“A Sense of Place”
(Ed Fletcher Speaks About Savannah and the Savannah School of Art at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home.)
May 1, 2015
Rounding the corner of the square came the “Old Town Trolley” which is a bus that looks like the old time trolley cars. I could hear the driver-conductor begin his spiel about the historic home of the great American short story writer who lived her first thirteen years in the house to your right. As I crossed the street he leaned out the window and said away from the microphone, ”Yo Duke… I Just saw your boy parking around the corner… he said he didn’t want to be late for your talk… I wish I wasn’t working… I wouldn’t mind hearing what you have to say about Flannery O’Conner… I drive by here enough times.” I just laughed and nodded my head. I was on my way over to the square to sit and gather my thoughts. I watched the tourists drink me in; an older colored gentleman with dreadlocks crocheted into a bun on the top of his head. Complete with white double-breasted, gold-buttoned southern classic jacket, jeans and white shoes to match.
As is my custom, I am always set up and ready to go a half hour before I am scheduled to begin. Searching the eyes of the tourist passengers I remembered when I had taken the very same tour. What would I have thought had I seen me coming out of the “ historic” Flannery O’Conner Childhood Home.
Savannah has the second largest historic district in the country and is filled with things like the Flannery O’Conner house or the home of Juliette Gordon Low, the creator of the girl scouts. I could go on but what I want to talk about is when you walk down the street and a White passer-by in a Jeep Mercedes hollers out his window, “Hey Duke Bootee!” Going into the supermarket I often hear, ”Yo Professor Fletcher… that’s my favorite professor… that brother opened my eyes.”
I came to this town seven years ago not knowing a solitary soul. My wife and I loved it here and here is where we, or should I say me was determined to be. People that know my history know I have in the past been a minor celebrity; the key word that goes with celebrity being “minor”. I still hold the “Number One Hip-Hop Record of All Time” according to Rolling Stone Magazine. Because I am who I am and have been this way my whole life, if I want to go to the supermarket in my outside PJ’s with my broke down slippers on and a sleep hat on my head I will do it. I don’t care that people will say, “I saw Duke Bootee in the supermarket the other morning and that nigger had on pajamas, slippers and a sleep hat”. My response is always “I’m not the only one.” I don’t buy that I have an image to hold up. If there is one thing living in this country has shown me is that in the end in this country you are just another nigger. Even if you are white, if you don’t have any money then you are a nigger too, you might not know it, you might not want to admit it, but it is true… for me not sadly, but gladly. Everybody wants to be a nigger on Saturday night and every night is Saturday night for me; Saturday in Savannah, not bad….. Sunday in Savannah, even better.
This being my first speaking engagement in a while I came prepared with everything I needed, except my notes. Not that this was a great problem I basically knew what I wanted to say and I had read enough of O’Conner (underlining is also my custom) to talk for an hour. I lecture to hostile audiences five days a week so this wasn’t scaring me any, and besides I wasn’t getting paid and people didn’t pay to get in.
My Savannah story started with my attraction to the natural assets of this place; the water, the ancient tree canopy, the historic nature of the buildings and the architecture, and oh yes the people. The bus drivers, the intellectuals, the fat girl that works in the bakery or at the supermarket, the coffee drinking artist, the tea drinking gay madams and their Yorkies, the existential exterminator who tries to sell me part of his Gurdjieff collection while he is killing my giant roaches… I haven’t met any preachers I like yet but I am hoping that will come as well.
I didn’t know a soul in this town and that was great because I could make a brand new start. Here it is over seven years later and I am contemplating how well known do I really want to be. After I got the cover of a local free news and culture paper (which happened without a press agent or nothing), I had to hear people in the supermarket tell me about their rap beats and their videos. What that means for me is that I have to listen politely to all these people. I often think this is my version of living hell, having to listen to terrible mixes of dumb ass southern rap songs. That being said, I love this place. Of late I have decided I have to emerge once again to try and make some money off what I have done and let that catapult me into a successful position with what I plan on doing. I have been a full time instructor for a bit over five years here and plan on continuing to work as long as I am able. “Me no must work, I-n-I work cause me a workin man… but see… me no like my job, I-n-I fire dat job.” Tru dat. Fortunately I like my current position and hope to continue on at Savannah State as long as I can in some capacity. Full time is getting a bit old. The weeks and the semesters are getting longer. I will be turning 64 next month and, although I am told I don’t look it, I feel every bit of it. Most of my closest friends are already dead and I have had the big one (heart attack that is) and have had double by-pass surgery. Luckily I have no pacemaker or defibrillator.
It occurred to me while talking to Dr. John when he performed at the Savannah Music festival, he said he had heard I had moved to Savannah but he couldn’t remember whom he had heard it from. I have traveled a bit in my time and there are a few places while sitting by the sea in some foreign country or by a lake somewhere, while walking through a small Italian village or a town in southeastern Georgia, “ I could live here.” What has to follow, since I was born married and my wife and I have been together some 48 years, is it also has to be some where I can convince her she wouldn’t mind being as well. Since in some ways we are very much alike, these places share a common sense of appreciation, relaxation and yeah I could live here-ness. This happened for both of us in Savannah. Though we started in one room we are living pretty good now. I want some of my ashes spread out at Tybee and here in town… that is how much I love this town, I want to die here.
Since I am the descendent of “Red Georgia Niggers” I guess it makes sense that I feel so at home. You cannot run from who you are, everywhere you go, there you are. My son, who just migrated to Cape Cod (there are only six black people that live there full time and three of them are related to me, him… my two grandsons), found a job after no luck doing the traditional route… went back to his old hustle, politics, and is now senior legislative aid to Brian Mannal, the state representative from his district… the perfect job for him. Even my precocious seven-year old grandson told him when he got the job after an eight-month drought, “You’ve done this before dad...you ought to be able to do it good.”
