Jess Jr. was charismatic, spontaneous, and imbued with a zest for life. This made his wife, my mother Barbara, very happy, but kept her in suspended apprehension.
She told us the story of their invitation to a party at a prominent home in Oxford. Barbara was nervous, but Jess took great pains to assure her that as district attorney he worked with the host, a judge.
Once they reached the door, Jess turned to Barbara, winked, and said, “Watch this.” Then he rang the bell.
“My heart just sank to my shoes,” she’d say. When the door opened, Jess walked in, raised his arms in the air, and said, “We are trying to have a prayer meeting in the house down the street, and your drunken carryin-ons are disrupting our communion with the Lord God Almighty!”
This being when Mississippi, was dry, the assemblage of well-heeled Oxonians and semi-reputable Ole Miss academics froze. Mother said she could hear the traffic on the Square .
She was about to die when the host stuck his head out the kitchen door and said, “Jess, quit scaring the hell out of everybody, get a drink, and get Barbara one, too. God knows she needs it.”
In the summer of 1855, Miss Anna Sheegog died upstairs in the house in which I write. No token of hers remains, not even a hair ribbon; the grief at her passing was eased and forgotten long ago. Yet she is still fooling around up there, after al this time, and no wonder—she was only 16 and not ready to be done with life.
Something is always stirring in old houses, for they murmur in their sleep as people do. So much happens, and none of it wants to leave; it is laid up in the walls, left to leak out now and then when someone is listening. Ghosts, we call it, though it is really only memory. I have listened here—in all weathers, in the bright noon and deep watches of the night—longer than Miss Anna was alive, and I know something of the memory of houses.
This one is called Rowan Oak, for Mr. William Faulkner called it that, and he lived here longer than anybody. Because he lived here it is a literary shrine of sorts; for 20-odd years pilgrims have been coming up the walk to see what lies in the white house.
I, too, was a pilgrim once, come by a long road begun in a railroad yard. One night a switchman, Frank Smith, pressed on me a book, of all things, a paperback, greasy and bent to the shape of his blue jeans pocket. “Read this,” he said. In the yard office after the train was gone, I opened it and began to read, and the world was never the same again.
Years later, when I was curator of Mr. William Faulkner’s house, I happened on a page of manuscript behind a drawer in the library. I knew right away what it was; lines from The Hamlet, written in this very house. It was no small thing to meet, and as the morning light fell through the tall library windows, I remembered another light; the glow of Frank Smith’s lantern on that vanished summer night, when he put his copy of The Hamlet in my hand.
Ghosts again, and, always, time. In Mr. Faulkner’s house, time is the sum of all senses. It is in the light, in all seasons softened to twilight by the trees. Time lies in the creak of a shutter, rain in the downspouts, in a step half-heard in the empty rooms above. It is in the very smell of the place, which is the smell of all grandmother’s houses, made of dust and mildew, old books and years of fried chicken—and that almost palpable memory that will not go away. It is the smell of time.
No wonder pilgrims sometimes speak in whispers here. No wonder children often cling shyly to their parents’ legs, flirting with something only they can see. Time conjures them all, as it conjures us, who are stewards of time.
There have not been many of us. Dr. James Webb, the first and best curator, will always be chief. In the early years Dr. George Street was here, and Bev Smith. I have worked with Danny Toma, Terrell Lewis, Keith Fudge. Winfred Ragland was the first groundskeeper, and then Isiah McGuirt, whom I watched rake the leaves of 15 autumns.
These were all Southern men who knew not just Mr. Faulkner and his work, but also what it means to love an old house and earth whence it came. They were all pilgrims, come here by their own long roads, each to find his own doorway to the past.
Once, on one of those days when the sky is deep blue and every leaf sharp and clear and shadows haunt the fence corners—once, on such a day, Isaiah walked out in the north pasture to work his turnips and Dany went along to swap lies. I wandered out by myself by and by and leaned on the fence and watched them. On the whole place there were only three of us. Their voices drifted to me across the morning. Now and then, an acorn rattled on the tin roof of the cookhouse, the loft door creaked, the house drowsed white and solid in the sun.
I should not have been surprised to find Mr. Faulkner at my elbow, leaning on the fence with his pipe, nor to see Miss Anna in the kitchen door—for the streams of time had come together once more, the old proper rhythms of life were in cadence, and all that ever happened on this place narrowed to an old man and a boy in the pasture, talking quietly under the autumn sky.
