Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Tale of Darkness, Bikers, and African Violets

I'm living happily ever after, now.  Still - whenever I see an African violet (Saintpaulia) blooming, it takes me back...

It was 1984, and I was in the process of making a huge relationship mistake, and couldn't see the way out, not immediately at least.

Working in Milwaukee! I got a job as an office manager for a heating contractor.  It didn't pay much, so, in addition to my office job, I took on a job as manager of an old apartment complex on Burnham Street, an industrial neighborhood on the south side of Milwaukee. The maintenance duties helped pay the bills by giving me a rent break.  Having spent the first 32 years of my life in peaceful 14000-population Watertown, the unending vastness of Milwaukee was in some ways overwhelming.  But it was an exciting new life I was building for myself in the big city.  That's when I met D.

I had recently escaped from the a smothering engagement before it ended in a stifling marriage.  A life dominated by in-laws can only end badly - you have to live your own life - another story, another time.  D was there to listen to my tales of disaster, and to share her own disastrous life.  Disaster was what we had in common. There are some who try to put disaster behind them, and then, on the other hand, there are people who embrace disaster, and weave it purposely into the fabric of their lives.

There were dark times of trying to keep up with D's bar-time lifestyle, trying to be someone I could never be.  Many sad stories to tell there.  Soon I was spending lots of evenings home alone while she caroused the neighborhood bars with her "real" friends, as she called them when she was drunk, which was four nights out of five.  Kenny Rogers kept singing over and over on the jukebox: "♪ Know when to fold 'em. ♫". . . Why didn't I listen to him?

Within a year D had talked me into quitting the band I performed with on weekends for years. Next to go, was the Burnham Street apartment management job, and soon we were renting the upper half of an old wooden duplex on Milwaukee's South Side.

In the new apartment, although we had a spare bedroom, somehow there wasn't room up there for my extensive collection of old books and phonograph records, thousands of LPs, 78s, 45s, and old literary classics.  There was a small room down in the basement empty but for the washers and dryers - why not keep those old records and books down there?

As soon as we were solidly and irrevocably moved into the duplex, the trap sprang shut. I was financially paralyzed by the new lease just signed, no longer having the supplemental income from the music jobs and no more apartment management position to offset the rent,  The day job didn't pay enough to give me any margin of comfort.  In other words, a perfect time for D to unveil the "master plan".   D had a teenage juvenile delinquent son Jay.  He had become more of a problem than his father (one of the many ex-boyfriends), could handle.  We had a spare bedroom, and, conspiring without my knowledge, she invited Jay to move in with us.  What a coincidence, indeed.

There was no way out.  I didn't get along with Jay -- he ignored us both anyway, spending most of his home time tying up our telephone line. Any complaints about Jay's behavior was considered an attack on D.  So there was my option -- I had the right to remain silent.

I spent lots of time working with my plants - at least the plants show some appreciation when you're good to them.  I grew some African violets and brought them to work for the window sill in my office.  My boss was very interested - he had once raised African violets himself, and had some old grow light racks in his basement which he was no longer using, and these he gave me.  Bar none - it was the nicest thing that happened to me that entire year.  I found out later that he was in the early stages of leukemia, and clearing out his basement was a part of his long-term plan of "putting his life in order" for his wife.

I brought the racks home - they were the de Luxe racks made of sturdy tubular steel, with gravel beds for drainage and humidity control, and hi-UV fluorescent lamps which plants just loved.  I set the racks up in the basement room with the washing machines.  From then on, I practically lived in that basement room. Within months I had propagated and collected more violets than the racks could handle.  And I had one shelf on which aloe vera plants thrived like weeds, their fat leaves full of green healing.  I even had an old toaster oven, in which I'd sterilize batches of home-mixed potting soil.

And, when the planting was done for the day, I worked at cataloging the music collection in the storage room.  I wired some old stereo components together, so I had a place to "preview" my treasured 78s.  Paul Whiteman, John MacCormack, Leo Reisman, Hank Thompson and so many others soon filled my life with music, and the violets filled the room with bright purples, whites and all that lush fuzzy green foliage.  The music and colors seemed all the more vivid against the dark backdrop of the rest of my home life.

The other tenant of the duplex, Pat, came through the basement occasionally.  Bachelor, thirties, party hardy boisterous life.  He had a small workshop in the other part of the basement, where he'd occasionally work on his Harley.  We never spoke much, but we got along -- perhaps he thought I was a little crazy, and perhaps at that point, I was.  Some things make you act strange. Was I running away from my problems?  To me my life felt right.  

It continued that way for more than a year. An uneasy truce settled over the domestic routines. I was a stranger in my own home. The kid bought and sold used cars, even though he wasn't yet 18, came and went as he pleased.  D continued her bar life, her jobs came and went.  She'd sometimes disappear for an entire weekend.  I believed all her stories about crashing on sofas. After all, they were her real friends.

And the violets - more beautiful and exotic than ever.  I had connected with a local violet collectors club, and brought more and more exotic varieties of bloom and foliage into my bright warm corner of the world. Old planters found at the Salvation Army store became planted with exotic gifts for people I knew.

All too soon, came the day in January.   I got home from work - great to be inside from the breezy below-zero winter day.  Down the stairs to the basement.   Today it was extremely cold and drafty in the basement as well - and strangely quiet. Then I saw what was different -  the outside door was open!   The night before, Pat explained later, he had agreed to work on someone's motorcycle.  When the bars closed, they brought the bike over to the house, and loaded it into Pat's basement workshop via the door through the laundry room.  Pat apologized when he realized what had happened.  "We were both kind of drunk, and we forgot to shut the door."

I closed and fastened the outside door.  In the dazed stillness, feeling overwhelmingly weary, I went to the phonograph.  Starting the turntable, a 78 rpm version of  "Love's Old Sweet Song".  Slowly, I turned around and surveyed the damage. The leaves of all the violets were black and transparent and limp, frozen.  The aloe veras were all darkened, and drooping sadly over the sides of the pots.   All dead.
"Once in the dear dead days beyond recall, when on the world the mists began to fall.. . 
Though your heart be weary, sad the days and long, still to us at twilight comes loves old sweet song.."

Thanks for listening and contributing. I'd love to hear from you.

1 comment:

Leslie Hanna said...

Oh, Gary, that's so sad! *wipes a tear*