ROVIN' AND RAVIN' WITH MIKE

    Copyright ©  2001,  1999 by Michael Segers
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Love Song for an Author

 

A quarter of a century ago, I spent my first night in Greenwich Village, the old, sometimes artsy neighborhood, the only place in New York City I could imagine living. Since the young professionals (not yet called yuppies) had discovered the good wood and boundless potential of the century old residences, which at four and five stories, were dwarves in the birthplace of skyscrapers, I could afford only a tiny fifth floor walk-up in a building constructed before the Civil War. (That's what it is called in New York; here in Georgia, we know it was the War Between the States.) The best feature of my apartment was its unimpeded view of the Empire State Building, one of the few landmark buildings of New York City I have never entered.

To the left, I saw a woman standing on the roof of a building ("Tar Beach," as New Yorkers call the flat, ugly surface, where the more desperate will brave the pigeon souvenirs to sunbathe). Wrapped in what appeared to be a variety of shawls and scarves, the woman held her arms out as if she were trying to embrace the city. Or, perhaps she was trying to fly. That was my first glimpse of poet, novelist, and historian Marguerite Young. As she became a friend, a teacher, and a delight, I realized my initial impression of her--that she was trying to hug a whole city or trying to fly--was pretty accurate. She had a boundless affection for people but not much love for a reality in which she could not spread her arms and fly.

Marguerite is much on my mind these days, because I am reading her book Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs, recently published, four years after her death. Since I shall be reviewing it next week, I need to make a full disclosure of my friendship with the author. But, the truth is, I'm using that as an excuse to enjoy and share memories of an amazing person.

To get the formalities out of the way, Marguerite was born in Indiana in 1908 and died there in 1995. She lived in New York City for almost fifty years, where she taught at Fordham University, Columbia University, and the New School for Social Research. She published only four books in her lifetime: two books of poetry (of which I've never seen copies); Angel in the Forest, a history of two utopian communes in nineteenth-century Indiana; and one novel, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling.

I first heard of Marguerite in 1966, when the encyclopedia yearbook had a picture of her, laying her head wearily on the towering manuscript of that novel, which had appeared the year before to awestruck reviews. Within a year, however, the huge (1198 pages) novel appeared in remainder catalogues for a dollar. During the decades since, it has gone in and out of print in various formats. For some time there was a heroic effort by a New York radio station to broadcast the entire novel in weekly readings.

I next heard of Marguerite five years later, while I was at Georgia Southern College (now University) in Statesboro. One of the English professors there had met her and had assigned Miss MacIntosh to the students in his Contemporary Fiction course. By the time I took the course the next year, however, that novel was no longer on the syllabus. I heard that he had been threatened with all manner of horrible things if he ever again inflicted the novel on innocent undergrads.

A few years later, I arrived in New York City and found my tiny apartment on one of the storied streets of Greenwich Village, where there is indeed a street that crosses itself. My heart was full of dreams, not of noble thoughts (a privilege of the young), and my feet were dry but dirty with the leavings of too many dogs. To fuel my dreams and forget about the dogs, I signed up for Marguerite's weekly, non-credit workshop in writing fiction.

Although Marguerite's name is on only five books, the four published in her life and the posthumously published biography of Debs, her collected works are much more expansive than that. Teacher, friend, and inspirer of the young (there is some significance in her surname, which she shared with the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a relative of hers), she had such special talents that I do not hesitate to use the loaded word charisms--spiritual gifts. She never had children, but she gave, as I know from my own experience, nurturing care and concern to hundreds, perhaps thousands of her students.

Marguerite appeared like a vision in the dreary institutional setting of the New School classroom, almost weighed down with Indian prints, shawls, fringes. No matter how fantastical her subject matter, she spoke always in the twanging tones of her beloved Indiana homeland. Her name Marguerite sounds so lovely and ethereal, so appropriate for the persona of the denizen of Greenwich Village, and yet her name simply means "daisy," and for all her accretions of sophistication and fantasy, she was always a simple Hoosier daisy at heart.

