Ask Dr. Salvo
October 12, 1993
Dear Dr. Salvo,
Some of your faithful readers are still curious about your early life, particularly childhood experiences and acquaintances that might have led you into the study of madness. Perhaps you could even break a vow of secrecy and reveal aspects of the Green House in Itaguai that you have mystified by pretending your notes referred to Mobile, another lost tropical village in a corrupt and decadent Southern province of outre mer.
Some have speculated that your love for madmen and bicycles might have the same earthy origin. Let me know something soon; we don't have forever.
Yours & etc,
Just north of the grape arbor was a good sized old fig tree. When loaded with ripe figs it attracted birds, bees and flies. Some willpower was required, what with the bees, to stand very still under the green canopy, slingshot in hand, and toes mired in rotting figs, waiting to shoot a bird. The adults did not mind the killing of songbirds, but my father said, "Don't kill anything you don't plan to eat." This tended to limit the shooting, and put a stop to a practice of my cousin and me. We used to hang the little feathered corpses all over a certain bush in the backyard. We were proud of this bird-tree and showed it to our friends. Eating the game we killed would mean ourselves plucking and cleaning the birds, then roasting them on a stick or frying them in a coffee can top. The bottom part of the can was for boiling crawfish we caught in a (polluted) drainage ditch. All the adults condemned this practice and warned us that crawfish were poisonous or "against the law." One can imagine how seldom these people had visited New Orleans! Nobody warned against pollution in the ditch, although it included used condoms. We called them Merry Widows, in the little boy idiom of the '30's, but never dared discuss them.
Standing under that particular fig tree you could see the back porch behind you, green latticed, screened and shady, and nearly two stories high. That is where my father stored the home brew, of which more later. Above it was the back sleeping porch, with large striped awnings on three sides. To the right of this were the two windows of my grandmother, Bonnie's bedroom, facing south. This was the best room in the house to convalesce in. I made use of it as often as I could, by means of sore throats and other frauds.
Under the back porch was a ton of coal, or thereabouts, and beyond the coal pile were the vast dark reaches of under-the-house. That was where our setter bitch, Fanny, had her pups. Usually she had them in, or near, the ash chute from the fireplace in the dining room -- for warmth or aseptic conditions. I'm not sure which.
Just south of the back porch was another fig tree which shaded a faucet -- or hydrant, as we called them -- surrounded by a concrete cylinder a yard or less in diameter and eighteen inches high. Here is where the black washwoman filled the big black three legged iron pots to boil the wash in often making her own soap. Here is where my father liked to sit and shuck oysters, offering me one in the shell from time to time. These were fat, salty Ceder Point oysters, and I refused them for esthetic reasons. Could they stand for other fine things he tried to give me?
Just southwest of the oyster tub was the garage, chiefly memorable for boat- building. Here my father spent many hours building graceful double-enders or pirogues; flat bottom duck skiffs, and lapstrake dories for fishing in the Gulf. I was his helper and inhaled a lot of fragrant sawdust and the clear smell of his sweat. He liked to whistle and jig as he worked, and usually addressed me as Smokeball or Mr. Jackson. The nicknames tag the epoch as pre-school and early grammar school. I never built a boat by myself, but I'm confident I can if I take a notion to. I feel the same, perhaps misplaced confidence about cooking. That's because I spent hundreds of hours watching the cook, first over a wood stove, then a coal, then a gas stove. The wood stove smelt best. I'm digressing from the backyard. By now, attentive reader, you will have wondered why the backyard is being described via the cardinal points of the compass? It is because that yard was so big, at least the size of a football field. No doubt it has shrunk since then, like the house and most of the town. [Only the columns of the downtown cathedral retain their former grand dimensions, leading me to suspect they were originally even taller and thicker than I thought.]
On the southeast corner of the garage in early years was a falling down chicken house, and attached to it a small malodorous outhouse furnished with a rusty flush toilet for the cook. Just a couple of yards east of that, flat to the ground, was a square, heavy iron plate about 2x2 feet. It covered a round hole leading to a vast, dark cavern with a near lethal stench. This was the cess-pool, a fearful and infernal region. Not far south of the private hell was a beautiful small fig tree that produced a very large fruit smelling and tasting of lemon peel -- the lemon-fig tree. Another fifteen paces -- for a five year old -- to the west was the Wilson's fence, over which invitingly hung several mulberry trees laden with sweet soft berries. They left a satisfying purple hue on lips, chin and hands. Across that fence I later shot a brown thrush dead with my slingshot. Although it was a rare shot, at one hundred feet, our neighbor reproached me so feelingly I never shot any more birds near his yard.
At the south end of that fence ran another fence, of wire, which included the gate leading into the vastness of the back field. Just inside that gate was a large old seedling pecan tree. It produced lavishly every other year the short, fat, oily wild pecan. I've read in Bartram that trees like this were cut down freely in early settling times, just to gather the nuts. Just northeast of the pecan tree was our final fig tree. It was only six or seven feet tall and produced purple figs of large size with a smooth skin and fragrant bouquet.
Just north of this fig tree was an old shed where we kept a cow during the 20's and 30's. A young fellow named Ernest used to come over and milk every day, and my cousin Johnny and I would follow him. When he had finished we'd get on either side of the cow's udder, grab a teat and squirt milk in each other's faces. It was sweet and warm. The cow didn't seem to mind.
