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True story: Coffee with “Josh”
The Music in Prose: Willa Cather on town and country
The town mouse and the country mouse. Distress and agitation of the town mouse.
Meditations, Book 11:22, Marcus Aurelius
THE TOWN MOUSE
“I am not going to engage with you, please step forward and order your coffee,” the man said to Josh who moved along the line.
Josh had been talking in Spanish to people behind him. Then he turned and tried to talk to this man. Josh apologized then started talking, again.
The guy repeated, “I am not engaging with you. Step forward to get your coffee.”
The Gallery Espresso is located on the corner of Bull Street and Perry Street, next to Forrest Gump Park. Savannah’s oldest coffee shop is dark with upholstered furniture, hardwood fireplace, sideboards with vintage tea sets for sale, the kind of furnture where you sink because the springs have gone. It was a historic building, a cozy basement place reminiscent of “beat poet” days.
After we placed our order, my son grabbed a chair by the hearth, the five of us hoping to sit together.
Not long after we were settled, Josh appeared, “Is this seat taken?” Then he lept into our circle and plopped into the vacant chair. Josh’s skin was Elmers glue-white, and he was fidgety, like a mouse. Twenty-something.
“So where you all from? I’m Josh, by the way.”
“What church you all go to? You look like good folks,” he prattled on. I sipped my breve, espresso with steamed half-and-half; it was warm and creamy. If he paused, at all, to catch his breath, I nudged him.
“No church. Just visiting,” I said. “Savannah your home?”
“Yes. I go to the Greek Orthodox. For church. It’s next to the German Church. Maybe one day, there’ll be a German Orthodox Church!” He laughed at his joke.
“My friends taught me how to fight. Now, I get in fights. But I’m really just a marshmallow. I lost a lot of weight!” He continued, “I need to take boxing lessons. But, I mostly read and do research.”
His sweatshirt did kind of hang on him. “What are you reading?” I said.
“Aerolus,” he said. I looked at him. “Aerolus, Mark. Medications.” My adult children were off their phones, watching.
Aero-lus. AIR-oh-less. It had a familiar ring. “Meditations, you mean, by Marcus Aurelius?” Yes, he shook his head.
“He had saintly qualities,” Josh said. “But he persecuted Christians.” He paused, then added, “He was noble.”
“Medications, that’s good. The way of the times. Medicate,” I said. My husband found it funny, Josh’s title. My oldest fought hard not to laugh and I could see it in her eyes, in the corners of her mouth.
Josh shared all manner of tidbits. I hadn’t been in town for years and my impression was shaped by characters and real events covered in the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which for the rest of the country put Savannah on the map. John Cusack, Kevin Spacey, Jude Law were cast in the film. The UGA (said UG-ah) bulldog, the scandalous art dealer, Jim Williams, Lady Chablis, the invisible-dog walker.
It wasn’t long, maybe halfway through my coffee, when Josh stood. An older man gave him a hug and asked how he was doing.
Josh left us as quickly as he had joined us.
THE COUNTRY MOUSE
In this passage from Willa Cather’s O Pioneers, Alexandra Bergson is the protagonist and farmer who received her father’s bequest, instead of her brothers–highly unusual at the time–to tame the family’s wild Nebraska land. Carl Linstrom is her friend and neighbor who had left for Chicago to become an engraver. Upon his return years later, the two discuss their diverging paths.
What is surprising is Alexandra’s pronouncement about Carl’s choice.
“But you show for it yourself, Carl. I’d rather have had your freedom than my land.”
Carl shook his head mournfully. “Freedom so often means that one isn’t needed anywhere. Here you are an individual, you have a background of your own, you would be missed. But off there in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock-coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is to pay our rent, the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theatres. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.”
Alexandra was silent. She sat looking at the silver spot the moon made on the surface of the pond down in the pasture. He knew that she understood what he meant. At last she said slowly, “And yet I would rather have Emil grow up like that than like his two brothers. We pay a high rent, too, though we pay differently. We grow hard and heavy here. We don’t move lightly and easily as you do, and our minds get stiff. If the world were no wider than my cornfields, if there were not something beside this, I wouldn’t feel that it was much worth while to work. No, I would rather have Emil like you than like them. I felt that as soon as you came.”
“I wonder why you feel like that?” Carl mused.
