Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 6: Cape May

Chapter 6
Cape May



“By all means,” Tennessee said, “we must meet the Cape May Fairy!” We had just passed a sign pointing the way to the ferry landing, but we would not be crossing the Delaware Bay. We were heading for the town of Cape May. It had been Tennessee’s idea to leave Manhattan for a break before we continued on to Washington. He knew I had spent five years in Cape May after college, so he hired a car and driver to take us the three-and-a-half hours to visit the southern tip of New Jersey. We sipped cocktails in the back of the Cadillac as we gradually escaped the sprawl of New York, and then traveled through mile after mile of the Pine Barrens. After Egg Harbor, the horizon opened as the highway found the edge of the salt marsh. Water in the winding channels reflected the November sky, and birds, as infrequent as the cars on the Parkway, took lonely turns against the clouds. I talked of my years in Cape May.
I had arrived in the town shortly after getting my art degree in 1973, joining my college friends, Hilary and Chuck. Hilary and I planned to put together an art studio, which led to our first attempt at business—selling art. Incite: a Gallery was only a cubbyhole in a Victorian hotel, but we attracted a backer. With his help, we opened a store in the center of town. In Whale’s Tale, we sold crafts, jewelry, paper goods, and specimen shells, only out-of-the-ordinary items, in contrast to the beach stores around us. The business grew steadily, and after two years, we were able to quit our second jobs and even hire employees.
In its heyday, Cape May had vied with Saratoga to be the retreat for wealthy Southerners. Louis Chevrolet raced Henry Ford on its beach. Five presidents spent at least parts of their summers in the town. However, by the mid-1900s, Cape May’s popularity with the well-to-do had waned, and it became a haven for working-class families from Baltimore and Philadelphia who liked the inexpensive accommodations, and for the artistic fringe who found charm in the deteriorating Victorian structures.
Then, in the early 1970s, a new, moneyed crowd discovered the town. Victorian buildings became hot properties and were bought and renovated. New cafes and restaurants opened. Trendy stores replaced souvenir shops. We were in the right place at the right time.
But in that fifth summer, the summer of 1978, my life changed. I had enjoyed the years I spent there, but my leaving was abrupt—and the end of the world as I knew it. What had begun in the early ‘70s as an undulation of mood, swelled and crested as full-blown mania. When, during high season, I became boisterous and erratic, my partners barred me from working in the store.
Life pulsed through every fiber of my body. I was certain that I had never been more alive. Every song was sung for me. Every sunrise was a salutation from God. Incredulous, I dismissed all offers of help from friends, and they, caught in the crush of summer business, had no time for my energy for or my rantings. Convinced I was meant for a higher calling, I sold my share of the business to my partners. Then, having all the time in the world and an ever-more-tenuous tether to it, I stalked the beaches and bars, looking for adventure.
Soon, after a scuffle with a beach-tag inspector, I was hauled off the beach by two cops and committed to a mental hospital. There, Lithium quickly brought me down from mania. A month later, I was released to my parents in Pennsylvania, but with nothing to break my fall, I continued headlong into depression.
I had been back to visit Cape May a couple of times since then, but kept a low profile. The memory of my behavior embarrassed me, and I did not want to run into townspeople who had witnessed it. I sensed my illness lurking in the shadows, and was afraid I would see it reflected in their eyes as well.
But now, like a manic-fantasy-come-true, I was returning to Cape May in the back of a Cadillac limousine, sipping cocktails with Tennessee Williams. As we passed The Lobster House, I slouched low, thankful for the tinted glass.
We checked in at the Golden Eagle, a tired modern hotel. Away from the Victorian part of town, it was the only hotel in Cape May with an indoor pool for Tennessee’s exercise. While he swam in the pool, I walked across Beach Drive and stood atop the seawall. The ocean, having scoured away the beach years before, broke patiently against the granite boulders.


The next morning, Sue, one of the friends who had not distanced themselves from me when I was manic, lent us her ancient VW Bug. Tennessee perched himself on the passenger seat, which appeared to have been chomped by a shark. I folded my torso and limbs into the driver’s space. I could work the controls well enough.
