For about twenty years, until his death in 2006, I was good friends with a writer named Richard Atcheson. He had an impressive career with some big magazines as an editor. I came to know him when he was older and adrift. He sat around his apartment in the nude chain-smoking and talking, talking, talking. In fact, what you’ll read below is EXACTLY how he talked. This was a big thing for him, getting the voice into the writing.
Reading his memories of his childhood makes me melancholy. After about 25 dazzling pages of prose, he dropped the project. He loved WORKING. He loved putting on his Princeton scarf and overcoat and riding a taxi to a brass and glass skyscraper where they made magazines. Ultimately, I just don’t think he had the fire to sit around the house writing a full autobiography as a “literary” enterprise. He had more fun banging away in AOL fetish chatrooms. And then his health went downhill.
So, you know, this was it.
Here are two excerpts,
March 20, 2001
I woke in the night, last night, with vivid and persistent recollections of my boyhood in Houston, in the 1930s and 1940s… now more than 60 years ago… gosh. It was as if my memory was insisting on going there, going up and down the streets as they were then, seeing the people I loved, remembering how they puzzled and confounded me.
The Houston I grew up in was, to me, a very simple place that I described in my mind as conforming to the shape of an L, from Main Street west to Bellaire Boulevard, and north on Bellaire past the west side of West University Place (where we lived, and where my Aunt Maggie had a farm that bordered the boulevard), on out to the suburban village of Bellaire. In my sense of it, Houston started downtown, where the Gulf Building made a crenellated reach for the sky, where the Loew’s State and Metropolitan movie theaters flanked each other on one side of Main Street, and the Majestic (which, inside, was designed to look like a Spanish courtyard under a starry sky) was just around the corner. The Kirby, on the opposite side of Main Street and up one block, was less important to me because I was rarely taken there, but I recall it well as the theater in which I saw Laurence Olivier’s version of Henry VI in 1945 and got excited out of my mind. Downtown was for me mainly about movies, but there was also the Forum Cafeteria, where my Aunt Mary Belle (I called her Mooney) would take me for dinner before we went to a movie (“the pictures,” as she called them). And there was Levy’s Department Store, where Mooney liked to stop in to shop for costume jewelry, and would most always put something on the lay-away. Before I was six I was very familiar with the ladies’ changing rooms at Levy’s, because Mooney would often go there to try on Better Dresses, while I squatted down to peer at the lady changing in the adjoining cubicle.
My downtown excursions always began with a call from Mooney to my grandmother, who stayed at our house for long periods of time to take care of me and my younger brother, Bobbie, because Mother did volunteer daytime plane-spotting during the war years. Granny would tell me that Mooney had invited me downtown for dinner and a picture show, and I would be thrilled; I am quite sure that there was never a time when I didn’t want to go. I would have a bath, put on clean underwear (this was IMPERATIVE with my grandmother, who always awfulized that if I were in an accident and taken to the hospital, she hated to conjure what everybody would THINK of me if I didn’t have clean underwear on), a clean, starched shirt and pants, shoes and socks of course (I have no recollection of the shoes I wore in those days), and Granny would comb my hair in hard strokes until the teeth hurt my scalp. Then she would tie a quarter and a dime into the corner of my white pocket handkerchief, give me a bus token, and send me on my way. I had a five-block walk to the bus stop on the far side of Bellaire Boulevard, and would board the first bus to come along.
I always sat in the first seat, opposite the driver, because I loved to see whatever was going on… not that there were ever many people to see on the streets in those days, not until we had reached the circle where stood an equestrian statue of Sam Houston, flanked by Hermann Park, the Art Museum, and the Warwick Hotel. At that point the driver would leave Main Street and head up Fannin. I would then start watching anxiously for the corner where Mooney would be waiting for me, and while I couldn’t tell you now the name of the cross street if you put my hand in the fire, I still know that it was six stops east of the circle.
And there she would be, in the 5 p.m. crowds, always delighted to see me, calling me “Teeny!” and “Dickie Honey!” and demanding that I give her some sugar… meaning that she would give me big kisses, and of course I would kiss her back. Then she would take a tissue out of her purse to wipe her lipstick off my cheeks. And then off we would go, maybe to Levy’s first, certainly to the Forum Cafeteria for dinner – a place I thought was the epitome of beauty and glamor, because it was very modern. The main room was cathedral high, the wall panels were of glossy green and white striped marble, the lights lay behind a series of tall sconces of opalescent glass, there were TWO service lanes where you could slide your tray along, and Mooney always let me order anything I wanted, which would definitely include fried chicken, a rounded scoop of mashed potatoes with a puddle of brown gravy riding inside it without leaking a single drop, and an order of lime jello in a sundae glass, topped with whipped cream. YUM!
Mooney liked happy movies – all singing, all dancing – and so did I. We also loved Esther Williams pictures and never missed a one. At the Majestic there would always be an organ prelude before the 7 p.m. showing, and as it concluded the organ and organist would slowly recede into the wall, the stars in the Spanish sky would twinkle out, and there would be one wonderful moment of darkness as the stage curtains parted and the screen exploded into color and life.
We moved to West University Place in 1939, and my brother Bobby was born in September of that year.
There were some very confining rules on my life, and I was frustrated. I was not allowed to climb trees, as you know, and especially I was not allowed the cross the street. This was very vexing to me. There was almost NEVER any traffic on Wakeforest, and I had eyes in my head and knew I was well able to avoid any car that might come down the street. But worse than that was the fact that a boy lived right across the street from me. He was about my age, at most maybe a year older. Soon after we moved into 6530 I would sit on my curb and see him playing with his toys in his yard directly opposite. He never showed the least awareness that I was there, but I would wish and wish that I could go over and play with him. And sure enough, one day he finally looked directly at me, and smiled and waved.
“Hi, little boy,” he said. “Why don’t you come over and play with me?”
“I can’t,” I replied. “I’m not allowed to cross the street.” I cast anxious glances back toward the living room windows of our house, lest Granny be standing there and reading my mind.
“Well, you’re just a little sissy, then,” he said.
“No, I’m NOT,” I said, but maybe I was, because I was much too scared to disobey and cross the street.
This dialogue resumed the next day and continued on for at least a week. This little boy’s name was Jimmy Holland, and he kept tempting me to come across. He called me a sissy but said I could prove I wasn’t one if I crossed the street, and he kept raising the ante: If I came over he would let me play with his truck, with his wagon… he would let me play with all his toys.
One day a bigger boy appeared in his yard with him and this boy quickly entered the dialogue, urging me to come over. “Come ON, little boy,” he said, friendly as could be and coaxing. “You can play with US.”
The inducement was too much. I cracked. Without even looking behind me I ran across the street with glee, jumped up on the opposite curb, all eager to make friends, and quick as a wink that big boy had grabbed me by the neck and was slapping me hard in the face, slapping me over and over. I still remember my confusion, my astonishment. This boy was hurting me and Jimmy Holland was laughing at me. How had everything turned so ugly so quick? And I cried and pulled away and ran back across the street to my yard without a glance in either direction. And stood there staring at them, cheeks still stinging, and in the deepest despair, while they laughed at me and jumped around like apes and threw rocks in my direction.
If there are up sides to this story, the first one is that Granny never found out. Another is that I didn’t get hit by a car when I ran headlong into the street to get away from that big boy… and learned in doing so why there was a rule that forbade me to cross the street. A third, and it’s a downish sort of up side, is that you had to wary of smiling boys who invited you to play.