Friday, January 10, 2014
Tom Blethen recently moved from the West Coast to New England. He sent a letter to his friend, Polly Pojante, an artist who lives in a salt-marsh shack on The Skagit River.
The letter gives portraits of three women: Cathy O’Brien, a school teacher, Louise Benton, a poet, and Nora Glass, a corporate wife.
Dear Polly Pojante,
I heard you didn’t marry that guy in Alaska. Well, he sure was a good looking fellow, and he was crazy about you, I could tell. Steady worker too. It must have been a tough call.
Do you want to marry me? I think you’re cute. I better be careful what I’m saying.
I told Don Coyote that if I wrote you guys a long letter, then he would take pictures of everybody and mail them to me. Jim Smith promised to write me a letter and tell me who’s sleeping with who. I want to know.
I have set myself in fancy digs in Cambridge, just down the street from Harvard Square. Nice people live around here, all intellectual snobs. Everybody thinks they’re really smart, and most of them are really smart.
It’s very expensive to live in New England, which is why everybody is leaving and moving out to your neighborhood in Puget Sound. I tell them, “Move to the Skagit Valley. It’s cool, and when you get there, tell them I sent you.”
This is a story I wrote about three women who live in Boston. They don’t know each other. They’re at three different income levels. I’m the connection. That’s what I do. I carry the affection and hostility from one group to another. Here goes --
It’s Wild in Woburn
It’s wild in Woburn -- I used to make a joke about that to Cathy O’Brien because it’s such a quiet suburb. I went to Cathy’s house yesterday. She lives on Mayflower Street.
She said, over the phone, “All the houses on Mayflower Street are Cape Cod. My house is the only one with a brick front.” It’s a nice little house. It looks like a school teacher’s house. I really only saw the kitchen because I went in the back door, and our plan was to go out walking.
She wore a leather jacket and sneakers. She put her ear muffs in her pocket, just in case. It was windy and sunny that afternoon. She got in my car and we drove to the pond. We began to take the path around the pond, walking at a brisk pace, fast enough to stay warm, but slow enough for talking.
I wore my black cloth trenchcoat -- perfect for walking in the city. I like to put my hands in the pockets and turn the collar up. I walk up and down the Charles River everyday. I walk by the Fenway Marsh in Boston, and I walk around the different ponds in Cambridge, usually by myself. Cathy says she prefers company when she walks.
What did we talk about? Her kids, my kids, the high school where she teaches, this and that. She has two children: Hal, a high school senior, and Beth, a sophomore. She said that neither of them were very ambitious in their school work, but they were good kids. She raised them herself all these years. Her former husband has been long gone and no help. She has been a teacher of English as a Second Language in the Boston Public Schools for many years. She explained, “When my children were small I taught adult students. Adults learn more slowly, and I wasn’t sick of children by the end of work. So I could come home and care for my kids. But it was never easy -- doing it by myself. Now, of course, I just teach teenagers. And the immigrant kids are wonderful.”
Cathy doesn’t seem to be beat up by life, or resigned to her fate. Maybe that’s from being a high school teacher, and being motivated by those earnest young faces.
The sky was bright blue. The wind whipped across the frozen pond, but the bare trees gave us a little shelter. We skipped around icy puddles, keeping our stride, and I told her about my life and my kids.
We came back to her house after about an hour of this, and sat in the kitchen. I told her that I admired her kitchen cabinets -- maple, with a lovely grain and a glossy, satin finish. She said, “Thank you, yes, they’re very easy to keep clean too. Do you like decaf or does it matter? My daughter baked the cake.”
I had noticed the cake right away -- two layers with a misshapen lump in the middle and chocolate frosting. We talked and ate the cake. Then we both ate oranges. I said, to be funny, that the oranges were dessert for after the cake.
I brought in my New England road atlas from the car so Cathy could explain about the beach towns on the north shore. She recommended Crain’s Beach and Plum Island. I plan to do some summer beach-walking out there someday soon.
Then I started to tell Cathy about Louise Benton, a woman I know who lives in Cambridge. Louise is the older sister of Mary Agnes Benton who lives in Minneapolis. Mary Agnes is a dear friend of mine from college days. Now it seems that Mary Agnes has not seen or spoken to her sister in more than ten years. Louise will not talk to her mother or her two sisters, or return phone calls or answer letters.
