest of us who were not doing spit takes were watching for the explosion from Maida that just had to be imminent.  What exploded was the laughter.  It launched from a place within each of us that had been tensely restraining our behavior for the entire dinner hour and now, thanks to Nan, all bets were off.  The little kids thought we were simply nuts so they starting screaming with kid laughter.  The stern-faced father was trying to maintain discipline, something he attempted to instill on a completely random schedule so one can say it was laughably ineffective at best and really, only added to the hilarity that was racing around the table like a wildfire.  Nan, not thinking she had said anything out of the norm, finally realized that control had been lost; people were falling on the floor holding their sides and screaming.  Even mom finally ceded her normally fun and cheery façade to history and joined in with her own oh-so-special gut laugh.  She would perfect that laugh over the years much to her mother’s dismay.

And so, the level of laughter perfection that Nan and I have shared was cemented for future decades.  It took very little for she and I to dissolve into gales of guffaws that we honestly had no control over.  Disabling fits that seemed almost medically dangerous when we were in them but again, no control.  They would leave us weak and sore and grinning but something else.  

Peacefully Drained.  

The calm that would eventually overtake us was a shared euphoria of delight. We had shed all the teenaged angst and adult worry and whatever else was inhabiting our darker natures; we had killed the worst in us and let the best of us shine…for a while.  It was therapeutic.  It was delight in each other in that only the two of us knew what the laughter was about (frequently nothing!) and that only the two of had had this moment in life, together. As the years went on, we would set out in the car, sometimes stoned (oh all right, often high), with one destination in mind.  

We were out to get lost.

We drove through the rural countryside of our youth staying only on small, two-lane, back roads and making only turns that would take us away from anything familiar.  We would drive for hours yakking and listening to the radio until that magic moment would simultaneously dawn on us. We were lost.  And for some reason that was the key, the impetus, the trigger that turned on the laugh track that we both craved.  We would sit on the side of some unnamed country lane and scream with laughter at our ability to lose ourselves while being lost. Nothing was really funny, but everything was truly hilarious.

Another cleansing of the heart and soul complete.  Peace.  Out.

Years later I was home visiting from California.  Mom was living with Nan and Max in Gettysburg, PA. The big day out with Mom was shopping at the Gettysburg Outlet Mall and movie or lunch.  Olive Garden was the spot.  The three of us got our table and were trading tales and playing catchup. I have never been able to exactly pinpoint what the trigger was, but it happened. Something set us off and Nan and I started to giggle, then gasp, then scream out loud.  Mom, watching us, became infected with whatever insanity had gripped Nan and I, and collapsed with us.  

We tried, really, we did.

We tried at least act normal.  Sugar an iced tea perhaps?  Spilled sugar from the trebling hands only fueled more laughter.  This was not a polite little tintinnabulation of charming voices elevated in modest mirth.  Oh, no.  This was flat out spit your food and howl time.  We were now laughing at each other’s inability to control themselves.  Nan and I were screaming “Don’t LOOK at me!!!”  Mom was spitting “What are we laughing about??” 

That is where it went off the rails.

Diners all around us (oh fine, the entire restaurant) was noticing us.  Noticing may be too demure a term. There were unapologetic glares.  People were corralling their small children and covering their ears and turning them away from the spectacle that was us.

Ok.  Maybe not quite that bad but people were definitely not amused and, the waitress was now hovering around us like a fly on the butter dish and shooting us what can only be described as the “I am about to call a manger” look.

Chastisement is a weapon.

Teachers have used it for millennia. The Look can stop traffic or encase over-abundant behavior.  In our case, the the withering reproachful glare from our waitress had an effect.  It did.  Nan and I having done our time on the floor of many a food service establishment recognized The Look. We knew we were about to be 86’d.  From the Olive Garden.

The utter absurdity of that struck us as, well funny.  So that funny was added into the already funny show in progress and we knew we were going to tell this story forever.  ‘The Day We Got 86’d From the Olive Garden…With Mom’.  And off we went.

I think we just plain wore out funny out because we eventually calmed down, finished up our meal, paid and left.  The leaving was a tad awkward as everyone, I now do mean everyone, stared us out the door and into the car where we once more broke down at the thought of how utterly absurd and perfect that moment had been.

