Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Diners I have Known #5

I’ve lived in four states in my life, & they’re all distinct in terms of geography & region, but also in terms of memory & personal narrative: Vermont was the place of my childhood, & then, in a different part of the state, the site of my wastrel youth & college years; Virginia—all poetry, all the time, in all the best & worst senses of the word; San Francisco—the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen, more poetry, some dear friends, & ultimately a decision to opt for life & health—& the place I plucked my first notes on the guitar; Indian Valley: home now, a place of love & creativity, of gardens & guitars & banjos & blogs….

But now my mind wanders back to Charlottesville, a University town in the heart of Virginia, a lovely place, really, with the magnolia blossoms & the redbuds & the curving brick walls on the campus. My memories of this town are complex & difficult to summarize: all-night poem writing, the oppressive summer heat, the profusion of insects, cigarette smoke all around me—as they said of W.H. Auden, “Everything he touched turned to cigarettes”—true of me at the time; & although my days of booze & better living thru chemicals were already behind me when I landed in Charlottesville, late nights in various nightspots, & those nights full of poetry & amours & the amours very much the stuff of poems; a place for Apollinaire & Sir Thomas Wyatt & John Berryman & Le Roman de la Rose….

& in the midst of this place, unassuming but somehow central to me memory of it was an eatery called the College Inn. The College Inn was (& in fact still is, as I understand, tho they seem to have a problem with their website) located on University Avenue in the area known as “the Corner.” This is right across from the campus on a bit of a slope that eventually leads to downtown proper.

Different people will remember different things about the College Inn of course; for instance, in an email exchange with Audrey Bilger, she mentioned the place mats. I recall the solid clear glass ashtrays & the pattern of tables; & I recall the delicious gyros & souvlaki, which I almost always ordered—tho I believe they could whip up a mean grilled cheese & fries with a salad as well. My love for those Greek fast foods was born at the College Inn & continues to this day. & tho I’ve most happily given up my addiction to Coca Cola a long time past (nothing but coffee, tea, water & juice for this boy now), I remember the big fluted Coke glasses.

So the College Inn wasn’t fine dining—yet everyone came there—undergraduates, townies, grad students such as myself, professors. I specifically remember one day poets Charles Wright & Greg Orr were sitting at a table by the wall, laughing & generally having a good time—I seem to remember that Orr was eating pizza (did they sell by the slice?—I can’t recall).

I often ended up there with very good poebiz pal Jonah Winter, & we’d discuss the absurdities of the universe & the exigencies of various loves & the hilariousness of poetry. Mr Winter saw poetry as closely akin to stand-up comedy, & this has stood him in good stead as he has had some success in the poebiz field—kudos to him. Jonah was always a great fellow to have at a reading because you could rely on him for some belly laughs that would loosen everyone else up.

But at one time or another I was there with practically everyone who was important to me at the time, & I have some personal individual stories connected to this. Poems were written in composition books or on napkins, as were phone numbers. The waitresses knew what we’d order & unless we were there at a busy hour, could tolerate the endless cups of coffee & cigarettes consumed during our symposia.

When I went back on a sort of pilgrimage to Charlottesville in 1996—literally just a few weeks before I stopped writing poetry almost “for good” (a coincidence?)—I didn’t visit the College Inn. The few days I spent there I was on edge, fighting a rush of various memories that I’d only allowed to surface in some transmogrified way in poems. I actually believe my fear of flying, which at this point is admittedly rather morbid, racheted up a notch during that trip, & I just couldn’t feel secure in my own skin. Those are feelings I often had at that point in life, but which I couldn’t really identify….

Ah well, to quote Bob Dylan, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” Charlottesville isn’t so much a mixture of fever dream & cartoon & Petrarchan canzone, but a place where I was young beyond my years (to contradict the Dylan quote). Is “youth wasted on the young?” I’ve said that, specifically in terms of Charlottesville—but no, it’s only youth: high spirits & boundless enegry—truly boundless, & thus going in all directions, both for better & worser….

Now I really feel the demons that haunted my poetry have packed their grips & have caught the train to parts unknown; & tho I know they could get a return ticket & catch the midnight special back to town, I’m beginning to see that one might find some measure of peace along with poetic creation—a foreign concept to me for much of my life….

I wonder if the blossoms are already perfuming the Charlottesville air in the evenings….

For your viewing pleasure: a brief tour of Charlottesville from snapshots taken in the 1980s. The house you see is the one where I lived for much of the time & wrote many a poem; there are also interior shots—including one of Eberle’s piano, which she gave to me for safekeeping after she moved to Idaho, & which I played on those warm spring nights. The final shot is yours truly at a poetry reading at Williams Corner Bookstore—now no longer extant, but a truly wonderful place in its day. The music is a solo guitar piece I came up with for our Moominpappa at Sea soundtrack, played fingerstyle on my old Washburn. Hope you enjoy.


  1. Thanks for the slide show! Charlottesville is a nice town. Not that I'm a big fan of his, but I believe that Dave Matthews started out there.

    There's a College Inn and a Blue Moon near the University of Washington. Allen Ginsburg supposedly frequented the Blue Moon when he was in Seattle. The ambience of the UW College Inn is much like that of the one near the UV.

  2. I've come to think of youth as Trial by Fire. We should get medals for surviving it - and I'm glad you opted for life and health, John. The world is richer for that.

    (That's a great quote about Auden.)

  3. I enjoyed your college town memories. It's not only the food that makes a diner so enjoyable, but the ambiance and comaraderie. Loved the slide show, too!

  4. Very nice your solo piece. I enjoyed the tour and it is not so different from the days in the 60s at Georgia Southern Univ in Statesboro, GA. Beautiful flowers, small town atmosphere, old college. I have a book of poetry written by my first husband titled Poems of a Year And A Day by Dan Jenkins. Perhaps I can find a few to post at some point. Coffee houses, poetry readings, black arm bands, oh yeah, I remember.

  5. K: Matthews is from Charlottesville, & so I've been told was there during my time but I didn't know him. He was a bartender at one of the nightspots on the walking mall-- I forget the name, but it was a restaurant I went to a bit.

    Sandra: Yes, trial by fire is another way of putting it!

    Willow: Thanks! Yes, atmosphere is a big thing, & it's what the diner series is all about.

    Cheryl: Thanks-- yes, Georgia is also very beautiful, tho I've never been to Statesboro. Would certainly be interested in seeing some of those poems if you had the inclination to post them.

  6. That was a beautiful memoir. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It made me do a lot of thinking - about youth. I heard something the other day about American culture: "We hate youth, but worhip youthfulness." I hope to do neither in my lifetime...

  7. Hi Jen:

    That's an interesting quote; this culture absolutley worships youthfulness-- the hating youth part has some truth, too-- will have to meditate on that. Glad you liked the post.


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