Memoirs by Richard Monaco

 

“William Faulkner was amazing,” Richard Monaco claims. “There are amazing writers but very few can do what Faulkner did. Almost everything he wrote (almost twenty novels and over a hundred and twenty short stories) was at least very good. But some went to amazing putting them with the best ever.” Monaco came to Faulkner’s work early, and it fascinated him that a writer this good was still alive. So when he was eighteen years old, he and his best friend, Bob Bongiorno, decided to hitchhike down to Oxford, Mississippi, and try to meet their literary idol. Along the way, the two New York boys saw the South for what it was outside of its portrayal on the news and in the popular imagination, they found it to be both better and worse than shown, and both alien from and all-to-familiar to their experiences in their own region.

 

This is that story.

 

In Memphis, we had to walk a lot because the local fuzz didn’t want hitch-hikers on big roads. We cadged a truck ride at a diner and crossed deep into Mississippi by night. Next day, we trudged red clay dust roads in white-hot yet mellow sun past actual cotton fields where blacks labored in multi-colored clothes and headrags. We were heading towards the main road according to the trucker’s instructions.

 

Stopped at a general store (we decided could be Varner’s as in The Hamlet) where we bought white bread and cheese sandwiches that Bongiorno likened to jail food. He’d know, having spent a week in the Yonkers city slammer on the famous “beard” traffic violation. As they say, we were the cynosure of all eyes from the dumpy, pale, makeup-less woman in a dress that seemed to be sewn from flour sacks through the weathered men in overalls to the young black plying a mop. We might as well have stepped out of a UFO.

 

We sat on the porch to eat and asked how far to Oxford. Don’t recall the answer but it wasn’t that far by our “road-man” standards. We sat there soaking up red clay country atmosphere imagining we were in one of the novels. A stocky man propped his heavy brogans up on the railing and rolled a cigarette.

 

“You boys from Saint Louis?” he wondered.

 

“New York City,” I replied.

 

Everybody perked up. The woman appeared in the doorway which she hadn’t been far from, anyway.

 

“Huh,” he voiced. “That right?”

 

“Sure now,” I said.

 

A long man in overalls with a leathery red neck put in: “I heard ever-body up there got Tommy guns.”

 

“Never seen that,” I said. “We don’t, anyways.”

 

The man with the brogans was heading generally our way, so we took a ride in his pickup. We hit a concrete road and he shared some wisdom. He toldcastro2 us we seemed like nice young men and gave Bongiornorno the benefit of racial doubt when it came out he was Italian. He let us know that among his peers he was considered a little far left. A good joke was to ask him “how’s your friend Fee-del[1] these days?’ and so forth.

 

The air coming in the windows was like putting your face near the exhaust from a dryer along with the hot metal smell from the sun-beaten roof. The shade under the big, densely green trees in groves out in the fields looked like sweet heaven. I recalled the image of Stonewall Jackson dying on the battlefield talking about crossing a river only he saw and resting under the peaceful trees over there. My Grams Bottinelli said something very like that when she went. Her given name was Mary as was my mother’s and Grandma Monaco. A surfeit, maybe.

 

Without segue, our driver said, as we passed a barefoot Black man on a mule riding among the weeds and blue flowers alongside the road:
“Whut you don’t much understand up there is that our Nigras outnumber us considerable.” His face was pale, tight-lipped and reflective. “I don’t hold with unfair treatment of any folks. Any one a them as knows me will tell you that much. I ain’t no Klan feller or nothing. Fair and equal on both sides but separate.”
“That works if you’re really equal,” Bob said.
I leaned my face into the hot wind and longed for those trees and hoped the conversation stayed affable as this wasn’t my first time in the South though never before so deep. Can’t count Florida, despite geography.
“That’s true, son,” the man said, pleasantly, “but, the thing of it is, the man whut runs the band calls the tune.”
“Sure now, sir,” I said with sincere abnegating mockery, thinking about the tortured Lord family hiding behind passin’ in a North where they had to fear New Yorkers much less sun-chapped crackers and big-bellied sheriffs. “So you’re concerned that if they go on protesting and marching and so forth they might rise up all at once and where would you be?”
“That is right. You are a smart young man.”
“I don’t imagine you need to really worry, just now.” Bob would later pointed out that I was as good as his father imitating accents and speech patterns. It amused Joe Bongiorno, Esq. to speak as spoken to, noting no one ever seemed to notice. Well….
He took it in with pursed lips.
“Alright,” he responded. “Now I ain’t saying nothing neither way but I hope you boys don’t say things that might stir up any Nigras. Unlike some places, things have been peaceful here up to now.”
This was just before real Civil Rights actions moved so far South.

 

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“We came to visit William Faulkner,” Bob said. “He lives in Oxford.”

 

“I knew some Faulkners downstate.”

 

“He’s a world-famous author,” Bob told him.

 

“That a fact? I’m no big reader.”

 

Neither were they in Oxford either, it turned out. They only had two of his books in the public library. The last time one had been taken out was five years before. So much for literary lions in their small home towns.