Sharing laughter with Nanette has been a life-long joy for me. I wait for our time together so that we can simply let go and laugh until it hurts.  It is a cleansing ritual that I share with only her.  As Nan let’s go once more, this time of her mortal coil, I must find a way to regain my smile and maybe one day my laughter.  For now…..

I’m Losing My Laughter

President Obama, Please

President Obama, Please

Set the Tone

A return to “Yes, We Can”

We need nuance, facts, direction, compassionate calm; in short; 


The President’s remarks to the graduating classes of 2020 over the weekend were striking in their simplicity and powerful in their eloquence.  They were the carefully crafted and considered words of a man, a world leader, a figure who stands so far above the political fray of this moment; our moment of national and global crisis, as to shine brighter than the tarnished remnants of the Fractured Union in which we now barely live.  We exist in a nightmarish netherworld of altered reality populated by bloviated expulsions from a huckster and a fraud who never wanted this job that he currently holds and does not have the intellectual capacity to maneuver within.  The current occupant of this global stage plods and plots his daily course with only the inept and mono-visioned focus of a man held captive by his own demons; demons which now have grown to infect, much like the virus he is being defeated by, the entire world’s hunkering and panicked population. 

We ask ourselves daily, “How much worse can this get?”, “How much more damage can he do in three months?”, or six, or however many months or years he will have at his disposal.  With the legislative checks and balances gutted, neutered, or in many cases euthanized, who will stand up to his schoolyard bully-ism?  

Who will speak truth to faux power?

As a populace, we have been beaten into a stunned silence by the barrage of non-fact and fictionalized “truth” by what can only be described as a despotic demon. This is a caricature that he undoubtedly thinks is a good thing based on his fawning obeisance to other world leaders who operate under the protection of militaristic, propped up, potentates.  We know this.  It is a fact firmly in evidence for years now as proven and witnessed by the sycophantic salaaming with which he believes he is flattering those whom he admires, or needs, or wishes he were more like.

These other world leaders, however strong-armed and backed by strong arms, know him for the fraud he is.  They know him for the weaknesses he displays and are angling with ever more efficient aim, at the heart of our democracy.  Our time in the sun is passing.  Our American Century is already well passed its “use by” date.  We are two decades into a new century and what nation or global cabal will lay claim to this shredded, barely formed, next 100 years? We can only surmise and none of our worst imaginings will be bad enough when we finally have to face to ultimate reality.

The winner will not be us.  Unless.

Unless our most recent past president retakes the reins of civil discourse and once again shows us why he was the best of the brightest.  Why, in the history of our country, we had eight years of scandal-free governance, global accord, and record economic expansion, innovation, and development; all while literally pulling us up out of the fiscal and cultural morass he was left with as he assumed office in 2009.  It is what, historically, Democrats appear to do best.  They problem solve our way into prosperity when the other party has looted our savings accounts of cash, courage, and convictions.

President Obama’s soft, thoughtful, rhetoric to those students of 2020 whose immediate, hard-earned, transitions into the real world were abruptly cancelled spoke more than just graduation oratory. They resonated into a human core that we have had literally excised from our current consciousness.  Numb to even the most blatant abuses through a daily barrage of instant twitterishness, we are reeling in a boat without a rudder; bobbing on seas that grow more stormy, and more disturbed, and more threatening hourly.

Something is going to snap.

The rubber band that has held our democracy together is old, frayed, and brittle.  The virus appeared as if to prove this point.  It could have been a nuclear attack on an ally, or on us.  It could have been a massive cyber-attack on our infrastructure.  It could have been a thousand tiny arrows aimed at a million points of perceived weakness.  Instead, it is a stealthy, one-celled, unseen, virulent agent that is taking us all out.  The world was stopped as efficiently as if someone had pulled the power cord to our lives.  And in reality, all the rest of those horrific end-times scenarios are still quite possible.  They could be heaped on top of the trash pile we are currently wallowing in. If you doubt that, I beg you not to tempt the universe for fate is, indeed, a cruel mistress.

