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Glorious Stuff

Graduation Day 2024

One of my earliest literary works appeared in the GW Forum of an autumn that I’d long wished to forget, but I now celebrate those years that I’d erroneously long considered “lost”.  In truth, I’d unknowingly abandoned precious moments that I then dearly needed to repossess.

 

Those years — with their haunting hurts, hefty happinesses, grievous losses, invaluable lessons — most gloriously returned to me during the past decade as I moved from one phase of my life to another.  I consequently moved from the Peach House, the master-house where I wrote the master-book, The Dawn, to another house, the rental dump, where I awaited completion of my Dream House, Larkhaven, in the summer of 2020.


All of this movement was more than physical.  By leaps and bounds, I expanded my heart, my mind, and, God-willing, my soul.  I didn’t work solo in my lost-and-found department.  The Lord sent to me precious individuals to help me, some of whom I didn’t want to deal with.  The surest sign that I’m about to grow emotionally, and, thus, creatively, is I initially fight like heck against the catalyst that comes my way.  It’s a positive chemistry:  the conflict strengthens the catalyst, and myself.  The catalyst thereby becomes a part of my heart.

 

Putting the past behind me has typically occurred swiftly, with a rapidity forced by a highly-honed survival instinct.  Such flights can be costly.  For anyone, but, most of all, for a writer, the quick-fire jettisoning of memories from any jarring experience exacts a steep price.  I learned not to look back, but I also learned that a person must return to some “places” to retrieve, rescue, and reclaim the nuggets of gold hidden amidst the ruinous rubble.  With the fortitude of unwavering optimism, terrible times can lead to terrific trails, those lucky pathways that, in turn, show the way to rich and ripe opportunities.

 

If I expect to make grand use of each one of those unplumbed but forsaken occasions, I must be prepared, which is to say, I must prepare myself.  That sort of preparation requires patience, frequently of a saint; diligent persistence, faith, confidence, and excellent planning.  The excellent planning comes about because of the blessed wisdom gained from those hellish learning experiences!

 

It’s clear from this vintage composition that I was intent on becoming a student of life.  I was somehow unaware that I’d already taken more than a few courses in that field, and had quite capably passed them, by the publication date of this essay.


When I first penned those words for the GW Forum, I was living in a rented room in a broken-down, 3-story Victorian townhouse on 2008 G Street NW, Washington, D.C.  Right across the street was Corcoran Hall of the George Washington University, back in the day when the bricks of that building were painted white and fading, symbolic of the college itself during the 1970s.

 

During that long-ago epoch, the undergrad campus of GWU consisted of half a dozen derelict but historic Victorian townhouses, scattered throughout a 6-block area, from G to H to I Streets, that served as offices for liberal arts and fine art professors; several aging 2-story buildings, one of which contained the French Department; and the hideously new post-modern architectural atrocities that housed non-academic, administrative functions and their fonctionnaires, and a Quad that supported the growth of approximately four trees.

 

The entire setting subsisted in a state of arrested decay and benign neglect, reclining in its glorious past, from sometime around the 1920s to pre-World War II.  I must have instinctively been drawn to this locale by its powerful ambiance of a very distant yesteryear.


On the top floor of Corcoran Hall was located the English Department.  It was a quick hop, skip, and a jump-walk from that townhouse to my English classes.  I’ve never been one to want to travel far from home-to-work; that strain within me has not changed! 

 

Pigeon-holed in one rather small office of the English Department was Professor Astere E. Claeyssens.  He’d come up in the pecking-order world of cutthroat office-space allocations among the highly rivalrous profs of the English Department.  His previous office had been lodged in an austere (empty) room on the first floor of one of those aging townhouses on G Street; I’d conferred with him there, often, during my frustrating phase of writing short stories.

 

For about two years, Claeyssens was my professor, editor, guidance counselor, mentor, and formidable challenger, testing me to meet the potential that he knew I possessed.  I’d had only self-doubts, realistic dreams, and very hard-headed desires for achieving those dreams, paired with hopelessly outdated and infeasible plans with which to attain those dreams.


A decade later, a supervisory civil engineer in Military Design at the U.S. Corps of Engineers in Sacramento would advise me to “make your dreams in concrete, your plans in sand.”  Those wise words of worldly advice would not have been uttered by this fifty-ish English professor; weekend radio announcer for the Chicago Cubs; senior board member of the American Film Institute (AFI); and Emmy-award winner for “One to One,” a series of shows for public television about literature for which he’d been the producer, director, writer, and star.

