Thursday, February 21, 2008

The French Clock

Any telling of my favorite things would be incomplete without mention of this beautiful clock. I've had it since college, much longer than the chair, and I came upon it by pure chance, the way you come upon most extraordinary things.

My first taste of college life was disastrous. I was the first person in my family to really "go away" to college. My sister, nine years my senior, will say she deserves credit because she went for two years to what was then Mary Washington College, in Fredericksburg. Fifty miles away. OK, technically she did "go away." But she was in regular phone contact and came home many weekends. I, on the other hand, went to my first new planet, from relatively cushy Falls Church to Lexington, Kentucky. I mean no disrespect to Lexington, or to the state. I ended up loving it so much that if it had a coast, I'd be living there now. It was just very, very different for an 18-year-old too aware of differences and with no coping skills except to close up like a box turtle. It wasn't a "gay" thing per se, more just an "I'm totally different and can't fit in" thing. I found myself for the first time in the middle of normal 18-year-old males, and I wasn't like them. The "f" word still shocked me. These kids were let loose from church and family for the first time and only wanted to get drunk. I'd been there and done that, since DC allowed 18-year-olds to buy beer and wine, meaning you started using fake IDs at 16. They were girl crazy. I wasn't. (At that time I considered myself merely a "late bloomer.") For all that, I couldn't relate. Besides, in my experience, "real boys" had been very mean to me, and I'd learned to avoid them. Now here I was, surrounded by them. In a word, I was scared, both of this new company and, worse, scared of myself. One misstep that showed the "real" me would bring ridicule. So I clammed up.

(Why did I go to Kentucky in the first place? At the time, it was cheaper for me to be an out-of-state student in Kentucky than an in-state student in Virginia. That's all. Money.)

In spite of my self-imposed emotional prison, I did begin to make some friends in the dorm. One was Bob Owen, who was musical. He had a fancy ukulele and he and I would do duets with my guitar. And there was my next-door neighbor, Dick Kimmins, who eventually became a very important person in my life. But I was too intent on being miserable at the time to give any weight to these budding friendships. I complained loudly to my parents, much, I think, to their delight. I didn't like being away from home, so that meant I could come back and be with them. Part of the time they were no doubt enjoying their empty nest, but I think they were flattered I preferred home to being away.

So I decided to leave Kentucky after one semester. I was accepted to a new school in nearby Fairfax, George Mason College. My folks bought me a car, a little two-seater Nash Metropolitan, for the commute. But as soon as I got in the car at the dorm with my parents for the trip back home, I knew I was making a huge mistake. It all played out thus: I went home, got miserable, brought wrath upon myself by announcing I wanted to go back to Kentucky...and went back to Kentucky. The fall semester of 1965 found me in the lap of the Bluegrass once again.
This is but one demonstration of my parents' deserved sainthood.

I finally began finding my way. Dick became a good friend and I was no longer so afraid of myself. Eventually I joined the elite choir on campus, the Choristers, and that's when my Kentucky life really began. The Kentucky Choristers were often recruited to do professional work in conjunction with the city choir, the Lexington Singers. In my three years with them we did three such gigs, all with the Cincinnati Symphony. One of those was the world premier of a work by Wilfred Josephs, a requiem for the Jews of the Holocaust. It was presented in Carnegie Hall. Among the many things that meant to me was a long train trip to New York.

On any such occasion in those days, if you played the guitar you traveled with it. I of course had mine, and was as usual singing all over everybody. One person who heard me was a woman of the world (she was a year older) named Lou Spencer. She actually wanted to quit school and break into showbiz, and liked what she saw and heard in me. We ended up singing together all the way to New York, and making plans to get a set together and audition for the campus coffee house, The Nexus. That all came to pass and we were a big hit.

It turned out to be Lou who opened the most important doors for me of those Kentucky years. If a "bohemian" scene existed in the beautiful but backwater Bluegrass Region of the mid-1960s, Lou was the mistress of its salon. She was friends with the most interesting people you could hope to find in that milieu, all of them fitting Leonard Cohen's description in "Beautiful Losers," a book that had just come out and with which I totally identified. It was Lou who had the courage to bring up the gay issue with me and make me confront it. She even introduced me to my first boyfriend. (Well, he turned out to be more of an usher than a boyfriend. But I needed him and what he offered.)

