Harry Crews’s Childhood Nightmare Northside

by Tim Gilmore, 5/8/2020

1. Human Sacrifice

Five year old Harry Crews came to Jacksonville on the night his stepfather-uncle (who may actually have been his father) raised a shotgun to his mother’s head. “For all I knew, every family was like that,” Crews wrote in his 1978 memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. “I knew for certain it was not unusual for a man to shoot at his wife. It was only unusual if he hit her.”

As Harry, his brother Hoyett and his mother Myrtice rode a Greyhound bus into Jacksonville, with two battered suitcases and “chicken and biscuit” in a shoebox, he saw “the streets and houses and factories, and knew [they] would go to the Springfield Section.”

Everybody back home in Bacon County, Georgia spoke of Jacksonville, and Springfield in particular. “Jacksonville came up in conversations like the weather. Farmers’ laconic voices always spoke of Jacksonville in the same helpless and fatalistic way. It was a fact of their lives. They had to do it. Everybody had to do it. Sooner or later, everybody ended up in the Springfield Section, and once they were there, they loved it and hated it at the same time, loved it because it was hope, hated it because it was not home.”

one of the houses in which Crews lived as a child in Bacon County, Georgia, from Ted Geltner’s Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews

The adults always said that in Jacksonville, you could “turn on some water or piss there where you sleep, well Godamighty,” that in the city, “a man can make a dollar,” though the density seemed “dreadfully unnatural” and Jacksonville’s notorious midcentury pollution “got into the drinking water and onto their hair. It hung about over the streets, a blue fog, undulating and layered.”

All across Southern Georgia, poor farmers and their families heard Jacksonville calling. They “knew their time was coming—maybe there would be many times before it was over—for them to fill the houses and offer themselves up to the factories.” The city had much to offer, but it required human sacrifice.

As Lov Bensey says in Erskine Caldwell’s 1932 Georgia novel Tobacco Road, Jeeter Lester “was a man who liked to grow things in the ground. The mills ain’t no place for a human who’s got that in his bones. The mills is sort of like automobiles—they’re all right to fool around in and have a good time in, but they don’t offer no love like the ground does. The ground sort of looks after the people who keeps their feet on it. When people stand on planks in buildings all the time, and walk around on hard streets, the ground sort of loses interest in the human.”

2. Impossible to Leave

Harry Crews, who published short stories, essays and 16 novels, taught writing at the University of Florida from 1968 to ’98. Critics called his writing “Grit Lit” as often as Southern Gothic. It was Harper Lee who said, after reading Crews’s 1969 novel Naked in Garden Hills, that William Faulkner had come back to life.

Early in his career, Crews wrote novels while drinking bourbon and popping amphetamines from a Mason jar. As he grew older, he cut his mullet into a mohawk and got tattoos, including that line by poet E.E. Cummings, “How do you like your blue eyed boy, Mr. Death?”

Crews wrote and spoke of Jacksonville much the way he did of his native Bacon County, Georgia. Of that hard, poor, violent godforsaken spot of earth that birthed him, he wrote in A Childhood, “It would be forever impossible to leave completely. Wherever I might go in the world, [it] would go with me.”

Though he disparaged both places, he also loved Bacon County. He had no love for Jacksonville. If most residents of Jacksonville couldn’t find Bacon County on a map, Bacon County knew Jacksonville as the place it went in the depths of its own desperation.

For Bacon County, the Northside of Jacksonville, writes Ted Geltner in his 2016 Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews, “was synonymous with failure.” Crews and Geltner both refer to New Springfield, Phoenix, Fairfield and other North- and Eastside neighborhoods as “the Springfield Section.” Geltner refers to “Springfield” as filled with “tiny shotgun row houses” on “narrow streets,” rather than the home of iconic Springfield structures like the Drew Mansion, the Klutho Apartments and the Klutho House.

Klutho’s residence in its original location on Main Street beside the Klutho Apartments, part of his film complex, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com.

The distinction would hardly matter to Jacksonville in the 1940s, much less to Bacon County. Springfield itself had declined, ahead of the “white flight” that drained most such historic neighborhoods beginning in the ’50s, and people called every poor working class neighborhood around it “Springfield.”

3. Probably Even Their Hearts

“Daddy” was Paschal Crews. Harry’s father Ray died before Harry could remember him. He only found out about him later. Paschal, however, was Ray’s brother, whom Harry’s mother Myrtice married a few months after Ray died. There was always the possibility, however, that Harry’s Uncle “Daddy” really was his biological father. Ray was dependable and hard working, but Paschal was the same kind of drunk Harry would become.

Public School no. 8 and Franklin Street Baptist Church. The Crewses lived in the small house adjacent to the church on East 16th Street.