 

It was, however, “Claey” (as he was called by everyone else, but never by me) who saw within me the traits, talents, drawbacks, divine inspirations, stumbling blocks, lofty aspirations, and the pesky problem areas that had begun to become habitual, if not nearly ingrained, in this sensitive but willful adolescent.  He more or less assessed the quirks that I would have to do away with, and he pin-pointed the latent strengths I’d have to discover, discipline, develop, fortify, and expand.


I rarely liked all that he perceived about me.  In fact, I didn’t like the fact that he was perceiving anything about me.  I nevertheless didn’t fight him, or rebel.  By the age of nineteen, I’d already looked long and hard for a steady, gifted mind, coupled with a stable, reliable hand, to guide me in my artistic pursuits.  His acceptance of that task might not have been entirely willing.  I’d venture to say that he, as teacher, was as wary of this student as I was of him, the teacher.  Somehow, though, we struck a deal, not a bargain, but a tacit agreement as to what to expect, and what not to expect, from one another.

 

When I handed Claeyssens the draft essay, written on lined paper, he took hold of it with his usual nod to me while he was on the phone with someone else, and awaiting conferences with many other someone else’s.

 

It might have been a late Friday afternoon, which was normally when I tendered to him my hand-written work.  Even then, the cursive was uniquely mine.  It formed a mode of expression to which a prof had to acclimate himself, cause I sure wasn’t about to change my style of penmanship!  The content of my creation I could, and did, alter.  My handwriting, no.  It was, in itself, an innovation imbued with my identity.


For my part, I had to, gulp, come to accept the dark ink-bleeding-on-the-paper form of editing that Claeyssens executed, mercilessly, instinctively.  With a pang in my stomach, I felt as if the fertile fruits of my mind, heart, and soul had been slashed, surgically, if you will.  He always explained to me that he was trying to get through to the musculature in the writing. I once commented that I wasn’t aware there’d been that much adipose tissue!

 

I would later perform this same kind of razor-point-pen work on the abominably hideous texts of civil engineers and geologists!  One geotechnical supervisor asked if I had to bleed all over the page!  I took the question as rhetorical!

 

Claeyssens would spend the weekend going over the usual student offerings to his masterly machinations of purple prose, the overly verbose show-off atrocities in which I did not engage.  I instead engaged in various sleights-of-hand with my creative skills:  pulling punches where I ought to have gone for the jugular; infusing expository writing with vivid thoughts; ending a scene too quickly; not starting the next scene with any semblance of drama, much less an entrance!

 

Dialogue I mastered from the jump.  My character names tended to sound alike, as if I were rhyming them.  My narrative writing, much like its writer, didn’t know where it was going.  Living in Foggy Bottom had its logical consequences!


I clearly needed to mature personally, to leave the classroom and start to live life, at least a life worth living.  Sometime during my second year under the taskmaster training and tutelage of this professor, I was about to take wing.  I scarcely knew these things at the time:

 

the faraway places I’d venture toward, and the majestic sights I’d seek to find, all in fulfillment of the nascent talents that Astere Evarist Claeyssens spotted right from the moment we’d met.

 

When I dropped by his office that next week to pick up the essay, I’d fully expected to see way too much pen activity imposed upon my sentences.  This creative-writing & AmLit instructor was quiet, not quite somber.

 

“Where in the world did this glorious stuff come from?”  His deep voice gasped.

 

“I don’t know,” I truthfully admitted.

 

The writing was on the wall, not on the page.  Very few corrective marks had been placed on those pieces of paper.  It hadn’t taken long for me to begin to outgrow this teacher, a man who willingly allowed himself, and his talents, to be used by so many other people.  I wasn’t one of those toadying sycophants.  He knew it, and I knew it.


Fast-forward a little more than seven years from that late summer, to the spring of 1983.  I stood at a pay phone on the campus of California State University, Sacramento.  I’d placed a call to Professor Claeyssens, at GWU, long-distance, in the era when long distance calls cost a fortune.  I believe I charged the confiscatory amount to my apartment telephone, courtesy of Ma Bell, the greedy biddy.

 

When he answered the phone, in his usual way, I said hello.  I didn’t need to state who I was.  He knew that voice.  He’d adored my singing, and had championed it, frequently requesting a performance at the soirées to which I’d been invited.  Singing for my supper was my way of saying, thanks, and now I can leave!

 

“Where are you???  And what are you doing??”  Claeyssens shouted.

 

I’d pulled my black-cat act on him.  I’d boarded that plane to California in January 1979, after not having stopped by his office to try to say a goodbye that I could not say.


Learning that I was working as a technical writer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in the Sacramento district, brought an “Uh-hum” from this man whom I would learn, two decades later, had been a highly decorated infantryman of the U.S. Army in World War II.  His awards included the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and the Purple Heart.

