A reprint for The Solitary Watcher

Since some were unable to read from the electronic version of Still Point, here’s the essay. You might, however, want to go in and look at the visuals. The editor, Christine Cote, does a remarkable job.

The Solitary Watcher

Solitary and lonely are not the same although often confused. It is possible to be lonely when one is solitary, but it’s also possible to be un-lonely, in other words, content. A loner, perhaps one could say.

I grew up in an old and solitary farmhouse on the Great Plains of Kansas with five siblings, two parents, and a grandfather. That’s hardly a lonely life. And yet, as I look back at my childhood, I see myself solitary, wandering pastures, or out on a tractor, alone, plowing a field. Being left-handed and a dreamer, my solitary times often included falling over or off, in one way or another, and once tangling a plow in the fence and tipping both plow and tractor. Those sorts of tasks rarely meshed well with solitary dreamer.

Sitting by a window, staring at our backyard’s willow, the small fountain, the grass, or up on the farm, which we yet own, and staring out over the tallgrass prairie, works well for me. I’m reminded of the joy Thomas Merton took in his solitude: But my chief joy is to escape to the attic of the garden house and the little broken window that looks out over the valley. There in the silence I love the green grass.

Of all the things Merton knew and taught and wrote, solitude was the breath in his life.

Some of the earliest stories about me, from when we lived on a farm in Arkansas before we moved to the Kansas farm, tell of my wandering spirit, especially when I’d go visit Miz McNeil who lived on the farm next to ours. We left Arkansas sometime around my fourth birthday, so my wandering habit began early.

Miz McNeil grew peanuts. I loved peanuts—for that matter, still do—and Miz McNeil fed me peanuts when I visited. Peanuts roasted or boiled in the shell. One day, she decided to send me home with a supply, so she levered peanuts into my pockets; however, I had holes in my pockets, and do to this day from jamming my hands in too fast too often. The peanuts went into my pockets and out the holes and down my legs to shower around my feet.

Miz McNeil, clever woman, tied strings around the bottom of my pants legs and kept filling my pockets with peanuts until both pant legs were filled. Probably laughing as she did so. I waddled home. These were roasted in the shell peanuts, if you’re wondering, as boiled peanuts can get soggy.

On the Kansas farm, across the field west from the house, I’d wander down to the spring where Dad’s Uncle August and Uncle Louie once built a still. Three stone walls were all that remained. But the spring was there, and a pipe, pushed by an unknown hand into the bank at water’s edge, poured cold fresh water into my cupped hands. Matted pads of watercress grew in the pools between rocks. I carried a plastic bag in my pants pocket for those trips. If I brought home fresh watercress for Dad, he forgave my absence from whatever work was going on.

I learned to watch the sky from those wanderings, and the way light shifts and slides over a wheat field ruffled by wind. Annie Dillard says it best: There is a muscular energy in sunlight corresponding to the spiritual energy of wind. When thunderheads piled at the horizon and the light turned thick and coarse, it was time to head up the hill to shelter in the safety of family and house as the energy could turn wicked and threaten in the space of moments.

Solitude becomes more pricey in a city, but it’s possible. When I lived in New York, I had a small apartment on the second floor of a brownstone on West 85th Street. With windows. I’d sit with my first coffee as early sunlight tipped over the edge of the women’s residence across the street. The building, while long, was no more than three stories, and I’d watch from my solitary perch as women left in summer dresses, unencumbered, or in fall’s blustery wind, umbrellas tucked under arms.

One morning, a fierce storm tossed the branches of a small tree growing in a small patch of earth at the sidewalk’s edge. The tree survived the storm, but trashcans were tossed into the street. Trashcans in New York lead perilous lives.

Poets know solitude and weather: The four elements doze and wake./Who knows, behind the dark cloud/a small star may be playing. Adam Zagajewski. I met him once, at a reading, in a press of people and space. No time for anything but a thank you. He was kind. He signed his book for me. But I have his wanderings and his words for company.

Zagajewski liked walking in cities, too. I lived a half-block from West End park so could walk solitary among trees, but walking the sidewalks, pausing to look up at glowering gargoyles perched on ledges as people-streams sloshed around me, was just as alone. It’s easy to feel alone in a city. The iconic painting, Nighthawks, by Edward Hopper shows it. A couple sits at the coffee bar, not looking at each other, a single man sits apart, his back to us, and the barista bends over an invisible sink.

But I prefer walking country roads. The only thing to watch for is a blacksnake, its head lifted on a twig, sunning. Blacksnakes, our dad taught us, are a farmer’s friend. They eat rats. On a country road, I can allow my thoughts to wander in time to my steps. I watch for the red-winged blackbirds crossing my path, for the meadowlarks skittering away in the prairie, for the white-faced cows, lifting their heads from grazing to look at me, curious.

I watch the sky and the light to know when it’s time to turn back.