As we drove through the old part of town, sunlight played on the calico limbs of sycamores that lined the streets. In the quiet, I felt anxious. I loved the excitement of summer, but the crowds had returned to Cherry Hill, Chevy Chase, and Bryn Mawr. I hated the isolation of Cape May winters, and sensed the monochrome of its approach beneath the beauty of the day. As we drove along Beach Drive, the Arcade was shuttered tight, the sounds of Skee-Ball replaced by the squalling of gulls as they circled overhead, then dove to fight over bits of carrion on the beach. Not a hint of Coppertone or coconut oil rode upon the stiff, salty breeze.
I pulled back into town and parked behind the pedestrian mall. In Whale’s Tale, I talked with Karen, the one employee I still knew. Chuck and Hilary were out of town. Tennessee examined specimen shells displayed in glass cases, and then bought a crystal pendant for his sister, Rose.
We walked the three blocks of the pedestrian mall and back. No one recognized Tennessee, and I saw no one who knew me either. We stopped at Barry Clothes, where Tennessee bought a blue sweat suit. Bald Stan, pumping our hands, followed us out afterward. I wondered which had surprised him more, Tennessee’s appearance in town, or my recovered sanity.
A block further down, we ducked into Kahn’s Ugly Mug for lunch. We found seats at the bar, a long wooden island that dominated the room, and ordered draft beer and clam chowder. Several men from commercial fishing boats sat opposite us. Two women, weathered as the men, sat with them. Elsewhere, unemployed townsmen nursed noontime beers.
“Look . . .” Tennessee said as he nodded toward the front. A large figure nearly blocked the light streaming in as he entered the bar. “It’s the Cape May Fairy!”
Lonnie, who had been an awkward, flamboyant teenager when I first arrived in town, had grown up on the back side of Cape May. He did not fit in with the other descendants of the slaves brought to town by southerners before the Civil War. He had grown to be a large man—and a town character. He worked as the host of The Shore, a party bar across the street. The Shore, like most businesses, had already closed until the next season. The Mug was the only bar open year-round.
Lonnie’s blue silk shirt was open to the navel. Around his neck hung a chain with a three-inch, gold medallion that showed bright against his hairless chest. His wrists and fingers flashed more gold. He greeted the bartender extravagantly and called greetings to the men at the bar. A few returned discreet nods.
“Oh my God!” Lonnie recognized me from across the bar. Then, as he approached, he recognized Tennessee.
“Well, sir,” he said to Tennessee, “let me wish you a very special welcome to Cape May!”
Tennessee thanked him and shook his hand.
“In town for a while?” Lonnie asked, as his gaze bobbed from one to the other of us repeatedly.
Tennessee and I looked at each other and shrugged in unison.
“Physical,” the Olivia Newton-John anthem, played on the jukebox.
Lonnie turned to me. “It is D-E-A-D-L-Y around here—deadly.” His hips began moving to the music. “I need a party!” His hands were over his head. He was oblivious to the rough men at the bar, many of them trying to shake off the previous night’s hangover. The women cast wary glances.
“Catch me,” he said, “if you want to party tonight. I’m over The Shore—just go up the back stairs. Or call the bar—Tony had the phones forwarded.” He moved toward the door. Before disappearing, he stopped and hollered back, “I’m watching the whole block while they’re in Boca.”
Back at the hotel, Tennessee went for a swim. He wanted to meet my friends, so I called Sue, and she and her husband, Phil, joined us at the hotel for dinner. They brought their daughter, Eliza. Eleven days old—her first venture out. The empty, worn-out dining room set the tone. Normally one of the most interesting, interested, and animated people I have known, Sue was exhausted. Phil held Eliza, his dark beard brushing the top of her head as he ate. Dinner dragged—the food was flat, the wine metallic.
Saying he did not feel well, Tennessee excused himself early. I caught up with Sue and Phil on Cape May news, but soon Eliza wakened, and they needed to take her home.
After they left, I stopped at the front desk to let them know we would be checking out the next day. Cape May was too quiet. Tennessee had decided we should return to New York in the morning. I felt like a failed host and was grateful to be leaving early. Just being in town made me anxious, and doubly so serving as Tennessee’s guide. I felt I had to please everyone without knowing how to please anyone. I had lost all sense of self and proportion.
“Do you think I could get his autograph?”
The desk clerk introduced herself as Miriam, the mother of a long-ago friend of mine, but she was someone I had never met. How did she know who I was? 
“Gee . . .” I hesitated, not wanting to deal with this. No one had asked me to get his autograph before. In my mood, I would rather have walked barefoot across burning coals.
