Bill Where Are You?

For William Gaither 1917—1966

I think of you racketing
around Birmingham astride our purple Henry J,
busted door lashed shut,
and running a bowling alley out
Mountain Brook way.
Still, I’m convinced, once more we’re going
To put up a house on the Southside.
But Schatzi says we’re not.
That it happened again.

The first time, they thought you were drunk.
You spent ten hours
in the city tank, bless your infarcted heart,
and sued the council.

The only carpenter-plumber
I ever heard of who loved ballet,
started life as a dealer of 21
in the loop of Chicago,
acted in plays, studied at school
with the Syndicate’s odds maker,
and every year got four week’s work
as Santa Claus.

I remember we made a practice barre
for Richard and Gage,
and one day Schatzi wrote and said
you wouldn’t come home anymore.

Once you said, to hit the jackpot,
catch a women square upon the cervix.
You caught her,
But she hadn’t caught you anywhere.
You were still most happy thinking
of bumming drunk and free
about the two foot snow
of the blizzard of ’48 in Illinois.

18 months you came every day,
you helped remake my house.
I don’t know why, there wasn’t any money.
Maybe you needed like faith
to be useful at anything.
You kept me from going insane.
That’s all I wanted to say.
Except – sleep well.
I can’t figure out for the life of me
where you’ve gone.

© Andrew Glaze 1978, from The Trash Dragon of Shensi

 

Betsy with Bill Gaither, who worked as Santa every Christmas.jpg
Bill Gaither with Elizabeth Glaze (age 5) at a Birmingham department store.
Photo property of the Andrew Glaze Estate.

englund.lrg
Gage Bush Englund, on the cover of Dance Magazine 1963,
photo by Jack Mitchell.

Yes, we really did have a purple Henry J.  The day my father first drove it home he stood with it on the street, as a surprise, and my mother sent me to look out the window of my 2nd floor bedroom. Up to that point we’d been driving around in a car with rope strung across an opening where a door was missing. Nowadays that would be highly illegal, but this was the ’50’s.

Gage Bush was an heiress who grew up with my father, and overcame some degree of polio as a child to have a successful ballet career and meet her husband dancer Richard Englund. At some point, Bill and my father helped them build a barre for ballet practice. Over the years, Gage and Richard alternated living in Birmingham and New York. When my stepmom Adriana met my father she already knew Richard because they danced together in “Camelot”. When my father and Adriana married, we took over an apartment from Richard and Gage while they returned to Birmingham for a few years. They ended up founding The Birmingham Civic Ballet before returning to New York where they worked with American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet.

Bill Gaither was a neighbor who lived around a corner and downhill from our home-in-progress.  According to my father,  Bill drove past our house everyday and had been steadily watching the renovation process.  Then one day he decided to park and walk up hill across our front yard to introduce himself. By the time he left he’d volunteered his services to help, and from that point on he was there almost every day.  He and Schatzi (his wife’s nickname), became great friends with my parents. I remember having dinner at their house. One day during “naptime” I managed to sneak past my mother as she stood with her back to me at the kitchen sink, and went off to visit them. I was fond of them as well.

The final stage of our move to Manhattan was in the summer of 1957.  My mother, grandmother, and I went ahead and forged a path to Manhattan. Initially we arrived at the Greyhound Bus Depot and stayed at a hotel literally across the street.  Then we searched for a school willing to accept me in January, half way through first grade.  Grace Church Episcopal Parochial School was the only one that would do it, and I became the glamour girl of my class while we waited for my school uniforms to arrive.  Next, my mother found a job and we moved into a Studio Apartment in Mayfair.  The living space was so narrow our three twin sized beds had to be placed in an L shape and took up most of the living space.  As soon as summer break began, my grandmother and I headed back to Birmingham. It was my last hurrah spending time with my much beloved relatives. 

When my father and I began the final stage of our move North, we had Bill for company.  Our purple Henry J had a small rental trailer hitched to the back.  I spent the entire trip sitting and napping in the back seat. and my father and Bill alternated driving. At the end of our journey, as a token of gratitude for his work, friendship, and help with our move, my father gave Bill our purple Henry J and he drove back home in it.

A few years later, we were living in an apartment in Greenwich Village and my father received a letter that upset him. I still have a visual memory of him standing in our living room and explaining that Bill had been mistakenly locked up as a drunk when he’d had a heart issue.  I don’t remember how much time passed between that and when Bill had a fatal heart attack, but when my father learned that Bill had died at the age of 49, he was crushed and broke the news to me. It was only 9 years since our move, and they’d stayed in touch. I’ve always liked the fact that my father wrote a poem about Bill to give him a moment of immortality.

— E. Glaze

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 smiled 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.

A Journey photo
Photo property of the Glaze estate.

—E. Glaze