 

The main residential street curved into town. It was lined with huge, twisted old trees, the hot, heavy air drenched with over-rich flower and earth scents. We looked at everything that related to the novels like the town square with the Confederate monument, the jail, and the ancient hotel where drummers, stock-buyers, and other itinerants stayed – as we did. After check in, presided over by a flour-pale, white-haired man wearing wire-rim glasses during which he asked a few probing questions like “where you boys from” and so on, we wandered around town provoking unabashed stares as against the shrewd, inscrutable characters we’d expected from the stories.

Just as advertised, there was an eatery on a back street that fit the description of Bookwright’s place in The Hamlet where Tull would mix his eggs into a mass on his plate and slurp them down. We sat at the wooden counter, sagging and polished smooth by decades of forearms and wiping. The counterman assumed (like others) that we were going to the summer school.
We saw Faulkner’s uncle the lawyer’s shingle on the second-story wood porch of a business building off the square. He was called Gavin Stevens in the books, as all knew except down there. He was polite and thoughtful, a little delicate at that time of his life. We were thrilled to talk to him.
He told us Old Bill was in Virginia visiting his daughter but that we should see his sister who’d show us around. He said Bill would have been “tickled” by our trek from New York. Told us he liked the City himself, up to a point.
Nice old house set back from the street. Masses of over-rich, cloyingly sweet flowers filled the yard. My main memory was when his sister showed us his office with, yes, his Nobel Prize lying face down on a shelf. Some papers and books, pipes, and ashtrays.
She was pleasant and offered us lemonade and said it was too bad we’d missed him. Nothing surprising except for five wooden cases of (I think) Old Crow whiskey stacked along one wall. That was a “right smart” of liquor and I said so.

Roanoke

 

She was pleasant and offered us lemonade and said it was too bad we’d missed him. Nothing surprising except for five wooden cases of (I think) Old Crow whiskey stacked along one wall. That was a “right smart” of liquor and I said so.

 

“Bill has it shipped in,” she explained, bright pale eyes twinkling. “He likes to have his drink.”

 

We didn’t know then he was a Homeric soak.

 

“I guess that’s a couple of years supply,” I commented.

 

Her eyes twinkled on. She had a gracious yet bird-like quality, I thought. “Not quite so long as that,” she told us, “but I expect we’ll get through the summer.”

 

*  *  *

 

We planned to leave the next day. Went out that evening (it was a Saturday) and after dinner at the counter in “Bookwright’s” listening to incomprehensible gossip and small-talk, we wandered around town. The one movie playing we’d seen and the teen-age hotspot seemed to be a soda fountain, not for seasoned adventurers like us.

About sunset we wandered behind the square and entered another world: pick-up trucks and old cars, motors running were gathered around a big open cement-paved space that maybe was a parking lot or market area by day. Closer, we realized everybody but us was black to a greater or lesser degree.
Some were boarding the trucks and cars and pulling out as other trucks and cars pulled in and disgorged passengers. Strange. There were no women, either. It rang a dim and distant bell except three unsmiling men blocked our way as dozens of others looked at us and even in the gathering twilight we could tell no one seemed pleased to see us. Flashback to Malara in downtown Yonkers.
“Where you white boys goin’ heah?” one asked.
It was Hope and Crosby in a “Road” picture without the lame jokes and cool patter. We were loosely encircled and I knew Bob wasn’t fast enough to run out of his shoes. Everyone seemed to have on neat and fresh-looking clothes. Maybe they wouldn’t want to mess them up. But weren’t we in the heart of Jim Crow and lynching, I mean, blacks had actually stepped off the sidewalk to make way for us a couple of times which had annoyed us both. Would they dare lay a hand on white men down here? Well, maybe with Bongiorno they’d have a mistaken identity defense but me the whitest kid you knew?
“Just looking around,” Bob said.
“That’s right,” I added, with no try at any drawl. The next question from a really large man (with razor-thin facial scars you could see even in the draining evening glow) was the usual one. He had an unusually rich drawl.
“Wheah y’all come from?”
We told him.
“Well, you white boys ain’t ‘post to be back here jest now.”
He was firm.
No problem.
Back out of the now dark alley an amused-looking pale man in a shiny gabardine jacket with the air of a salesman shook his head.
“You them northern boys,” he said. “That’s nigra territory Sat’dy night. You don’t want to be intrudin’ there.”
“What’s going on?” Bob wondered. I got it.
“The ones from this town go to other places to see women,” I said. “And vice-versa. Is that it?”
“Yew hit it,” the man told us. “They do that where you all come from?”
“Yew hit it,” I said.
I got sick as I always did when travelling more than 100 miles, it seems. Spent an extra night in the hotel while my insides knotted and unknotted. I wasn’t going to miss “Bookwright’s” café. Bongiorno went to the movies and wandered around the mainly deserted campus without picking up any girls.

 

*  *  *

 

[1] Fidel Castro, el presidente of the communist island nation of Cuba.