by Tim Gilmore, 3/18/2018
“When I was a little girl,” my mother wrote, “before we had money, my father liked to tease me and loved to laugh. He was, back then, an affectionate man. I remember sitting on his lap and pulling his ear, how he would laugh and holler and pretend it hurt.”
We round the front corner of the old Lovett’s store, my sister Wanda and I. What time’s done here seems brutal, uncalled-for. An eye-for-an-eye, no turn-the-other-cheek. Wanda can see beneath the layers of time’s degradation like I can. We’re siblings of the imagination, not just of bloodlines. “It’s a gorgeous building,” she says, though it’s not anymore, and I see it.
Our grandfather had grown up, my mother wrote, “a poor country boy.” He’d left Newberry, Florida at 17, having quit school in the eighth grade, just walked away, “looking for something better.” Eventually he found Lovett’s Grocery. And this city. He worked hard when the store was Lovett’s, when it became Winn-Lovett’s, when it became Winn-Dixie. In those days, “a poor country boy” with an eighth-grade education could still work his way up in the city.
When, in 1944, the four Davis brothers, owners of the grocery chain Table Supply, bought the 49 percent of Winn & Lovett, a chain then operating 73 stores, that they’d not bought in 1939, the brothers merged the two chains under the latter name, and moved their headquarters to Jacksonville from Miami.
To see this Lovett’s Grocery as it was, 1947, when it was, is to see it now shipwrecked in the rising rubbish pile the latter 20th century built heavenward, but also as just barely off-center, cast off from revitalizing Edwardian / Victorian Springfield, whose northern boundary’s a few blocks south. The architect Abner C. Hopkins envisioned a particular “Art Moderne” design, with a capitalist steeple rising from “wedding cake” tiers, for this every / body’s / super / market, raised a grand motif consumerist and populist.
“I was about 10 when Daddy got his big promotion,” my mother wrote in the early 1980s. “It meant a lot of money and a big change in our lifestyle.” Ernest “Eddie”—not Ernie—Keene, manly as Ernest Hemingway, first bought a house on Ernest Street. It stood beside the railroad tracks in the part of Riverside first built for freed slaves and named Silvertown. After the family moved, the house burnt down. It looked like the small brick houses still standing alongside its absence.
When the Davis Brothers bought Dixie Home grocers, which operated 117 stores across the South, in 1955, Winn & Lovett became Winn-Dixie. By 2012, Winn-Dixie would be the 45th largest retail company in the United States.
Abner Hopkins had grown up in Texas, dreaming of designing magnificent structures to make magnificent the lives of ordinary people. Moving to Florida, he worked on additions to the Nassau County Courthouse, whose central corner rose into a tower as did his best retail store for Lovett’s, but as company architect for Winn & Lovett and then Winn-Dixie, most of his designs were big boxes in which to store big meats and big displays of coffee and big boxes of cereal. In one building, however, his sensibility for beauty soared. Always he’d wished to bring beauty to barren landscapes.
Art Moderne, a more utilitarian, slightly more austere, outgrowth of Art Deco, focused on curved corners emphasized by horizontal lines, an increased use of glass encased in plaster, especially glass blocks and bricks, and overt or implicit elements of ships at sea, like flagstaffs or mastheads and figureheads at corner entrances. Architectural critics who saw the voluptuous curves of Art Deco as “effete” credited Art Moderne with streamlined manliness.
My mother never talked about that first house. She did talk about the house on Mayfair Street, in Fairfax Manor, a modestly wealthy little neighborhood wedged between wealthier Avondale and old-money Ortega. The family moved there after my grandfather’s promotion.
My grandparents, my mother wrote, “started going out socially. Dances. Cocktail parties. They had a big beautiful brick home built in an exclusive part of town. I was 12 when we moved there.” She remembered, she said, “the rejoicing my parents did, but it was the beginning of the ruining of our home life.”
My sister and I, we step around this alienated, this isolated castaway of architectural consciousness, the color of dirt, and more and more, as it crumbles, the texture of dirt, increasingly dirt itself, earth incarnate, the glass blocks chipped, the tower nested for years now by birds.