Marguerite invited me to her apartment only once, and I understand that she did not often invite people to her temple of the muses. The red floor and the many angels, seen and unseen, do not stick in my memory as vividly as the two penguins, stuffed and preserved under a glass bell, which she told me she had had for years. She had never owned a television set; when Nixon and Kennedy were running for the presidency, a friend gave her money to buy a television set so that she could watch their debates. Instead, she bought the penguins and named them for the candidates, who had debated without her attentions.

She maintained a second home at Pennyfeather's, a café on Seventh Avenue, just south of Sheridan Square, only a few blocks from her apartment and from mine. Here, she sat for hours, smoking and sipping coffee, holding court for the blue-collar workers, drug addicts, winners, losers, writers and students, who ended up there, somewhere between Times Square to the north and Wall Street to the south.

I stopped by Pennyfeather's regularly while I lived in New York. After I returned to my senses and to Georgia, whenever I visited New York, I would enter Pennyfeather's, sit a few seats down the counter from her, and wait until I caught her eye. Although I was just one of multitudes that she contained, she never failed to glow with recognition and call me by name.

Once, I found a card with two penguins on it, and remembering the presidential birds in her apartment, I inscribed it, "Love from the mad penguin lover," and sent it to her. Some weeks later, I stopped by Pennyfeather's, and as I opened the door, she boomed, "There's the mad penguin lover." Coming from a Hoosier, it sounded like "pan-guin lover."

I tried to act innocent, but Marguerite could see through me even when she couldn't see me. There was a ritual on Monday nights after class for some of us students to follow Marguerite to Pennyfeather's, to continue our discussions, which were as much about reading fiction as about writing it, as much about life as about fiction at all. One night, I fell into step with a student from Peru, who quizzed me about all things southern, especially the accent, which in those heady days of Jimmy Carter's campaign was a topic of such interest in New York that people bought me drinks to hear me talk.

I explained that the easiest way to identify a southern accent was that a certain four letter word (not fit for polite society or Peanut.org readers) is pronounced in three syllables. I demonstrated, and the Peruvian ran up to Marguerite and said, "Marguerite, listen to this!" She let the three syllables fly with deadly accuracy. Marguerite did not turn around but said, "Michael, shame on you!"

My fondest memory of Marguerite is set on one of those after-class sessions one Monday night, when she had invited Wyatt Cooper, southerner, author, and sometime husband of Gloria Vanderbilt to speak to us. Afterwards, most of the class escorted them to the inevitable session at Pennyfeather's, where we sat for hours. Some of the class faded away, and strangers took their places. This was Monday night, and I had to go to work on Tuesday morning, but I did not look at my watch.

One snowy Monday, Marguerite had arrived at class late, apologizing by saying that every clock in the Village was frozen at a different time. There was no snow this Monday night, but time had flown off to roost with the pigeons. Finally, Cooper went in one direction, and the rest of us escorted Marguerite to her "house" (as New Yorkers call their apartments). There must have been forty or fifty people following Marguerite, perhaps some cynical New Yorkers hoping that someone was going to jump off a building. A few drag queens tagged along, not as resplendent as the lady who led us all. We were singing to her, I am sure. Although "Beautiful Dreamer" would have been suitable, I cannot hear the tune now. As Miss Marguerite, my darling, and all true poets know, that makes this so much sweeter, my love song for an author, a friend, and a teacher.

I leave Marguerite and my quarter-century younger self on Greenwich Village streets, winding and tortuous as her sentences or mine, our feet, dry and clean, not touching the filthy pavement. Of course, her feet are covered in red stockings and fanciful, fairy-tale boots. Our hearts are soaring, full of noble thoughts, and everyone in Marguerite’s entourage has flown out of time. The clocks are standing still tonight, in a village that is not a village, a neighborhood in New York City that is not in New York City, that became Indiana, that became Georgia, that became home for us both.

You can view a thorough presentation of the life and writings of Marguerite Young, including the first photograph I ever saw of her, pay homage to the brave publisher who is keeping her works in print, and "link" to Marguerite in her own handwriting, from my copy of Angel in the Forest:

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