Thinking that Louise might be my friend because she’s a poet, I visited her and I wrote Mary Agnes a letter telling her how Louise is doing:
Benton Girls are Fun
Dear Mary Agnes,
Louise has been living in that apartment for twelve years. It could use a coat of fresh paint. The walls are getting yellowish from the cigarette smoke. In one room golden clouds were painted on the ceiling, painted many years ago. Hundreds of books lined one wall. In another corner is a neat pile of clothes, folded in a pile about three feet high, like a pyramid against the wall. She has a very nice 12-inch Sony TV, on a long term loan from a friend. Next to it is a small desk with an IBM typewriter.
On the wall next to the doorbell outside is a business card that reads “Louise Benton, typing service, manuscripts, etc.” Next to that is a large manila envelope for customers to drop off papers. But there’s no more business, she said. No more writing of poems either, I think. She goes to demonstrations for poor people, and haunts the corridors of the state capitol on Beacon Hill with a group of activists.
There are eight units in the apartment building, which is owned by a retired policeman. He can be a bit of a sleaze ball at times, Louise told me, but she has never had any problem with him herself.
The building is about four blocks from Central Square, the low-rent, bohemian, immigrant center of Cambridge, as opposed to Harvard Square, which is quite a bit uptown. Central Square is more crowded, more urban, poorer, but not a threatening or menacing place. It has Indian restaurants, donut shops, inexpensive stores, taverns, litter, winos, idle youth, and people waiting for the bus.
On Monday nights the Stone Soup poets perform at a tavern on Brookline Street, which is a few blocks from Louise’s apartment. The Stone Soup poets have been doing this every week for twenty years. It is an open mike thing, you sign up and you get five minutes. They have two featured poets who read for about twenty minutes.
I went with Louise one night. It was her idea to go. She said that she hadn’t been there in a long time. Jack Frazer runs the show. He was very glad to see Louise and urged her to come back and be one of the featured poets very soon. Louise said she probably would, although she hasn’t read in public for some time. She said to me, looking at the crowd, “It’s intimidating. Everybody looks so young, and the women poets are so angry.” I told her, “Don’t let that bother you. We’re middle-aged and we can tell these kids to just get the fuck out of the way.”
It cost $3 to get in. I paid for both of us. Then I bought two Rolling Rock beers at the bar and brought them to our little table. Rolling Rock comes in a green bottle; it is brewed in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Louise liked my taste in beer -- it is the proletarian brand.
Louise smokes Salem menthol cigarettes, which is a serious problem for me. Not because she smokes, I mean I used to smoke a lot, but menthols are weird, almost deliberately anti-poetic in my mind and reeking of the psychiatric ward.
Her hair is grey. She had a light brown rinse on it, but she had let it grow out and two inches of grey roots were showing. She has a nice, soft face and warm, friendly eyes. She wore a dark, ribbed sweater and dirty old sneakers. The sneakers bothered me too.
Louise was very interested in all the poets; she had a very kind and supportive attitude towards them. Although some of them were clearly awful, not a discouraging word came from her lips. She just said, “This is great.” She insisted on staying until the very end because, “You never know who’s coming on next -- it could be very good.”
Two days later we met for coffee in a Middle Eastern restaurant in her neighborhood. It was so easy to talk with her, and I could tell that she liked me. I told her that I was living uptown now and busy erasing all traces of poverty in my life. I reminded her, in the kindest way possible, when we talked about your old home, where your mother lives now, that she had not always been so poor, that she grew up in a house like mine. I said simply that I was once again living the way I lived when I was a child -- in a nice house in a nice neighborhood.
Now I’m not trying to get her to move uptown, but I’m trying to stretch her mind a bit to see if she would be willing to be friends with me. Because I said, hey, I’m not into these politics anymore. My own politics used to be intensely radical, the same as hers, which is why we talked so easily.
I’ve just decided to keep my mouth shut, so I can live more comfortably. Louise has been living a little hard herself -- and a little afraid, I think, to have too much contact with people who aren’t poor. There is such a barrier between poor people and middle class people.
That’s what I wrote to Mary Agnes. I can see Louise’s point of view. She’s poor; she lives on her SSI check. She used to write poetry, and she might have been very good. I don’t know, because she never showed me any poems.
I can understand why she hates Mary Agnes, so smug and well-married and comfortable in her brick house underneath the lovely elm trees of Minneapolis. Louise is a poet, but an object of pity and concern in her sister’s eyes.
I’m a little like Louise myself.
I told Cathy that I’m a little like Louise myself. I said, “Louise can’t work at all, I can kind of work, now and then, and you work steady.” when I said “you” I pointed my finger at her. I immediately realized that I had been rude to her, had characterized her. I wanted to apologize but this got Cathy animated for the first time that day, to defend herself, to say, “I’m more than what you see.”
