Can we recover our humanity in the city?

Savannah Morning News

Aug. 13, 2017


It’s exhausting to have a dog in every fight. Can I get an amen? And who knows? When it comes to approving a new apartment building (a hotel by any other name), taller than the trees on Forsyth Park (which this latest building will face), maybe our mayor and city aldermen have their finger on the pulse when last week they gave the 906 Drayton Street project the red light. That is their job, part-time as it is, looking out for us, the citizens. I don’t know: maybe we really do need more shops.

Maybe Vogue magazine, which just came out with a story about Savannah entitled “Is this Southern town the next Brooklyn?”, knows something we don’t know. Maybe this NYC-based magazine has the longer view although the last I checked friends who live in Brooklyn are thinking of moving to Queens or parts of Manhattan because rents in the once-affordable borough of Brooklyn are leaving them in the dust.

The rest of us? We just live here. We go about our lives. We pay our mortgages (or rents), shop for the best melon, try to beat the traffic to Tybee, read our book for the next book club meeting, try to keep our old dogs smelling nice, look out for potholes when we ride our bikes, try to remember which streets to avoid when there’s a flashflood. We visit the sick, remember to call the roofer after the last big rain, pick up trash in the streets (lottery tickets, plastic water bottles, smashed soda cans), mow the grass in the lane (a former city job), cull our bookshelves for books we never read and never will so we can take them to the free libraries in town.

We work to square the two worlds we live in – the haves, the have-nots. Every day I see someone wearing a polyester uniform of red and black or yellow and blue or something like that and one of those matching visors standing at a bus station, hoping their bus gets there in time so they can get to their fast-food job. Ten minutes later I’m buying a cup of coffee and staring at a tip jar with some snarky comment about not forgetting to tip. That’s when I think, “Tip? Tip for what? Was there a service I missed? Handing me a cup so I can get my own coffee? Really?”  Try putting a tip jar in a McDonald’s or a Wendy’s where employees really do need a tip, a leg up, some kind of shot in the arm. These are the working poor. But isn’t that a contradiction? Should someone who is working – sometimes two jobs – be poor?

We try to stay afloat in the challenges of life, of health, of growing old.  We applaud when we get a group text that reports, “The margins are clean.” We laugh when we overhear an exchange that goes like this:

“It’s good to see you.”

“Thanks. I’d rather be seen than viewed.”

And then we try to explain the meaning of being viewed – as in “viewing,” as in “viewing a body” – to someone born in China, who is learning our language, who wants to know our language.

And then we watch on television the arguments about the new big apartment building on Drayton and Bolton streets. Like I say, I really don’t have a dog in the fight. Yet. So I keep watching. I dish out a small bowl of ice cream and watch the City Council meeting. Neighbors in the affected area each get two minutes to present their views (“please don’t repeat what an earlier person said,” asked the mayor), followed by some explanations (longer than two minutes) from the developer who expressed his heartfelt concern for the neighbors. Then, before I had a chance to open the fridge for a second bowl of ice cream they are taking a vote. They couldn’t have waited a little while longer? They couldn’t have considered what was being said? Did it even matter? This is when people start to feel discouraged, dissed and unappreciated.

Finally, Tony Thomas asked the question of the proposed five-story, 114 unit building which is marketed for the “young professional” (not to be confused with the “working poor”):  What will the rents be? Market –rate, we’re told. Somewhere between $1,400 for a studio and $1,875 for a one- or two- bedroom, although that sounds fluid.

That got Van Johnson’s attention.

. “I keep hearing young professional. I guess I’m an old professional,” said the alderman. “I couldn’t afford that.”

Who are these young professionals who can’t find housing? Maybe the puff piece in Vogue magazine can answer that. By the way, when I watch the City Council meeting I keep hoping something substantial will come up, maybe something about the poverty numbers or even this year’s version of employ-a-teenager-over-the-summer. Something other than hotels, developers, downtown and tourism. Can we talk about that?

A few weeks ago I listened to Christian Sottile speak to a standing-room-only crowd at the Massie School on, “A New Humanism: Where does architecture in Savannah go from here?”

The wonderfully articulate and thoughtful architect and SCAD professor likened buildings to people. He quoted Shakespeare: “What is a city but the people?” Then he paused to ask, “Can we recover the humanity in our city?” I don’t know. Can we?



A traveling bookclub

Savannah Morning News

August 6, 2017

Using my midtown Savannah home as a radius, I can think of at least six neighbors and/or friends who belong to book clubs. Some gather at night in revolving residences of the members. Others have more permanent meeting places, such as a “barn” in Wilmington Island. Still others meet at individual churches and/or synagogues.