Now.  This moment.  President Obama chose to speak out, critiquing the current president with the slipperiness of an eel and with a fluidity of words that only the highest intelligence can muster.  Heartful yet truthfully blunted, Obama reintroduced us to statesmanship in a ten-minute lecture format.  He must continue and once again take up a mortarboard of leadership that he set aside for loftier goals in his post-presidency.  It is a requirement.  History will judge this moment.

It is true that past presidents, as a rule, hold their tongues on the current administration’s foibles.  But today, the rule of law is abandoned, the courts are now akin to sacrificial altars of paganistic political power grabs, and the congressional oversight is in hiding. Now we need the shock and awe of a thunderbolt, but one sounded with the velvet-smooth cloth hammer of an orator of good cause.

I call on President Obama to once again pick up the overly onerous task of leading us into that unseen future he promised us once more than a decade ago.  Craft a message and deliver it to the Viral Times we are suppressed by.  Give Ted Talks on leadership, speak to organizations and political action committees, and yes, directly to the people of our country and our world, with the clear-eyed vision of a pragmatist, and from the stolid foundation of someone who trusted us through untested times in the recent past.

To hell with the “norms”.  They are dead.  Let us bury them.

Give us back our hope, Mr. President.  Show us how to think again and what to do and we will cheer you on with a resounding,

Yes, We Can…..Again.

Grateful Is Boring

Grateful is Boring

The world is in many stages of grief, anger, fright, and confusion.  Let’s begin there.  Oh, and we’re all, to varying degrees, in some sort of self or institutional lockdown.  We each come to be in our own private Idaho’s of solitude through no fault of our own but none-the-less each of us must come to our own private reckonings with the hermetic existences we are now enduring.

It happened, for the majority of us, quite suddenly and without any huge, impactful, event.  There were glimmers of a “new” virus out there, somewhere, in some far-off Asian province.  We’ve had these before from other disparate places; Ebola, H1N1, Bird Flu each, if we thought beyond our morning lattes, certainly had the potential to kill multitudes of humans but again, “them”, the amorphous masses that really did not affect us or our daily routines. Much.

And then this virus, this Coronavirus; this CoVid19.

One day I’m picking up our friend at a nearby airport for a visit and the next day, literally the next day, we were suddenly sequestered together for the foreseeable future.  It’s a good thing we were all very old friends who had traveled far and wide together over the decades and knew each other far better than most so it was really like a small family of three, on holiday…of sorts.

Except for the niggling of uncertainly that the daily news was feeding us if we listened.  This then bred the full-blown fear that rapidly followed.  Without warning the world “out there” was an apocalyptic morass of potential infection, suffering, and death.  Really, overnight.  And “out there” was outside our front door!

What this does to our individual psyches is a very personal yet somehow shared experience.  This isolation idiocy grows in each of us and on each of us in very different but related ways.  But mostly it is the constipated pipes of our freedom of movement highway (excuse the metaphor but really, how shitty are things anyway?) that affect the majority of us the most.  No quick trips to the store, no drives to Five Guys for a burger without masks, gloves, trays for the car and counting how many customers are in the store before you enter.  I met our neighbor across the street tipping a single used cup into his garbage bin.  We locked eyes and he said, with no trace of irony in his terse voice, “If I don’t come out to the trash bin at least twice an hour I’ma kill him.”  Him, being his husband 40 feet away in their house.  I got it.

But here’s where it gets rough.  Grateful.

It’s on Facebook a thousand time an hour:

“I’m grateful for the sunny day!”

“I’m grateful my family is healthy!”

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“I’m grateful for my precious cat, Precious!” 

Grateful is boring.

There I’ve said it. Bad me.  I’d feel shame and self-loathing if there was anyone I’d be actually seeing face-to-face in the next whenever to even care!  And besides, all wagers aside, I’ll wager that each and everyone else out there is of the same opinion.  

Grateful is boring.

Our lives are boring. Period.

My life and home have never, and I mean N.E.V.E.R been so respectably clean, organized, and perfectly presentable.  My mother would be thrilled!  But my mother would not be allowed to come into my house to see this miracle of modern living.  She’d be in quarantine as well if she hadn’t died decades before all this shit hit the fan.  And she thought 9/11 was bad!