Occasionally, folks ask me what it is like to work at Rowan Oak. I do not know how to tell them about Frank Smith or Dr. Webb or Danny or the day Isiah went out to hoe his greens, but sometimes I try, and they are almost always satisfied. It is a good thing for pilgrims to carry away into the world waiting for them beyond the gate, for in that world ghosts are silly and magic is only for children. I don’t believe so myself, and neither does Miss Anna—but then, she is only 16, after all.
When the courthouse clock struck the first toll of the noon hour, the complexion of the village changed. Shopkeepers and clerks hurried their over-the-counter trade so as not to be late for mealtime; little old ladies in their shawls and bonnets scurried home along side streets to their salads and tea-cakes; doctors and lawyers put aside the healing of the sick and matters at the bar to congregate in the public inn for a plate of the noon-day fare; farmers found a shadier side of the square and rested under tall oak trees while they took their dinner of canned meat and yellow wedges of cheese. It was a time for idle chit-chat, political forum, witty repartee, and peaceful rumination with a temperance and protocol like no other time of day.
–L.W. Thomas Written for the menu of The Warehouse Restaurant, 1984
Frank Bowen sent me this recipe, and here I reproduce his original mail with the reminder that Pizza Den is still open, and Bob’s family is carrying on the tradition of great local food in Oxford. Go see them the next time you’re there.
The following is a recipe that was posted on an Ole Miss Spirit message board several years ago. I made it several times and can attest that it is faithful to the original at the Pizza Den. It is not in standard recipe format, but it tells how to make the sandwich very well. I don’t know who made the post. He had a user name of Reblanta. I have found that the instructions of letting it rest on the counter for 15-20 minutes to simulate delivery is an important step.
Pizza Bob’s Famous Submarine Sandwich
In May, 1983, I had just bought a new car and decided that I would take it out on the road and drive up to Oxford for the afternoon, primarily to drop by Pizza Den and pick up some submarines to take back home and share with my Ole Miss friends that night. Things were slow late that afternoon when I got there but Pizza Bob was in good spirits. Since nobody else was there, I decided to broach the sacred subject on just how Bob made his famous submarine sandwich. Whether he was thinking of the good times he’d had in Nam, the money he had made off of me over the years, or perhaps he just felt sorry for me, I couldn’t tell, but this is what he told me. I watched him make the submarines and committed the process to memory.
Take your baguette, split it down the middle. Pour butter over the open slices of bread, sprinkle on a generous portion of both Parmesan and mozzarella cheese and place several thin slices of ham, salami, AND luncheon meat! Bob dusted all slices in between with the same cheese mixture, then in the middle of the meats he ladled in spaghetti sauce. Over the top of the meats he sprinkled more of the cheese mixture and then placed the other half of the bread on top. Finally, just as he was ready to seal up the sandwich in foil, he poured more melted butter over all. I cook mine about 20 minutes total in 350 degrees, turning it over about half way to disperse the butter evenly throughout. Finally, to make it authentic, take it out of the oven, and leave it on the counter top for about 15 to 20 minutes to simulate the delivery to Fraternity Row. Always remember to press the sandwich down as well.
I make it a point to make “Pizza Bobs” for every first televised football game of the year and I suggest that you do as well. I make mine exactly like he told me to except for that luncheon meat stuff. I hope that when you make your “Pizza Bob” sandwiches, you’ll think of Pizza Bob. I once heard this said and believe it now to be true: If food were a religion, Pizza Bob would be the High Priest.
While no battles of importance took place in Calhoun County, Mississippi, Leon Burgess, in his M.D.L. Stevens and Calhoun County, Mississippi offers Stevens’ account of a December skirmish in the northwest. The original story appeared in The Calhoun County Monitor on June 4, 1903.
In December, 1862, Gen. Grant’s army pressed back the Confederate army from Holly Springs to Coffeeville where after a sharp engagement Grant fell back to Water Valley, threw out a strong cordon of cavalry and encamped for the winter.
About Christmas a strong company of Kansas Jayhawkers invaded Calhoun County north of Schoona River, spending their fury in and about the village of Banner. They captured the few horses and mules remaining in the county, robbed every chicken roost and hen nest, stole turkeys, geese and ducks, and now and then they took a fat hog. In their rounds they confiscated a barrel of moonshine whiskey near the big rock at the head of Cowpen Creek. They drank freely, filled their canteens and came to Banner, where they took and destroyed everything in sight. In the afternoon they set out for Water Valley. Each marauder had his canteen full of “wild cat” and, tied in front and behind his saddle, a good lot of turkeys, geese, ducks and chickens, and a haversack full of eggs. They left Banner yelling like a mob of Hottentots, all full of wild cat whiskey; more than a hundred strong, the Federals insulted every old man they met and drove women and children from their homes.
