by Tim Gilmore, 7/21/2014
We visit places that aren’t there—much more than we realize.
We know we’re doing it this Sunday afternoon. Because Wanda’s grandmother was inside her house at 15 East Fifth Street in Springfield when it caught fire in August 1967 and burnt to the ground. Wanda used to visit her grandmother here and play on her wide outside-living-room of a porch. More properly, probably, a veranda.
Hattie Mae Glennon lived in the lovely two-story wood-frame house by herself. She was a widow. Her husband had last lived in a boarding house at 151 East Third Street when he died in 1964.
They’d raised their children, for a time, at 17 East Fifth, next door to the house where Hattie later lived that caught fire. One image of their children, their sons, Bobby and Billy, twins, is itself twinned in a double exposure.
Wanda’s grandparents were born, both of them, in Savannah, Georgia, but moved in their youth to Jacksonville’s Springfield neighborhood. It’s then-seedy but dense and grand Victorian and Edwardian architecture was the closest thing the “big city” offered to what they’d always known.
When first Hattie noticed the smoke and the flames, she ran to the steep narrow stairs at the back of the house, but approaching them she saw the whole back of the house fall away.
When Gary Del Simonton and Joseph Castor, two teenage boys hanging out at the corner of Main Street at 10 o’clock at night, saw sparks burst from electrical wires leading into the house, they ran through the porch and into the living room and helped Wanda’s grandmother down the stairs. She carried her pocketbook and her parakeet. The house was full of smoke.
When Mayor Hans Tanzler and his wife saw the fire light the urban night sky, they curtailed their date downtown and drove to East Fifth Street and its circus of fire engines and hoses.
I suppose we visit places that aren’t there much more often than we realize. Every extant place is superimposed on so many places gone. The neverending of the earth makes the world a continuous collection of what happens. Every moment stands at the apex of every moment that came before.
Walt Whitman said that. He said, “Something long preparing and formless is arrived and form’d in you, / You are henceforth secure, whatever comes or goes.”
Every previous moment has led to that in which you now find yourself, in which we found ourselves standing in the absence of Wanda’s grandmother’s house. And the same for everyone’s moment of realization, throughout the past, throughout the future. It’s sad to stand in the absence of the house, but the land secures us there.
Elsewhere, Whitman: “Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me, / My embryo has never been torpid, nothing could overlay it. / For it the nebula cohered to an orb, / The long slow strata piled to rest it on, / Vast vegetables gave it sustenance, / Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths and deposited it with care. / All forces have been steadily employ’d to complete and delight me, / Now on this spot I stand with my robust soul.”
Always, the present place is nearly nonexistent in proportion to all that has therein happened, and everything accumulates and adheres and coheres, and always we stand robust on the crest of it.
This Sunday afternoon, visiting this place that is not here, we walk the narrow alley between rows of tall wood-frame houses long ago demolished. The sky is not full of fire and smoke. It’s bright blue. Yet all that fire and smoke had to go somewhere, everywhere, here, even still.
Wanda rode with her mother at Christmas to pick her grandfather up from the rooming house around the corner at East Third and North Market Streets. Only men lived there. He was always waiting on the porch on Christmas morning. Nobody from Wanda’s household ever went into the house. He always smelled like alcohol and always gave Wanda a silver dollar. That was a big deal.
Wanda’s father was overseas with the U.S. Navy. Her paternal grandparents were divorced, but always lived in various old Springfield houses only blocks apart.
For years, her grandmother worked several blocks north of Springfield at the Swisher International cigar plant on East 16th Street. One of the largest cigar makers in the world, Swisher made Swisher Sweets and King Edwards.
The Swisher family built their factory on East 16th Street in the mid-1920s. They built their sprawling mansions in faux-“Mediterranean” style on River Road in San Marco in 1929, after the real estate bubble called the Florida Land Boom, and just as markets crashed and the Great Depression began.
For the next century, Swisher’s workers would live in poor neighborhoods on the poor and mostly black Northside of Jacksonville. Hattie Mae Glennon worked for Swisher for decades.
A 1967 newspaper article says the teenagers who saved Hattie Mae Glennon’s life saw sparks on electrical wires outside the house, but ends, “Firemen did not know what caused the fire, but said an investigation is under way.”
In 1967, Springfield’s Ottis Toole was 20 years old. Though he later claimed to have committed hundreds of murders across the country, mostly throughout the South, the crimes he most certainly committed are arsons.
He set alight a beautiful three-story Victorian gingerbread boarding house on East 2nd Street in January 1982, killing an old man named George Sonnenberg. He’d set fire to dozens of lovely old architectural residences in Springfield. By the summer of 1982, the Jacksonville Fire Prevention Bureau was going door-to-door in Springfield warning of a neighborhood “arson epidemic,” probably the work of a “serial arsonist.”
The fire that may’ve set off Ottis’s final pyromaniac frenzy was the one he set on Day Avenue in Murray Hill Heights, just after his mother died in 1981. It was his mother’s house. The first house he claims to have burnt down was his mother’s “old country house” when he was teenager.
We visit places that aren’t there more often than we realize. Most things that happen in most places are never fully known, even less understood. And in any present, most everything is already gone. Wherever we walk, we should walk in wonder.
Toni Morrison said that. In Morrison’s novel Beloved, Sethe says, “Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in rememory, but out there, in the world.”
Sethe tells her daughter, “Nothing ever dies,” says you can walk down the road and “bump into a rememory that belongs to someone else.”
She understands this strange truth because of the way she was whipped and raped when a slave. She tells her daughter, “Where I was before I came here, that place is real,” so even if that plantation were to burn to the ground and time go by, “you can’t never go there. Never. Because even though it’s all over—over and done with—it’s going to always be there waiting for you.”
That’s the definition of history, the definition of place. The same thing.
This Sunday afternoon, we step beneath an oak and young magnolia. Empty basketball courts languish inside high chain-linked fences. A brick and plaster building succumbs to the earth’s ancient onward growth. An open doorway, surrounded by chain-link, sinks discarded tires and a mattress in its sandy mud and ticks and mosquitoes.
Just down this alley to East Third, Wanda plays on her grandmother’s porch, 1965.
Her father grows up in the adjacent demolished house.
And her grandmother does countless mundane things every day. Watches TV. Swats a fly. Fixes tea. Looks out the window. Lets Wanda and her sisters watch Hitchcock’s The Birds, though their mother has said they can’t. Eats a muffin. Cries. Yawns. Scratches her leg. Gets out of bed in the morning. Remembers her childhood. Watches dark clouds mound inexorably across the sky.
With this exception. We can’t see any of it. Just the grass. Young trees. Some pavings where perhaps a driveway or side alley used to be.