No matter where we go during our time here on earth, we cannot help but collect people along the way. Some we welcome into our hearts and they become friends-casual or close and all remain with us in some form until the end of the road. Many are simply personalities who flash before our eyes. Their photographic images are burned into memory. The time I spent in the South made so clear why the likes of Faulkner, Williams and O’Connor blessed us with the caravan of characters they created out of the red clay of their peculiar America. Here are some who remain with me from my Atlanta days.
Miss Lettice was the lady across the hall from me in my apartment on Lombardy Way NE. She was somewhere between forty and fifty, not diminutive, but as fragile as Belleek porcelain. Marshall knocked on her door the day I moved into the building to let her know he was leaving and I would be taking his place. I glimpsed only a snippet of her form as she opened the door enough to allow the width of her mouth to be visible, clutching a jungle print robe to her throat. She breathed a gentle salutation welcoming me and questioned where he was moving, before softly shutting her door. He admitted he’d never seen much more of her than that. She ventured out of the building only a few times each month, waiting to do so when no one was around. I might have seen her dressed for those infrequent outings less than half a dozen times. Her outfits always included matching handbag, hat, shoes and gloves as though she were going to tea with royalty, when most likely she was taking the city bus to the Buckhead section of Atlanta to shop at Phipps Plaza.
Whenever I was coming or going, I would catch Miss Lettice peering out into the corridor, her door typically cracked only an eye’s width (there were no peepholes) checking to see who was where. At first I would acknowledge her eyeball with an appropriate greeting of ”good morning” or “good afternoon” but she would blink silently and pretend she wasn’t there. After a time I began to play along, acting like her covert snooping was as invisible as she evidently believed it to be. Often I would go to my mailbox in the small vestibule while she was gathering her mail. Then she would smile shyly and greet me. She always called me “Young Man” as though it were my christian name. After one or two polite sentences concerning the weather she would glide back to her apartment.
She wore voluminous dressing gowns to the floor, styled decades before-things I had only seen in movies of the 1930s and 40s. They might seem costume on anyone else, but she moved so comfortably and with such panache that she carried them off as though they were sweater and jeans. Her dyed light auburn hair was always perfectly in place, arranged with hair pins in a sort of French twist affair and girlishly curly in the front. She wore little make-up: thinly penciled brows, dark red lipstick following cupid shaped lips between heavily powdered cheeks. She was delicate and still pretty in a tragic sort of way. She never married and the mystery as to why she never did hovered about her like a perfume.
One morning, as I drank my coffee and savoured a companion cigarette, I heard a smashing clatter coming from the hall, or so it sounded. The crash was followed by a weakly plaintive shriek. Before I was able to detect which direction it had come from, there was a rapping at my door accompanied by a muffled “Young Man. Young Man”. Miss Lettice was in trouble. I threw open my door to see her full-on in the hall, wearing that jungle print robe over one of her gowns, waving her arms and babbling. She was animated and agitated like I had never imagined she was capable. Something horrendous had transpired in her apartment and she beckoned me follow her.
Just beyond the door, a wobbly wicker stand with three glass shelves had crumbled from either the weight of cosmetic jars and bottles or perhaps just the years of use it had obviously seen. It left a bit of a mess, but Miss Lettice had become a total mess. “Can it be…mended, do you think?” she spoke eloquently, while trembling thin hands tried forcing together a large shard of glass shelf with a crumbling chunk of wicker. I suggested we first begin cleaning up the shambles of broken glass and goop before a proper diagnosis could be made. She rearranged her morning fright hair, which poked out in all directions, as she left me to retrieve a broom and trash can.
While she was out of sight I surveyed the home of Miss Lettice, more a museum of vintage clothing and bric a brac. It was as though I had stepped into a colorized version of the snapshots my parents had of their early years of marriage, BC (before children). Layers of curtain and drapery covered all the wonderful windows, blocking the sumptuous southern sunshine. Heavily fringed once-white lampshades were everywhere, perched atop lamps on various tables compensating for the absence of light. Her bed was dressed in ruffles and flounces and was the focal point of the room. An AM radio cabinet and old heavy black phone were the only visible pieces of technology. Although a bit cluttered, her apartment was clean, but it lacked air and what was there smelled stale.
We salvaged a few items which hadn’t broken and she arranged those on one of the many small tables. The shelf had self-destructed and I carried its remains to the trash barrel out back in the yard. She was still horribly shaken, her eyes darting nervously in their sockets each time I returned for more. I invited Miss Lettice for a cup of coffee at my place but she declined, confessing she needed to lie down before a headache came on. She thanked me profusely and I left thinking perhaps her mini-tragedy might make us better neighbors. Stepping back into my apartment I heard her lock and then double lock the door, confirming that nothing would change. And it didn’t. She peered at me as always. Her eyeball was the last thing I saw the day I closed my door the final time on Lombardy Way NE.