A small squad of Willis’ Texas Cavalry was hanging around Grant’s army, watching every movement. They learned of the contemplated raid on Banner, followed in the of the Federal cavalry and kept a close eye on their movements. The Texans received into their ranks a few of the Calhoun boys at home on furloughs, armed with double-barreled shot guns and mounted on mules and horses. The company numbered about 20 of the battalion and 12 or 15 of the local boys. They saw from a distance the devastation of Banner and the surrounding country and saw that the Jayhawkers were tanking up on the “bust skull” whiskey and were preparing to leave for Water Valley. Willis, under the guidance of a friend, hosted his small band of braves in a narrow valley were the horses were tied and the boys were concealed on the crest of a narrow ridge about 60 yards from the road that ran up a narrow hollow west of Gore’s Branch 5 or 6 miles from Banner.
On came the drunken Federal mob, more than a hundred strong, singing, cursing and looting, all bent on reaching Water Valley with their booty. They crossed Gore’s Branch, the headwaters of Long Persimmon Creek, and moved up the road running parallel with the long ridge. When the Federal cavalry had filled the road at the foot of the ridge, Willis gave the command to fire. Sheet of flames leapt from 30 guns; volley after volley was poured into the panic-stricken Federal ranks. Horses and riders were piled promiscuously on the road.
The Rebel boys rushed down the hill and captured men, horses, turkeys, ducks, chickens and canteens half full of mountain dew. They mounted and followed in hot pursuit of the fleeing Federals. Down by Trusty’s and Tatum’s they charged the retreating Jayhawkers, killing and capturing men and horses; their charge to Tuckalofa Creek was a race for life. The next day a regiment of Federal cavalry came out and buried the dead and cared for the wounded. No estimate on killed or wounded.
This is an excerpt from Malcolm Franklin’s Bitterweeds: Life with William Faulkner at Rowan Oak (1977) Born in Shanghai in 1923, Franklin was the son of Cornell and Lida Estelle Franklin. After what’s most often described as a “cordial” divorce, Estelle married William Faulkner in 1929, and he began living in Oxford, Mississippi. Franklin served as a medic during World War II, studied medicine and herpetology. He died in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1977.
Of all the holidays at Rowan Oak, Christmas was the most festive. An air of great excitement prevailed everywhere, even in Chrissie’s and Andrew’s little cabin.
I recall one cold, crisp December mid-afternoon, when the various members of the family gathered in the library in preparation for the expedition to get the Christmas Tree. This was the very beginning of Christmas, when the tree was found and cut.
Each was bundled up against the cold. This year there was Jill, Pappy, Victoria’s husband Bill Fielden, myself, Mama, and Andrew bearing the axe. It was Pappy who chose the tree-a cedar that had less of a chance to become a large tree. In making his choice he was also careful to thin out the woods properly, leaving extra growing space for the ones not cut, for our Christmas Tree always came from Bailey’s woods on Rowan Oak’s grounds.
After the tree was felled, Andrew and Pappy spread the khaki-colored tarp smoothly on the ground. Then the tree was carefully wrapped in the tarp, leaving an area at the base free so that Pappy and Andrew and all of us could take turns pulling it through the woods to Rowan Oak. This was done to protect the branches as the tree was pulled along, for it was far too heavy to carry.
The tedious chore of getting the tree up and ready for trimming was then completed. By then it was late afternoon and a cold sharp light came in through the living room windows. The trimming was left to the ladies with the men offering a suggestion now and then. Boxes of ornaments lay open on the floor. Tinsel lay heaped on the parlor table. When the decorations had found their way onto the delicate outer branches and the tinsel, sparkling and clear, reached to the very top ornament, the tree was a beautiful sight to behold. Across the hall the library door stood open. A roaring fire crackled in the fireplace. A bourbon bottle stood open on a silver tray. Cut glass waiting to be filled caught the reflection of the fire. (Christmas was preceded by trips for Christmas cheer to Memphis, seventy-odd miles away, the nearest place offering a wide selection of bourbon, wine, and of course champagne for the New Year.)
There were other trips to the woods for greens and decorations, all to be gathered before Christmas Eve. The gathering of the holly and mistletoe was quite a task. We had to drive almost eight miles out into the country to the place where it grew. This was an old Chickasaw Indian Boundary line, where the holly trees were used to mark the line running east and west. In the trees high above these hollies grew the mistletoe. So high up were they, that it was necessary to shoot the mistletoe out with a .22 rifle. Only a few berries were lost as the branches fell.
