“Easy Essays” Selections by LeRoy Chatfield
“Easy Essays” Selections by LeRoy Chatfield
DON EDWARDS, CLASS OF 1952
In social gatherings, especially cocktail parties, Don quietly bides his time until the safe, small talk about high school reunions emerges. He patiently defers to others in his cluster while they tell their stories about where they attended high school, what student life was like in those days, and then finally, some wistful or humorous commentary about their most recent high school class reunion. Now the stage has been set.
Don, what about you? Where did you go to high school?
Actually, I graduated from a high school in California, which boasted the largest number of graduates in the history of the institution. Even though we did not fully appreciate the historical significance of this graduation, it was quite a landmark occasion for the school, we were told.
Wow, how many graduates in the class?
Fourteen? You have got to be kidding. Whoever heard of a high school in California with only fourteen graduates? (Chuckle) Have you even bothered to organize a class reunion?
Glad you asked, yes we did. For our 50th reunion, we met at the end of the earth, on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. Two of us showed up and we spent many a day reminiscing and toasting our fellow classmates, those dead and those alive somewhere else on earth. We had a great time, and our wives didn’t seem to mind it much either.
As chance would have it, I was a member of Don’s high school graduation class and the other participant in the festive 50th reunion.
As is the case with other high school graduates, class members scatter with the winds, some never to see each other again. Small as it was, such was the result for our class as well. Some have died, some have never been seen or heard from again, some are known but choose not to be, and only two have stayed in contact – and this only in recent years – Don and me.
For one thing, we shared a common past. Albeit in different years, we each attended the same boarding school, we attended the same high school, the same college, and we were both members of the same Catholic monastic religious order. As old guys now, this shared early life, gives us a lot to reminisce and reflect about without having to explain ourselves.
Don went on to become a computer engineer who served with IBM. He (his wife and daughters) lived much of his adult life in London, Kobe, Rome and Paris. When Don reconnected with me, he was retired, living in Atlanta and I in Sacramento, the onetime hometown of his childhood. As of this writing, he and Valerie have relocated to Ajijic, Mexico. His final move? I think not.
Aside from our 50th reunion, email has served as our conversational medium. Hundreds and hundreds of emails, a few letters, only four or five telephone calls over this period, have enabled us to revisit more than 50 years of living, working, thinking, marriage, raising family, traveling, religion, retirement, writing, and growing old. This reconnection with a colleague from the 1950’s has been a God-send for me personally, but especially for my writing. Every writer, especially a wannabe like me, needs a human sounding board and encouragement. Don is my friend.
Have a nice Friday, Don.
KILL THE BITCH!
The ovation was heartfelt and overwhelming as Carmen strutted down the Seville plaza stairway for her curtain call. The audience loved her again tonight playing one of the greatest opera heroines of all time. A whore, a drug smuggler, a gang member, a petty thief, a drifter, and a bitch who drove men out of their fucking minds. But tonight on this stage, in this auditorium, she is more than life, she is art.
Just a few hours before the start of Carmen’s seductive performance, I found myself in real life, standing between a young, good looking man who wanted to fight and kill a rival because his bitch was eating Thanksgiving Dinner with him in the Loaves & Fishes Dining Room. His eyes were bulging with hate, and every muscle in his large body was taut. He shouted in rage each time the exit door of the Dining Room opened, screaming at his rival inside to come out and fight. Then he shouted at his bitch to bring the rival out so that they could settle it. It was over in a minute or two. Alan, the street monitor, talked him down and the paralysis of his body subsided. He spun around and still shouting, he stalked off down North C St.. I was sure this unfinished business about his bitch would be resolved later that day in some other place. His bitch is the Carmen in real life. The opera bitch is the Carmen in art.
I have often wondered about this paradox: what is so unacceptable in life, and to be avoided at all costs, can be transformed into art, which makes it worthy of respect and applause. It is as if what is portrayed in art does not represent the reality, which it depicts. Whorehouses, beer joints, slum restaurants, ghettoes, all the violent and seamy underpinnings of society, provide the setting for many of the world’s most famous paintings in the last 100 years. But the life-reality of these settings, and the people who populate them, is totally abhorrent to the patrons who finance this art. For the most part, the artists themselves, now held in the greatest esteem, were society misfits, alcoholics, addicts, womanizers and nervous wrecks. Once seamy reality is transformed into art, it becomes beautiful, passionate, touching, sensitive and admired.
I have observed this about literature as well. In prize-winning novels, the characters are often unfaithful, mired down with addictions, and perpetrate violence of every sort. Yet, these critically acclaimed novels and characters are transformed into the literature of polite society.