Just northeast of the cowshed was a black walnut tree, also productive, that spread some of its branches over the southwest corner of the scuppernong arbor. Just north of it about five yards was a Japanese persimmon tree which bore yellow, melting fruit every fall. These were picked while still hard and unripe by Bonnie. She wrapped each one in newspaper, packed a dozen to a box, and hid them in a dark closet to ripen. I can almost taste one now, as I recall the tree and the noble proportions of the fruit. These last two trees, planted like the rest by my mother's father, were at the west side of the arbor. on its east side was the wire fence separating us from the bare backyard of neighbors who attended the same church, but were otherwise invisible.
On that fence grew scraggly climbing roses, and of course, dewberry vines. There was, I now recall, one grapefruit tree south of the arbor, which bore one or two grapefruit every few years. Most years a freeze would kill it back. I am surprised we had no satsumas as these were very popular in the 20's and 30's. As a boy I remedied this lack by stealing them from neighbors' backyards and stuffing them in my shirt. All the boys did this every fall.
In the approximate middle of the backyard was a stake, to which I tied William Goat, my first and last capricorn. He butted me faithfully anytime I turned my back on him. There was little else in his repertoire, so I gave him away a year or so later.
In my mind's vision the backyard is deep in clover, fragrant and springy to roll in. It seems to reach over half-way to my knees, so I can't be very tall. Maybe nine or ten years old? A certain phrase, which has floated in and out of my mind at odd moments is firmly attached to the backyard. The phrase is, "The sweetness of life." I find it also attaches to a few other memories, for example, in the high-school years, the football-weather smell of grass, and a fall wind in the face. A certain checked gingham shirt I had in high school and wore to a house party at the Gulf, had this sweetness attached to it. Floating above in this jetsam is one Cordovan shoe, the first I ever owned. It was worn to the same party the shirt attended, then rendered useless forever by the loss of its mate. The latter I picture as flying off a load of clothes and kids in the back of a pick-up truck. The truck is bumping across the old bridge over the Intercoastal Canal, heading west and homeward.
I almost forgot the side yards, the special targets of my father's rare outbursts of gardening zeal. On the west side, about midway from the garage to Dauphin Street was a large white lattice arbor that arched over the drive and divided the front yard from the back. There were fragrant red and white climbing roses covering this arbor and my father liked to "cut it back," i.e. to the ground, every so often. Invariably the pruning rampage led to a loud scene with my mother and grandmother, who disagreed with his methods.
Just west of the driveway, which I see as forever bordered by buttercups (or primroses) into which I put my nose in order to adorn it with yellow pollen, was a line of Japanese plum trees belonging to some more neighbors whom we never saw. The east side of these lovely golden plum-bearing trees belonged to me, and to my friends. No one else ate them except Isaiah, the crazy Negro yard man. He was sent to us, I believe, in order to acquaint us with madness, to make me marvel at the depth and mystery of it, and to soften my heart toward lunatics. In the timeless, glowing image of my yard I see Isaiah always in the same place, placidly raking the falling leaves from the plum trees. Isaiah is very tall, deep black, and has a long, noble face rimmed by a beard of prophetic style, streaked with grey. He wears faded ragged overalls, shoes full of holes or with sides cut out to liberate the little toes, and a battered greasy felt hat. In repose, that is, nearly always, there is a vague gentle smile on his face, and a stumpy, nearly brown corn cob pipe in the corner of his mouth. In winter, since Isaiah owns no handkerchief, there is always a silvery to greenish drop of mucus -- I called it "snot" and was not offended by it -- on his mustache. He rakes slowly, gently, without effort or method. Occasionally he lowers the rake, gazes slightly upward and smiles beatifically. A low falsetto chuckle escapes his lips. I say, "What you laughin' at, Isaiah?" addressing the question to his belt buckle which is about eye level to me. "Sees pretty things" he'd say, still happily smiling. After a few minutes he would resume raking, but would never tell me what it was he saw that made him so happy. Heavenly visions? Naked women? Nowadays I'd say he was hallucinating, but that doesn't do justice to his side of these experiences, or mine. Thanks to Isaiah I have only rarely felt that madmen were dangerous, hostile, or bad. Many times I've written poems honoring Isaiah, but none could do him justice.
He had an ancient bicycle, tall and rickety, wired together, even the tires wired to the wheels. Two kerosene lanterns hung from the handle bars and the rest of his few possession were fastened all over the superstructure. Isaiah never rode this bicycle, fortunately, but would stride down the south side of Dauphin Street pushing it at a prodigious rate. It had a bell, too, which would tingle fitfully when it hit a bump. I've been told that two new, inexperienced police officers, startled by this apparition, tried to arrest Isaiah and put him in the squad car and confiscate his bicycle. When one of them laid hands on the bike Isaiah detached him from it and tossed him -- gently -- over the car. He then strode off pushing his bicycle at his usual pace. Fortunately, they had sense enough to let him go, and were very embarrassed when they reported this attempted arrest and found out who he really was.
The "railroad lanterns" on the bicycle gave rise to the story that Isaiah was once a railroad man, who had the sense knocked out of his head in a terrible collision. However, his old aunt whom he stayed with said he'd always been tetched in the haid since he was a boy.
The last I recall of Isaiah was the time he showed up to work on Sunday, unexpectedly. When questioned he answered simply, "Miss didn't have none." This meant that Aunt Norma had failed to produce the customary ice cream freezer for him to turn and lick the dasher for his reward -- so he thought he'd see if we had any. It was only another five or six miles to walk, and that was nothing to him.
October 12, 1993