Wednesday, June 2, 2010

(b) A House that is a Home: the first five years

My friend Wood gave me an imitation Thonet rocker. Lydos, the Russian Blue-type cat that my friend Denise, then an undergraduate in Art at LSU, gave me, loved the rocker, unlike other cats that were too frightened of the motion.

It took time to accumulate the furnishing of a house, and my major impedimenta, books, still hadn't arrived, either (the essential ones were in my office). Until sofas and blinds, etc., arrived, I enjoyed having and studying in the light the old pieces that my grandparents had rescued for me: assorted chairs and a 19th-century walnut table and the Aegipan chair, the things that I'd had in Oregon. They look better with the tall baseboards and wider window frames of my 1928 modified double shotgun.

The oaks in one of the largest yards, as old as the oldest ones at LSU and older than the subdivision
When the first subdivision was laid out in Baton Rouge, LA, in 1909 (not to be built up fully till Humble Oil opened the refinery that now is Exxon), the city fathers in their wisdom made every third street wide and divided and planted oaks down the center; they made the corner lots larger and a couple of them occupying a full quarter of a block; the lots facing the parkway dividers were zoned, too, for deeper front yards, and, finally, the blocks had alleys, but they didn't run straight through: they provided for garbage collection, and they kept the telephone poles off the street fronts, but, like the letter H with the crossbar being longer, they also prevented cars, new though they were at the time, from using them for through traffic. It must also be admitted (as I had to be told by my eldest neighbor) that they provided access to the back door and to the laundry, usually attached to the garage or garden shed, to the housekeepers, laundresses, and gardeners. They no longer serve this last purpose, but it must be added that the square mile of smaller houses immediately to our east still is almost all African-American. A fact of local history. Yet the original thinking has survived to function better than most planning. The mixture of size and value of the houses has kept maintenance high and prevented rental to persons who do not want to care for the place they live in, the proximity to LSU and to City Park and to downtown and the Capitol have kept both large and small properties attractive, attractive to neighborly people. The alleys still serve for garbage collection and keep most of the cars from being parked on the street. The sidewalks still encourage walking late in the afternoon. And the trees (even after being thinned out by two hurricanes, plus some damage from the skirt of Katrina) are still beautiful. It is not every 90-year-old subdivision that maintains its Neighborhood Association. The smallest houses are double shotguns, two rooms deep, but most of these common houses are three rooms deep. They came as pre-cut lumber with requisite doors and windows. Houses similar to them are recorded as far north as Missouri. For someone like me, who detests a house that tells me how I want to live (for example, I don't want an 'island' in my kitchen), they are perfect. Most important, they have 10-foot ceilings, so that Hunter fans, big serious ones, suffice to cool them except in the summer.
Denise had been a student in the freshman survey course and in the fall of 1986, as I recall, was in the senior course in Greek art. In any case, she dropped by in office hour when Wood was there, too. W. suggested that I needed a pet, and I protested that I was at home too little to raise one (and besides always had preferred cats and would rather have an adult one). Denise, though, had just what I demanded: her mother would not have the cat that had adopted them and wanted to come indoors (they already had two cats). So I said I'd give the cat a try, since he was adult and neuter-male and solid gray; I gave her some money to get a cat carrier, some food, and some cat litter, and she and her mother came with the cat. Because his fur was so lovely to touch and his preferences were luxurious, I called him the Lydian, Lydos (also after an excellent 6th-century vase-painter who signed his work ho lydos and was probably a resident alien). He was immediately at home here and as a matter of course slept in the human bed from the first day. I think he may have been an old person's or even an AIDS victim's cat and suddenly homeless when about ten years old.
As I recall, the sofas had come by the time I got Lydos, because I remember Denise and her mother sitting on the long sofa. Since I and my lifestyle had passed muster with her mother, in the future they didn't always visit together, particularly since D. came to listen to classical music and talk art.
Before the sofas came, the front rooms were quite sparsely furnished, and one day (since the Levelor blinds hadn't come yet, having to be ordered for non-stock window sizes and because Sears said that 'nobody' liked black—'nobody' being the n-word for a non-southerner who wanted something you didn't have in stock) when afternoon light came pouring in I decided to try to take Art photos of the table and chairs. It isn't easy to get images worth remembering, though. One is at the head of this post, and one of Lydos, and more are in the album:

