. . . . . . . . . . . . . Where I Came From
I'm a Southerner, and people I speak with know it right away. It's my accent. It says, "Not from New York." "Where are you from?" they want to know. And when I tell them: "Ah, I knew it was from down there somewhere."
Down there means different things to different people. When Barbara and I first moved to New York in 1984, two incidents told me I was far from home. The first came courtesy of a drunken squeegee man at the corner of Bowery and West 4th who got a look at my license plate after I reversed the car to avoid him. Reeling in the street, he loudly advised me of my new reality: "You in New York now, Georgia boy!" Still, he was more pleasant in a way than one of my wife's colleagues at the television station where she worked. After I called her one day and left a message, this person told her, "I didn't know you were married to a redneck."
I laughed when Barbara told me that story. The person on the phone should have heard me when I was a kid in the western North Carolina mountains. I was born in Asheville, but we lived in Waynesville, thirty miles west. Accents were thick in our small town, which advertised itself with banners over the main street that said, "Gateway to the Smoky Mountains." There was a parade every year where the children marched with their pets. Waynesville had one movie theater, and a drive-in that my parents and I could see from the open porch of our house, built on a hillside on the south side of town. My father was the county surveyor. He made woodcut prints in his spare time, evocative scenes of mountain life. My mother worked in the office of the Barber Orchard, whose apple trees covered one side of Balsam mountain along the road leading to Sylva. I attended the small Catholic school, St. John's, when I was five because my November birthday made me too young for public school. Although my father was born in England, and my mother in Michigan, I would have adopted the speech patterns of my schoolmates.
Third grade had barely started when my parents decided to move to Florida. It was my mother's idea. We lived on Ft. Myers Beach, and she got a job as the islands correspondent for the Fort Myers News Press, covering Sanibel and Captiva and Bonita Springs as well as Ft. Myers Beach. Dad didn't like surveying in the heat and took an office job as a draftsman.
Almost everybody on the Beach was from someplace else, refugees from northern cold. I don't remember my accent sounding strange, although again I probably adapted to the sounds around me. The population doubled in the winter with the "snowbirds" from Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois. Ours were protestant snowbirds, in contrast with the snowbirds across the state around Miami, who were Jewish and came from New York and New Jersey. The first time I took Barbara to Ft. Myers Beach, she said, "I didn't know you grew up in paradise." And it was, then. The beach was open for much of the island's seven-mile length, and it was everyone's to use. The Beach Elementary School was small, no more than thirty kids in a class. I graduated from the Beach School, and began a six-year stint of bus rides to Ft. Myers for junior high and high school.
Thomas Edison had wintered in Ft. Myers, on the Caloosahatchee River, and so had Henry Ford. For all that, for a long time it lacked sophistication. Not that I knew anything about sophistication. I did know, or sensed, that my parents were bohemian. Their friends were artists and craftspeople and gift shop owners and commercial fishermen. And like many kids my age, and in my station, we were poor but didn't know it.
When I graduated from high school in 1963, I applied to only one college -- Western Carolina, in Cullowhee, N.C., for the singular advantage it had for a poor kid. Western was dirt cheap. Since my father had returned to Waynesville to take up his surveying practice in the summers, I attended as a residential student. For room, board, books, student activity and laundry fees, the cost per quarter was around $300. I didn't realize until later how incredible that was. I had planned to transfer to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after two years, but by then I had made friends, was working on the student newspaper, and so I stayed. When I graduated, in 1967, I had been the paper's editor and served in the student government, and Western Carolina College had become Western Carolina University.
The Vietnam War was at its most intense in 1967. I got my 1-A draft rating before the ink was cool on my diploma. But I ended up with a medical deferment, and took a job on a small paper, the Shelby Daily Star, in a mill town west of Charlotte.
The early years of a newspaper career generally are a whirlwind of new jobs at ever-larger papers. I was no different. I moved from Shelby to Charlotte after a year, flirted with a job in the Bahamas before deciding that gin and the sun would ruin my nose and my constitution, and moved to Dayton, Ohio, in 1969. Dayton lasted almost two years, during which I remember driving the interstates with National Guard troops stationed on the overpasses, and covered the aftermath of the shootings at Kent State. Then my (first) wife and I headed south again, this time to Atlanta.