So you are who you are, the problem is that if you are Duke Bootee and Professor Fletcher you have to accept the notoriety and requirements of such. I never want regular people to say, “Man I tried to talk to that fucking Duke Bootee, he’s a jerk. Sometimes I am fucking depressed and don’t want to be out of the house any way. Sometimes I just don’t feel like being bothered. I have remained, what is known in the business, as a hard interview to get. Lately I have been reversing that trend. Two weeks ago a guy showed up at my classroom door with a hand full of records and his new miniaturized camera equipment. He informed me he had come all the way from “Baton Rouge” to do a “piece” in which he would appreciate my help. Now he informed me he had been trying to contact me for sometime. Through my web site he surmised I was teaching at Savannah State, looked up my schedule, hopped a flight, rented a car and now here he was.
There was a time I might have informed him that he had wasted his time and money because I had no time or energy for him. Instead, recognizing some of the energy and will I had when I was young like him, I gave him full access to my time and me. This has lead to him wanting to do a longer piece on my life and work. I always wanted to do a “mockumentery” with Ed Fletcher interviewing Duke Bootee, but Fletcher would have an English accent.
My demons being somewhat satiated allowed my angels to live in this town that has been described as “Gone With the Wind on Mescaline”. To do what I want to do I have to give it up to this town. I have to go to the supermarket at 2:00 a.m. in my pajamas. I have to walk my neighborhood at five a.m. for my morning two mile constitutional. I have to hang with the boys in “da yard” watching and playing Luti and banging the occasional drum. There are porches I sit on with filmmaker friends who were once my neighbors ‘till all hours of the morning.
Let the trolling begin. There are things that have taken me to the streets of towns and cities much bigger than this to make money and do some dirt. But this place is home. This place is where I am known and will be even more known, this adopted home. Even though I am what the natives call a ”Come here” cause thank God I “came here”… I came here with my arms open, the river and the bridge, my statue of liberty. I am not one of the huddled masses. I came here with a dollar or two, a will and the ability to do what I wanted to do.
My first two years were spent in a carriage house on Victory, returning “home to Jersey” for the fall semester to teach, then returning after Xmas to be a man of leisure and a southern gentleman for eight months. We did this for two years until in my second year I took an adjunct position that has led to these five full time years I have just completed.
It would be foolish not to acknowledge that Savannah is now, and I suspect has always been, a tale of two cities. Sure the sweet southern hospitality and historic elements are talked about greatly but find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time and you may find yourself joining the shot club. People are shot all the time around here; some with reason, some for no reason. I rarely go to the places that require me to carry my legal gun. I generally figure if I got to be strapped to feel safe going there why go at all. You may ask where is the wrong place and what is the wrong time. As I tell my students, “Two-thirty to five-fifty nine a.m. is the wrong time and any street or boulevard named Martin Luther King or Malcolm X is the wrong place.” There are other wrong places; the parking lot of the only chicken wing joint or fish sandwich place still open. When you leave the club do not hang in the parking lot, go home! I could go on but I am sure by now you get my point.
There were times when I had to go to these places because this is where I made my living and I don’t let anyone stop me from feeding my family. But even when I “needed the money”, and believe me I still need the money, I just don’t need it that bad. After a White guitar player friend of mine was killed at home in Newark when I was out on the road I decided I wasn’t playing anywhere that looked like I needed to bring my gun. I can’t make money if I am dead or in jail. The truth of the matter is that my estate will continue to make money as long as my songs are around but that is a story for another day.
As you can see my love for this town is certainly not blind. Quite to the contrary I see the stretch marks and the warts and calluses and love this town because of it, or in spite of it, or what ever you would like to say. Like I’m known to say about some place else I love… Elizabeth, New Jeruselem… this town is my bitch I don’t care if it’s bald headed don’t have but one titty and two teeth. If I get shot I’ll just have to get some bullet proof pajamas Often when returning from somewhere and I take Route 16 to the Thirty-Seventh Street exit on my way, I often hear myself say, “I love this raggedy-ass fuckin’ town.
To really love a place you have to be able to see and love it all. I am not the traditional immigrant. I don’t come here without a sense of history. I know that the tracks for this gravy train were laid by hard work and suffering of my people and when I say that, I mean all of my people. I have been known to say that when I take my nap it is for every slave who never got to take a siesta. When I grow flowers in the absence of vegetables, it is for every poor black gardener who wanted to grow flowers but had to grow vegetables to feed their family. My sense of history fills me with both angst and satisfaction.
Mary Flannery O’Conner only spent the first thirteen years of her life here in Savannah leaving for Atlanta, then Milledgeville. With very brief stops in New York and Connecticut. most of her life was spent in country repose. For me Savannah is not a city but a town, therein lays its charm. Now after seven years toiling in not quite obscurity my wife and I are Savannahians. I am part of the local scene and scenery and, like it or not, Savannah will most likely be seeing more of me.
Anyone that knows me knows my story started in Elizabeth, New Jeruselem (New Jersey to the uninitiated}. No telling where it will end but, if I can manage to live long enough, maybe my name can be synonymous with the “Nu-South”. What one can truly say, now that positions of power and authority have been assumed by people of color and women, is that incompetence is truly post racial and colorblind.
My wife and I have been told by all sorts of people… from my “Harvard grad cardiologist” to a couple of bums in Bryant Park, to the local bow-tied intellectual public professor… we are a “great addition to the city”. I hope that is true.
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