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Among the meanings of “explanation” is one which implies its use in justification. That’s not my intention here, nor, I hope, has it ever been; at most, what follows is a basis for understanding and acceptance, nothing more. File this is the category “Valediction”.
First Person, Singular
Forty years ago I had the notion to write my autobiography. The working title was “It’s not about me” and the entirety of it—today it would be far shorter than it might have been then—was to be written without first person singular pronouns: I, me, my, or mine would appear nowhere in its text.
The challenge of writing about oneself without actual self-reference appealed to my sense of challenge; we often test ourselves far more than do those around us, or am I projecting? So, to accomplish this, I had intended to write several other biographical sketches and vignettes depicting people of my acquaintance and the situations in which we often, even habitually found ourselves. In short, I heartily agree with Alfred Lord Tennyson that I am a part of all that I have met and, reciprocally, they have become part of me. Could a biographical sketch of our friend Cecil Elliott, for example, first do justice to the person he was and, second, reflect in the person I knew a bit of who I may have been at the time. Likewise, am I today a different (better?) person than I might otherwise have become?
To write about Cecil is to reflect on our relationship and its evolution, and to a large extent, Cecil and many others who I would have portrayed are here already, in Agincourt—and are likely to remain after me, so long as the internet exists. In that sense, I’m glad to have shared my memories (with any of you who read this thing), because, as James Carse has written, “If you can’t tell a story about what happened to you, nothing happened to you.” To tell you about them is to relive the experiences I had of them and with them. Read the “Ghosts of Christmas Past” series and you’ll see what I mean.
In the beginning I ruminated about “first person, singular” and the likely sequence of those pronouns in my early development. “I”, for example, is probably the last of them we learn. “Me” is far more probable, because it’s in the objective case; I act, while me is acted upon, the recipient. Things come to me—my mother’s teet (yeah, fat chance of that!) or my bath or my teddy bear. And there’s a likely close second in the arrival and awareness of that possessive pronoun group: my and mine, since we are acquisitive little bastards at the start and some have never given up the quest to possess, to own, everything in their reach and some distance beyond.
“I” is the last of those personal pronouns to enter our vocabulary and our self-awareness. For (again in the words of James Carse), “I am the genius of myself.”
The end of the academic year is a time for reflection on many things: done (well or badly) and undone. And since this is the forty-seventh opportunity given me to engage in such personal introspection, and since I see at most three more years of this, I’ve grown warmer to the idea of saying goodbye. If I’m able to withstand the rigors of the job six more semesters, a friend in Las Vegas has promised a farewell that my employer is not soon going to forget. So during those 3:00 a.m. epiphanies, when the words flow more readily and eloquently than when I’m fully awake, I nightly reconsider that valedictory address. You have no idea how many very rough draughts have gone down the mental drain. So here I go again.
It was a difficult birth, eight hours, I’m told. Probably even long before the trip to the hospital, Marge had decided one of these was enough; I’m actually surprised that the pregnancy wasn’t terminated. At any rate, she had her tubes tied, to prevent another conception.
Frankly I do not ever recall feeling wanted. Which is not to say that Marge and Roy were bad parents. As their first and only child, they were without experience, as ignorant as I. Hindsight suggests I was merely a symptom of the problem: a marriage gone terribly wrong for reasons that are now much clearer: First, do not create a child out of simple biology or because you think it might patch a failing relationship. No child, however miscreant, ought to be introduced to such a household and shaped by it.
Second, never move in with your in-laws; the mother/daughter-in-law relationship is toxic and only intensifies under a mutual roof. I do not know if I actually saw this, or that I’m simply recalling something I was told, but there was one morning scene involving a meat cleaver and a flying loaf of bread. It’s no surprise I have few memories before the age of seven. Looking at myself then—if that’s even possible—I understand that Marge had no love to give and Roy did but didn’t know how and did the best he could.
In 1953 I was eight years old and Ike was our president. It was a soggy spring when, one evening in March or April, Mrs Shake came to visit. While my grandmother and I sat in the kitchen and entertained her, Marge was upstairs packing, unbeknownst to us, a suitcase of lingerie and loose cash. She took it out the front door, then came into the kitchen, chatted for a moment, and left with Mrs Shake to run some errand or other. That was the last we saw of her.