It was Christmas Eve morning. Pappy had taken Mama to Oxford in the old touring car to do last minute shopping. She had left instructions with Chrissie that if any packages or boxes should arrive while she was out, to just have them left in the house or on the verandah. Where I was at the time no one was sure. After all, it was Christmas Eve.
Toward the middle of the afternoon Chrissie was summoned by a sharp rap on the front door. It was the driver of the Railway Express van, with several large boxes for Mr. Franklin. Upon Chrissie’s instructions he and his crew neatly lined up three boxes on the verandah and drove off.
As the afternoon became colder and a grey sky brought early darkness, Mama and Pappy turned into the driveway, headed for the open fire and a drink. When Mama reached the top step on the verandah and saw those long boxes, all three of them, she was astounded. “Billy,” she called out, “What on earth do you suppose Malcolm’s receiving in these boxes?” As Faulkner reached the verandah he took one look at the boxes and called out loudly for me. **Buddy,” he said, “What on earth are these things? Come here!”
I had just come in by the back door and had not seen the boxes. I hurried through to the front verandah, took one quick look and knew. Dear God! They had sent out to me three cadavers meant for the Anatomy Department of the University!
When Mama found out what they were she took off for the library saying “Get rid of them! Get rid of them!”
I turned to Faulkner and explained. “Pappy,” I said, “I told Dr. Hogg that if anything was sent to the Anatomy Department during the holidays, the Express Company could call me and I would go over to the Department and let them in! I didn’t tell them to deliver cadavers here!”
“Well,” said Pappy. “We cannot have an array of cadavers gracing the verandah on Christmas Eve! You’d better phone Railway Express to pick these up immediately.”
Heading towards the telephone, shaken by the array of cadavers, I called back to Pappy. Please pour me a stiff drink while I make the call!
As the number was ringing the thought flashed through my mind that, as it was late Christmas Eve afternoon, there just might not be anyone there. But We had barely finished our drinks when the Railway Express van drove up again to the front Verandah. Faulkner then volunteered to drive me to the science building where I unlocked the door and made room for the Railway Expressmen to deliver the cadavers. As they emerged from the building Faulkner pulled from his pocket a pint bottle and passed it to each man.
When we arrived back, Rowan Oak was brightly lighted, and the glitter of the tree could be seen as the car came down the driveway and pulled up under the porte-cochere. Entering the library we headed toward the fire to warm up again. The aroma of various hot dishes drifted into the foyer from the dining room, where a buffet was being placed on the table. Norfleet appeared carrying a water pitcher. He bowed to Faulkner as he set the pitcher in place on the tray next to the bourbon decanter and glasses. For many friends would find their way up the cedar-lined driveway of Rowan Oak on Christmas Eve, leaving gifts or stopping by to say “Merry Christmas,” and perhaps sampling one of the hot dishes on the way to replenish a glass. This evening there were Dr. and Mrs. John Cully, Colonel and Mrs. Evans of ‘Minmagary” fame, Colonel Baker and his charmingly vivacious wife Kate, and many, many more.
The hour was a little past eleven, and younger members of the family were preparing to leave for the midnight service at St. Peter’s. A great flurry of activity could be glimpsed beyond the parlor door as coats were being held, gloves pulled on, and scarves flung across shoulders with an occasional impatient “Hurry or we’ll be late.” Older guests also began to disperse, leaving Pappy and Mama to go upstairs, where the stockings lay waiting in Mama’s room to be filled. Christmas Eve had suddenly become very quiet as Rowan Oak waited for the arrival of Santa. Even the dogs seemed somewhat subdued.
Daylight had hardly crept across the east lawn and touched the great cedars before young couples were astir in Rowan Oak. Jill’s and her young cousin Vicky’s were the first voices to be heard. Then there would be Pappy’s voice, trying to subdue the exuberant chatter as the girls headed for Mama’s room where the Christmas stockings hung waiting. Chrissie had already brought “Miss Estelle’s” coffee tray up, and was peeping from behind the door and saying “Christmas Gif,” and flashing her brilliant, warm smile. She caught Pappy on the stairs, tipping down to fix his own breakfast. Chrissie knew that Mr. Bill would be the only one to eat a proper breakfast: eggs, bacon, and grits covered with melted butter, topped off with hot coffee.
On Christmas Faulkner was always a fastidious dresser. To start the stocking-opening ritual in Mama’s room, he wore an elegant and ornate silk Chinese robe. In this he would have his breakfast. Even for the early part of the ceremony of the tree he would be so dressed, for by nine-thirty the young people were there beside the tree in the parlor. It was at this time that Mama would make her appearance wearing a lovely Chinese wrapper in soft, muted pastel shades.