We did the hard shit first: we moved rocks, built walls, rearranged plants in the garden.  I, alone, trimmed 185 feet of 16’ tall Oleander trees, both sides, and the top, down to 6 feet.  Forty, count them FORTY, huge, green, bins of waste; I’m still feeding them out to the green waste guy who now has added me to his Stalag-like list of offenders for TOO much work getting done which, I know, seems very UN-Stalag-like in its rock-splitting historical context but none-the-less, is my new reality.  It took me two weeks, 8-hours a day, to accomplish this one task.  Oh, and I had just had a quadruple heart ablation the week this all began.  The general consensus was if that didn’t kill me then either the CoVid would or a heart attack would, so what the hell…….get on with it.

And then the basement was cleaned and organized.

This actually was the beginning of the fright portion of the picture.  This had never been accomplished before in living history (I’m assuming for anyone else out there, as well).  I unpacked boxes from three moves and two decades ago.  But there was no place to take the give-aways as our local thrift stores were….you guessed it….closed.  We actually put some really hard-to-dump items like pool railings and air compressors on the curb with “$50 OBO” signs on them hoping they would look attractive enough for someone to steal them.  Someone bought them!  We shake our heads in wonder.

The real issue for me is that “Inspiration”, along with Elvis, has left the building. 

Grateful is boring.

I wish I could fully absorb the depth of the First-World, White-Person, problems we are confronting, I do!  I’m a privileged, white, talented, educated, individual but trust me, this shit is weird.  And it’s weird for well-off and well-under alike.  We really are all in this together.  The pablum platitudes that are pumped out have a certain ring to them that in my bones I feel resonates the same with my core group of over-indulged retirees the same as it does for those inner city Detroit put-upons who are still unable to drink their WATER no less wonder what would happen if and when they contract this plague.  For them, too:

Gratitude is boring. But what a world apart those two realities are. 

As a writer and a photographer, I’m having a pesky “block”; a creative logjam that is preventing me from having the inspiration I need to pick up a pen or a camera and create something that soothes my soul and maybe captivates others.

This is such a shit problem when compared to food lines, ER meltdowns, ventilator goodbyes, and the myriad of other tortuous pathways humans all over the world are traversing.  For them, gratitude is also boring but in a much more life or death sort of scenario. They literally having nothing to be grateful for.  Nothing.  They are bereft, seemingly forgotten, and without even hope which I posit is a prerequisite for gratitude. 

No hope=no gratitude.

So for now, from whatever end of the polar-opposite spectrums we all come to this same, fraught, fearful place we find ourselves in as humans, let us at least try and dig as deeply as we can into the fabric of the lives we are living and at the very least, fight for a glimmer of hope.  Then, clinging as hard as humans can to that, maybe we can get to; 


December 12, 2019

December 12, 2019


The Second Greatest Showman


For a simple, declarative word, Community is as amorphous as an amoeba; shape shifting with time, place, people, and purpose.  How we define community is a very personal attribution, it provides the outlines for our own world as well as telegraphing information about each of us to the greater world as a whole.  We spend a major portion of our lives moving in and out of various communities at varied times.  Our immediate family is, of course, our first real venture into co-existence with others; we had no choice. As we moved further along in life many of us make concise and sometimes extreme and painful choices about our original community of relatives that helped to inform our early selves.

Things and people and places change.  We grow, hopefully, for the better.

School, sport’s teams, scout groups, church, best friends, old friends, new friends; they have all been community for us, for a time, at a time.

For me, as a young gay man graduating from college on the east coast, I was definitively in search of myself and a community; one I could not define, had not seen, and had no clue as to how to access.  With a grand leap of faith and an airline ticket begrudgingly given to me by my parents for graduation, I landed in San Francisco in 1977.  To be slightly more precise, I landed in a Victorian flat on Castro St., the quintessential, ready-made community for a mid-century gay male.  A party.

While there, I did manage to define myself in many ways, made lots of friends, expanded horizons I did not know I even had.  I became a nascent version of the man I would someday become; one who still, even now, is searching for yet more ways to push myself further while at the same time dig my roots deeper into my community….as I know it now, today.  It is radically different from the community I had forty years ago; it should be if I am doing things correctly.

When the party in San Francisco ended, everybody died.