The End

 

 

A New York Story

Here’s a New York bartending story that doesn’t fit into the memoir but it’s a funny true-fact story so maybe it will make you laugh. It always does me. This happened before I went to Mexico for the movie and was working at a place called Molly’s in Hell’s Kitchen, a true neighborhood bar.

That night, the bar was crowded. A full moon, still two days away, built a noisy rush of energy. All the tables were full, even after eleven on a weekday when things usually calmed down. The jukebox was cranked up loud. Somebody had gone Chuck Berry crazy, and since only four of his records were available, the same four played over and over. I’d given one of the waitresses quarters to play Billie Holiday but that relief hadn’t come up.

I scooped ice into a class and listened to an order at the same time. Rita understood how to talk under the noise instead of trying to outshout it, so that helped. I nodded before carrying the freshly made drink to the other end of the bar.

“Smile! Things ain’t that bad.”

“Dino, I get paid $350 a day to smile. You want to match that, I’ll smile,” I said.

I picked up his money and went to the cash register. Dino was a local, born and raised in Hell’s Kitchen. He sounded like West Side Story without the music and he drank Jack and Coke. His friends called him Ding-Dong but he hated that old nickname. Probably always had. I took his change back. He never tipped, none of the neighborhood guys tipped. They’d grown up in this bar as a second living room.

“Come on, baby. Smile. Wanna hear a joke?” Dino had lots of jokes, most of them bad. “You hear the one about the Buddhist and the hot dog vendor?”

“Not now, Dino. Rita needs an order.”

The good part about being busy was that I didn’t have to talk much. Things would calm down after midnight when the kitchen closed and the late night regulars wandered in.

I stayed in a work rhythm that didn’t require thinking–ice, shot, soda gun. Simple. No one wanted daiquiris tonight, although Nikki had a table drinking tequila sunrises and Rita was selling margaritas. A tequila night. They’d start on straight shots soon. That would clear them out.

I glanced down the length of the bar. Two glasses empty: the scotch and soda couple sitting next to Dino. I walked down and lifted the glasses. The man nodded.

Dino finished his joke. “Make me one with everything. Get it? One with everything…..”

My glare didn’t stop him. “There. You know who you look like?” he said. “That Lauren Bacall. Remember, she always looked at Bogart under her eyebrows.”

Now there’s a trick, I mused, walking to refill the scotch and sodas–looking at someone under your eyebrows. Sort of like a hidden pocket…oh, I just keep him under my eyebrows.

“You know, you do look like Bacall,” the scotch and soda man said when I set their drinks down. The woman studied my face.

“See? I told you,” Dino said, nodding. He was getting drunk. That meant he’d leave soon.

“Yeah…thanks,” I said to the scotch man, taking his money to the cash register and punching the buttons a little harder than necessary. I’d heard it so many times. “Do you know who you look like” followed me from bar to bar, state to state. “No, who?” I always said, feigning surprise. The answers ranged from Bacall to Julie Christie to Faye Dunaway. Once, from an older man, Deborah Kerr. When I’d first started bartending, I’d been flattered. Now I was thoroughly sick of it. Show biz and bars. They went together. In this town anyway. Most of the people in here were either unemployed actors or singers or dancers or playwrights, including the employees. Dino had started talking to the scotch and soda man; the woman stirred her drink, looking bored. Another woman’s looks were probably not her favorite subject. I returned the change and slid away quickly, back to the ice bin and the waitress orders.

If Duffy could see me now. He’d rescued me off a bar stool and put me behind a bar. That was seven years and four moves ago: Austin, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York. They’d given me a big going away party when I left the Rio Club in Austin. I’d been heading for La La Land, sure the breaks would go my way. “Don’t forget we knew you when,” they’d said.

Billie Holiday’s voice rose over the clatter…God bless the child…she sang. God bless us all, I thought as I glanced along the bar again. A near empty glass was pushed forward. JB and water. I knew the man it belonged to had been watching me but I didn’t want to talk to him. I retrieved his glass, filled it, and set it back down, reached for his money.

“Do you know who you look like?” he said.

“No,” I said, as anger crinkled along the corners of my eyes. I folded my arms on the bar and leveled my gaze at him. “You tell me.”

“You look like a female Clint Eastwood,” the man said.

My sudden shot of laughter surprised us both.

“You win,” I said and slapped his money back on the bar. “I’ll even buy your drink for that one.”

The man seemed taken aback but he nodded his thanks. What did he expect? A denial?

If all of them could be that easy, as smiling, I moved back to the ice bin.

The kitchen closed; the bar began clearing out. The couple next to Dino left, abandoning the woman’s half-full drink. She must have prevailed over Dino’s fascinating conversation. He nodded over his Jack and Coke.

“Dino, go home.”

“Hmmmm.” He finished his drink and stumbled out. The man who had named her Clint Eastwood’s double also slipped out without finishing his drink. He’d left a $5 bill under the edge of his glass.

I glanced at the front door and beside it to the plate glass window. Snow fell as soft as a whisper.