The younger members of the family, including the colored servants, Broadus, Norfleet, Estelle, and others, gathered around the tree. Pappy in his colorful dressing gown officiated. He offered a prayer first. Then he picked up a package and called a name. That person stepped forward and received it. This continued until all the packages were passed out, amid a flurry of paper and ribbon the boxes were opened.
The time had now come for Faulkner to receive his gifts. These consisted of little bundles of pipe cleaners, some in assorted colors, others snow-white. There were all kinds of pipe cleaners in various bundles clinging precariously to the branches of the tree, each with its little tag. There was one package of Dill pipe cleaners, which Faulkner liked particularly. The tag on this read: “To Pappy, Love Buddy.” The next, a gaily colored mixture, said “To Pappy, Love Jill.”
For Faulkner would accept only pipe cleaners from the family with the exception of an occasional handkerchief from Mama. If he received any other gift, he would carefully take it to his office and there it would remain unopened.
Colored members of the family went merrily off to the kitchen to open their gifts. There were pints of bourbon for our colored friends: Henry Jones, Wade Ward, and Wallace, who hunted with Faulkner, and of course Andrew.
The dining room table had been made ready early that morning. The Christmas punch bowl glistened ruby red, the flowers were gracefully arranged. Punch cups were placed about the ornate lace table cover. The bowl could be glimpsed by members of the family as they made their way upstairs to dress for the day. This was a Christmas punch created by Faulkner for the holidays. It consisted of apples, bourbon, dry burgundy and soda water, chilled by a generous portion of ice chunks.
During the morning and through the day frequent knocks at the kitchen door were followed by shouts of “Christmas Gif!” and various folks that had worked for us during the year received in return a Christmas drink and cheerful word. This was the custom in Oxford and throughout Mississippi. Wallace, at the request of Faulkner, stood ready with a wagon to drive to their homes those who could no longer navigate.
During the early afternoon members of my mother’s family began to arrive. There was my mother’s sister Aunt Dot, and my grandmother Oldham, this time without my grandfather. He had passed away during the war. Then there was Mary Jenkins, Dr. John Cully’s surgical nurse, who lived at the Oldhams’, and had for years been almost a member of the family. She had on numerous occasions taken care of Faulkner during serious drinking bouts.
Miss Maud, Faulkner’s mother, never went out on Christmas, or attended dinner at the homes of any of her children. She preferred to have her sons and grandchildren drop in and visit her. After her husband, Mr. Murry, passed away in the early 1930’s Miss Maud never had a Christmas Tree. Instead, there were bouquets of holly, Christmas greens, and a holly wreath at the front door. About mid-afternoon Faulkner would leave for a visit with Miss Maud, usually staying an hour. Then he would return to dress for dinner.
The afternoon grew late. Faulkner, who had returned to Rowan Oak and dressed in the white tie and tails which he considered appropriate for the occasion, made his appearance in the parlor, suggesting as he did so that drinks were in order. He then headed for the library fire and a bourbon, soon to be followed by members of the family. Conversations over drinks rose and fell with merry outbursts of laughter. Ice clicked against chilled glasses as new toasts came up. Mama came gaily into the library, saying, “Billy, will you do the honors?” Those who were seated before the fire arose, and we all placed empty glasses on the tray as we passed the library table on the way to the dining room.
Faulkner was already standing at the head of the table as the members of the family reached the dining room. The long table was draped with its elegant linen cloth, and the lighted candelabra cast uneven shadows on the polished silver. Holly and Christmas greens in a low cut-glass vase formed the centerpiece. Silver goblets with crisp white linen napkins marked each place.
There were two small tables placed at graceful angles near the dining table. These were for the younger members of the family, for there were too many to be seated at one table. Small gumdrop trees were placed in the centers of these tables. Their dainty linen and lace tablecloths swept close to the floor.
Chairs were held for the ladies as Faulkner graciously designated where each was to be seated. Norfleet’s white coat flicked through the pantry as he made a smiling entrance carrying the huge serving platter and turkey. After Pappy said the blessing, the turkey was carved. Each plate was bountifully served as Norfleet held it for Faulkner. Boojack re-set Faulkner’s place as Norfleet removed the well-carved turkey, placing it on the long narrow serving table on Faulkner’s left just in front of the fireplace.
Faulkner, lifting a crystal wine glass, poured a small portion in the glass and tasted it. Then each glass was filled by Faulkner as he walked around the table. When every glass was filled, Fau toast appropriate to the occasion. Boojack entered carrying a heaping dish of rice. Just behind, Broadus appeared bearing a large bowl of giblet gravy. There was always a tremendous amount of giblet gravy prepared, for it was a favorite with rice on Christmas. Then came the broccoli with a cheese sauce, followed by a shallow dish of sliced buttered sweet potatoes. The ham was passed, and a final platter of broiled quail. The long serving table had very little room left as the dishes were placed on it.
