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Ghosts of Christmas Past (#6)


“I apologize for writing such a long letter. There wasn’t time to write a short one.” —Albert Einstein

The majority of housing in Agincourt is single-family. The styles vary—Eastlake, Italianate, Stick and Shingle Style, Craftsman and Prairie, Period Revivals, Moderne and a lot of “Cornbelt Boxes”; you know the drill—and I enjoy wrapping my head around each of them, as I would learning a new language; a new dance step. The diversity of size, on the other hand, is more challenging, for it’s far easier to design a big house than a small one. Trust me. [BTW, I don’t dance.]

But even in a town the size of Agincourt, there would have been a slight but gradual shift from single-family detached housing to multi-family units. A duplex here and there; eventually a full-blown unapologetic apartment building. Families at the entry level of home ownership were candidates, and so were empty-nesters; apartment living can be attractive when the kids leave home and the dog dies. Especially when you weary of painting all that ornate wood trim.

Our first real apartment building was a modest affair built about 1920: “The Franklin” (named for someone who should have been our president, but wasn’t) at the southeast corner First and Fennimore NW. A Presbyterian church stood to the south; across the alley were the backsides of shops like Vandervort’s Bakery and Wasserman Hardware. Howard had an apartment there when he came back from Chicago and his first gig in journalism.

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A Tabor

Slick and Frannie

My mother recommends moving every five years. “If you haven’t unpacked those boxes since the last move,” she advises “give them to Goodwill.”

Returning to Agincourt in 1970—after two years in Chicago and my first job in journalism—my old room was empty, but it was time to get a place of my own. An apartment at 123 First Street NW was available—two blocks from mom and dad—so I became a tenant, as well as a Tennant.

“The Franklin” was fifty years old that year. Its first occupants were that age and older—seniors moving into town when the kids took over the farm; empty-nesters and such like. Oddly, things hadn’t changed all that much when I moved in on the Sunday afternoon of the weekend between my two jobs. Across the hall was Minerva Sternberg, retired English teacher from the college. Near the entry vestibule were Mr and Mrs Fahnstock; she served as our unofficial concierge and cruise director, keeping her door open a crack to watch our coming and going. Uncharacteristically, I went to the Bon-Ton one Saturday for breakfast where my friend Rowan found me: Cora Fahnstock had told him where to look. The building “super” was also retired from the college, Mack (MacKinley) Heath, but we all knew him as “Steam Heath”, especially when the pipes were cranky in January, as they always were. Mack was also caretaker at First Presbyterian, and the two jobs seemed to keep him happy and financially afloat.

Without doubt, my greatest friends at The Franklin were Slick and Frannie Fielding, who lived just beneath me. In an old wood-framed building like ours, it was the neighbors above and below who you knew best, every footstep on those creaky floorboards revealing who’d just got back from shopping; who’d had an argument and then who couldn’t sleep until there was an apology. I met the Fieldings late that Sunday afternoon, shortly after the last box had been lugged up those two-and-one-half flights of stairs. A slight knock at my half-open door announced Frannie’s arrival from downstairs and a thin voice wondered “I’ll bet you’re hungry, young man. Why not join Slick and me for some meatloaf and mashed potatoes?” I didn’t know which box the kitchen pans were in, and there was no food in the fridge anyway, so, yes, I was grateful for the invitation.

We chatted through dinner and found our common connections. Slick had been a traveling salesman for a company that did business with dad. Frannie had worked as a sales clerk in Grace Arbogast’s upscale clothing store. Now they were comfortably set up at The Franklin on Social Security and a modest pension. I wonder today how the Fieldings would have got through the market collapse, the sequester and government shutdown; probably not well. In addition to sales, Slick (real name, Grover, after Grover Cleveland, I learned) had also been on the pro-bowling tour and earned quite a reputation in the sport, though little in prize money. Frannie regaled me with stories of the dress trade, the sort of gossip that was safe now that so many of her former snooty customers had lain down for “the dirt nap” as she called it. I promised her that I’d keep them to myself, but I did confirm some of the more colorful episodes with my mom and filed them away for future audiences.

On cold winter nights, I’d hear Slick moving about the apartment. I knew that his emphysema made sleeping difficult and that he was most likely moving onto the screened front porch of their apartment: sleeping was easier outdoors when the temperature was near zero. Then, after a late night at office, I came home to find the ambulance on First Street and the EMTs carrying Slick on a stretcher. He’d had the breathing episode that finally took him from us. I held Frannie for a long time (they had no children and informally adopted me) and helped with “the arrangements”. After that, I and some of the other neighbors watched out for her, did some shopping and shared a meal on Sunday afternoons, like out first encounter. Frannie went to a nursing home in 1978 and died a few months later. Life without Slick hadn’t been enough.

Under any other circumstances—living at home with my parents; sharing an apartment with people my own age; even living next door to, rather than above the Fieldings—I would never have made their acquaintance or been let in to their lives. Funny what a difference two-and-one-half flights of stairs can make.

If Winston Churchill was right, there’s a reciprocal relationship between us and our buildings; a mutual shaping of one by the other and back again. A chicken-and-egg thing so old that we’ve lost track of which is which and which came first. Churchill hoped for this effect in Parliament, rebuilt to his specifications after the war; too small during full attendance and therefore become energized, a crucible for debate on the most important topics of the moment. No space in Agincourt is quite that important.

Because his uncle Anson had been an architect, Howard thought about that as a career. I think he and I are cut from similar cloth, however; we both realized that architects have a gland that drips subsistence levels of tolerance for things I can’t mention here, but any licensed practicing architect will share them with you for price of a cocktail. In an earlier draft, I’d itemized a few of those “things” but opted to be less offensive than usual and keep them in my heart (a rare feat for me). So my friend Howard became a journalist—likewise, yet another career choice I could not have sustained.

1 Comment

  1. […] Slick and Frannie were neighbors in my third Fargo apartment; I’ve only changed their last name. Not only the McCreas (their real name) but the apartment building where we lived form the matrix of my happy recollection of Howard’s first apartment when he returned from Chicago. […]

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