My grandparents danced downtown every Saturday night. Late 1940s. “Mama looked so beautiful in her long flowing gowns. Every few days, Daddy put a roll of bills in her purse and she’d buy yet more beautiful gowns. He said he had the best-looking woman in town.”
Eventually E[a]rnest Eddie worked himself to Regional Manager of Maintenance. When he lived at Forbes and King Streets, before my mother was born, city directories listed his occupation as “mech.” By 1937, on Ernest Street, he was “refrigeration man,” by 1949, on Mayfair, “mtce supvr,” then, early 1950s, “dept mgr Winn & Lovett.”
His purview comprised all the stores in Northeast Florida. He walked taller, shouldered broader his carriage, perfected his connoisseurship of spirits, and added to his collection of tobacco pipes.
Down at the George Washington Hotel, the old ballrooms with the big band orchestras, dances started at nine on Saturday nights and lasted to the early hours of Sunday morning. My grandparents had been religious, but now they dropped out of church. Wrote my mother, “Soon other men paid too much attention to Mama on the dance floor and Daddy flew into jealous rages.”
That wasn’t all. The job demanded more work to maintain the level of achievement already gained. He’d already had a temper, frantically impatient. He already drank. A handsome display of cellophane-wrapped Christmas hams, tied tight and right with ribbons, merely showed oblivious customers the end of a long, hard-fought, well-executed chain of events. Picnic Meats: 35₵. Mt. Vermont Turkeys / Hams / Oysters / Hamburger.
“Maintenance” of all Northeast Florida became philosophical, existential. Decay was the natural tendency of things, entropy. Maintenance bucked against nature. Even as the earth sprung anew from the world, the world wound down. He must have feared that his heart would grow heavy, heavier, corrode, list to port and crumble like Abner Hopkins’s cosmic grocery ship moored off Main and 15th Streets in the years-baked asphalt and concrete. Indeed, his heart would kill him at 61.
“Daddy was working too hard and too long. He’d come home at night and bicker and fight the rest of the evening. As soon as he got home, he’d go to the cabinet above the refrigerator and take a sip from his bottle of whiskey to calm his nerves. He’d revisit the whiskey the rest of the night. My parents kept going to dances. He kept getting jealous. The social whirl that goes with making money swept them up into it. I told myself I would never dance.”
When, as a child, I first read that last sentence, I identified with it and understood the sentiment. Like my mother, I stood too tall, felt too shy, my body bumbling, my head emotional, dangerously sensitive, too-oft emotionally reactionary.
As an adult, repeatedly, I’ve revisited that sentence. And it’s not pretty, but I’ve danced. At a quinceañera. At a Palestinian wedding. Accidentally butted heads with my future-wife when the d.j. played the Ramones at The Eclipse. Moshed at a Megadeth show and Lollapalooza. Hopelessly salsa’d in an Alabama studio beside a store called NASCAR ’N Knives. Took my daughters to see Swan Lake and MOMIX and Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and Giselle and Ballet Folklórico de México. My older daughter danced in The Nutcracker, year after year. My mother’s sentence breaks my heart.
The cosmic grocery ship churns into port. The single block off Main Street’s called La Main Ct. One pink woodframe house, a thousand square feet, address on La Main, built in 1926, fronts no street, its driveway accessed only from post-apocalyptic Lovett’s parking lot. Dead wires dangle from the glass-blocked tower. A crow walks devil-may-care where my grandfather stepped.
Miami’s known for Art Deco and Moderne, though the hotels of South Beach were painted earthen hues, not those later Miami Vice bright pastels, and far-north Jacksonville curvilinearity lost itself more deeply in the urban pine-tree’d streets where voodoo priestesses and Ku Kluxers operated h.q.s in corners carved into houses cut into corners. Ad infinitum.
I never met my grandfather. My sister Wanda never thought of him as her grandfather. Both of us have, all our lives, thought of him only as our mother’s father.