 

I’d called to ask this English professor to help me, via petition, get out of taking an expository writing class, since I’d already taken Narrative Writing from him.  That class had been my first, of many, from Claeyssens.  I recalled on that sunny morning, as I recall on this sunny day, that I’d received a “B” from him, with B = mediocre.

 

Claeyssens knew I was up to my old trick of trying to evade yet another experience of displaying mediocrity.  “You do need to work on exposition, which is hardly the same as narration.”

 

“I know.”

 

“You don’t want me to lie for you, do you?????”

 

“No.”  I then filled the lengthy silence with: “I’ll take the class.  Thank you.”

 

We said goodbye; and he hung up.

 

He passed away during the summer of 1990.  That year of my life saw more parting of the ways, in ways that took me years to surmount and comprehend.  By that stage of my life, I understood that the real school — the school of life — was not ever really going to be out.



 Professor Claeyssens and I met again, in spirit, during my writing of THE DAWN.  In the early spring of 2013, while I was recording the Virtual Book Reading, Dear Husband said to me:

 

“This is glorious stuff!!!”

 

I didn’t need to tell him where that glorious stuff came from; he’d already heard that tale from my times, and he knew that this monumental tale had been a very long time in coming.

 

Dear Husband had valiantly and unexpectedly played a very pivotal role along my road to writing this opus — and in my journey to the Maquis — when he flew, on numerous occasions, from Sacramento, California to D.C. for work-duty Congressional hearings.  Those trips started in 2007 and ended in early 2008.  He brought back to me photographs of my old haunts that began to haunt me a lot less.


Here then is the glorious stuff entitled:  Urban Affairs and Some Lesser Ones.  The address of my townhouse cited herein was purposely altered to disguise my location.  Even then, I prized privacy over public disclosure!


    The better (and worst) parts of my freshman year at GW were spent sitting in a dorm room, studying French syntax and watching the yellow creme of a chocolate sandwich-cookie turn green.  All of this, by spring, resulted in one slightly less than skinny bookworm.  So, when school ended, I opted to get out of academia for summer and “into the city.”

 

     Weeks of domicile-hunting finally produced an offer to share a room with a girl in a crumbling 3-story townhouse on 23rd and F Streets.  It was scarcely “into the city” and I didn’t relish the idea of no room of my own, but when I stepped into the largely lit, largely empty, largely large second-floor room, I fell in love with the fireplace, its white marble sculptured front and gargoyled cast-iron center, the obese woodwork, hulking windows, 12-foot high ceiling, and nook-and-crannied walls.

 

     I moved in the next day, then left D.C. to visit my North Jersey small town home.  When I returned, May was middling, D.C. was sweating, and my townhouse “home” was filled with its twelve summerites.

 

     I landed a part-time job as a personal researcher/secretary to a mildly prominent, Iowa-based, liberal, female, syndicated political columnist.  But I needed another job on the off days.  Equipped with slight waitress experience and an innocent desire to meet “all kinds of people”, I scoured job openings in restaurants from the outskirts of Georgetown to 12th and Penn, all with little luck.  Three weeks of one-day fiascoes followed, among them, Howard Johnson’s (6-day work week and lecherous manager), Bon Appetit (illegal withholding of taxes), Janl (two hours of blushing barmaid apprenticeship).


     One rainy Wednesday (or Thursday or Friday — the rain remains, the days change) I stumbled into the perfect hours and atmosphere on 17th and Eye — a friendly small restaurant which catered to Metro workers, businessmen, secretaries and lawyers.  It would be, I thought, a “different” summer — new faces, new ideas, new self-dimensions.  No longer a “student of books”, I was now a city dweller, a “student of life.”

 

     Mornings, I awoke to 8:00 horns and hazy heat.  Showering, I’d peer out the window by the tub.  Government “chiquitas” in platform shoes and skinny waists, scurrying, mincing steps, through the exhaust fumes of the parking lot behind my house, into their cages by 9:00.

 

     Waitress work, my cage, began at 11:00.  I walked to the restaurant via the Roger Smith Hotel, confused and embarrassed by the bumbeggars couched or creeping along the way.  I tried to reason it out:  if I didn’t see them, their lives wouldn’t disturb me.  The trouble was that I did see them; I had not yet learned to function like a city person — to stare but not see, to glance at but not focus upon.  So I moved slowly and thought slowly.