Eight-year-olds are inclined to bear the weight of the world. I tried then and for the next fifty years. My grandmother and I would walk to the corner market (operated by the Bieniek brothers) and along the way—it was just two blocks—we might stop to chat with Mrs Schiewe or Mrs Pluto (do you get the feeling we lived in an Eastern European ghetto?), but of course I was never part of the conversation. That spring, especially, I was talked about, never spoken to. And heard phrases like “Oh, isn’t little Ronnie taking this all so well”, delivered as a statement of fact, rather than a question. And so I understood my role in all this as threefold: I was its source; I was its victim; I was its responsibility.
I have absolutely no memory of my father speaking to me of what had happened to us; not a word of the divorce and, especially, of child custody. We had little experience with divorce in the early 50s, so I was unaware how rare it was for a father to retain custody. Abandonment simply reinforced the notion that I was not wanted. If I had been, Marge would have found space in that suitcase amid the lingerie and cash.
I was a feral child, self-motivated, anxious to explore the world, and allowed to go where I pleased and do what I chose.
<to be continued>
If love means “never having to say you’re sorry,” then friendships are the complete opposite: they obligate admission of error and the making of amends. I know of someone on Facebook who has 8,000-plus “friends” but you and I both know it’s impossible to maintain that number of genuine relationships. Indeed it is possible to be friendly with someone without being their friend.
Let’s face it: social media have recast friendship as a wholesale commodity, and made their number a barometer of social standing. “My dad can beat your dad!” But at what? Tiddlywinks or the calculus? I suppose it depends on values—as in what you value.
What is the range of social relationships in a town like Agincourt (pop. 18,623 in the last census)? Certainly their web is a complex and ever-changing weave. Even within families like the extended Tennant clan, the dynamics can be volatile. I’ve touched on some of those linkages, couplings, whatever you want to call them, but with little recognition of the nuance I know must exist. Howard is in a better position than I, simply because he is on the scene—in the trenches?—while you and I can but watch from afar. The subject interests me particularly today, as I’m in the throes of preparing the third and likely final Agincourt exhibit.
The Agincourt Project has surely depended upon the kindness of strangers. But it has also been a collaborative effort among the barely acquainted. Friendships have grown from close working relationships and they have also, no doubt, been stretched and strained. As I work diligently toward the October 25th opening, I shall try to keep that in mind.
PS: A two week reprieve. Two more weeks to prepare; two more to fret. See you on November 9th.
Our friend and former department chair Cecil Elliott had a way of cutting through the academic argle-bargle (i.e., obfuscatory crap), laying bare the essence of any issue at hand. That’s one of the qualities some of us most admired in him and, simultaneously, dreaded that any one of us might be its target; if so, it wouldn’t have been without cause. I can’t recall the first time I heard Cecil make this observation — varying the monotony — but I suspect it may have been an occasion not unlike my experience yesterday during the round of second-year reviews in ARCH272.
The students had been asked to design mid-sized mixed-use buildings on one of four Moorhead-Fargo inner-city sites; to create “neighborhoods” that outsiders might also enjoy visiting. These were team projects in which each student was assigned a site probably no larger than a half city block; of including (at least) housing and some commercial activity; and of coördinating their proposals within the team. In my comments, I observed (though they may already have made those observations among themselves) there are several comparable projects in the community which could have informed their own designs:
- Downtown Moorhead at Main Avenue and Fourth Street, an Urban Renewal area with a similar scale and program;
- A parking lot (I was about to say “vacant” but that’s not quite accurate; vacant and empty aren’t interchangeable) east of Renaissance Hall along N.P. Avenue in Fargo;
- The Roberts Street Commons project nearing completion at Roberts Street and Second Avenue, Fargo, again with a similar mix of apartments and retail;
- 220 West, an apartment building at North Tenth Street and Third Avenue (which includes no commercial space); and
- 300 Lime, occupying a half block at Eleventh Street North and Fourth Avenue (which also includes no commercial space).