She told me of her plan to take a year’s sabbatical from teaching. “I’m going to live in Haiti and learn to speak Creole.” Many of Cathy’s high school students are from Haiti.
Cathy’s problem is her children. She can’t let them go. “I can make them go with me. After all, I’m their mother. But if I forced them to go, I couldn’t stand their negativity. I’m not strong enough to make them do a lot of things, and they’re very conservative -- they have no sense of adventure. It would be so good for them to live in Haiti.”
I told her it was a great idea. When I drove home I thought to myself -- Is that what poets like Louise Benton do? Wake people up and get them to talk about their plans and dreams?
Several days later I visited Nora.
Nora Glass lives in Newton, in a house overlooking a pond. She’s a great fan of Yo-Yo Ma, the celebrated cellist. When I arrived in Boston, she and her husband invited me to a performance by Yo-Yo Ma of the Bach Suites for Cello, at the Boston Symphony Hall. We sat in the second row. The music was heavenly. The man is a genius. The people of Boston have always loved classical music, and Yo-Yo Ma is a big star. He lives in a very nice house in Winchester, every bit as big as Nora’s house by the pond in Newton.
Nora’s husband works downtown, as a partner in a big-name law firm. Of course, we can’t talk about such things, but he makes an enormous amount of money. If I hadn’t known Nora for the past 25 years, I’m sure she would never let me in her house on a social footing. I’m really angry at her, I should say that right now. It’s about money and art and Louise Benton and Nora’s brother Billy.
Nora grew up in Pittsburgh, the oldest of five children. Her father is a doctor -- stern, Catholic, and old-fashioned. “Would you believe that I married the first man that I slept with?” she told me once. I forget what I said then, but, yes, I believe it. Her first husband wanted to be an artist. She made him go to law school. He quit law school and they divorced -- no children.
Her next and current husband was willing to go to law school. He quit his teaching job after he married Nora. Nora worked to support them both until he got his degree and until she became pregnant with their first child.
It’s a life. She stays home to care for her three daughters. She drives them to music lessons now. She reads books -- Tolstoy, Dickens, modern novels and poetry. And she believes in Bach, her personal religion. Music -- Bach -- is God, holier than words or written beliefs.
So I can relate to her on this basis. I can go to her house and play Bach pieces on her wonderful grand piano in her spacious living room -- such a piano made possible by her husband’s large salary. Except I have such a contempt for the legal profession. I keep my mouth shut. We are always polite. Politeness is required at Nora’s house.
She talked mournfully of her dear brother Billy, “Poor, poor Billy.” He is the would-be artist of the family. As the son of a doctor he had been required to pursue a profession, and he chose architecture, which is acceptable. But unfortunately, he’s much too interested in designing beautiful buildings and tends to disregard the bottom line. Worse, he took it in his mind once to design furniture, which everyone agreed was wonderful, but which no manufacturer would produce. “Billy doesn’t know how to market his work,” Nora explained. Poor Billy. He drives an old car. He lives by himself in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve tried to help him. I’ve sent him a few hundred dollars. It’s so hard for him. Dad doesn’t understand him at all. They hate each other,” she said.
Then the fight started. I said, “You sent him a few hundred dollars? Your brother? You spent $6,000 last summer to send your children to camp. Why don’t you send Billy $6,000. That’s real money. If you send him $6,000 it’s like saying I love you, you’re my brother. But when you send him $200 it’s like telling Billy he’s a pathetic puppy.”
I trespassed the boundaries of politeness. I was angry because I couldn’t understand -- it was this barrier that she couldn’t cross. She loves music and reads the books. Doesn’t she understand what it takes and what it costs to create the books and music? I had expected her to understand, but she couldn’t, and I was disappointed.
I said, “You see, it’s like a battle.” I was preaching to her now because I was angry. “You love Yo-Yo Ma because he’s a star. He’s a hero. He’s one of the best. He won the battle, and he came home. We all cheered at the parade. We gave him medals and showered him with gifts.
“But Louise Benton didn’t do so well. Louise was in the same battle. She took a bullet in the spine, and now she’s permanently paralyzed from the waist down. There was no parade for her. Her family doesn’t want her to come home. She lost. Her poems are dead.
“And what about Billy? You pity him. You’re stronger than he is. You try to help him -- I understand that -- and I know you love him, but you torment him too.”
End of tirade. Nora was smiling, calm, under control, barely. I left.
I drove home and I thought about you, Polly Pojante. You had to decide whether to marry that guy and change your life, and stop living in a shack by the river. Did you do the right thing?
I love your paintings and your sunny smile. I know you’re not happy all the time -- who is?
When you’re looking out the window, watching the tide come in, will you think about me?
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