And now I was at the next house. A green-shingled house.
I have to explain something to you about the Staffords. Mr. Stafford was a mailman and they were very mysterious. They belonged to a very peculiar church where they would gather at night in the basement and holler. I don’t know exactly what that was but my old man used to call them “holy rollers.”
They were very straight people. Mrs. Stafford wore her hair plaited with black stuff and pulled right back in a bun about the consistency of a brass doorknob. Mrs. Stafford was a very very righteous lady and Mr. Strafford looked very much like Stan Laurel if you can imagine Laurel after a bad bout with a virus. He would go out and deliver his mail and come back, and they would read things together. Mr. Stafford was a very embarrassing man in our neighborhood now that I think about it. Once in a while Mr. Stafford would stand on a street corner and give people little tracts. It’s very hard when your neighbor’s giving you a tract and he looks you right in the eye and says, “Have you prepared to meet your Maker?” Well, that’s hard to say to Mr. Bruner, who prepared different ways. There’s a lot of ways to prepare to meet your maker, and Mr. Bruner prepared by drinking a lot of corn liquor. He knew he was going to meet his Maker and he wanted to be ready for it.
When I got to the Staffords they were warming up in the basement. They always warmed up immediately before supper. I don’t think they had supper. I think they broke bread. It’s a very different thing.
I knocked on the door and the door opened and there was Mr. Stafford. Mr. Stafford was a true tract dealer. Watery blue eyes, very thin, straight, combed-back hair and he wore cardigan sweaters, those gray, baggy kind. He wore a sort of a funny, bluish checkered socks and brown slacks that kind of hang. There was Mr. Stafford.
“Oh. You’re the young Shepherd, aren’t you?”
“What do you want?”
“Well, I…” It’s very hard to talk to a tract-giver. I’ve always had that trouble. I find it difficult to talk to drunks, and to people who hand out tracts. Somehow I think there is a parallel.
“Mr. Stafford, I…I…I have seeds. Miss Shields said that everybody likes seeds.” Now that I think about it, it’s too bad I didn’t have a line of mustard seeds.
But he looked at me and he said, “What kind of seeds do you have?” A very Christian gentleman.
I said, “I have these seeds. I have nasturtiums.”
The Staffords were the only ones in the neighborhood who had a terraced lawn and also a garden.
He said, “What kind do you have?”
I said, “Well, I have nasturtium seeds, I have morning glory seeds, and, ah, peonies.”
“Do you have any vegetable seeds?”
“And I have chrysanthemums and I have button peonies.”
“Do you have any tomato seeds?”
“Ah, I’ve only got flower seeds. We only have flower seeds.”
“Well, I’m sorry. I get my flower seeds from the Burpee people.”
“The Burpee people. When you get some vegetable seeds, come over.” With that he closed the door.
“Oh.” Up to that point I didn’t even know the principle of competition. The Burpee people. Somehow the Burpee people were cutting me out. Who were the Burpee people? The Burpee people undercut the entire second grade of Miss Shields that year just like a knife. Boom! Just like that.
Theft or Not?
Art lovers with limited means may sometimes have the idea of
art-theft cross their minds. And there must be occasional
opportunities when it seems like a relatively risk-free
temptation. It’s happened to me at least twice.
THE ROMAN FORUM
On my Grand Tour of Western Europe, solo, in ’66, naturally I had to spend time in Florence and Rome. Michelangelo’s “David” was far too big and heavy to stick in my camera bag and skulk out. Then I got to the center of the Eternal City and paid my way into the Roman Forum where I ambled around acres of ancient ruins from the glory days. Fascinating.
It being early June, a bit before the dreadful tourist hoards, I had the place almost to myself. There I encountered a giant mound of dirt and stone rubble, with a bulldozer busily adding to the pile. Obviously meant for an off-site landfill. What were they dozing (never-to-be-seen-again stuff), into that garbage dump? Well, what do you know—a small piece of broken off marble or granite architectural fragment. A discarded, soon to be gone-forever hunk of the Roman Forum! It appeared to be an 8.5″ long bit of “dentil,” the long row of teeth-like rectangular bits often found just below the roof line of Roman buildings. Just the right size to fit in my camera bag.
I carted it in the VW through France, Spain, France, Belgium, and to the VW dealership in Amsterdam’s airport, where, having realized that, too heavy and conspicuous to install in my luggage where it would be seen by U. S. customs agents at JFK, I put it below the spare tire under the VW’s front hood where, once I’d returned to the States and the Bug had arrived in port for me to pick up at a Brooklyn pier, I’d have it again in my possession. Surrounded by books and artworks, it’s been an important part of my study in six houses.
“It’s an emotional weakling who can’t rationalize
doing what he wants to do so badly,”
a friend once said to me.
Is that true?
Am I guilty of “theft”?
I don’t think so.
I’ve rescued a tiny piece of architectural history
From a garbage dump.
A GAUDI PIECE OF ART
In the summer of 1968 I was on my honeymoon in Barcelona with my Spanish wife. Naturally, I’d gotten reservations at the pension in one of Antonio Gaudi’s most admired buildings.
He was the early 20th century Catalan architect whose best-known, nature-fenestrated and engineering-innovative works is Barcelona’s Templo de la Sagrada Familia. The pension is in the Casa Mila (known as “La Pedrara”). Hardly a straight-lined dead-looking line in the place. I can’t get enough of his stuff!
La Pedrara (The Rock Pile)
Even the individual rooms of the pension are designed with specially sculpted ceilings, walls, doors, and, as I found, brass handles—which I would love to possess. Opening a closet door to hang up our clothes, the lovely Gaudi handle came off in my hand. The devil’s dulcet voice whispered in my ear. “If not you, who then?” he cackled.
An angel whispered: “You’ll destroy the composite integrity of the whole!”
What should I do? What should I do!
I replaced the handle on the door.
For years I’ve thought about that handle loose in my hand.
I recognize that, despite a part of myself, I’d done the right thing.
Finally that damned angel gave me a reward by allowing me to encounter and buy, in New York’s MOMA Gift Shop, replicas of two of Gaudi’s door knobs for sale, including, I believe, the one I’d almost sinned to possess. The other reproduction is from another Gaudi down the road a piece, the Casa Batllo:
VIRTUE IS ITS OWN REWARD
IF YOU’RE DAMN LUCKY!