“Daddy” showed up in the middle of the night within a week of the move to Jacksonville. When Harry and Hoyett ascertained their father was sober, since he’d asked to come in instead of kicking the door down, they fell back asleep. Myrtice “ran him off” the next day. He came and he went.

City directories first listed “W Paschal (Myrtice)” renting at 1216 East 16th Street. The modest woodframe house still stands beside the tall-steepled little Franklin Street Baptist Church and across from the now abandoned Public School no. 8.

Franklin Street Baptist Church. The Crewses lived in the small house visible to the side of the church on East 16th Street.

Myrtice went to work making King Edward cigars at the Swisher factory. It was just down 16th Street across the railroad tracks. Crews later wrote that you could see the Swisher women beating and slapping their kids in the afternoons and you could smell them from as far as you could see them. They “stunk of tobacco, their hair, their clothes, their skins, probably even their hearts.”

In the mornings, when his mother went to work and his older brother went to school, Harry hit the streets. He and his friend Junior Lister bummed around like urchins. Junior wasn’t named for his father. His name was just “Junior,” South Georgian for “Youngin,” which is South Georgian for “little boy.”

Junior, Crews wrote in A Childhood, had “a broad flat forehead” that he used to “butt through several things, including a door.” He could’ve been describing himself. It was Junior who urged Harry to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and steal a set of hubcaps off a new Plymouth near Eighth and Market Streets. Crews writes that Junior was six years old, but he seems to warp all childhood years in Jacksonville toward the beginning. Whatever their actual ages, the boys were not yet 10.

The Plymouth was parked before “a confectionery store” and when the old lady who lived behind the store turned on the front lights and wheeled into view, Harry felt ashamed. “Junior,” he said, “She’s in a wheelchair.” Junior said he knew that, she didn’t own a telephone either, and it was “too bad” they couldn’t “steal the whole car.”

4. City of Broken Farmers

While they were first on that Greyhound bus, fleeing Daddy and his rifle in Bacon County, so Crews writes in A Childhood, he knew where they were headed. “I knew absolutely, without knowing how I knew it, that something called the Springfield Section of Jacksonville was where all of us from Bacon County went, when we had to go, when our people and our place could no longer sustain us.” His whole life, Crews wrote in 1978, he’d had “kin in Jacksonville. I do today.”

The Crewses also lived at 1427 East 12th Street, the house on the left.

In 1944, directories listed “Crews Myrtice cigarmaker Swisher’s” at 1427 East 12th Street. Built in 1914 at the borders of the old neighborhoods Phoenix and Fairfield, the 700 square foot shotgun house still stands, its front porch enclosed, cheek by jowl of the shotgun house next door. The Crewses had moved south and east from East 16th. Today, on the other side of the house, Martin Luther King Parkway slices the neighborhood and this long line of humble woodframe houses in half.

Writes Geltner of Bacon County, “Broken families with no other recourse would give up whatever plans for survival they had been pursuing, pack up, and prepare to do their time until they could make it back. A bad crop, a missed payment, an absent husband, an injured mule—any minor misfortune could result in a sentence of a term in the city, the majority of which to be served on the line in the factory.”

the Swisher plant, where Myrtice joined the workforce hand rolling King Edward cigars

Crews wrote of the great Georgian migration to Jacksonville perhaps more clearly and thoroughly than anyone else. He says, in his 1992 novel Scar Lover, “Jacksonville was a town full of itinerant sharecroppers and sons of sharecroppers who had drifted down out of Georgia when the crops failed, to sell their hands and backs to anybody and any business that had use for them. Consequently, everything about the sprawling place was poor.”

It was as true of my family as of his. Crews’s family came to Jacksonville from 100 miles north in Bacon County; my father’s family came to Jacksonville from 100 miles north of Bacon County, in Macon County.

The 1945 census shows the Crews family, with Paschal back in the picture, had moved two blocks south to 1124 Dyal Street. Harry was 10 years old, Hoyett 13. The 1400 square foot duplex that stands just east of Phoenix Avenue today replaced the old shotgun house in 1987. These are streets where rotten roofs and front porches stand wall to wall with old brick factories and every other space that’s not abandoned is a church. The gentrification of Springfield, to the south and west, has yet to reach this far.

Phoenix Avenue

Four years later, when Myrtice finally divorced Paschal, directories listed her as the widow of Ray, “cigar mkr Swisher’s,” now inside the northern boundary of Springfield at 1741 Market Street. She finally owned her own home. The house is gone, but remaining houses stand refurbished, two stories, front porches both floors.

Market Street houses in Springfield beside the empty lot where the first house Myrtice owned once stood

By the time Harry graduated high school nearby at Andrew Jackson, Myrtice, “mach opr Swisher’s,” owned her own home at 1637 Ionia Street. She’d moved a few blocks south again and further east. The house is gone, but the two houses on either side still stand. They’re spacious, two stories, with wide, welcoming and accommodating front porches.

