"Too Hot, Too Cold, Too Late, I'm Sold"

My son, Peter Joseph, is much the better writer than I. He wrote the foreword to my first book, House Not Made With Hands. It's a page from his journal. I'll share it with you...

Sunday, Dec. 23, 2001. John Steinbeck died in New York on Dec. 20, 1968. He lived on 78th Street and wrote East of Eden in pencil here in this city. I was thinking of Little Orphan Annie when they sing, "Too hot, too cold, too late, I'm sold." New York is like learning to drive a stick shift. You can't know whether or not you love it 'til you get out there and do it alone.

Tonight I wandered the streets of Midtown without direction for three hours. My tired shoes and legs would not allow another moment longer. Everything here is done in the superlative. I fell in stride with a man and woman, both wearing full-length mink coats in the rain. My cheap suede jacket was surely more affected, but I allowed myself the luxury of nonchalance. They did not seek shelter but simply walked on, and so did I.

The city has a pulse and a momentum of its own. You cannot alter the velocity any more than you could hope to slow a river by swimming upstream. I found myself alternately wading in and still sensing my reticence. There is a strange and unmistakable beauty I am coming to realize that stems from one spectacular and unstoppable truth. The city is a single point of light where liberty found residence. I have lived in the Southeast all my life and have seen much of the South and its old beliefs. It sticks to us and forces wedges of culture and religion and prejudice in between us all. New York is a glimpse at advanced democracy. Still a place that our forefathers could look on and know that the strife was worthwhile. The streets are full of Blacks, Jews, Asians, French, Italians, Whites, and hybrids of all, mixed together and speaking any language. Somehow this works. Somehow all of these people step into the palace that is the City of New York and become...American. When I close my eyes and watch the reel of the last several days play out, my mind fills with smells and sounds and sights so vast that it's as if a great wind is blowing confetti all around. What can I do but sit back and watch the stunning beauty engulf me.

My mother has seen New York many times over the years. From those visits she has become a New Yorker at heart. It was her love of the city that planted a seed in me. For almost a year I picked up pennies and saved loose change, dollars, and any spare money to afford myself the chance to be a part of this city. Every one of those dollars would have been absorbed into my everyday life and would have had no meaning and no memory. Thinking back on it now I can see that my mother asked me to do the impossible. I purchased for myself a change. I have been affected in ways that I would not have had the courage to ask. I can see the lights of the mammoth signs of Times Square from where I sit now. Lights my mother has seen time and again; but I know, even now, that they have shown a light into parts of me that have been dark for far too long. How do you thank a person for giving you a gift that never fades? A gift that time strengthens.

April 24, 2007. I remember being on an airplane some years ago and my mother handed me part of a manuscript. She said she had been working on it for years and that it was a sort of memoir of her life. She and I have spent many hours going over that book since then. It is the story of all of us and it is a story of the South that so few ever hear. She talked about changing the names of the characters so that she could take liberties where needed and I agreed. I told her to call it a fictional memoir, but that's what memoir is. No one could hope to remember the nuances that make up our lives. She found the voice of her generation, though. She brought back those with her while she told the story. I found this page from a journal written the first time I visited New York City. We were Southerners who invaded the North for a few days and the city infected me with a desire that lasts to this very day.

When I read my mother's book, I imagine the same wonderful thing happening to someone who has spent a life in the North. The book is a window opening to the reader and allowing a glimpse or two at a time gone by and a place that most have never seen or known. Southerners are fiercely proud of their heritage. It has a meaning and a story all its own. This is my mother's story. Her heritage and mine as well. If New York City is truly a palace then this book represents a house. A house that encompasses the South, the people who lived and breathed it, her family, my family, and a generation yet to come. You cannot touch this house. It is not made with brick and mortar or clapboard wood. It is stronger and finer still than that. This house, our house that is still growing, is the house not made with hands.


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