Sleepy Corner

Sam, the Garbager, had carpet,
And some scraps of office jot,
Optomacy stooped to throw him,
As he passed from lot to lot,

And with these he decked his cabin
In a rather modern style;
But himself remained old-fashioned
Like–simple and true the while.

And the milk of human kindness
Seemed to bubble from his heart,
As he rolled about the city
In his two-wheeled garbage cart.

S.A. Beadle,
Lyrics of the Under-World (1912),
photo by R. H. Beadle

Engel on Welty

Jackson native Lehman Engel (1910-82) was a composer and conductor of Broadway musicals, television and film. Engel worked as musical director for the St. Louis Municipal Opera for a number of years before moving to New York to conduct on Broadway. He won 6 Tony Awards, and was nominated for 4 more.  Engel wrote among other works The American Musical Theatre: A Consideration, the first book to discuss in detail the writing of a Broadway musical, the elements that went into it, and the art of adapting plays into musicals. In his autobiography, This Bright Day, Engel provides this endearing profile of his friendship with Eudora.

It’s strange how people in a small town know each other, speak in passing and not really know one another at all. Although I had met Eudora Welty in Jackson before either of us went away to school, it was not until several years later in New York, when a group of Jacksonians were there each simultaneously pursuing various schoolings, that we had first real contacts. Eudora was at Columbia along with Dolly Wells and Frank Lyell, who had first introduced me to Eudora in the Livingstone Park Lake. I was at Julliard. We changed to meet here and there. I think it was at Norma and Herschell Brickell’s (also from Jackson) where all of us, including Nash Burger, whose father used to play cards with my father, often went.

Each summer all of us went home to swelter, and there the threads grew stronger. There were about five such summers before I began staying on in New York, with work to occupy and to pay me. But at home, Frank, Eudora, Hubert Creekmore, and I used to meet at Eudora’s, and we formed the Night-Blooming Cereus Club, the total membership of which sat up to see the glorious white flower with the yellow feathery center bloom. The morning after, it looked like a swan with a broken neck. Those summers are jumbled together in my memory. During on of them Eudora did some letter-writing for me. Perhaps it was at another time that she took many snapshots. Several of them are among the best any photographer ever took of me. I have one of Eudora, we really invented “camp”, sitting in a tree, a Spanish shawl around her shoulders and on her face an uncharacteristic expression of world-be disdain.

With the passing of time, many things happened to us separately, and we seized every opportunity to communicate and to be together. On my visits to see my family perhaps twice a year—and more often in my parents’ failing days—Eudora was, as she is today, always available whenever it is possible for me to get away from family and family friends. To insure our being together to talk without interruption, she usually picks me up in her car—never a fancy one—and takes me for a ride just anywhere away from everybody else. At her house or mine while my mother was still alive, or at any of my cousins’, Eudora always enjoyed her bourbon and I my scotch.

She has endured a great deal. Her father died many years ago, but her mother lingered in poor health for some years. When finally it became necessary for Eudora to put her in a nursing home in Yazoo City, more than an hour’s drive from Jackson, Eudora drove to see her nearly every day. During those days she developed the habit of starting her work at 5 a.m. so tht she could spend several hours of writing without interruption. She still retains that habit. Very shortly before her mother died, Eudora’s two brothers—both married and each living in his own house—died within days of each other. I have seldom heard her refer to any of this, and what suffering she experienced she kept as her very own.

She is selfless, simple, timid, unworldly, and dedicated to her work. She has had every possible honor and success heaped on her, but nothing has ever changed her lifestyle or her nature. She lives in Jackson—the only place where she feels comfortable—travels when it is necessary only on trains (if possible), and speaks so quietly as to be often in audible. She lives in her parents’ house, which is very nice and devoid of any fanciness. It has two stories made of dark-red-to-purple bricks, and Eudora lives as she prefers—alone. The front yard has large pine trees and the house is surrounded by japonicas (camellias) of all kinds and colors. Behind the house there is a lovely garden containing more camellias and gardenias. The garden is no longer as well manicured as it once was, but I imagine Eudora prefers it that way. Now devoid of family responsibilities, she works consistently and hard. As she prefers never to discuss her work-in-progress, I seldom ask her what she is doing.

If I have given any notion that, like Emily Dickinson, Eudora is a recluse, let me assure you that she is not. She has many old friends, all of whom respect her privacy, and everyone in Jackson is deeply proud of her distinguished achievements.

LEFT: I snapped this picture of Eudora Welty with her camera. Frank Lyell was the Señor; Eudora, the unwitting inventor of camp, was herself above it all. RIGHT: Taken on a summer vacation in Jackson by Eudora Welty. I was about twenty.