It was Boojack who, sometime later, swung open the door carrying a large empty tray. She, with the help of Broadus, removed the dinner plates and placed the dessert plates beside Mama.
Norfleet appeared almost immediately bearing a large cut glass bowl of ambrosia, which he placed in front of Mama. Seeing the ambrosia reminded Faulkner of a story a good friend had told him. Faulkner repeated the story as the ambrosia was passed. This friend had a cook, and when she was asked if she would like to go to heaven when she died, she stood silent for a few minutes. Then, smiling broadly, she replied: “No Sir, I don’t believe I wants to go to heaven, cause all I’d be doing up there every day for Eternity is grittin’ up coconut for the white folks’ ambrosia.”
Boojack returned carrying fruitcake and a silver urn of after-dinner coffee and the cups. Norfleet placed in front of Faulkner a bottle of cognac and delicately patterned small brandy glasses. By the time the last refill of cognac had been offered and conversation become somewhat scattered it was time to leave the table. The sky was a deep black and night had come. Christmas was over.
Southerners share an acute awareness that most of our fellow countrymen view us with disdain. This knowledge of ill regard is something we learn from an early age, and the message is amplified and compounded by a steady stream of negativity from every imaginable source: books, movies, television and other media, not to mention personal experiences garnered by traveling outside our lands and meeting that contempt face-to-face.
As powerful as this imprint is, still it can come as a shock, particularly for a Mississippian, who even among their fellows from other Southern states are pissed upon as if from a great height, to find that a person you admire for talent, wisdom, and at least an ostensible generosity of mind can be vehemently bigoted towards a region and people never visited. Such was my reaction to Bill Bryson’s account of a visit to Mississippi in The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, in which Bryson chronicles a 13,978 mile trip around the United States in the autumn of 1987 and spring 1988.
When I was a graduate student studying English as a language, Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way (1990) captivated me. Witty, informative and occasionally dazzlingly well-written,–he hangs 10 all through Middle English–Bryson came across as the bluff, jovial professor of the sort one should hope to have in a subject that can be stupefying.
Many years later, when I came across Bryson’s account of his journey through Mississippi in The Lost Continent, I was stunned to discover him, a native Iowan now living in Britain, as full of bile as most American writers who venture south and dismayed to find his account packed with the usual shopworn stereotypes, clichés, and overt contempt. Here’s some of what he wrote.
Just south of Grand Junction, Tennessee, I passed over the state line into Mississippi. A sign beside the highway said, WELCOME TO MISSISSIPPI. WE SHOOT TO KILL. It didn’t really. I just made that up. This was only the second time I had ever been to the Deep South and I entered it with a sense of foreboding. It is surely no coincidence that all those films you have ever seen about the South – Easy Rider, In the Heat of the Night, Cool Hand Luke, Brubaker, Deliverance – depict Southerners as murderous, incestuous, shitty-shoed rednecks. It really is another country. … I followed Highway 7 south towards Oxford. It took me along the western edge of the Holly Springs National Forest which seemed to be mostly swamp and scrub land. I was disappointed. I had half expected that as soon as I crossed into Mississippi there would be Spanish mosses (sic) hanging from the trees and women in billowy dresses twirling parasols and white-haired colonels with handlebar mustaches drinking mint juleps on the lawn while armies of slaves gathered the cotton and sang sweet hymns. But this landscape was just scrubby and hot and nondescript. Occasionally there would be a shack set up on bricks, with an old black man in a rocking chair on the porch, but precious little sign of life or movement elsewhere.