He’d already remarried when my sister, a little girl, would visit him, an “important man,” so she was told. He’d gone “from work clothes to suit-and-tie man,” but she should be “seen, not heard.” When he walked into a room, the energy shifted. Conversation hushed. People noticed.
In his last home at 1730 Memory Lane, his biggest house, a split-level, he had a study, very masculine and dark—“Spooky,” thought my sister as a child—centered on a bear rug on which children “were not permitted” to step. He’d killed the bear himself. He was proud of it. “I didn’t like the rug,” says my sister, “but I did walk on it once, barefoot.” I’m proud of her pun. And her rebellion.
I remember my mother telling me—was I eight or nine years old?—that her father could fix anything, that when my grandfather was—eight or nine years old?—he’d accidentally blown the power out of half his hometown. My only sparks came from words, but still I hoped to blow my hometown’s lights out.
Our grandparents’ divorce was ugly, brutal, vicious. So were the lies. The accusations. Our grandfather’s jealousies and temper, whiskey-infused already for years, invented whole networks of wounded fantasy. He told my mother, still a girl though newly married, that if she testified, if she countered his assertions in divorce proceedings, he’d write her out of his will.
I step to this front door of this old Lovett’s store. I crawl through the grocery’s past like a mantis, aisle upon aisle, beans and peas and “hoppin’ john” and okra and turnip greens, all canned, and purchase its instant grounds, economize its “new miracle way to cream [my] coffee.”
It’s a one-way mirror. He can’t see me. But at some point, none of us knows where, we cross a line, after which, though we’ve always understood ourselves to be young, we’ve now less time to picture-forward than years behind us to recollect. Somewhere, sometime, we moved from having less to dream than what we romanticize and recall from the years that so quickly, even though we lived them, slipped us by.
On Memory Lane, he kept his collection of tobacco pipes. He donned a bowtie to roam the house. My mother told the court the dirty things he’d said about her mother were lies. When he died in 1966, she could hardly believe he’d left her nothing, but his was the kind of rigid masculinity that sticks to a declaration, once it’s made, forever, right or wrong.
My grandfather Ernest, who’d moved his family from Ernest Street, manly as Ernest Hemingway, nevertheless loved birds. My sister recalls one “particular tender visit. He told me,” she says, “and I can replay it all in my mind, to go stand by the window and look outside and watch him feed the birds.” Only the two of them were there in that house on Memory Lane.
He gave her “strict instructions to be patient and not to wiggle at the window, or the birds wouldn’t come. So I followed his instructions and stood by the window, looking out, watching him, and I was very still.”
The moment was tense. So were the muscles in my not-yet-older-sister’s shoulders. She knew men could be monsters. She makes sure I understand our grandfather was not a good man.
Still: “The birds came!”
These decades later, my big sister photographs bald eagles and cardinals and titmice and woodpeckers and hawks and owls and waxwings. She owns this one tender memory of our grandfather. I cling to it by proxy. One of the two photographs of my grandfather I’ve seen shows him smiling, the family’s “Keene eyes” bright, on the porch of the Ernest Street house, 1745, a metal ornamental duck, from the stylized screen door behind him, apparently frozen just over his head in flight, like a dove hovered over some Renaissance Jesus wayward to Southern Gothic.
“After he was done,” my sister remembers, “he came back inside, and he was so happy. He said he had trained the birds to trust him. I think he liked me, but I don’t know for sure.”
Of course it’s absurd these years later that it matters, but of course, these years later, it matters. All things pass. All things matter. All matter passes, becomes everything else. After each winter comes the spring. And new green. Branches deemed dead sprout shoots. Beans rise from bones. And far more clued-in than us, always, through vast earthen flights, the birds arrive.
I picture the birds coming to perch on my grandfather and feel, ever so hopefully distant, that I might know him yet.
“The birds came down,” my sister remembers, “and landed on his hands and his shoulders, and they ate right out of his hands, and they perched all over him as he stood there, so still, so still the birds could cover him,” and they did.