A Pipe Dream

The corner of Peachtree and Poplar gets sun six to eight hours a day nine months of the year and lies south below a rise that shields it from winter winds. The garden there between the street and an old parking lot is filled with flowers and fruits, butterflies and bees. My hope is for it to become a pocket park, a small public space usually created on a single vacant building lot or on a small irregular piece of land. Too small for physical activities (well, maybe tai chi), pocket parks provide a greenway for wildlife (particularly birds and insects, though you can’t rule out the occasional reptile or mammal ), greenery, a place to sit outdoors and often a venue for the visual and performing arts, if only in the form of a wall and a stage. In upscale neighborhoods, pocket parks are the only option for creating new public spaces of the type that increase neighboring property values. I realize this idea of creating a little park on that busy corner is a pipe dream. All I can do is cast bread upon the waters.

Jackson Launches Equipment Theft Deterrent

JACKSON, MS (YPI)—In an effort to reduce the theft of maintenance equipment, the City of Jackson has initiated a program of placing their more valuable pieces of machinery at “random and undisclosed” areas of the city until needed for upcoming projects.

“We are determined to protect the taxpayers’ property,” a spokesperson said, “and this method of dispersing the machinery instead of keeping it in a vulnerable centralized location should greatly reduce the loss of expensive heavy equipment such as backhoes, trenchers and excavators.”

The spokesperson said that the location of the equipment, while “obvious to local residents” would be unknown to organized criminals who would steal and sell the machinery. “Some of these machines are worth a lot of money,” the spokesperson said, “and we need to protect them while they aren’t in use.” The spokesperson estimated that up to 75% of the city’s maintenance equipment is currently idle.

While most metro news outlets were quick to point out that this move is nothing more than a “frivolous” and “shamefully useless” effort, designed according to one periodical as “nothing more than a blatant attempt of the administration to draw attention away from its legal entanglements”, a metro alternative weekly applauded what it called “the city’s bold and innovative new initiative”.

One local resident said, “I just wish they’d leave the keys in them and provide me with a pile of asphalt mix. I could fill a few potholes on my own.”

The World from Gillespie Place: A Neighborhood Memoir

I am not from Jackson, nor (even worse) am I from Belhaven, and though I realize that this confession relegates me to something near akin to troglodyte status for those of you who are native to this fair city, before you begin casting aspersions (or something sharper, heavier and with far more substance) let me assure you that I have grown fond of Belhaven and say that Seta Sancton’s The View from Gillespie Place goes a very long way towards explaining to me why those of you who are natives love it profoundly. Given my primeval ignorance, of course I had to find out who Mrs. Sancton was, and given that I know so few people here, I decided to simply do what I do best and research the matter. This eventually led me to contact Tom Sancton, who among other things is former Paris bureau chief for TIME magazine, professor of journalism at the American University of Paris, Andrew Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Tulane and a jazz clarinetist. In response to my query, Mr. Sancton wrote:

Dear Jesse,
Seta Alexander Sancton (1915-2007) was my mother. She was born in Jackson, on North State Street, into a prominent local family (Whartons on mother’s side, Alexanders on father’s side). Her father was Julian P. Alexander, a graduate of Princeton and Ole Miss law school, and an associate justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court. She graduated from Millsaps College, where she was a member of Chi Omega. She was a close personal friend of Eudora Welty, a neighbor from childhood. (My mother’s family lived first on Gillespie Place, then at 1616 Poplar Blvd; Eudora was on Pinehurst.) Seta married my father, New Orleans journalist and novelist Thomas Sancton, in 1941. They lived mostly in New Orleans and had three children of which I am the youngest. When my mother was in her 70s, she decided to write down some family stories and memories for her children and grandchildren. She started jotting down stories on notepaper, the back of envelopes, whatever she had at hand, adding stick figure illustrations as she went along. The result was the book you have in hand. In the 1990s she recorded readings of some of the stories.
Best regards,
Tom Sancton

Seta’s View from Gillespie, simply put, is a childhood memoir, the memories of a girl who grew up in Jackson, a city that through her eyes was full of of “sugar and spice and everything nice”; June bugs and fig trees, lavender lantana and magnolia fuscata, braided biscuits, sidewalk parades and Victrolas. “Though Edward VII was no longer on the throne,” Seta writes, “the temper of the times remained Edwardian for our mothers, our grandmothers and for us children.” In The View from Gillespie you’ll find a Jackson where maids took children to Smith Park where they would play on the swings and slides and sit in the miniature Greek pagoda and eat sugar cookies. Home libraries inevitably carried volumes of Dickens, Thackeray, Tennyson and the best-selling works of Zane Gray. Gillespie Place itself was a new subdivision off State Street, and having a mother who was Episcopal and a father who was a Presbyterian presented the occasional social awkwardness. Going to the state fair was a landmark event as was going downtown to eat at the Bon Ton or the Pantaze or the Edwards House.

Yes, Seta wrote this book from a child’s perspective, yet through such eyes you can discern the superficially genteel character of the city of Jackson during the 1920s and yes, of course poverty and oppression were no doubt rife at the time, and other unpleasantries such as war and epidemics are also swept aside to make room for bridge parties and swimming in Livingston Lake, but who among you will find fault with me, an outsider who walks the streets of the city as it is today, for being charmed by this picture of its past?