Yet I lived, on and on and on, and continued to try and recreate a community, any community, that reflected my life up until then and one that promised to hold me up for the life yet to come, however short or long or uncertain.  I lived in many cities after San Francisco starting with Palm Springs. At that time, the mid-1980s, it was not a comfortable fit for me, but it provided me a career, a home, travel, and many of the trappings of community or at least a community I could exist within for a time.  But I knew there was more. Waiting.

The question was; did I have enough time to keep searching?

And so, as Cervantes said: “Until death, it is all life”

So, live on I did, in many places and many communities.  I met the man I would spend the remainder of my life with and together we maneuvered the world thorough many more communities, many more families of friends and then one day, seemingly suddenly but in reality not, we were older!  And what we were to do at that point came forcefully into view; as if by chance but really, by the design I had set in motion, along with the plan he had sojourned along for years before we met. Those paths combined with a need we both now had for something more, something tangible in terms of community.  We really wanted an ease of existence that included friendships as yet unseen and a place that the sun had blessed with time and space and a personal largess of wonders.

Welcome home.  Welcome back. Just welcome…..to Palm Springs.

Cathedral Cove, Home, within Community

It was not even a decision, the house up north sold itself and the home in the desert found us, exactly the way that an entire hoard of friends would magically appear and cement themselves into the form of a new and lasting family.  The ease with which this transition happened was so stunning that it was nearly undetectable; perhaps a sign that “truth will out” to toss a Bit of the Bard in.

Last night, we were at a free holiday gift from our Community God; the movie “The Greatest Showman”

There are no words to emphasize how truly remarkable it is to walk into a local movie palace filled with 300+ members of the larger community and realize that you know about one third of them personally!  It is a grounding of one’s soul; a peace of being that permeates your body and sends intermittent rushes of joy and gratitude coursing through you.  This is one theatre in a place of hundreds of thousands but the community spreads out from there and it does so in large part because of one person:

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Eddie Kreg Anderson, our own Greatest Showman

It is Eddie’s mission to found his own community and to share it, gleefully and with purpose, with the rest of the town, valley, and all who enter herein. And boy does he know how to throw a party to celebrate this community.  Confetti cannons, water cannons, exploding balloons, flaggers on stage; all designed to enhance the interactive movie experience that is “The Greatest Showman”.  Think “Rocky Horror” (he does that one as well) but with more heart and more of his entire soul wrapped up in it like a Xmass package for us all.

Before the movie started, he told us his story, his evolution, his search for himself and for that community that could feed and nourish his person. Moving to Palm Springs he found many elements already in place.  But Eddie wanted to elevate that experience, include more people in the community and throw the doors open to inclusion, uplifting friendships, and a non-judgmental nature that would welcome all and threaten or demean no one.

“The Greatest Showman”

A movie about Freaks and Geeks who find THEIR family in a circus, as so many of us have done throughout the years. The joy and companionship demonstrated in this film actually leap off the screen and energize the audience.  Filled with music and movement that transcends mere earth-bound realities, “Showman” shows us how to BE the community we are looking for.  How to become the people who create their own community that supports itself and each other.  I only heard a happy babbling consensus of joy as we left the theatre.

Eddie Kreg Anderson is OUR Greatest Showman

Tonight, I am over the moon grateful for our community.


Spider Legs

Spider Legs


Blue Eyed Soul

I grew up on the cusp; the cusp of the 60’s, the cusp of civil rights, the cusp of the north/south geographic declination called the Mason-Dixon line.  In truth, I was raised about 40 miles south of the Mason-Dixon and 25 miles north of Washington, D.C.  I was actually born in D.C., something few people my age and my race can claim but my parents were Washingtonians so, that’s where I landed.  The rural, horse-strew, cow-pied, pastures of Maryland were where I spent my real childhood and my critical formative years. 

Bucolic, it’s a thing

But farmland in the south comes freighted with the taint of the slave-driven past that we all, as a country and a culture, inherited in some form at birth.  These pastoral properties that my friends and I were all uniquely privileged to be reared on came with their own, singularly unique, but collectively shared, slave history.  These big houses and massive fields and hay and horse filled barns that we all discovered as kids held not only an amazing array of playful pastimes (better than malls and movies to us), but they also inferred a sense of “others” before us; others who had tended these same stalls and lofts and manicured lawns and white-washed fence lines, miles and miles of them. And the knowledge that they were NOT comfortably housed and fed while tending was always there. In one grove of trees in the pasture were the remains of a brick forge, the products of which made the foundation of the barn we still used then in the 1960s. Slave history in a real-life context. Education via experiential learning.

