Wednesday, February 20, 2008

If Chairs Could Talk.....

Maybe the very most ascetic among us humans--buddhist monks?--can truthfully claim no attachment to any material object. No favorite saffron robe or sandal. No especially comfy sleeping pallet. I find that hard to believe, but I guess it's possible. But I never aspired to asceticism. Call me Maria von Trapp. I have more than a few favorite things. One of them is pictured above. My chair.

The chair came to me when I went to Boston, that time I meant to be a singer and ended up an inkstained schlub at the AAA. I left Boston in 1974, and the chair has traveled with me since.

When I first went to Boston, I was a complete stranger to the city. I knew one person there, Helen. She taught at the same school as I did in Ghana (she wasn't with the Peace Corps). She herself was a stranger to Boston, having been lured there by her friend, Dell. Between Dell and Helen, they came up with a guy named Richard who was willing to open his Beacon Hill apartment to me as a place to crash until I got on my feet. It was from Richard's apartment that I went to the AAA and got that job, and from which I found my first apartment, in Dorchester. Dorchester is full of turn-of-the-century red brick townhouses, some of which now have been restored to their original handsomeness. Parts of it are even today still "transitional," as they say. And it's also fair to say that none of Dorchester had yet transitioned in 1972, when I moved there. It was a rough place, but of course I didn't know that at the time.

I moved into the apartment and began a life, working for the AAA by day and writing music by night. My parents, God love them, were all help. I went back to Falls Church with the news that I had found a place, and my mother immediately took me to Zayre's, that era's precursor to WalMart. We trooped up and down every aisle of that store, completely loading two carts with household startup things. We loaded all of them, plus furniture and an old TV, into may parents' Rambler station wagon and set off for Boston to get me going in style. (The trip is memorable for how horrible it was. We arrived in Boston at night; I had never driven in the city and my father, who was at the wheel, had never been there in his life. We got hopelessly lost. For some reason my father set his sights on the Prudential Tower and suddenly all roads led to it. Dorchester is nowhere near The Pru, but there was no discussing that small detail with him. We stayed in a motel that night and somehow the next morning found our way to Dorchester. So much for my budding AAA-inspired directional expertise. And I still can't tell you how to drive from Boston to Dorchester!)

We started unloading the car and two angelic little urchins came and offered their help. We gladly accepted; the job was made that much quicker and easier. When we were done, my father magnanimously reached into his pocket and gave each of the kids a dollar. My parents settled me in and they left.

All was fine for about 3 months. Then, one day I came home from work and found my little pad totally ransacked. I felt like I had walked onto the set for a TV show. Drawers were half pulled out, pillows overturned, stuff all over the floor, and anything fence-able was gone. The TV, my clock radio, small appliances, all stolen. Those little angels obviously worked both sides of the street--they probably got another couple of bucks from their older brothers for their trouble.

I called my landlord and told him what had happened. Clearly embarrassed, he said he had a feeling a nice boy like me would run into trouble in Dorchester. When I told him I had to leave, he put up no argument about the lease. Instead, he apologized and wished me well, even offered me help with my move.

Where would I go? Helen and Dell had moved into a big apartment together and were looking for a third to help with the rent. They had approached me with idea of moving in with them several times, but I was resistant. I couldn't see how I could keep writing my music with all those people and their distractions around. But now that was the easiest alternative, so I and what was left of my belongings transferred ourselves to a grand old building on Quint Avenue in Allston.

So began my first experience with group living, and the first of many times to come when my life as a whole was just not going the way I wanted it to, but when the people in it made living not only bearable, but so much fun I could actually become complacent about its bigger, less-than-ideal aspects. Being with people got me out of myself and my worries. I had my first real experience with marijuana with Helen and Dell; never ever have I laughed so hard again. We had parties, we cooked great dinners, we pooled friends and became something of a tribe. And....oh yes, the chair. That came with Dell.

While Helen and I were in Ghana, Dell had been married for a very short time to a guy named James. By the time I entered the picture, James was one of many hangers-on, but he and Dell were no longer married. James had been in the Navy, and had taken a liking to a huge naugahyde easy chair in a waiting room he'd chanced through. In the spirit of "liberation" of those days, Dell and James decided the chair needed a more honorable life and somehow got it to their apartment. When they split, Dell got it.

As soon as that chair and I were in the same room, it turned into a Ralph magnet. In all its naugahyde glory, it was the most wonderful chair I'd ever eased myself into. "Commodioius" is the word invented for it. It was big enough to make my body feel welcome, so rare in a world of furniture built for normal-sized people. (When little Dell sat in it, she just about disappeared. She could curl her entire body into a cat-like ball and there would be room for more.) I drank gallons of wine in that chair, lost myself in the furrows and labyrinths of the first Santana album--both the music and the cover--and had the biggest laughs of my life.

When the time came for me to leave, I didn't even have to ask if I could have the chair. Dell offered it to me--as wonderful as she knew it was, it was a reminder of a sad time in her life, with James, and she was happy to give it a fresh start in a new home. As things turned out, it comforted me in several "homes" before it finally found its place of honor here. When we moved to this house in 1981, we spent $300 to have it completely re-stuffed and re-upholstered, and that work is what you see in the picture. The covering is getting old now and the cotton batting in its guts are becoming compressed from accommodating so many bodies, mine and those of friends who visit and are drawn to it, too. (I don't mind sharing it. I know it will never leave.) When we move from here we will have it re-worked one more time. I expect it will continue to embrace me into the days when I have trouble climbing in and out of it. One day, it will be an heirloom. I will choose the lucky new owner with all the care it deserves.

I'm sure the Navy never missed its brown naugahyde chair. Their loss is my eternal gain.


Cuidado said...

Your chair sounds like a familiar, comfortable friend. Those are wonderful things to have for all times.

Ralph said...

You're right, Cuidado, that's what it is. And even though others may use it, it fits me like a glove!

Ravel said...

Wonderful story about a you and a chair!
Many objects have a story attached to them.
In used to have my chair, like thta, listening to a lot of music sitting on it. I stayed with my father, who redone it. Never the same chair again...
Thanks for this great note today, Ralph.

Ralph said...

Ravel, there's something so very intimate about a favorite chair, no? You listen to music in it, you read, you talk to friends on the phone. I think everyone should have a favorite chair!