“I’m a big fan.” She closed her eyes for a moment, and then opened them and spoke. “‘After all, high station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace.’”
I felt prickles on the back of my neck as I recognized the last sentence from Tennessee’s Memoirs—my favorite of all his lines.
“It’s in my will,” she said, with a big smile. “I’m having it put on my tombstone.”
The cheery mention of death spooked me. “I’ll ask him . . .” I said, “later.”—knowing I would not. “He’s resting now.”
Back in my room, I called and arranged for the service to send a car in the morning. The next day, it arrived on time, and after we climbed into the rear compartment, Tennessee declared, “Well, the town is beautiful—your friends, lovely. Maybe we can come back another time—in season.”
I sat back. Soon we would be out of Cape May. It was going to be a long ride back to the city. I settled deeper into the seat. We crossed the high bridge over the canal, and then as we turned onto the Parkway and headed north, I looked out across the waving marsh grasses and wondered what my fate as Tennessee’s assistant would be.
For years, he had traveled with a paid companion—sometimes an actor down on his luck, sometimes a hustler, and sometimes even a fan. Most of them slept with him. Many stole from him. Some caused scenes in public. Few of them lasted longer than two or three weeks. Many of them abandoned him, often without warning, at home or on the road. Tennessee’s mental condition was aggravated by this—and aggravated the situation as well.       
            The most important thing to Tennessee was his relationship with his creative powers—though he never spoke of it. I could sense his frustration in the heave of a sigh, the tear of paper from his typewriter, or the slam of a door. I wondered if through clouds of alcohol, drugs, and anxiety his inspiration had grown chimeral, or if ideas shined like jewels in the night, sometimes caught, sometimes slipping below the landscape before he could grasp them. Then again, perhaps this had always been the case.
            Whatever his experience, he fought his demons daily, determined to express what was in him—and I was determined to bring some stability and continuity to his life.
He had a courage I did not possess. He insisted on living his life as he chose. My job was to support him in that. I respected his determination and audacity—admired him for it—but another part of me wanted to protect him, although I knew trying to control his behavior would have meant the end of my job. I could keep away those he wished not to see, and I could be ready to deal with anything that came along, but I could not interfere with his choices about drugs, alcohol, the people he associated with, or the things he decided to do.          
Tennessee’s friends and business associates in New York had all welcomed me, encouraged me, and offered support.
“If you need to, call me at home.” Milton Goldman had said as he jotted the number on his card that day in the ICM offices. Jane Smith had signed on as my fashion consultant, leading me to Imperial Wear, where I bought extra-long suits, and then to Brooks Brothers where she coordinated them with ties as her treat.
“There . . . you look wonderful!” she said after adjusting the knot. As she smoothed my lapel, I sensed she was dressing Tennessee, and with that touch, entrusting me to do for her friend what she could not do herself.
That I had come into such a position was not entirely surprising. I had no focus in life. My parents had joined the masses in suburbia after World War II, shedding individuality for the promises of corporate life. They had endured the struggles of the Great Depression and the war years, and embraced their place in the post-war climb toward prosperity.
“Oh no,” my mother had insisted. “Not architecture. Too hard to get established. Accounting. You like numbers…”
I had a head for numbers, but an inclination toward art. My mother was as domineering as the Pope she esteemed, and I, steeped in the doctrines of absolute authority—church and parents—did not conceive of rebellion. Ambition withered, and I became subject to the prevailing winds. My excellent performance as a student was due more to dollar-an-A incentives than purposeful intent. In college, desperate for a breath of air, I changed my major from biology to art, but I had no vision of life beyond my studies. Then, in 1973, I graduated and was thrust abruptly into the adult world.
            At the end of that summer, I landed in Cape May. And it was there, four years later, that I read Tennessee’s Memoirs. An admiration welled up within me, and I knew I would know him one day. A year later, I was committed to the mental hospital, and then when I was released a month after that, nothing remained of the life I had known. Eventually, I landed a job in restaurant management, and then two years after that, the currents bore me to Key West.
            I knew, of course, that Tennessee lived in my new town. Although somewhere deep in my mind I still expected I would know him, I recognized this as an outlandish idea that I could not pursue. It was the sort of idea that if entertained, would have to be expunged, and, like so many manic delusions before, burned on the funeral pyre of the grandiose.
            And yet, here I was.


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