Posted in Throwback Thursday, Neal’s Post from the Past

Neal’s Post from the Past: “Touch”

I can still remember so very vividly this difficult but meaningful chance encounter one evening in downtown Savannah years ago.

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Touch

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Savannah’s Broughton Street bustles with activity this past Friday night, even for a warm and gorgeous early spring evening. I suppose Broughton is as close as my quirky, Midnight City gets to having a normal Main Street, as the historic district snakes around twenty-two breathtakingly beautiful squares. (Savannah’s downtown area is unique and hard to describe–come visit us to see what I mean.)

My friend Robert and I venture to the Crystal Beer Parlor, share joyful banter with lovely Hostess Fifi, meet good buddies, consume delicious and perfectly prepared ribeye steak. Friday night joy. Next, Broughton Street Market and dream-laden lottery tickets. Walking toward my car. Traverse past hip young couples pushing into dance clubs; midde-agers brandishing bags with Paula Deen leftovers; older folks leaving Savannah Music Festival venues; SCAD kids with blue hair waving in the breeze. Packed, noisy sidewalks. All well. Very well. Blessed.

Then fate interrupts–as she often does.

They sit on the sidewalk. No sprawl. As if dumped there. Three young men, in their early twenties. Two dogs. Man and pet, dirty, smelly, retched. Outcasts from society. A block from McDonald’s.

I live downtown and have grown immune to the homeless, the beggars, the street people. They merge and melt into the old bricks, the azaleas, the wooden benches. So what if there is an occasional grocery cart on its side in the shadows? No big deal. It happens.

But then the soiled speak.

“Can you guys help us out? We’re hungry.” Honesty makes me tell you my reaction: No Reaction. Walking on. Past the dirty ones.

Then Robert turns, and says, “I can’t give you money, but I can buy you some food.”

Why do I hang out with people like Robert? It’s so much easier to keep walking. Walking past. Walking toward. Past what I don’t want to see, acknowledge. Walking toward the known, the comfortable.

“What are you doing?” I quietly ask Robert, a bit frustrated.

“Getting them something to eat,” he says matter-of-factly.

I try but can’t think of a real reason to stop this interruption of my previously perfect night.

Too late, already inside McDonald’s, I remember a possible reason to have kept walking, a religious reason even: didn’t Jesus say that we would always have the poor with us?

But Robert, reasonless, places the order.

Five minutes later, with a bag of burgers and a tray of dollar menu sweet teas, we walk back toward the vagabonds. One young guy, with his mouth inexplicably sucking on the side of a smoking soda can, with pierced nose tattooed in triplicate black dots along the bridge, stands up in dryrotted pants that touch bony, bare knees. Drunk. Or high. Or both.

I hold out the bag of burgers. Away from my body, and toward his. Embarrassed. He reaches towards the food and plops back down.

Another, apparently the leader and spokesperson, looks up at me and says, “Man, you guys are beautiful. I gotta stand up and thank you. That’s a cool jacket.”

I want to be anywhere, anywhere but here.

He starts to stand, and then reaches out to hug me, drunkenly. But pauses, perhaps sensing my hesitancy.

I then see his eyes.

And my safe Savannah world shatters.

For his eyes are the eyes of a real boy. A boy with a mama and a daddy somewhere. A boy who used to be a baby.

“Where are you guys from?” I ask, shakily, terrified but now connected. Joined. Level.

“San Francisco, long way from home,” he replies.

And then my knowing comes: his eyes could be the eyes of my daughters. The eyes of my grandchildren.

Without thinking, I reach out and touch his scraggly face and hold it for a moment. I see him. Time freezes. I really see him. He sees me, I think.

“If this was reversed, I’d do this for you, man,” he says haltingly, taking his place back down on the sidewalk, back down to his low place.

Robert and I walk away.

Less than two blocks later, I feel tears on my face.

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— 2013

Posted in In Our Own Backyard, Throwback Thursday, Neal’s Post from the Past

Neal’s Post from the Past: “A Sunday Afternoon Adventure at Bonaventure”

I have always Loved, Respected and even been a bit Intimidated by the dual seriousness and joyfulness of cemeteries: those quiet repositories of yesteryear, of love, of memory, of laughter and tears, of regret, of layered history.