* * *
People who work in restaurants tend to eat in other restaurants a lot and one of my favorite Atlanta breakfast spots became DODIE’S DINER. I began frequenting it several days each week after a waiter-friend from work first took me, citing DODIE’S a genuine Southern treat. It was a classic diner out of the 1950s, complete with a giant horseshoe-shaped counter, behind which reigned Dora, more a character than any movie stereotype one might conjure. (I know, Dora from Dodie’s Diner smacks of fiction, but honest-to-god I have not strayed from the real truth on this, one iota!) It was a busy joint all day with two other waitresses, yet folks waited to sit in Dora’s section which was more than half the horseshoe.
Not only was Dora a master server, she was a priceless human being whose enormous heart hung visibly from her short sleeve, which barely covered plump arms. Everything about Dora was pudgy. Her cheeks, neck, back, rear end-hell, even her fingers were porky little fat sausages which struggled to hold a pen to write your guest check. A two sizes too small pastel-colored nylon uniform hugged her descending rolls of fat so snuggly, that she appeared to be built like the little Michelin Man. She was a bleach blonde well beyond her years and each day she wore a pony tail hairdo with poodle pom-pom bangs. Dora used heavy liquid make-up base of a ruddy orangish hue. This was evident by the glaring line of demarkation where it stopped at the jaw line. From there down her chins gave her up as a china white Southern Belle. Pinned artistically like a corsage each morning was a uniquely beautiful hanky. It was requisite to ask Dora, the minute she greeted you, the significance of that day’s kerchief.
My waiter friend and I were boys from her collection of mostly male customers. She holds the distinction of being the only person in this world who consistently called me “Shugah”. My friend was “Darlin’”, another “Sweetness”-endless terms of endearment for each Tom, Dick and Clem who parked his ass at her counter. Dora carried on with us all, quasi-flirting in her chubby coquettish style. At no time did any one of the men cross the line of decency, all treating her with reverent respect, but playing along as though she were every one of our Scarlett O’Haras.
She advised you personally about the daily fare: “Y’all better stay away from that ham, ‘less you love lickin’ salt” or “Musta’ used old stockins for a filter, ‘coz coffee’s mighty mean tastin’ today”. She taught me to love grits, (which this boy from Ohio had never seen let alone tasted before), and when questioned as to how I should season them my first time she instructed: “jes’ lottsa’ buttah and peppah’d nahsly”. She then proceeded to prepare the grits on my plate for me in a gentle motherly way. “Want me to fix those for ya’ Sugah?”, she would ask each time as she finished anointing them with black pepper. Dora also introduced me to replacing my usual morning juice with a small glass of room temperature ‘Doct’ Peppa’, although many customers preferred ‘Coke-cola’. I had never considered it before DODIE’S DINER, and haven’t enjoyed it with breakfast since.
* * *
His name was Rob, my waiter-friend who introduced me to Dora. While the majority of the wait staff were in their early twenties, he had just entered his thirties. He was a man while we were still clinging to our boyhood and silliness. Most of the waiters were single, or dating or finding a new beau every other weekend at the bars. Rob had been in a committed relationship for almost ten years. It made sense because he was a serious guy. Rob was quiet when others were loud and campy. I had easily become part of their shenanigans and enjoyed myself, yet I was drawn to Rob’s quietude. He was the one I was assigned to ‘follow’ when first training as a waiter. Even though he didn’t appear as open as the other guys, he dropped his guard with me. Not having a car myself, he offered to drive me home each night after closing. Once behind the wheel, he gained confidence and a voice and revealed himself, bit by bit on those car rides home.
In high school back in Alabama, when he was sixteen or seventeen, he’d gotten a girl pregnant. For some bizarre reason, instead of giving the baby up for adoption, his mother took the child and raised her for him. Thus he had a daughter/sister back home, a teenager now herself. It is unclear today if she knew that he was her father or not, but it was definitely the reason he left home and moved far away to Atlanta. That anxiety-producing part of his past he spoke of very little and I did not press him for detail.
His current dilemma which monopolized most of our conversation those first evenings concerned the boyfriend of nearly a decade, Parker. He’d cheated on Rob a year before. As a result of his transgression, Parker had gone back to church and was born again. In 1975 I believe this was the first time I had ever heard about this phenomenon. By accepting Christ as his personal savior, of course he could no longer practice homosexuality. He wanted to continue living with Rob, still loved him, they just couldn’t make love together-ever again. Rob was so committed to him, so loyal that he was consumed by this bullshit, dying a little himself along with their relationship. Why he ever chose me as confidant was unclear. It was painful to listen to and watch. And schmuck that I am, Rob innocently pulled me slowly into the fray with him.