Atlanta in 1971 was trying to shape itself as a paradigm of the New South. It had a progressive, Jewish mayor, and a business community determined to avoid the racial violence that had greeted the civil rights movement elsewhere in the South. The Atlanta Constitution, where I went to work, still basked in the afterglow of Ralph McGill, its late, great editor who had believed in segregation but nonetheless passed as a progressive. My passion was to cover politics. Jimmy Carter was in his first year as governor, the ax-wielding restaurateur and former governor Lester Maddox the lieutenant governor. When the opportunity to cover politics didn't arise with the Constitution, I moved to a local television station. I worked for WQXI until 1976, when I joined Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign as an advance man for Rosalyn Carter. After the Carter victory, I spent the coldest month of my life in Washington setting up press coverage for inaugural events.
Back in Atlanta, jobless and divorced, I joined another political campaign. President Carter had appointed Andrew Young, then the congressman from Atlanta, to head the U.S. delegation at the United Nations. John Lewis, one of the founders of the pre-Stokely Carmichael Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and then the head of the Voter Education Project that was aimed at increasing black voter registation, was running to replace him. I was his press secretary. John lost a close primary race to Wyche Fowler, who went on to serve five terms. In the aftermath, I went to work for the Georgia Department of Human Resources. My job had a long title: Assistant Commissioner for Public Affairs. That meant I was an advocate for the department's programs of welfare, vocational rehabilitation, and physical and mental health. At the same time I worked with the unsung television genius Bill Johnston at Georgia Public Television, where he produced my talk show, "Taylor's People."
The DHR job had the unexpected benefit of leading me back to writing. At Western Carolina, my major in English and professional writing had meant one thing -- newspaper journalism. There wasn't much thought that a person could make a living writing in any other way. Now, in my spare time, I started writing feature stories for local magazines, and loving it. I rediscovered why I had liked writing in the first place, knitting facts into a narrative. I wrote about orchid growers and obsessive collectors and baseball's spring training. I began to think that I could do this all the time. That chance came in 1980. I haven't had a regular job since.
Barbara and I were living together by then, in a turn-of-the-century condo apartment close to downtown Atlanta that we had had redone. I took every magazine assignment that came along, but in those first years it was her salary as a television reporter for WAGA-TV that kept us going. Then, in 1984, WCBS-TV in New York City offered her a job.
New York both appealed and frightened. Barbara was a native of the city, having grown up in the outer reaches of the Borough of Queens, in a town called Laurelton near Kennedy Airport. When I had moved to Atlanta thirteen years earlier, I had thought I'd never leave. It was (and is) a physically beautiful city, and I felt that I had grown up there, entering my thirties and meeting the friends I knew I'd have for a lifetime. And while I wrote my first book in Atlanta -- a ghostwriting job for a woman who ran a thriving business teaching executives the art of public speaking -- for most of the kind of writing I was doing, it was limited.
We moved that August, driving up the Shenandoah Valley with a big orange tomcat named Cooper, and spending our first night in the city at the Algonquin Hotel, where the bellhop carried Cooper's litter box to our room with astonishing composure. The next day the movers arrived and we moved into the apartment we'd rented on Jones Street, in Greenwich Village. The apartment was a duplex on the top two floors of a townhouse, and the landlord, an architect named Harley Jones, lived next door. At first I felt very far from home.
Over time, however (and not a long time, either), I realized that New York isn't such a big place after all. It's a lot of little places, one of which was the neighborhood where we lived. It was enormously convenient, and intense with tourists and teenagers on the weekends. The best part about it was the food. There were three butcher shops, two fish markets, one French and two Italian pastry shops, Zito's Bakery, Murray's Cheese, and three vegetable markets for the choosing, all without crossing an avenue. I'd go out for bread each morning, and be greeted by the signs of life on Bleecker Street renewing -- sidewalks swept and hosed, fruit put on display, the smell of baking rising up from Zito's cellar where the brick ovens were. I realized to my delight that I was born to live in New York City, and at this point in my life I can't imagine being anywhere else.
Since then, I've written the innumerable magazine articles mentioned on the home page, and nine books now that American-Made is finally finished (and that doesn't count the ghost-writing jobs I took to keep money in the pipeline). We've bought the house we live in and endured a dusty renovation. I look forward to writing and publishing many more books, including the novel that's waiting to be dusted off and explored for better plot points, and non-fiction subjects that prick my curiosity.
And about my accent: When Barbara and I still lived in Atlanta and flew to New York for visits, I would get off the plane at LaGuardia and hear the New York accents in the public address announcements. Now, when we return to Atlanta to visit her sister and her family, I get off the plane at Hartsfield airport and hear the southern accents there. Does that mean I'm not a redneck in the city anymore? I don't know. It does mean, though, that I'm a part of what E. B. White called the third New York, not a native or a commuter, but one for whom the city was a place of final destination, a goal and a late-blooming dream, where an accent may identify a visitor, or a traveler who has unpacked his bags for the last time.