We mucked our share of stalls, baled and threw hay into the barn lofts in the sticky-hot summers and, like Huck Finn, tried our damnedest to trick our younger siblings into slopping the white-wash on those miles of fading fences. We considered our own young selves “slaves” to our chores but truth be told, we loved it all and learned a lot, so our tradeoff could hardly be considered indentured servitude even if our parents conditioned our expensive private schooling on the completion of our chores. First World White People problems.

As we left the rarified rural emporium and entered the land of teenage hell, our priorities shifted.  Media was becoming the magic potion that gave us connectivity to the greater world that we hardly knew existed.  In 1964 we would pack a bag lunch and a thermos, grab our transistor radios and extra batteries, saddle up the horses, and head out in the morning.  The only parental instructions were to be back before dark, a fungible timeframe on long summer days.  I can still clearly hear, “I Wanna Hold Your Hannnnnd” echoing through the woods as we followed the trails into oblivions we had yet to explore.

Music changed everything

I remember on my 13th birthday, my father (against my mother’s dismissive, “reading is the only entertainment a child needs” glare) gave me my first record player.  It was portable, meaning I could hide in the basement or the barn and play it loud! It had 3-speeds, it was heaven.  

With it, came my first album as well, The Loving Spoonful, “Summer in the City”.  That summer marked the turn; the turn in culture, the turn in the world, the turn in society, and mostly the turn in our young, newly minted, teenage selves. From then on, the battle was waged. 

 Music vs The Mother.  

Music won

There were songs that were deemed inappropriate for my young ears, The Beatles, “I’ll Get You in the End” (how the hell did she know? Oh. She obviously already did) topped the forbidden list with the Stones “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” right there in the running although, I suspect grammar may have played a subliminal role in the latter.  Mother was a school principal. But really, growing up in the shadow of the Washington Monument with the clubs and bars and dance halls literally pulsing with the local likes of Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack, and Peaches and Herb, our own mid-hormonal pulsing bodies were rocking to an entirely new rhythm, and it was going global.  The Philadelphia Sound was the benchmark from whence all other soul came.

But, back to the farm

Let’s just get this out of the way.  I was a privileged white kid in a suburban 60’s world.  It may look like a paean to pastural life on paper but there is no getting around the facts; none of us were ever in want of anything though we may have expressed frustration, often. It was mostly because Mrs. Hawkins, who ran the local grocery/butcher/sundry store, knew all of us kids, and our parents, and knew we were certainly not old enough to buy cigarettes……so we stole them from our parents in dribs and drabs; hardly the stuff that deprivation is made of. That is really the set-up for this next part of the story. 

Historic Hardship vs Modern Music

In 1923, Clara May Downey bought the old plantation farmhouse of Granville Farquhar on the hilltop in Olney, Maryland, my hometown.  She was an enigma even then; a socialite, a businesswoman (although few can name at what), and wealthy. She envisioned a country inn with bucolic views and southern-style ambiance and cooking.  She opened with 3 tables in 1926 and forevermore put Olney on the map.  The Inn served presidents, potentates, and politicians from around the world along with serving all of us our first date dinners, family feasts, and special occasion meals for generations.  I once had a lunch there in 8th grade with my small (8 person) class to hear a lecture by Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the widow of the famed Flying Tiger’s regiment commander from China in WWII. It was, literally, the center of town and town life.

Fast forward just a couple of years and I had the opportunity to go to Europe for the summer with my parents. This is where privilege trumps poverty in the tale. My sister had conveniently married an army dentist and had a baby over there so my parents were gung-ho to go see this newly minted family member.  I needed a job to earn my “spending money” for the summer.  And we circle back around to Clara May Downey’s institution of a restaurant that had employed hundreds of people through the decades already.