Do you think it possible that if opera or literature could transform homeless people in Sacramento into art, wealthy patrons would applaud and respect them, and the criminal justice system would cut them some slack? I must be imagining things.
“WHAT MATTERS MOST . . .”
“What matters most is how you live your life, not what you have to show for it.” – Jenny Sanford
According to the dust jacket for her book, Jenny Sanford – first lady of South Carolina and ex-wife of philandering Governor Mark Sanford – during her pre-divorce separation has come to learn this simple truth.
Simple truth, indeed.
Consider the life of Jesus, a mendicant Jewish preacher living in community, who traveled about the countryside offering a new interpretation – a simple truth – about life. All that was necessary to live a good life, he preached, was to love God and to love others. And to prove he knew what he was talking about, he went on to announce: I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me.
Well, you can imagine how this teaching was received by the Jewish High Priests in Jerusalem. For this simple truth, he was indicted for blasphemy, preaching heresy, and scandalizing the faithful. He was put to death by the state.
Jesus left not a trace. He wrote nothing, he owned nothing, he disappeared from the face of the earth – according to Jenny Sanford the most important thing about the life of Jesus was how he lived, not what he had to show for it.
How simple is that?
GENE IS DEAD
I did not know Gene well. Now that he might have committed suicide, his body washed ashore in Bodega Bay, I wish I knew him better. As I write these words, I strain to recollect whatever I can remember about him, so that I can know him better.
As the director of Loaves & Fishes, I do not get to know many of our homeless guests personally. I’m too immersed in tending to our little bureaucracy and dealing with the personnel politics of staff and board to work at the street level. As you can imagine, the few guests I get to deal with personally are those who stand out because they reside on the outer banks of the rules of Loaves & Fishes. Or they know how to start at the top when they have a complaint to make or an emergency loan to seek. These few have learned the most important lesson in pleading: persistence at the highest level of bureaucracy brings the greatest reward. And even if all they receive for their effort is a final “No,” they heard it from the top. Getting to the warden achieves the highest status in the game of prison. Loaves & Fishes is not a prison, and I am not a warden, but the game is similar.
Gene was a young man in his early 30’s, I think. He was always bedecked in a cowboy hat with the side brims curled up and decorated with a few long feathers sticking out from the headband. He walked in great haste and spoke in gulps of sentences. Wired up, eyes bulging, he would march into my office to bring me city, county, state, or federal regulations, which, in his view, paved the way for immediate construction of housing for homeless people. Each of these official-looking documents was turned over to me with a sense of urgency and secrecy, as if they had just been slipped to him by a government informant.
Gene generally managed to make his bold interruptions when I was in a meeting with another staffperson or talking on the telephone. To my credit, I listened to him, took his materials, thanked him profusely, and patted him on the shoulder as he left.
During the last year or two, my sightings of Gene were infrequent. He was in school, he told me once, to get his contractor’s license. He told me he was no longer homeless and that he had been sober for a long time. I never doubted his sobriety, but because he was always so wired and his communications so urgent and intense, I wondered if he might not be using crank.
Gene suffered from delusions of grandeur, but I suppose in many ways we all do. On one occasion, he burst into my office with a letter for me to sign. He had written a letter of recommendation about himself, addressed to the City of Sacramento Building Department, in which he stated that he had served as our on-site building inspector during the course of construction of the new Loaves & Fishes dining room. I told him I would be happy to sign the letter, but it would be necessary for me to rewrite it so that I could state his position in my own words. He said, “Fine!” I rewrote the letter in such a way as to imply that Gene had been helpful to us during construction, but I took great care to avoid any specifics. Gene thought the final letter was excellent. He carefully added it to his stack of documents and rushed off with a flourish, much the same way he had entered.
I strain to remember the last time I talked with him. I was standing in the middle of North C Street, talking with a staff member, when Gene appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. He walked right up and confided to me that he was hard at work on a research project that had to do with housing construction. He also wanted me to assure him I had received his latest delivery of documents, which he had left for me with the receptionist. I said I had received them and thanked him very much. Suddenly, he was off with great strides and in full motion.
The first reports surrounding his death tell of his recent depressions and a quantity of Valium found in his car at Bodega Bay after his body washed ashore. Later reports point out that he had made meal preparations in the little house close by the beach where he was staying, and this seemed to contradict the suicide theory.
Poor Gene. I wonder if the pounding surf, the roar and the energy of the ocean did not call him forth beyond his own control. Gene was always forward in his motion, seeking God knows what. I hope he found it at last.
I wish I knew him better.