When I attended the somewhat excellent public schools in Fairfield, CT as a child, I was led to believe there was equality among the races in our country. I actually thought the Emancipation Proclamation was a reality. Well, that is what they left out of our studies, as we all know now the bitter reality of that lie. To confuse things even more, Fairfield is just 50 miles east of New York City, and considered a ‘bedroom town’ as a result, as it is easy to take a commuter train into the city and back. So, where I lived, there was a sense of equality among races. The New York metro area, despite its setbacks, was still way ahead of much of America. But in my halcyon days of the mid-60’s, I was yet to find that out…
Newly wed, my husband Richard and I lived on the 29th floor of this beautiful building in NYC. https://www.glenwoodnyc.com/properties/upper-east-side/the-pavilion/
There was a private tower elevator. The apartment was high enough so there was no street noise.
Everything we could ever want was at our fingertips, or so it seemed. I thought we would live there the rest of our lives. Little did I know what lay ahead.
Richard forgot to tell me a few things when we got married. He was 13 years older than I, and I was something of a nebbish. Though a musician since childhood, I had rebelled against the Zauberflote (which I play) due to a family crisis, and was something of an atheist. That didn’t help the trials I was about to face. But in addition to not telling me that although he was always the life of the party he could also be a vicious drunk. I suffered a lot of consequences of that, as a result. But that’s a story for another time. But he also forgot to tell me that he had bigger dreams than just staying in NYC forever. He wanted to be one of the top dogs at the insurance company where he worked. MONY. 1740 Broadway. We met at company parties, when I was working in their training department.
So one day, over a martini or two, which we usually enjoyed before dinner, watching the sun set in our lovely den facing west, he mentioned that he’d been asked to take over a stumbling insurance agency in the South. In Columbus, Georgia. Why you? I asked. He reluctantly explained that this was a test to see if he could survive in field management. What’s that? I gulped.
The next thing I knew, we were on the ground in Columbus, Georgia. A small, unpretentious town, spaciously laid out, nothing spectacular, somehow friendly and definitely warm. MONY rented a small apartment for us on their “Main Street”. (Ironically, it is called Broadway. Having experienced the actual Broadway, I can only think of it as “Main Street”.)
The apartment was a Walk-out. That came in handy when we bought a poodle puppy in Pine Mountain. Beau, we called him. Listening to the tales of the agency by night and playing and walking Beau by day became my new temporary life. My rmd buddy Will Dockery has tracked down the little apartment complex where it looked like we lived. It is Fountain Court. It was already furnished, so ther was nothing for us to bring in except our food…
For the next three months we commuted from NYC to Columbus and back. Three weeks in Columbus and one in New York.
Food was wonderful. Nothing not to love. Everything smothered and roasted. Honey. Biscuits. Hominy and grits. Lovely food, lovely manners. Gentle people. Fun. Until one night when we all went to a club — Richard, the agency receptionist, and a couple of salesmen and their wives. You had to bring your own bottle. I don’t recall what law that was. Bourbon went down and voices began to change. I had never heard such talk before in my life. I was best friends with a girl named Olivia when we lived in Bridgeport, before the move to Fairfield. Her father was a doctor. They were black. It made no difference at all to any of us. Listening to this dreadful chatter caused me to feel nauseous. I would never look at them the same way again. And I realized with a sinking heart what had been left out of our textbooks.
And so I began to resist the MONY social events. It was impossible to avoid them. As rifts in agency relationships were healed, I felt myself emotionally naked and uncomfortable. And yes, everyone in the agency was conveniently white.
There were two grocery stores in Columbus that I recall. One was white, the other black, or so I was told. I walked the farther distance to the ‘black’ store, near the Chatahoochie River. Their food was better anyhow.
We traveled to smaller MONY outlets in outlying towns, and went to a convention at Calloway Gardens. Exquisite, lush, aromatic flowers and trees everywhere. It was mystical and magical. And then, on a Sunday morning, when Richard and I were walking from our room to breakfast, there was Col. Sanders walking toward us, dressed in white. “I must be dreaming,” I whispered. But there he was, six feet tall, charming and handsome.
We went to Atlanta to spend time with the Regional VP and his wife, Clarke and Levon Williams. We went to a Falcons game. They lost. Beau skittered between Clarke’s legs and caused his Bloody Mary to squirt everywhere just before the game. Oh, and the time had changed that morning. I don’t think we were their most favorite guests.
So I decided to read books about the South. Carson McCulllers, Tennessee Williams. It didn’t really help. It was too late for that. While the likes of Bob Dylan and other scruffy protesters — or so I had thought — were trying to dig into the injustice and horror of the reality of life in the South, I had missed it all. Dr. King’s march was a footnote to me as I had just returned from a year in the UK and was busy getting ready for my senior year at Bucknell. Its importance did not register at that time.
But there was a constant presence I had grown to appreciate. There were two high schools — yes, one white, the other black. On Monday nights, the white high school band would parade down Broadway. Nice uniforms, everyone played well. This ritual attracted an enthusiastic crowd of supporters. But then, on Thursday night, the black high school band marched down Broadway. They blew the lid off. It was incredible – just historic. Everyone just seemed to appreciate both of these parades. Wow. I was impressed. There was more to this town than MONY after all…
Just as Richard was finishing up his work at the agency, which had been successful, and we were preparing to return to New York we heard that there was going to be a football game between the two schools. It would be the first. There was a palpable buzz of excitement and concern. Lots of rumors, lots of talk. We had to go. Police everywhere. Hardly room on the field for the players, it seemed.
But all went well. Everyone was respectful. It was a beautiful night, warm and clear. I don’t remember who won. I don’t think it mattered. There was a sense of peace, of rightness. Something long overdue had occurred. Everyone was just fine.
My dismay morphed into a rueful acceptance that the road ahead would be rocky and probably get worse before things really improved. But at least I knew what the stakes were. Later, when I heard how Miles Davis was treated by police in New York City I had enough of a grasp of reality to think, “Well, what else could we expect?”
The MONY agency gave Richard and me a going away dinner. One by one they shared their experiences where he had been able to resolve issues of finances, personnel, fractured marriages due to infidelity in the agency, and so on. Richard had won them over. I was, quite frankly, amazed. And they gave us a huge stereo system that went with us wherever we moved. Which happened quickly.
Two years in San Francisco
Two years in Boston
Then Richard’s team lost out to the other team for the top positions in New York. So they bought an insurance company in Minneapolis and sent the losing team out to run it. NALAC, it was called. Barney Barnhill was the VP on our team. He ended up being a founder of Canterbury Park. Roger Kolker, the second in command, left the company after the first frigid winter. And upper management did not approve of Richard’s drinking and sent him to treatment at St. Mary’s Hospital. Arnie Carlson’s wife was in as well at the time, and the two of them got along famously. I had tried to stop him from drinking and that caused the end of our marriage.
But some good has definitely come out of this odyssey to Columbus, Georgia. In fact, it is downright Zauber. For on rmd (the Dylan Google group) I’ve found two buddies — Will Dockery and “Zod” — who just happen to reside in Columbus.
Who knew? 🙂