Life has its moments.
The night was dampish and then it is morning on a MARTA train and I’m on my way to work. Though the rail car is crowded, my ear that works hears a male voice say, “People like you.”
Looking up from a novel that I revere, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, my eye that works turns to a youth maybe 14 years old in a blue prep school shirt. He is staring at me.
“My dad says there are institutions for people like you so normal people don’t have to look at you,” he snarls.
His pal sitting next to him giggles.
It’s as if an icy hand touches the small of my twisted back. My knuckles clench but I say nothing. The child is growing up thinking the world belongs to him, and at fault are his parents and teachers. But I am putting the few years left to me to good use. I take my able eye back to O’Connor’s story of Hazel Motes.
In any case, I can’t deny it, can I? Though I am in hard drive, I’m a mess. I am askew and gnarled in the wake of a tumor in the environs of my brain stem and, during surgery, a stroke, the first of three. I look older than I am and I am aphasic. My face is horribly disfigured and the cane I take with me everywhere is not a fashion statement.
But this mug and my torso are the least of it. I’m not saying it’s an agony to be me, just that it’s not as much fun as being, say, a hungry alligator in the New York City sewers. Eternal fatigue and memory-loss dismay and anger me and I can’t swallow. No longer do I have the sonorous voice that once gave life to Hamlet on stages in Cape Cod and Brooklyn.
It seems more than a little bit silly, frankly, to keep on grumbling about it.
Though I’m in my twilight years, I am not a zombie, a Lou Reed or a Jagger, and if I were to drop down dead this very moment, it would be of no matter. It has been a life of theater and art, of friends and passion, of applause and the pleasure of having strangers come up to me on the street to say hello. Atlanta is where I was born, in the poor folks wing of a public hospital named to honor a southern newspaper editor, Henry Grady. I came of age in Cabbagetown, a cotton mill in Atlanta that is a Shangri-La for “urban pioneers” nowadays.
My life has been a good one. I’ve put my satchel down and stayed a while, a year or two, four or five, in New York City, Honolulu, Bangkok, Paris, Munich, Nairobi, and a small town on the Irish Sea ten miles south of Dublin and the great Abbey Theatre.
And I ain’t done. I am still at my life’s work 12 and 14 hours every day and seven days of every week.
One of the blessings of old age is that the past is oftentimes clear as a bell, and in the main my past was ivory and platinum. Return with me to a day in the year the Gregorian calendar calls 1943. Early one September I remember the rain, the deluge at daybreak and the summer thunder, and after the rain, the hour of noon and my excitement. I remember the irritated rooster and the stage, the stage Papa put his stamp on, the little Elizabethan playhouse he built in the chicken yard aback of the clapboard house on Tye Street. It was on Tye Street after Papa died, in 1946 when I was ten, that yet more of my young years were tramped down and spit out–mainly by his own grown children.
A southern boyhood left the old days embedded in my medulla oblongata. I remember Papa’s dime novels and the milk cow in the back yard, to which, when his elbow was bending, Papa broke the news of the day to the beast and talked to her and no one else, not even to me his found boy. I remember the hate that white children in Atlanta were taught in school, in church and at the table, and Papa’s rage when I made friends with a black boy my age in Reynoldstown, east of the racial divide, Pearl Street. Two words for a white boy like me fell easily off the tongues of rich and poor in white Atlanta. One word was “lover” and one was not. A pariah dog on native ground I became early in my boyhood, and for long.
It was 1943 and fascism was in full blossom. There was a war on. Millions in Asia and Europe and on islands in and around the Pacific were dying. But for all the evil of little men in high places, the war news and war movies, the rationing coupons and the discord of marching boots and the 48 stars and 13 stripes fluttering, there were a few Americans whose drummer marched to a tune they alone heard.
One of those few had come into the world as three o’clock fell into four on the afternoon of the second Thursday in the fourth month of the 20th century’s 36th year. Unwelcome was that boy, the child of a teenage mill worker whose husband ran off after a riff-raff raped her, a thug hired by the owner of Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill to make the “operatives” too scared to vote for a union. She took off too all over hell and half of east Tennessee, leaving her towhead boy to settle his own hash. I was two.
1940. It was another time, and in the states of the Old Confederacy–“another country” FDR called them–the poor of both races were obliged to look after their own. So it came to be that mill families across the tracks in Atlanta looked after the abandoned boy–Effie Dodd Gray and Mama Patterson were two among them.
Then came Papa.
I was four when that old man found me. The father of six grown sons and nine grown daughters, until he died Papa sheltered and defended me. I discovered words and what words really mean: He taught me to read when I was five. I remember him reading Dickens aloud in the feeble light of a kerosene lamp (Way back then, where the working poor lived electricity was a sometime thing). I remember Charles Lamb and his sister Mary’s Tales from Shakespeare and the miniature puppet theater Papa bought at Miller’s bookstore on Broad Street for my sixth birthday.
In 1943, a fire whose source mystifies me to this very day ignited in my insides.
What it was, was a play.
The linthead boy, “the little bastard,” as one of Papa’s grown daughters chose to call me, had written his first play.
I was seven and during the summer months I saved my shoes for school (Faith School, on Memorial Drive) and went barefoot.
A notch or two of narcissism is normal in childhood. I was, at seven, mad at the world, full of myself and above my raising. On a street of no great distinction, in a century-old quarter that outsiders misnamed Cabbagetown after the boys came home from Saipan, I freed myself from the legacy given me by people I would never know, my mother’s people. That is to say, I was expected to toil at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills as so many women and children tied to me by genes and nothing else had done since 1893.
What it was, was I set in motion was a life in the professional theater, to which, six decades on, I am still a player. For my knavish antecedents, I had the players at the Globe Theatre when Will Shakespeare was raising high the roof beams in London.
It was in the sunlit afternoon that my play was performed. I have no doubt that people came to see my play because Papa told them to. Saying No to Papa made Papa angry, and even the mill owner’s hired hoodlums (“the mill police”) knew better than to irritate Papa. That tremendous man, a carpenter by day, the alpha male of a clan of “urban hillbillies,” was not my blood kin. His own children and grandchildren called him Papa, and I did too. I still do.
Neither the play’s title nor its theme do I remember. But I recall the straight back chairs Papa put here, there and all around among the chickens in his back yard and the people all around the stage, each one putting enough buffalo nickels in a Mason jar to buy me Sugar Daddies for a month.
I first went on a true stage at age 13–a stage at Atlanta’s lone theater, an amateur troupe of well-to-do white people. But it was in 1953 on the island of Manhattan, when I was 17, that I began training as an actor under legendary teachers of The Method–Herbert Berghof (privately) and a year later, Stella Adler (in a class setting). It was in New York City that my love of Will Shakespeare found its voice in Ariel, Mercutio, Iago, Richard II and Hamlet.
To today’s world, to the boy on the train, I look like a white-haired Quasimodo. But sixty years after that afternoon in the chicken yard I am still a working actor, and a playwright. As recently as a year ago, though I am one of the 34 million Americans age 65+ and the 54 million with disabilities, I played a role in Much Ado about Nothing. My one-man show, Linthead Boy, is being booked hither and yon. And for four weeks next March, in the Back Stage Theatre at 7 Stages in Atlanta, I am performing Jean-Claude van Itallie and Joseph Chaikin’s one-character Struck Dumb, which concerns a day in the life of a man who is, like me, aphasic.
Maybe there is an institution for “freaks” like me, so that “normal” people do not have to see me. But, ugly as I am, I’m traveling the long and serpentine road until I am dragged off the stage feet-first.
Hey kid in the blue prep school shirt, your dad was misinformed.