It is not simply the arrival of a niece to stay with me at the end of 1990 that punctuates my life at this point. Lydos was reaching the end of his life. Technology was changing everything, though even Mosaic and Netscape were in early stages. I had a PS-2 IBM computer (better than a typewriter) at home. When Art History moved to the new building in 1988, as I recall, each of us was given for his office a Mac IIci. One could use the Minnesota gopher to go to the catalogue of any library, almost, in the world and to the Library of Congress (though not with color graphics!). The Mac was indeed Wozniak's computer that loved you. Its metaphors instantly made clear what Microsoft meant by, for example, a 'directory'. It was obvious how one ought to store one's files. And so forth. The PS-2 still was not as happy a machine as the Mac, but a day with the Mac taught me how to use them both, though the former still had no Windows to speak of, and I never was on line with it. The next decade changed everything, especially with the use of digital images, though for years exigencies of storage, of image-size, were challenging. But in 1990 even the SCSI chain was a miracle and AOL seemed as new as an iPad seems today. Furthermore, I cannot overemphasize the lotus-land quality of life in Louisiana with nary a hurricane. Earthquakes may do nearly as much damage, but they don't turn whole seasons into daily dread, while megavolcanoes are quite beyond worry. As for mile-deep oil rigs, they are caused by humans, just as international financial crashes and epidemic-scale HIV are.

Debby in the summer of 1986 when, after I visited them the previous Christmas, I took her to Europe with me. This is on a train perhaps in Austria. We both had Eurrailpasses.

Myself with Lydos, Debby, and Tom, whom I left with the house and the cat while I went for a summer's work in Europe
Lydos, Denise, and her mother (who really must hate this photo of her) in the Spring of 1990, before Denise and I set out in the Yugo, all the way to Northern California.
To sum up this post, I have been thinking again of my resolve not to resort to the annotated photo album, which discourages summarizing and finding language for things that have no pictures, especially when one comes to decades when plenty of pictures are preserved. But unless one has Kodachrome slides that actually were developed at a Kodak lab and have been kept in their cardboard frames, always dated, it is appalling to realize how rarely one really remembers which year a given image belongs to, but it is interesting to consider the reasons: the older one becomes, the more time telescopes; when one lives continuously in one place and always teaching in the same curriculum (which makes it like being in the same 'grade' in school year after year), the semesters and years are easily blended; it was really only in the 1990s that keeping up with software development and compatibility became a challenge. On the other hand, choosing photos that do characterize my place at that time is an enjoyable challenge. It would be easy, as my students started their own families and some of my neighbors had young children to date images by their ages, but unless I sought special permission I would not use (yes, 'use') other people's children here. I may someday make an album of children (whom I love to photograph) using images not in the least personal, which I like as photographs.
But in the late 1980s and in the year 1990, everything was wonderful, pretty much. Almost all the Fine Arts students whom I knew, beginning with Wood and with Denise, were still in town (living continuously in an academic town entails forever making new friends). When I visited my sister Lorna and her family one Christmas in Pasco, WA, and Debby, then 19, begged to go to Europe with me, her parents consented. Debby understood that regular tourism would be done after museum hours, that museums would not include ladies doing tours, that we usually would eat, not dine, and she could take only what she could carry herself, upstairs and downstairs, in old stations from one platform to another. She abided by these necessary limitations. I did learn that I could not leave her alone without her attracting all sorts of young, and not so young, males; she had to be taught what urban European girls knew perfectly: to guard her eyes—unless she intended something else. But she enjoyed everything and ate everything and slept well everywhere, and I enjoyed her company. I had hardly known her before, and now I had the serious responsibility of my little sister's only daughter. She delighted in the bright colored building cranes against the sky. At this date there were many of them.
A couple of years later, when she was newly married but they did not have a house of their own yet, it suited me perfectly and they consented to living in my house while I was gone. I left it in good hands, but poor old Lydos with his poor old kidneys made problems for them. They made friends with a young faculty couple, very nice, whom I, twice their age, had hardly known.
In the Spring of 1990, when Denise had graduated from LSU magna cum laude I had another chance to entertain her parents and to meet her own cat, Dudley, who did not enjoy being in a strange house, even for a few hours. When the next Commencement ceremony occurred in late May or June, and Denise had a chance to oblige her family by attending it in cap and gown, on that very day we set out West on the Interstate, to which trip I shall devote another, more focused post.
Denise with Dudley