These five projects span a fifteen-year period and are similar in bulk and footprint, even if they differ in program elements. And they offer important lessons to those second-year students I met Friday morning.
Nineteenth-century American cities played by a different set of rules than they have, say, since 1950, when government-sponsored Urban Renewal changed the character of our center cities and practically obliterated any rules which had shaped them prior to the Second World War. And while I use the word “rules”, there was no handbook furtively passed among owners, architects, and builders who created the colorful block fronts represented by this panoramic view of Broadway in downtown Fargo, taken about 1910. The “rules” were a kind of default, a broadly held pattern accepted by all concerned. If only we did have such a handbook.
A typical urban block front circa 1900, whether in Keokuk or Kalispell, was divided into 25-foot-wide building sites, usually set within the Jeffersonian grid of our westward Manifest Destiny. If they deviate, it is usually a reaction to topography, water courses, railway rights-of-way, or some other natural or human factor. Within this commercial cartesian grid, speculators responded to market forces (or attempted to capitalize and redirect those forces toward their own ends) with generally two- and three-story commercial fronts of brick and cast iron, accented with moderate amounts of wood and stone — depending on the community’s prior experience with fire.
Architects or builders — in the 19th century there was little practical difference between them — satisfied the client’s desire for solutions which balanced stylistic expression with reasonable economy. Brick — uniform or multi-colored; smooth and textured; corbelled and coursed; laid in running bond, soldier courses, headers and stretchers, basket-weave and herringbone — accented with stone and/or terra cotta, and spanned with cast or wrought iron were the predominant material palette. Personal flourishes included at the very least personal or business names, dates, initials, personal, fraternal, or corporate symbols, and other ornamental touches. Floor heights varied within reasonable limits; the ceiling heights for a shallow 25-foot-wide store might differ from a deep 50-foot width, and were often guided by the length of a flight of stairs patrons would tolerate. The elements might vary, but the template remained fairly consistent, so it’s no wonder our Midwestern cities appear to have been variations upon a theme.
Now, safely beyond the bulldozer mentality of Urban Renewal, and well within the historic preservation mindset encouraged by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, Historic District ordinances often provide guidelines for the insertion of new buildings in historic fabric, hoping to achieve some degree of compatibility. There is where we are likely to find those rules — long after the fact and perhaps only a ouija-board-induced approximation of those 19th century “rules” we’d like to believe had been in effect at the time our great-grandparents walked those streets. Such guidelines, whether government- or self-imposed, might have shaped as readily a Main Street store front or the regeneration of a place as iconic as Potsdammer Platz in Berlin, and always with mixed results.
In Cecil Elliott’s terms, they had learned how to vary the monotony.
It’s highly likely I’ll have something else to offer on this topic, so be forewarned.
As we prepared for the Department of Architecture’s first foreign study experience — the landscape program hadn’t been established yet — we met several times to discuss the audacity of what we were about to do. I recall at one of the early sessions the sort of counsel that made Elliott the go-to-guy when virtually any problem reared its head. Remembering that there was no downtown campus then and that students were disinclined to set foot beyond Twelfth Avenue North, he advised:
If you can’t walk from campus to downtown Fargo and see something new or see something old in a new way, then you’re not ready to go to Europe.
In other words, being a tourist doesn’t consist of what you’re looking at; it constitutes the simple act of looking. So many years have passed, I can’t recall how we reacted to such a simplistic notion, but in hindsight I wish he’d challenged us to actually do it.
When Elliott arrived mid-year 1975, I knew little more than he had come from Detroit and that he’d taught architectural history. I had been doing that since the fall of 1971 and was still unsettled in the job fate had dealt me. The jig is up, I thought; he’ll see through me in short order.
I recall one afternoon in the coffee room at the end of the hall in our shoebox on campus, the home we quickly outgrew. Cecil and I were talking about travel. “My ideal retirement,” he admitted, “would be a combination bar, bookstore, and travel agency,” at which point I knew there was a future for me at NDSU. And that future became borderline rosy when we spoke of our favorite travel destinations and the Napoleonic truth that all great armies travel on their stomachs.