At the town of Holly Springs stood a sign for Senatobia, and I got briefly excited. Senatobia!What a great name for a Mississippi town! All that the old South stood for seemed to be encapsulated in those five golden syllables. Maybe things were picking up. Maybe now I would see chain gangs toiling in the sun and a prisoner in heavy irons legging it across fields and sloshing through creeks while pursued by bloodhounds, and lynch mobs roaming the streets and crosses burning on lawns. The prospect enlivened me, but I had to calm down because a state trooper pulled up alongside me at a traffic light and began looking me over with that sort of casual disdain you often get when you give a dangerously stupid person a gun and a squad car. He was sweaty and overweightand sat low in his seat. I assume he was descended from the apes like all the rest of us, but clearly in his case it had been a fairly gentle slope. I stared straight ahead with a look that I hoped conveyed seriousness of purpose mingled with a warm heart and innocent demeanor. I could feel him looking at me. At the very least I expected him to gob a wad of tobacco juice down the side of my head. Instead, he said, “How yew doin’?” This so surprised me that I answered, in a cracking voice, “Pardon?” “I said, how yew doin’?” “I’m fine,” I said. And then added, having lived some years in England, “Thank you.” “Y’on vacation?” “Yup” “Hah doo lack Miss Hippy?” I was quietly distressed. The man was armed and Southern and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying to me. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m kind of slow, and I don’t understand what you’re saying.” “I say” – and he repeated it more carefully – “how doo yew lack Mississippi?” It dawned on me. “Oh! I like it fine! I like it heaps! I think it’s wonderful. The people are so friendly and helpful.” I wanted to add that I had been there for an hour and hadn’t been shot at once, but the light changed and he was gone, and I signed and thought, “Thank you, Jesus.” I drove on to Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss as it’s known. The people named the town after Oxford in England in the hope that this would persuade the state to build the university there, and the state did. This tells you most of what you need to know about the workings of the Southern mind. Oxford appeared to be an agreeable town. It was built around a square, in the middle of which stood the Lafayette County Courthouse, with a tall clock tower and Doric columns, basking grandly in the Indian-summer Around the perimeter of the square were attractive stores and a tourist information office. I went into the tourist information office to get directions to Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home. …
Behind the desk sat a large, exceptionally well-dressed black woman. This surprised me a little, this being Mississippi. She wore a dark two-piece suit, which must have been awfully warm in the Mississippi heat. I asked her the way to Rowan Oak. “You parked on the square?” she said. Actually she said, “You pocked on the skwaya?” “Yes.” “Okay, honey, you git in yo’ car and makes the skwaya. You goes out the other end, twoads the university, goes three blocks, turns rat at the traffic lats, goes down the hill and you there, un’stan?” “No.” She sighed and started again. “You git in yo’ car and makes the skwaya–” “What, I drive around the square?” “That’s rat, honey. You makes the skwaya.” She was talking to me the way I would talk to a French person. She gave me the rest of the instructions and I pretended to understand, though they meant nothing to me. All I kept thinking was what funny sounds they were to be emerging from such an elegant-looking woman. As I went out the door she called out, “Hit doan really matter anyhow cust hit be’s closed now.” She really said hit; she really said be’s. I said, “Pardon?” “Hit be’s closed now. You kin look around the grounz if you woan, but you cain’t go insod.” I wint outsod thinking that Miss Hippy was goan be hard work.
There’s more; some worse, some better. Bryson visited Tupelo and Columbus as well, but in the final analysis. he left Mississippi with pronounced relief, and his impressions of the state were, I’m disappointed to say, rather much what we have come to expect of most people who visit with preconceived prejudices and with no desire to do anything more than capitalize upon the surety that their condescension would be well received by the world at large.
A decade after the trauma of the ’60s, Oxford settled into the laid-back, picturesque Southern academic backwater it will always be, full of good people with great ideas. The art scene was strong, and the town was full of bright, ambitious young businessmen. Oxford’s flowering of culture in the ’80s was seeded in that time. Those were halcyon years for me, as they were for many other people, and the Hoka was very much a part of it for us all.
Ron Shapiro opened the Hoka in 1974. The theatre was located across a parking lot from the Gin, the first among many restaurants and bars to open in Oxford after Lafayette County voted wet. The theatre was set up in a long, corrugated building with a walkway that extended perhaps 2/3 its length on the west to street level north. A single door was at that end; midway was a short-roofed porch with a paned double doorway. To the left of those doors was the Hoka logo, a winged Chickasaw princess, painted by a local academic artist. In time, many local artists would festoon the structure inside and out. The bathroom graffiti at the Hoka was as inspirational as it is legendary.
The auditorium seated perhaps 150-200 people, though our audiences were usually much smaller. The projection booth was up a short flight of stairs from a tiny untidy office, and the concession stand sold candy, popcorn and soft drinks. We sold tickets from a roll atop what looked like a rough-hewn pulpit at the top of the sloping concrete floor. Inside the projection booth was a table for processing incoming film–checking it for tears, bad splices, twists, or crimps–and the projectors were twin 1936 carbon arc machines, which took a lot of practice with a complex procedure involving levers and foot pedals to switch from one reel to the other. A typical film might be on five or six reels.