My First Job: Dish Washer

I also learned to make the infamous Rum Buns and watched them whip the souffled sweet potatoes into pans of perfection.  Mr. Bill, the head chef, ran a good ship; affable, loved by the diners and the staff alike. The rest of the staff were literally liveried waiters in true Southern, elegantly attired, servitude. Black dinner jackets, starched white shirts, crisp white linen cloths draped over their forearms. It was a scene out of a movie; a movie about a past that seemed to live, still, in this remote, rural, backward-looking institution. But as with many things in life, there is an underbelly that often provides a richer context, and a glimpse, into the times that the real people were actually living in.

Think, Dirty Dancing

Yes, the movie.  Most all of the waiters and service staff lived in downtown Washington, a 50-mile round trip that was not a practical commute in 1967.  By now, the Inn had new ownership but held to the same standards Clara May Downey had imbued it with over 50 years earlier. There was a small gift shop now, Olney Inn memorabilia, cookbooks, stuff.  Out behind the main buildings were some sheds; long rumored to be original slave quarters but to my farm-kid eye they looked like chicken sheds that had been “converted” into bunkhouses for the men who worked the Inn, used mostly from Tuesday-Sunday nights.  They left their families home in D.C. and spent the better portion of their weeks earning what, back then, was great money in a prestigious atmosphere, albeit one that really, really, looked like a remake of Tara in “Gone With the Wind”, house staff, etal.

The real fun started after the last table had been cleared but I didn’t know it, at first. The kitchen had been cleaned and readied for the next day’s onslaught. Bread dough for the Rum Buns rising on trays covered in cloth, sweet potatoes peeled and blanched in buckets. And then the waiters shed their coats and disappeared out the back.  I was the last to leave the kitchen.  Every pot and pan and plate and fork had to be dried and polished and set out for the next shift’s easy access.  I was a sweaty, wet, hot-mess when I tossed my apron into the giant laundry bins.  And then, walking out into soft night air, I heard the thump and roar of horns and drums and the ecstatic laughter of my fellow workers seeping out of the bunkhouses and lifting the air around me to a different, lighter, plane. Junior Walker and the All-Stars crooning “What Does It Take?” was all it took for me to slip a little closer and maybe catch a glimpse of what seemed another world entirely and a really fun one at that.

Peeping Tom in Paradise

From there, it only took one of the waiters from the staff to catch me listening in.  He almost had to drag me inside, shouting at his buddies to “Come see what all I found us out here!” “I thinks he might to wanna come on in and see where the real fun is now that the works is done!”  And so, my personal odyssey with music and dance got credentialled in the most amazing fashion. Also, my life-long love of Jack Daniels was cemented then and there.  I liked Jack a lot better than the super-sweet (to me) Crown Royal that most of the men preferred but hey, it was liquor, I was a teen, what the hell?  The liquor only lubricated the scene that was now just a nightclub in a barn.  Everyone was dancing, laughing, joking, and I was pulled into the mix and challenged to step up and step out; out of my white-boy-ass comfort zone and show these grown men that I could hold my own.

Something changed in me. Those late-night dance-a-thons melded into the fabric of my being as spring morphed into summer; blooming in my soul and wandering through my body like the burning warmth of a swig off the Jack Daniels bottle that was passed around, frequently. These joyous, drunk, family-deprived men with time on their hands and coin in their pockets, released their energy into the music, the dance, and the companionship of their shared situation. They dared me to join in.

And so, I did

They dared me to dance for them, with them. Honestly, at that age, I had cotillion classes. Seriously. That and some early B&W TV dance shows that showed the Boogaloo, the Twist; the machinations of the masses back then.  I threw caution to the wind (again, liquor) and started to dance, with and for these much more worldly guys than I.  They laughed at me, and with me, at first. Then they began to step up and in and show me steps, turns, dips, what to do with my long-ass arms and my super long legs to form a semblance to the viewer of someone with real “chops”.  It came easily to me, and I loved it!  Dance movement as an expression of the repression I had always felt in my own skin.  Maybe they recognized this in me, I’ll never know but I bless the memory of these guys now, a half century later.  And I cherish the nicknames bestowed on me by these remarkable men. Spider Legs. Those awkward teenage limbs that they taught me how to control, show off, and use to my advantage in the end. But most cherished and welcomed was the name they called me in the end, when I got to be a regular drop-in at these after-hours dance hall wind-downs.

Blue-Eyed Soul