London. We agreed on London — at least the London of the 1960s, a very different city than it’s become in the last half century — as the place we most enjoyed all round: architecture (Hawksmoor), bookstores (Foyle’s), museums (the V&A), parks (Hyde and Kensington), music (The Albert Hall for live performance; Tower Records, otherwise). And then there was food. Someone just reminded me of Blackfriars, for pub lunch and a pint. [Thanks, Mr Hulne.] But I have in mind another place on the other side of the city.
The first of my several trips to London had occurred in 1971, the summer before my arrival in Fargo. And quite by accident rather than design, I had stumbled upon a tiny restaurant while on my way to the V&A: exit the District & Circle line at South Kensington, proceed to the principle exit, bearing right and right again, onto Thurloe Street. Proceed past the shop fronts to the last of them on the right, #20, and enter Daquise, a French-named Polish-themed restaurant that had been a watering hole for expatriate Poles since the end of WWII. I thought immediately to tell Cecil about it, hoping I might have a scoop. “You know, (dramatic pause) my favorite restaurant in London is near the V&A just outside the tube stop,” I offered. And his immediate reply? “Oh, you mean Daquise.”
Family-owned and operated, the Daquise ambiance was simple, like the food, and the staff spoke their English with more than a hint of Central Europe. I happened on the place just after the lunch crowd and settled in for the one meal dictated by my very limited budget. Probably the most authentically Polish item on the menu was (and still is!) szrazy, a piece of beef pounded thin, rolled around a combination of bacon, pickle and prunes, and then poached in heavy cream; the French would call it a roulade. Traditionally served with buckwheat and beets, this is Polish comfort food — the kind I’d been deprived by a Polish grandmother who hated to cook. And now to discover that what had grown to legendary proportions in my recollection was the favored restaurant of my new department chair was the foundation of a relationship I could never have imagined.
Elliott was the kind of person who could derive as much pleasure from reading a recipe as eating the completed dish. Our conversations often turned to food, especially the foodways that brought us to interesting and exotic places like Budapest and Prague and Stockholm — or, for that matter, Kansas City or Milwaukee or Chicago. Food (and drink) and the travel it punctuates were the mainstays of our relationship for more than twenty years. And for each of us I think, it became a refuge from the routine of teaching and the rigor of administration at a place where the food was, frankly, pretty unremarkable.
When Roy lost his leg in 1926 at the age of nine, artificial limbs were clumsy and expensive. So he grew to manhood on a series of crutches until his growth had begun to slow. But graduation from high school in 1935 put him squarely in the midst of the Great Depression. What factory was likely to hire an amputee for the assembly line? So he and his dad, Roy L. built a gasoline station and auto repair garage. When he married Marge, the station became a family affair until she disappeared in 1953. I hung out there as a child and eventually worked on weekday evenings and weekends — no doubt in violation of child labor laws. Eventually, I took on the half-day Sunday operations.
[In case this teaching gig doesn’t work out, by the way, I picked up some valuable job skills, like changing split-ring truck tires or giving a ’59 DeSoto a lube job and oil change.]
Ramsey’s Service Station enjoyed an eclectic clientele. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of our customers — in the days long before self service — were Blacks who had gone to school with my dad and knew him before and after the amputation. Many “protected” him while he was still on crutches; artificial limbs were both crude and expensive in the latter years of the Depression. So it was that I went to school with the children of many of Roy’s grade- and high-school friends.
These were families who had moved northward along the Illinois Central mainline from Louisiana, Tennessee and Kentucky in search of better wages and less overt racism—or at least a different species of it. We lived in Bedford Park but Argo (where the high school and dad’s grade school were located) was divided on racial lines, with Blacks living south of 63rd Street and west of Archer Avenue. I wonder if things have changed very much. Coming of age in the 1950s, I cannot recall my father ever uttering a racial epithet or slur. I’ve tried to build some of that part of American history into Agincourt: you may find interesting the story of Truman Hand, a.k.a., “Handy”, an exploration of that point of view and Agincourt’s own level of racial tolerance.
But back to Roy.