Here’s a post I did back in 2013 about perhaps Savannah’s most iconic cemetery.

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I spent an incredibly warm but wonderfully interesting couple of hours this afternoon at the historically magnificent Bonaventure Cemetery here in my beautiful Savannah. The day might have been heavy and muggy, but my time there was anything but. Every second Sunday the Bonaventure Historical Society offers free guided tours of the cemetery, so I showed up thirty minutes early with a big water bottle and wearing my thinnest t-shirt.

Before leaving my air conditioning, I checked out the cemetery’s website and learned that …

Though not Savannah’s oldest cemetery, Bonaventure is certainly its most famous and hauntingly beautiful. Quintessentially Southern Gothic, it has captured the imaginations of writers, poets, naturalists, photographers and filmmakers for more than 150 years. Part natural cathedral, part sculptural garden, Bonaventure transcends time.

Military generals, poet Conrad Aiken, Academy Award-winning lyricist Johnny Mercer and Georgia’s first governor Edward Telfair are among those buried at Bonaventure. The approximately 100-acre cemetery is also historically significant as a reflection of changing views on death and dying in the Victorian era. As death became more romanticized and ritualized during this period, cemeteries became lush, beautiful “cities of the dead.”

Another reason behind Bonaventure’s popularity is John Berendt’s book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which featured a cover photo of the now-famous “Bird Girl” statue, formerly located in Bonaventure. The statue has since been moved to the Telfair Museum of Art, founded through the bequest of Mary Telfair, also buried at Bonaventure. 

Our tour guide, the vivacious Ms. Elizabeth Ford …

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… oozed Southern hospitality and a spoke a delicious Southern dialect.  (After the tour, I wanted to go home with her just to hear her talk some more. But I didn’t really know how to ask.)

Elizabeth led us around the hauntingly beautiful Gothic graveyard, along the banks of the lazy Wilmington River, regaling us with stories of the history of the place and showing us gravesites of some of the more prominent folks buried there.  But what I loved most of all was the simple interplay of a deeply Southern voice leading me, slowly, on Sunday afternoon time, through such beauty.

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(In the above pic, I was aiming for a cemetery facial expression.)

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(I wish I had a ponytail like that guy to my left.)

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My parents taught me to love cemeteries.  As friendly places, reservoirs of wonderful memories.  To this day, when I return home to visit them, we usually end up at one of several cemeteries in or around my hometown of Ball Ground, Georgia, where close relatives are buried.  Granny Nix and Veto.  Mama and Papa Saye.  My brother Jimmy who lived only one week.  Old Doc Saye, Ball Ground’s first doctor.    Pulling weeds around a headstone, or straightening flower arrangements, we get caught up in “Remember when’s” and “She was a pistol!” and “I still miss him so much.”  They taught me that I am standing tall today because of all of them who came before.

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Bonaventure: an afternoon of warm joy.

Bonaventure Cemetery Website

Posted in Throwback Thursday, Neal’s Post from the Past

Neal’s Post from the Past: “Solitude & the Absent Smile”

Here’s a rather messily photographed past post from back in 2014. I may still have had a flip phone. I’m loath to change.

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Yes I admit it, I’m an optimist. Pollyanna’s a very good buddy. We take tap dancing together.

What I actually mean is I’m USUALLY a somewhat cheery person. But not always. A while back, I underwent a fairly unpleasant medical procedure. (I’m a big baby when it comes to anything that hurts at a .5 or higher on a 1-10 pain level.)

Here I am in the waiting room, reading about blogging:

Finally I was called back to the eerily quiet and humanly empty procedure room where I had to wait in nervous solitude for quite a while. The doctor was running way behind.

I got bored pretty quickly and started playing with the IPhone’s … reverse camera capability. Doesn’t that sound better than saying I took a bunch of selfies?

I looked at these terrible pictures, grimaced at their muted and otherworldly haziness, realized I wasn’t smiling–and started to delete them.

Then it hit me.

“Get real, Neal. It’s okay not to smile. It’s okay to be muted and hazy … and to be by yourself for a while. Being out of focus doesn’t mean being out of life.”