Ionia Street houses in Springfield, on either side of the empty lot where the second house Myrtice owned once stood

There’s an old joke that North Jacksonville is South Georgia, and another that Jacksonville’s the capital of South Georgia and not really Florida at all. As much as anything else it may be, a city is the centripetal conglomeration of the particular immigration patterns that shaped it. Jacksonville grew through the 20th century as a city of broken farmers. So much of Jacksonville’s character formed from waves of sharecroppers coming south from South Georgia that to read Crews’s A Childhood is like looking through secret windows into the formation of this city’s soul.

Harry Crews, photo by Charles Postell, 1983

Jacksonville was Harry Crews’s urban brother. There was never love lost between them. They shared, from their roots, the same inferiority complexes. Crews’s 2012 New York Times obituary quotes a story he wrote for Esquire in 1976: “I was so humiliated by the fact that I was from the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp in the worst hookworm and rickets part of Georgia I could not bear to think of it. Everything I had written had been out of a fear and loathing for what I was and who I was.”

5. Medicine

Much of his childhood, Harry moved back and forth between Bacon County and Jacksonville and the violence of the first place reenacted itself in the second. Paschal Crews came and went, depending on his alcoholism and when Myrtice kicked him out. Harry’s friend Junior had to figure out to cry when his father Leland whipped him across the head with a razor strop because otherwise the beating would never stop.

At some point Harry took a job at a butcher shop in the back of a small grocery “out in the end of Phoenix Avenue,” working for Abraham Joseph, a Syrian immigrant. That’s where the stranger stabbed himself to death.

The man ran into the store, demanded a knife from the butcher’s block and jammed it through his overalls into his chest. “Strangely,” Crews writes, “it did not go in very deep. Everybody gasped and one lady fainted when he made that first plunge. He walked in a little circle like a dog looking for a place to lie down. He walked that way for a long time, making a little track in the sawdust. The lady who fainted came around and was led away. Then the man stopped in his circle. He held the knife steady with one hand and struck it with the other hand, palm down, driving the blade a little deeper.”

When Mr. Joseph called the police, the man stopped circling. “He no longer looked angry or desperate,” Crews writes, “only very sad. The knife had calmed him down. I remember thinking it was like medicine. He’d run in here hurting, but he slipped that blade into his chest and the pain went away.”

While they waited for the police, Harry felt a suspicion sneak through him and asked the stranger, “You from Bacon County?” He said he was, said he was a Pitfield. “I’m a Crews,” Harry said.

Public School no. 8, across East 16th Street from where the Crewses once lived

More than half a century later, in his early 70s, suffering from post-polio syndrome and peripheral neuropathy, the breakdown of messages from the brain and spinal cord to the body’s extremities, extremely painful and due most likely to extreme alcohol abuse, Harry emulated that act of self-violence down in Gainesville. Early in the summer of 2008, Geltner writes, “Harry picked up a hunting knife and plunged it into his stomach, dragging it upward toward his heart.” Nurses found him lying in a lake of blood. The suicide failed. As had others. He lived and wrote another four years.

Harry Crews and his Golden Retriever Heidi, from Ted Geltner’s Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews

Back on Phoenix Avenue, yet in the morning light of his life, Harry quit the job, the family’s landlord evicted them, and Myrtice finally divorced Paschal. That’s when Harry found out Paschal wasn’t his biological father. “Daddy” told Harry his real daddy was Paschal’s brother, of whom Harry had no memory. “I was your uncle,” he said. For the rest of his life, Harry was never sure which daddy was Daddy. The question haunted him to his deathbed.

It was the late ’50s or early ’60s the next and only other time Harry saw the man he’d known as “Daddy.” Harry, the first person in his family to graduate high school, was studying in the new Creative Writing program at the University of Florida. One Saturday morning, the longing hit him, it seemed to have come from nowhere, and he drove up to Jacksonville to find his stepfather-uncle.

Harry Crews’s yearbook photo, Andrew Jackson High School, early 1950s, from Ted Geltner’s Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews

“I found him in the Springfield Section of Jacksonville not far from where I lost him,” Crews writes in A Childhood. “He was sitting in the back of a tiny store, huddled beside a stove in a huge overcoat. He was very nervous. He did not want to talk. I left minutes after I got there. We never touched each other, not even to shake hands.”

Paschal had vanished into the shambling atrophied population of Jacksonville’s Northside. For so long, Springfield and all those surrounding neighborhoods that everybody called “Springfield” had absorbed half the desperate population of the state of Georgia. Once you blent in, you’d probably never re-emerge. At best, you’d dissolve slowly into the decay. At worst, your nephew-son, who never blent in anywhere, might study Creative Writing at a university, come find you one Saturday morning, and immortalize the wreckage of your calamitous life in writing his own story.

Harry Crews, bio photo for Scar Lover, 1992