“I don’t know. Perhaps I am like Carrie Jensen, the sister of one of my hired men. She had never been out of the cornfields, and a few years ago she got despondent and said life was just the same thing over and over, and she didn’t see the use of it. After she had tried to kill herself once or twice, her folks got worried and sent her over to Iowa to visit some relations. Ever since she’s come back she’s been perfectly cheerful, and she says she’s contented to live and work in a world that’s so big and interesting. She said that anything as big as the bridges over the Platte and the Missouri reconciled her. And it’s what goes on in the world that reconciles me.”O Pioneers by Willa Cather, Neighboring Fields chapter IV
Alexandra makes the argument that what lies beyond her cornfields makes life worth it, that Carrie Jensen was distraught from the tedium of farm life, doing the same thing over and over, then trying to kill herself. After she sees the bridges and the river, she was reconciled to her routine, perfectlly cheerful and content, knowing the world’s so big and interesting.
Carl dismisses his sad urban existence as the cost of living near the heart of things, which means having nothing to show but a few square feet, an easel, the landlady and deli owner at your funeral. The deception city folk uphold in their sameness, the lack of ties to anything.
Freedom means not being missed.
Alexandra for all her years of lonely strife recognizes and argues that it is the very freedom Carl enjoys that makes her life worth living. And perhaps Carl’s youth at the farm provides him solace in his choice to be in the city with thousands of rolling stones.
As for me, I live an hour from the city. It’s a suburb; better, it’s an exurb.* The north edge of my home is bound by a creek with east and west tucked in by a shallow row of poplar, brush, and pine–in winter you see right through to neighboring houses. The south edge is an improved road with friends across and just up the lane, which ends at the ridgeline.
I need grass and trees. I like running water and rolling hills, and I just don’t have it in me to work any kind of land, garden, or orchard. I am near enough to urban life to see a show, to join the throng of artists and writers and actors, the rolling stones at the very heart of things. I don’t go to the city often but I love knowing it’s there. I don’t think I could live in the vast wild expanse of country because I need to be near friends as much as nature. But if I had to, that is a different story. The one of pioneers like Alexandra Bergson.
Willa Cather by her own choice lived and worked in New York City for much of her life. She wrote O Pioneers! in the city, clearly reconciled to being in the heart of things as she drew vividly on her formative years out West.
Young Josh seems a bit of a town mouse, at home among the locals, part of my idea of a cast of southern characters, who comes clearly to my mind when I think of Savannah now. Aurelius describes the town mouse as agitated and distressed, a perspective which derives meaning from the existence of the country mouse. Cather’s characters argue that each derives meaning from the other.
I met a lot of people over winter break. Distressed or agitated may not be accurate or fair as modifiers go, but Josh stands out for his Gump-like sincerity as he engaged with others, whether they wanted to or not.
Shots rang out in Savannah’s grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self-defense? For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares. John Berendt’s narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction. Berendt interweaves a first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case. [GoodReads summary] Link to Film with John Cusack and Kevin Spacey.
*Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Link to full text at Project Gutenberg (PG). Three different translations:
- Epigraph-opening quote for this letter above on town and country mouse–from Gregory Hays translation which is the best (Book 11:22): The town mouse and the country mouse. Distress and agitation of the town mouse.
- The PG translation is disappointing: (Book 11:XX – yes, listed as paragraph XX or 20 online so likely slight enumeration differences). Remember the fable of the country mouse and the city mouse, and the great fright and terror that this was put into. Yeck. What does that even mean?
- George Lang’s translation is better (Book XI:22): Think of the country mouse and of the town mouse, and the alarm and trepidation of the town mouse.
*O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. Link to full text in 7 formats to read for free on Project Gutenberg.
The Music in Prose. Do a close reading of the passage; better, read it aloud. The word choice and phrasing, the series and sounds. Frock-coat and fiddle. The repetition of NO: no house, no place, no people. The propositions Cather writes in opposition: Carl’s shudder at frivolous urban living; Alexandra’s “we pay a high rent, too … though we grow hard and heavy” retort. Each has their own experience, YET each hears the other’s perspective, and that enlivens, fortifies, perhaps, even sustains them, in the long device-free, intermittent years of toiling away in relative solitude. At long last, they will have each other, but it is a long long time to reach that point in the journey. The rhythm or cadence of the writing woven with dialogue follows the story, aptly reflecting their voices. It is smooth and natural, crafted so carefully, that reading it you barely realize narrative from dialogue and follow one thought to the next.
exurb vs. suburb:
- exurb: a region or settlement that lies outside a city and usually beyond its suburbs and that often is inhabited chiefly by well-to-do families. Also, exurban [Merriam Webster online dictionary]
- suburb: a: an outlying part of a city or town. b: a smaller community adjacent to or within commuting distance of a city. Also, suburban [Merriam Webster online dictionary]
- burbs: US, informal: the area around a city in which many people live : the suburbs