Sunday, March 09, 2014
For Women's History Month-Lucy On The Edge Of The World
People, ordinary vagrant night owls, hung-over refugees from the now closed bars and cabarets that dotted high Massachusetts Avenue and low Brattle Street, average vagabond wanderers of the Harvard Square night afraid to go home to face some wrath, the shiftless, the toothless homeless lacking that benighted nickel for subway fare or having made an erroneous judgment in favor of sweet sickly Thunderbird wine, came into the all-night Hayes-Bickford seeking, like him, relieve from their collective woes with a cup of weak-kneed coffee and steamed, steamed everything. They, whatever their condition, whatever their motives, did not bother Lucy (the first name Lucy was all anybody ever found out about her as far as he knew, at least that was all he turned up upon later inquiry) sitting alone at her “reserved” table in the back of the cafeteria toward the rest rooms. There she held forth in if not splendor then in quietude as she plied her nightly musings, and as he watched in awkward silence.
Lucy Lilac, nicknamed that last part by some ancient want-to-be fellow bard perhaps and it stuck. At least she would brighten up and answer to that call when a midnight friend called it out (that moniker’s genesis like her real surname also undisclosed to him by the other regular tenants of the night when he asked around for more information about her). She spent her youthful middle of the nights just then hunched over a yellow legal notepad filling up its pages with her writings. (She was perhaps twenty-two, maybe twenty-three, had just finished college, he had heard through the grapevine, so that age seemed about right). Occasionally she would speak in a melodious sing-song voice some tidbit she had written out loud, not harmful out loud like some of the drunks at a few of the tables, or some homeless wailing banshee cry against a benighted world, but just out loud.
Some of what she spoke of he thought was beautiful the words glued together in such a way that brought forth images of serious and thoughtful labors, and some was, well, doggerel, words strewn about in fashionable if haphazard free verse, about par for the course with poets and other writers, But all of her work, whatever he heard of it, was centered on her plight in the world as a woman torn, as a woman on the edge, on the edge between two societies, on a see-saw between her membership in the generic human race and her ragamuffin fate as a woman reduced to second-class human citizenship in a white- bread male dominated world. She spoke of kinship to the fate of the black masses.
Caught between, as one professor put it whom he had asked about it later, two cultural gradients if that term has any meaning beyond the academy. And maybe she had been stuck that way like she said but let’s let him try to reconstruct what it was all about, all about for Lucy Lilac night owl. He had become so fascinated by where she was going with her muse in those 1962 summer nights, about how she was going to go about struggle to resolve that battle between “cultural gradients” and about the gist of what she had to say to a callow world in those days that he turned up many a “two in morning” to try to figure her dream out. He had more than a passing interest in this battle since he was also spooked by those same demons that she spoke of.
[Oh, by the way, for the curious, Lucy Lilac, was drop-dead beautiful, with long black iron-pressed straight hair as was the style then, alabaster white skin whether from her odd hours of sleep or by genetic design was not clear, big red lips, which he did not know whether were in style then or not, the bluest eyes of blue, always wearing dangling earrings. Usually as well wearing some long dress so it was never really possible to determine her figure or her legs, important pieces of knowledge to him, and not just to him, in those sex-obsessed days, but he would have said slender and probably nice legs too. Since neither her beauty, nor the idea of sex, at least pick-up sex, enter into this sketch that is all that needs to be pointed out. Except this, her beauty, along with that no-nonsense demeanor, was so apparent that it held him, and others too, off from anything other than an occasional distant forlorn smile.]
What Lucy Lilac would speak of, like a lot of the young in those days, was her alienation from parents, society, alienated from just everything to keep the list from getting out of hand, but not just that. On that she had kindred spirits in abundance. She was also alienated from her race like lot of the young, him included, were in those days as well. Alienated from her nine-to-five-go-by-the-rules-we-are-in-charge-trample on the rest of the world, especially the known black world white race. Part of it was that you could not turn open a newspaper or turn on a radio or television without having the ugly stuff going down south in America (and sometimes stuff in the north too) confronting you headlong. But part of it was an affinity with black culture, mainly through music, through be-bop jazz, electrified blues and flat-out rock and roll blastings and a certain style, a certain swagger in the face of a world filled with hostility. “Cool,” to use just one word.
Now this race thing, this white race thing of Lucy’s had nothing to do, he did not think, at least when she spoke that thought never came through, with some kind of guilt by association with the rednecks and crackers down in places like Alabama and Mississippi goddams. It was more that given the deal going down in the world, the injustices, the not having had any say in what was going on, or of having been asked about it either made her feel like she was some Negro in some down trodden shack some place. Some mad priestess fellaheena scratching the good earth to make her mark.
As Lucy expanded her ideas each night (and began to get a little be-bop- edged flow into her voice as she spoke, a flow that he secretly kept time to), he got a better sense of what she was trying to say. (He later learned though one of her poems, that she had been, as he had, very influenced by Norman Mailer’s 1950s essay in The Partisan Review The White Negro, a screed on what Mailer called the white hipster, those who had parted company with their own culture and moved toward the sexier, sassy black cultural gradient.) And while Lucy and he were both comfortably ensconced in the cozy Cambridge Hayes-Bickford (well maybe not cozy but safe anyway) and had some very white skin to not have to Mister James Crow worry about he began to see what she meant.
And Lucy Lilac really hit home when she spoke of how she had been, to his surprise since she gave every indication of being some cast-off Mayfair swell’s progeny, brought up under some tough circumstances down in New Jersey. She spoke about being from poor, very poor white folks somewhere around Toms River, her father out of work a lot worrying about the next paycheck and keeping him and his under some roof, her mother harried by taking care of five kids on two kids’ money, about being ostracized by the other better off kids, about seeking solace in listening to Bessie Smith, Billie, Muddy Howlin’ Wolf and a ton of other blues names that he recognized. And he too recognized a fellahin kindred since his own North Adamsville existence seemed so similar.
Yes, those nights he knit a secret and unknown bond with Lucy Lilac. Lucy who a few months later vanished into thin air from the Hayes-Bickford night. Lucy from the edge of the world, and wherever she wound up he knew just what she meant by the white Negro hipster-dom she was seeking, and that maybe he was too…
And hence this International Women’s Day contribution.