 

     The restaurant brought my first full realization of D.C. as an almost all-black community.  I’d seen racial hatred.  But I’d never felt it.  I’d never been the object of its indiscriminate hostility.  As the only white waitress (other than the owner’s daughter), I received “accidental” shoves and just-within-ear-range remarks from the black female cooks and waitresses.  I sought to understand my treatment on a “human” level.  But, I did not know how to respond and, after weeks of being stared and snickered at, I resigned myself to not being able to know how to respond.  D.C. was their town, I was the intruder.

 

     My regular customers consisted of a horde of hardhats (male, chauvinistic, white and thirsty), matronly government secretaries (who smiled sweetly and avoided me completely), and the businessmen.

 

     The hardhats flirted with me, flattered me and, with a couple of rare virile exceptions, bored me.  I felt only sympathy for the matronly government ladies who ordered (and even ate) the Weight-Watchers’ Platter.  But, it was the businessmen who most thoroughly repulsed, interested and confused me.


     Grazing into the restaurant, they’d loft their hats on the rack, peer judiciously at the hem of my dungaree skirt, then stool themselves.  Pulling out their Wall Street Journals or Washington Posts, they’d cough and proceed to spread the newspapers over the counter, while I deftly tried to slide them menus.  Their eyes, avoiding contact with mine, would switch from editorial page to special-of-the-day (even though they knew the menu by heart).  Then, after an intense two-minute perusal, they would order their “usual” in a whisper hushed as if imparting some secret.  They ate politely and, above all, quietly, while feverishly tracking down the straight-new columns of their papers.  When they left (smile-nod, good tip) I always felt that to them this was an excruciatingly private time of the day — which must still be crammed to the minute with accomplishment.

 

     Yet, I thought, I have myself always sought to be a “go-getter.”  Why, when I looked at them, did it seem such a ridiculous thing to do?  And I decided that is must be what you’re “going to get” that makes the difference between useless achievement and an earned outcome.  But I had very little way to know which it was for the businessman.  I took every advantage to study them.  I’d watch them in their rushhour rudeness.  Impatience marked their step, they seemed to have a purpose at the end of each block, as did every D.C. walker (I think the only amblers are the bums).

 

      Businessmen — the lean with his cruel, bearded jaw and cool-blue ribcord; the gross with his toothpick sneer and shiny white shoes; the elderly with his stunted sideburns and baggy gray pinstripe.  I could scrutinize and categorize forever, but I would never fully understand.  Never define what force compels him to plug in and out of the city, his voice controlled yet captious.  His hands, dirtless, scarless.  His eyes cautious, critical, and tired.  Businessmen seem to be the city, Washington — that beautiful, unstable mechanism of power and transiency.  But, in fact, they make up only one of the many showcase faces I discovered this summer.


     An elevator whir and stomach plunk, and I was transformed from workingman’s waitress to mini-journalistic whiz.  I ascended to one of the fantasies of fame on Pennsylvania Avenue:  the sixth floor of the First National Bank Building, air-conditioned, sterilely-lit, carpeted red, flushed throughout by perfume, ammonia and Muzak.

 

     My boss — soft-spoken, half-assuming, half-commanding, always sharp in thought and dress — impressed me.  She had “worked her way up.”  Now that she had got to where she wanted to go, she no longer needed to impress or consider anyone.  In that case, I wondered, what keeps genuine the journalist’s “social concern” after he or she has the desired position and (if possible) wealth?

 

     The other political columnists of the Washington Bureau of the Hearst Newspaper Syndicate also troubled me with their assumption of power, knowledge and prestige.  They were, in the midst of Watergate-watching, astute, aware and argumentative.  At first, I just looked on, passively.  Then, through my fact-finding, dirt-digging, always “worlds-beyond-my-student conception” work I became intrigued by the making of opinion — both informed and intuitive.  Washington D.C. was often reduced to one-to-one relationships — between news events, agencies, personalities, rumors.  From an office desk, the window of the world was cause-and-effect, and the hand of the political columnist was on the pulse of Washington, rainy hot and speeding, on its favorite political frenzy, political dirt, political-political.

 

     Washington quavering, as a President and his men were dethroned from power.  Washington a little frightened, a little less certain of its sacred self.  Washington — reckless, pious, a midnight spectre, with patchy greatness.  Washington — columnists, politicians, and all the other people — is at once a bitch and a kitten; something to hold on to and let ride for all ecstasy; yet something to tear your flesh, ’til you lay in your bed at night and weep a little over being shoved hard on the street corner.  Washington — glistening, white, theatrical in its marble white make-up.  A frenzied hot caterpillar, almost here today then gone sooner than tomorrow.