Rob was no taller than me; in truth, I was perhaps an inch or so taller but he gave the appearance of being bigger. He had broad shoulders, a beautifully developed upper body and small tight waist. His hair was sandy brown and full, eyes grey and he had a ruddy complexion. His skin was heavily textured from acne scarring, but like Richard Burton, it enhanced his sexiness. Deep creases on either side of his mouth only added to his masculine beauty. Between those folds lay an inviting moustache I would watch dance as he spoke softy. To look at him it appeared as though he didn’t have a gay bone in his body, especially when compared with the nelly crew which was our wait staff. It was not that he was hiding anything-he was an out and proud gay man, something that unnerved Parker greatly. He was just a guy perfectly comfortable in his gay skin. After two weeks, with each of us exposing our naked souls, I could no longer help myself. Adding to Rob’s problems, late one night in his car in front of my apartment building, I announced I had fallen in love with him.
He was not surprised, nor was he ready for the consequences. Within seconds of my proclamation, he leaned over from the driver’s seat and kissed me like I don’t remember ever having been kissed before. Although I had no doubt about the genuineness of his passion, I believe many months of frustration from Parker had colored the emotion behind it. So began my stint playing ‘the other woman’ in a convoluted storyline written by someone else. Prior to meeting him, I had already been preparing to shorten my Atlanta promise of “give it a year” to “I’m going back to NYC in the spring”. I was having a fine time, but deep inside I understood I did not belong anywhere near the Mason-Dixon line. Suddenly this guy Rob had me back-pedalling.
Parker had a day job, so by eight or nine each weekday morning Rob was at my door with plans for the day. It would be breakfast at DODIE’S or brunch or an early lunch somewhere intimate. He avoided being alone in my apartment for more than a cup of coffee and good morning kiss. He never took me anywhere near their apartment even though Parker knew I existed. I was referred to as ‘his co-worker from NYC’. I’d certainly been called worse. According to Rob, Parker had no clue about our relationship. I told him that was only fair, seeing as I had no idea what the two of us were all about either. We’d go shopping at a mall, or sometimes just drive around Atlanta, rehashing his predicament. Once my heart became entangled, it was difficult to remain neutral or suggest some way to make their relationship work. Staking a claim for him myself, there was only one viable outcome I could campaign for which was a totally selfish one. This went on for over two months.
In all that time there was only one day, one rainy, grey and glorious day when we spent nearly all the twenty-four hours alone together in his apartment. It was a Sunday and Parker had gone on an all-day church bus trip. Ron picked me up at the first light of dawn. He’d set a pretty breakfast table and cooked for me. For one of our very first times we talked about us and the possibility of an us replacing the nonentity which had once been them. I suggested he run away with me to NYC. It had been something I’d mentioned in jest as a possible scenario early on, which grew to a secret dream I harbored once I’d fallen for him. We spent the day in each others’ embrace saying very little, naked and hot making up for his celibate frustrations and my long anticipated ‘other woman’ desires. We enjoyed each other in every corner of that apartment except their bedroom. There was even an unforgettable shower scene. He drove me home, well after midnight, actually coming into my apartment this time to kiss me goodnight. Then he thanked me for saving his life.
And so in early March of 1975 I took the train back to NYC, a little more than six months after arriving. I did not find a real theatre job, nor had I taken much of a bite out of the Big Peach, but I had found something more wonderful. As thrilled as I was to be back in the city where I belonged, I had left him and so much of myself behind. He was pragmatic and knew he couldn’t just take off without properly closing the door on Parker and all that comes with ten years of life with someone you have loved. What I did not count on was the fact that Rob was weaker than the man I saw in my mind’s eye. Without my presence there to lovingly prod and push, there was the fear that he might lose his momentum.
We spoke long distance several times each week. Sometimes I would catch him in a super-positive mood and he’d talk about looking at jobs in the Sunday Times. I would send him the Village Voice with circled apartments that sounded perfect and he’d ask about the neighborhoods. Other weeks he would talk about Parker as though he hoped things would go back to how they used to be. Still other calls he’d be packing suitcases and driving up on the weekend, or he’d hint that I should come down to see him because he missed me. After a month of phone calls, his voice sounded thinner and I sensed Atlanta had grown further away from me and NYC might as well have been in the middle of the Sahara for Rob. It became the worst case of broken heart imaginable, some of the emptiest feeling my soul has ever endured. At two months, almost as long as he had been in my life, I knew it was not healthy to be bearing such pain. It was our last phone call that I got angry and told him “stop saying you love me, because you’re hurting us both when you do”. I begged him to leave Parker and the very moment that he did, no matter what time of day or night, I prayed I’d be the first one he would call; I would be waiting. My phone never rang.