Most read the same book. But there are variations. I know of one group that meets at the Bull Street branch of Savannah’s Live Oak Public Library where the members read books from a chosen monthly theme: young adult, biographical, memoirs, fiction, historic fiction, science fiction, mystery.

My favorite group used to meet at Savannah’s teeny-weeny Ola Wyeth branch library on Bay Street. Those people, a bit more libertarian perhaps or maybe a group of contrarians who don’t play well with others, read what they darn well pleased. Each showed up with a book and a five- or 10-minute report of their book of choice and held forth. No room for disagreement or discussion there.

There are other common themes to book clubs. They seem to involve wine, dinner. snacks, chatter, gossip, phone photos, laughter, sociability.

How one joins a group seems just as random. It could be as accidental as talking to someone in line at the farmers’ market, frequenting a bookstore (a great place to start if you’re new in town), or chit-chatting with your neighbor while walking a dog.

They also seem to break down according to gender. The groups I know of are mostly women, which is curious.  But my cousin Melvin and his wife Karla belong to a mixed group and a friend named Tom goes to a men-only group. So there you go. All of which reminds me of a joke sent by a friend – a woman – who belongs to a group of bookies in Chicago. It goes like this:

“One morning a husband returns to the cabin after several hours of fishing and decides to take a nap. Since it’s such a beautiful day his wife decides to take the boat out. She motors out a short distance, anchors, and reads her book. Along comes a game warden in his boat. He pulls up alongside the woman and says, ‘Good morning, ma’am, what are you doing?’

“’Reading a book,’” she replies, thinking, ‘Isn’t that obvious?’

“’You’re in a restricted fishing area,’” he informs her.

“’I’m sorry, officer, but I’m not fishing. I’m reading.”

“’But you have all the equipment. I’ll have to write you up a ticket.”

“’For reading a book?”

“’You’re in a restricted fishing area.”

“’But officer, I’m not fishing, I’m reading.”

“’Yes, but you have all the equipment. For all I know you could start at any moment. I’ll have to write you up a ticket and you’ll have to pay a fine.”

“’If you do that I’ll have to charge you with sexual assault.”

“’But I haven’t even touched you,’” says the game warden.

“’That’s true, but you have all the equipment. For all I know you could start at any moment.’”

“’Have a nice day, ma’am,’ said he, who left immediately.”

Gender generalizations aside, I seem to have hooked up with a bunch of people – women, as it turns out – who like to travel. This can make it tricky to decide on a meeting day. It can also introduce flexibility. Before I met them they traveled to Charleston after reading, “Invention of Wings,” where they took a Grimke sisters tour, and Harris Neck, to dovetail with “Praying for Sheetrock.”

Our book this month? Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel.” This year’s road trip? Asheville, N.C. If we didn’t always reach consensus about earlier books, we did this time: touring Wolfe’s childhood home in downtown Asheville was much easier than reading his 544-page book. Full confession: unless you are a Proust scholar, a fan of Dickens or a history major, most of us are not used to this kind of writing. The paragraphs are long, the vocabulary vast, the plot sketchy. Get to the point, we think. The America he wrote about – in the 1930s – was another place, another time. If I say I sat down 25 times to read it, I probably sat down 50 times. There is a thread – a rhythm – but it takes concentration and time to find it. It sprawls.

The Home, on the other hand, is a tour de force. It is the boarding house that Wolfe’s ambitious, business-oriented, ahead-of-her-time mother established and ran, sometimes at the expense of her children. If she could rent out a bed she would. There were times Wolfe, the last of eight children, had to be creative to find a place to sleep.

From a film and/or the tour at the House, we met Edward Aswell, Wolfe’s second editor and the father of Savannah’s Mary Aswell Doll, a professor at SCAD. We heard about Wolfe’s propensity to wander, to travel across country, to sail for Europe, some seven times by my count.

But mostly we learned about one another. We exchanged stories of siblings, our own childhood homes, our many odd jobs. We laughed at an Asheville business that advertised, “Helping your dog with separation anxiety; no dogs please.” We ate trout, we drank wine, we laughed out loud, we looked for bears (pretty common in Asheville), we reveled in the cool mornings, we argued Wolfe, we debated about our next book. In the end we all agreed on one thing. As difficult as the book is to read, it stands head and shoulders above “Genius,” the recent movie about Wolfe (and his editor Maxwell Perkins), even if Jude Law, who played the author, did look pretty tasty.