 

     I saw the city’s face of transiency and loneliness every late afternoon, particularly on Friday.  I would feel an excited depression, a tension of cars fleeting, mounting bumper-to-bumper.  I’d sense the pressing, unchanneled energies of people in a big city.  Buses loading, lights “go”, don’t walk, people, heat, dirt, hatred.  This city, I’d think, is no home.  Not even to the thousands who live here.  People use it, abuse it, love it, despise it, fear it.  But they never call it home.  Tourists skim its surface; workers drill, file, fill and measure it.  But none possess it.  Rather, Washington possesses us. And if it does, we stay. Or at least always come back to it.


      I enjoyed the patterning of life which my townhouse and its occupants offered me.  We shared a sense of together, an understanding that each and all clearly preferred the feel of this 19th-century townhouse to any other living possibility in the city.  And for its placid mossy sentiment, we’d put up with a few inconveniences.  The floors were crunchy with cockroaches (dead and alive).  The basement kitchen reeked of sour milk, musty rugs and fried eggs.  The living room furniture was faded paisley on cancered wood; its walls — cracked wood panelling.  These three floors and lone basement, back porch and seven slate front steps were, to us, a happy attempt at home.  We cleaned and tried to repair it, and, in return, it nurtured us with the energy of another century’s fragrance still lingering in its rooms, its nicks and scuffs outlining past lives.


     We were an uneven dozen in the house, each there from a different state and for differing reasons.  Texas, Ohio, Indiana and Massachusetts were Hill workers.  Maine, Georgia and two of the three New Jerseys (including me) worked at working in D.C.  The other New Jersey toyed with computers and baked bread.  California studied business and statistics.  Philadelphia popped in briefly between jaunts to Paris and Vermont.  Richmond graduated, then schlepped.

 

     With this variety of characters, the “private loner” I’d always thought of as part of me became a social butterfly with almost too much ease.  I’d wanted to finish writing a short story and reading some Flaubert, but I soon rationalized that summer and youth in D.C. were too blatantly good to ignore or waste.  I learned to be a downtown night owl, how to Lindy Hop and jitterbug at the Cave, the French Underground, Black Ulysses.  But the people in those places were almost as synthetic as the food and the music.  After a couple of weeks, I grew wary of the big city’s compartmentalized social arrangements — where no one’s eyes lingered, except for those of lovers, who had better places to be.  I opted, gladly, for D.C.’s summer cornucopia of the arts.


     The Kennedy Center, gaudy red, and, to some, beautifully gaudy, was the scene of the Royal Ballet.  From my seventh-row orchestra seat, I gaze-watched Rudolph Nureyev dance in “Romeo and Juliet.”  After the performance I had to admit that the place may be gaudy but it sure does provide this restless city with opportunities to enjoy.  I also warmed to the African Exhibit at the National Gallery, “Twelfth Night” at the Sylvan Theater by the Washington Monument, and Sunday’s “Art in the Park” by the Lincoln Memorial.

 

     The Mall also served as the setting for the American Folklife Festival, which fascinated and troubled me.  Archery competitions, tribal dances, artwork, games — all spread out as a showpiece of culture, all that is left when a people have left.  A sacred exploitation to tourists and D.C. dwellers.  When it was all over, I walked around and through the leftover lots, garnished with empty beer cans, papers, and food, and I thought of the crying Indian in the pollution commercial.

 

     I had missed Wolf Trap and many other concerts.  But just knowing that the city provides these cultural opportunities helped appease feelings of loneliness.  It’s all out there, I thought; all one need do is go get it.

 

     Instead, I decided to leave D.C. in the middle of August for a vacation on Long Beach Island, New Jersey.  I quit my waitress job, got some time off from my columnist duties, packed my bags and clumped down the slate steps.  Mid-afternoon F Street was slumbering; everyone was at work, their cars parked.  I looked to my right, where yesterday stood a red-brick townhouse in ancient dignity.  That day it lay in ruins, victim of the ball-and-chain and GW’s efficiency planning.  Park more cars.  And I walked down the cracked sidewalk of “my” townhouse.  Which tomorrow may park a Datsun.

 

     Upon my return in September, D.C. was sweating more than mildly, and the streets of the campus were lined with incoming students and their cars, clothes, stereos and trunks.  Orientation, with its full blast of foaming beerscreams, had infected almost everyone, and the first day of classes was upon me.  Now, I thought, I’m back into my “student of books” role.  But, after my first “Reporting” class, where, among other things, we would “view the world of the city called Washington, D.C.”, I felt that perhaps my summer in D.C. had moved that “student of books” me a little closer to the me I’m really after — the “student of life.”



— A sophomore majoring in American Literature, Debra Tanis comes from a very large family in a very small town. Her interests include writing, singing, French, dance, male and female liberation, attempts at self-discipline, and what she calls “learning.”

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