One of the denizens of Lou's demi-monde was a woman named Lois Falconer. She was much older than us kids, in her 50s, and, not to put too fine a point on it, a prostitute. She was the black sheep of a locally illustrious family, and traded on the Falconer name. She would come to Lou's parties from "work," dressed in a huge, loose-knit pink shawl and nothing else. She had stringy blond hair and slurred the slur of those missing teeth since, for work, she took out her dentures. (I'll let you figure out why.) She regaled us with pictures and stories of her famous rodeo and Opry boyfriends from back in the better old days. And she never made a move on any of us--either because she knew most of Lou's male friends weren't after what she had to offer, or because we treated her with respect and she returned the favor. I prefer to believe the latter.

One morning I answered a knock on my door and there stood Lois, looking normal, in jeans and a sweater. (And teeth.) This was an occasion--she never visited Lou's crowd outside of the party venue. She wanted to know if I could do her a favor. She confided a part of her life I hadn't known before: in her time off she liked to find abandoned houses in the country and explore them. On one of these trips she had found this, and she unveiled the clock. It struck me as both monstrous and beautful, just like Lois. She had no place for it; would I keep it for her until she could find a way to do it justice? I took it and gladly decorated my apartment with it. And I never saw Lois again.

For years the clock was strictly a conversation piece, its works long gone. It traveled back home with me after college, and my sister and her husband kept it on their mantel while I was in the Peace Corps. I took it back and carried it with me as I moved around after Peace Corps, and finally, when Steve and I built the fireplace in this house we gave it its long-awaited place of honor on the mantel. But it still had no works.

Again, enter serendipity. In the early 80s an appraiser came to our house so we could refinance our mortgage. He noticed the clock and asked about it. When I told him it had no works, he referred us to an old man in DC, one Norman Langmaid, who worked on antique clocks as a hobby. In all the years the clock had been with me, this was my first chance to learn something about it. We jumped at it.

Mr. Langmaid seemed as old as the clocks he worked on. He led us to his basement, which was alive with ticking and bonging, every square foot of the place stuffed with working antique clocks. He told us the clock was around 100 years old, that the lower, housing half was fairly common, but that the cast-iron sculture on the top (an Amazonian queen named Penthesilea) added about $100 to its value. The workings in these old clocks are standard and easily replaced, and for $100, he put in replacement wind-up works. I had owned the clock for about 15 years by then and it had never told time. Who knew how long it had been silent before it came to me? Mr. Langmaid's services were worth every penny of his fee, and more.

So my French clock probably wouldn't get much on the Antiques Roadshow. No matter. I look at it and I see Lou Spencer and Lois Falconer, people from a time in my life like no other, and whose memory I treasure beyond money. The years of dust and smoke from the fireplace have taken their toll; the clock stopped a couple of years ago. Mr. Langmaid has passed on and we despair of finding another artisan like him. But we will. Soon, the clock will once again do the job it was meant to do.


Anonymous said...

I enjoy your blog so much, particularly the stories like this one about the clock. Such fun.

Gotta have another cup of coffee now - see you later.

Linda in Chapel Hill

Ralph said...

I'm glad you like the story of my clock, Linda. I hadn't dwelled on Lou and that world in years--it was a pleasure to revisit it.

Ravel said...

You did it again: you moved us around that clock in so many ways. I liked it!
Reminds me that one of my first serious writing was done in College and it was about those French Clocks, 18th-19th Century...
I wanted to collect when I got rich.. but... well...
I'm sure yours would fetch more than you think on Antique Roadshow, but never as much as the memories wrapped around it...

Cuidado said...

Great story about the clock and your friends, Ralph. I'm enjoying your stories very much.

Ralph said...

We aim to please, Cuidado. I'll try to keep 'em coming...

Ralph said...

Ravel, maybe whoever owns it next will get some money out of it. For me, you/re right. It's priceless.