Earl

He was twenty. He was half crazy.
With his head like a half-baffled chocolate easter egg,
there he was painting my house in Birmingham Alabama
doing things backwards,
painting from the bottom up,
so the new paint from above
ran down on the new paint below,
putting turpentine in the water colors.
He always jumped from the back-porch roof
to the ground- -fourteen feet.
—I used to be a paratrooper, said Earl—
I came down in the war with Russia
Shooting a submachine gun around me in circles,
nobody had a chance to get a bead on me–
I shot them first. They thought
I was the holy, iron-assed , frosted bird.
I won the war—
The top of the house was fifty feet in the air,
the ladder was forty.
Earl fastened a ladder to the gutter.
He nailed a two by four with wooden cleats
to the top of the ladder.
He nailed a paintbrush to a broom.
He climbed up and sat on the top of them all.
He looked like a man just out of a fountain spray
of white paint. He waved the paintbrush
over his head like a banner on top of the broom.
He yelled out over the roofs of Birmingham Alabama
—look at me up here—
Look at me! Anybody want to argue?—

© Andrew Glaze, 1965, from Damned Ugly Children.

Who was Earl?

In 1950, my parents began a 7 year task of converting a large house into 4 apartments (6 if you include an attic apartment and the small servants quarters building in the back yard).  They divided the house into four quandrants, and each time they completed an apartment in one quadrant they would rent it out.  I have memories of living in at least three, if not all four portions of the house, because as soon as the section we were living in was improved, we would move to another quadrant so they could finish it off and rent it. It made for an interesting childhood, and my parents accumlated a large number of construction skills. My mother later taught me to do drywall, and in the ’80’s my father helped me sand the floor in my Manhattan apartment.

For the house in Birmingham they occasionally needed hired help and that is how Earl arrived. My mother later said she felt that Earl had some sort of developmental brain damage that left him a bit simple minded.  I never noticed, but then I was only about 5. In any case, he made himself memorable.  At some point his job required spending time on the roof, and when he was finished he rarely used the ladder to come back down. The house was on the south side of Red Mountain, and the back of the house was built on an upward slope.  My father would make sure I was well out of the danger zone, my heart would rise to my throat, Earl would take a flying leap, and he would land both feet firmly on the ground below. It wasn’t until 1963 that I realized my father had written a poem about him.

— E. Glaze

A journey

I was three years old
and I stepped up into the streetcar
while they thought I was taking a bath
where I sat next to a lady who smelled like raspberries.
Instead, she smiled like a macaroon.
“I’m going to find my mother,” I said.
“Jing!  Jing!” said the bell.
The conductor knew where he would be going,
how could he fail, set like intention
on that shining, parallel window-bar?
They asked me my name and I knew.
Trees and houses, gutters, motorcycles and cars.
So on ever since with never a stop.

© Andrew Glaze, 1974, from A Masque of Surgery

This poem caught the attention of Alice Esty, a wealthy Patron of the Arts and soprano singer, and she commissioned composer Ned Rorem to set it to music for voice. You can go to Youtube to hear an audio version of it.

My father explained his childhood adventure this way:
His father was at work at his medical office downtown, and his mother had taken the streetcar downtown to sit for a portrait at a photographers studio.  His nanny was looking after him, but he managed to get dressed and sneak out, probably while she was doing other things around the house. He confidently waited at the streetcar stop and climbed on when it stopped for riders.

The lady he sat next to — who smelled like a macaroon — turned out to be a genius. She quickly realized he was on his own, engaged him in conversation and in short order  learned his father’s name and the fact that his father had an office downtown.  She stood up, quietly instructed the driver not to let the little boy leave the Streetcar, got off at the next stop, found a phone, and called his father’s office to tell them what was going on. By the time the streetcar arrived downtown by his father’s office, his mother was there waiting for him. He said he ran to his mother, happily exclaiming, “Momma what took you so long!”  My father followed this with, “and that’s how I ended up in the portrait photo”. My uncle and I recently searched for a studio portrait of my father with his mother at that age. When we found it we realized that his baby sister was also in it. So perhaps he wasn’t happy at being left behind, and that was the motivation for his journey.

—E. Glaze

A Journey photo