I began working at the Hoka in 1977. Typically, in the early days, we’d have two showings, an early movie that started around 6 or 7, and a later feature beginning at 8 or 9, depending on the duration of the first. Later we started showing X-rated flicks at midnight, which caused quite a stir at the time, but were very popular and, of course, profitable. Films were rented for three to four days, shipped in bulky hexagonal aluminum containers holding anywhere from one to three reels of 35mm film. Most often they were shipped by bus, and we’d pick them up at the Greyhound station on the corner of 10th and Van Buren, but at times we’d drive to Memphis. Once in the theater, the film had to be checked for tears, mended if needed, and then loaded on our projectors.
Ron was a good boss; pay could be erratic, but if I needed money, he’d give me enough to get what I needed or do what I wanted. Ron also taught me a lot, and I do mean a lot, about movies. At that time, in that part of the world, movies were still considered by most people to be nothing more than entertainment, but for Ron, as they were for many others like him who operated small independent “art cinemas” across the country, cinema was the leading art form of the 20th century, as well as a portal to other worlds.
When we first showed The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the audience–and the projectionists, I might add–stared open-mouthed at the screen, and when the audience began throwing rice at the wedding, hollering phrases at the screen and doing the Time Warp, we swept up the rice. We also learned to ban potato flakes.
Ron showed a lot of great cult movies by cutting-edge artists like John Waters, Russ Meyers, and William Castle. Several years later, Betty Blair Allen opened the Moonlight Café in the Hoka, and before long, it became a very special sort of place for dinner and a movie.
At a time when film was just coming into its own as an academic medium, Shapiro introduced generations of Ole Miss students to the works of Fellini, Wilder, Woody Allen, Capra, and Chaplain, to name a few, and brought to light (literally) unknown images: Dietrich in The Blue Angel, Lang’s electric automaton in Metropolis, a leather-clad Brando leaning on a jukebox in The Wild One. Ron Shapiro brought film as art to Oxford.
The Hoka had two signature desserts: the New York-style cheesecake made by the Freer sisters, and a hot fudge pie made by Jani Mae Locke Collier. Jani Mae is a native of Oxford. She and my sister Cindy lived together at a big house at the end of North 14th in the mid-1970s when the Hoka started. Jani brought this family recipe to the Moonlight when Betty Blair got it going. Jani Mae is married to Emmett Collier, who makes beautiful pottery in Brandon, Mississippi. It’s a very simple recipe, easily made, and best served à la mode.
Jani Mae’s Hot Fudge Pie
1 cup sugar
1 stick butter
½ c. plain flour
5 tablespoons cocoa
2 eggs beaten
Cream butter and sugar, mix well with flour, cocoa and eggs. Spoon into a toasted pie crust. Place in middle rack of oven at 350 until firm in the middle, about 20 minutes or so. We usually sliced these into quarters.
Ron Shapiro opened the Hoka in Oxford in 1974. He showed much of what passed as “art cinema”, but included an eclectic blend of old “B” movies, and selections from cutting-edge favorites such as Russ Meyers and John Waters. Sometime around 1978, Ron went into partnership with Betty Blair, a beautiful lady from the Delta, and together they opened up the Moonlight Café in the theater. A dining area was constructed, the plumbing was re-done, kitchen equipment and a storage room were installed. The Moonlight served sandwiches, salads and desserts, and in a short time the Hoka became a popular nightspot in Oxford, a place to see and be seen.
One of the signature desserts was a New York-style cheesecake that came to the Moonlight via two sisters, Marla and Lee Ann Frear, who hailed from Delaware. Both Marla and Lee Ann were big, buxom blondes. I vividly remember seeing them at a Halloween party costumed as Siamese twins, resembling nothing less than a battleship in full steam as their huge boobs plowed a wake through the crowd. They got the recipe from their mother, who was a caterer in Dover, and sold the cakes to the Moonlight to abet their college allowances. After they graduated, they gave the recipe to Gene Duncan, who gave it to me some forty years ago. It’s a simple concoction, but you must take care to pack the crust evenly or it will singe on the outside and be soggy in the middle
Filling: ¾ cup sugar, 3 large eggs, 2 teaspoons vanilla, 24 oz. cream cheese, room temperature, 1 stick melted butter. Beat eggs, add sugar and mix well at medium speed, then add cream cheese and melted butter. Crust: 1 box Nabisco graham cracker crumbs, 1 ½ cup sugar, 1 ½ stick melted butter. Topping: 1 pint sour cream, room temperature, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 4 tablespoons sugar.
Mix crust ingredients, pack in lightly oiled 9”x3” spring form pan. Mix filling ingredients well at medium speed for three minutes. Pour over crust, spread evenly and bake at 375 for 30 minutes. Remove from oven, spoon on topping, return to oven at 475 for 5 min. Chill before slicing and serving.