Preparing for the Minimalist seminar next spring semester, I’ve discovered the short stories of Lydia Davis; some of them are one sentence long. Here’s a short story about dad in the spirit of Professor Davis (whose work I recommend).
Do you know the way to Resurrection?
Depending on the season or time of day, a long bench across the front of the gas station hosted a changing cast of characters, the usual suspects. In the heat of summer, Roy was there, shirtless and tanned like a Mexican, drinking Schlitz and whittling two-by-twos into wooden chains. He wasn’t disinclined to move but some customers would pump their own and save him the trip. After school and while he ate supper, I worked the pumps from about the age of twelve.
Now and then someone would pull up to the pumps, clearly positioned for a full-up, but only be interested in directions. The station at 6455 South Archer Road was just beyond the comforting grid of the city, on a road that followed a trail blazed by the Illini and other native tribes moving between the Mississippi and Great Lakes watersheds: Summit, the next village north of us, wasn’t named by accident. Archer was State Highway #1A, a winding road between Chicago and Joliet [pronounced “jah-lee-et] with a string of leafy villages along the way that are now part of suburban sprawl. Strung along between them were four large cemeteries — Bethania, Resurrection, Archer Woods, and Fairmount — some of them near the Forest Preserves that were a legacy from the Progressive Era. Weekends, especially Saturday, Sunday, Easter, Memorial, and Veterans holidays, traffic was heavy to those destinations and a good many of them got disoriented beyond the grid. We called them “Losts.”
If a “Lost” pulled up to the pumps and only wanted directions, Roy took a dim view of their presumption and, more than once, sent them on a quest more likely to locate the wild goose than the grave of Aunt Harriet. But the flip side was also true: if you pulled up to the curb, within a few feet of that bench, Dad would go well beyond the giving of simple accurate direction, drawing a map on a handy piece of butcher paper with annotations that anyone could follow. I remember one of those situations from the late 1950s.
It was late on a Saturday, a slow time on a hot summer day. A southbound car pulled in and idled a few feet from Roy, who had settled in for an afternoon of whittling. Fairmount was the driver’s goal but the I-394 bypass had been under construction for months and getting through that maze of barricades in a cloud of gravel dust was tricky, so Roy volunteered to provide a map. Pen and paper were in the station, so he put down the carving project and casually threw the pocket knife into his leg — which, of course, our Lost had no idea was made of wood. Feeling no pain, Roy stood to go inside but I watched as the expression of the guy behind the wheel turn from shock to “What the fuck have I got myself into?” He put the pedal to the metal and laid a ten foot trail of burnt rubber in a burst of exhaust. Dad and I just stood there, wondering what was wrong — a pen knife still firmly imbedded where his right thigh ought to have been.
Let sleeping doubt lie
A year or so before he died, I gave dad a family genealogy as a Christmas present. I’d worked in those pre-ancestry.com days with professionals in DC and put together quite a reasonable effort for not much investment. For the first time EVER, he actually talked about himself, like the picture of him, Roy L. and Clara (the lady in cloche hat) and his grandmother. Then he dropped the bombshell: Roy wasn’t at all sure that Clara was actually his mother!
It seems that my grandfather had been married twice, and that the first Mrs Ramsey had died in childbirth. What had apparently concerned dad for most if not all his life was that he had been that child and Clara had actually been his stepmother. Shit! You can imagine I manifest the precise opposite of his disconnect. That doubt was all I needed.
An afternoon at the office of Vital Statistics in downtown Chicago gave me all the information I needed. Roy L. had married Nellie in 1908 and their son Evard was born in early 1912, dying just seven weeks later, apparently along with Nellie. Roy L. married Clara in 1913 and Roy C. (confirmed by birth certificate) was born in June 1917. Clara, the woman who raised me when Marge left (with a suitcase of lingerie and loose cash, never to be seen again), stepped in and took me on as her “parenting” swan song. I slept well that night and so did dad, though he never mentioned it again. He died three years later.
Perhaps this is the greatest difference between us: Roy could live with that nagging suspicion — he’d just rather not know — for most of his adult life, while I needed an answer a.s.a.p., regardless of its truth.