For almost twenty of my thirty years at my former college, I shared a small office (F-138, a piece I’ve yet to write simply out of respect) with poet and friend, Tom Williams. Oh I have stories from that cinderblock wilderness office that many believed was the collegiate equivalent of MASH’s “swamp,” but that is not where the real stories can be found.
Through the years, we traveled together to participate in readings throughout the eastern United States. A lot. And there were times, I tell you, oh my there were times…
…our first conference in Atlanta, just weeks after 911, and W was going to be in town at the same time. On the drive down at one of the countless times through the years that Tom insisted we stop at Cracker Barrell, he mentioned he simply wasn’t crazy about heights…after eight years in F-138 together you would think he would know better than to share that information with me. We arrived at the tall, round hotel on Peachtree Street. Tom parked the state car while I checked us in.
Clerk: I have you in a double room on the fifth floor.
Me: Really? Is there a mistake?
Me: When I made the reservation months ago I requested the highest floor possible. They said they would mark it because of my fear of being too close to the ground.
Clerk: We have one on the 34th floor, is that okay?
Clerk: The glass elevators are right over there and on the way up you can see the entire city. Have a good day!
Tom did stand against the floor to ceiling window for a picture and outside we could see the presidential caravan moving through the streets. Very cool.
It was there we discovered fried pickles, and it was also there the editors of Southern Humanities Review sat at our table for dinner and thought Tom was the waiter taking a break.
Then, of course, Cortland, NY, where we met a man who would become a lifelong friend, Robert Miltner, but also where we drove to find the Book Barns—four barns filled with books owned by a man named Vlad. On the way we passed Dave’s Fried Fish Shack, which we later visited. We arrived at the barns to find the owner outside peeing on a tree. He kept his money in a cigar box, and knew where any author was upon request, despite literally hundreds of thousands of books.
But then on Sunday we discovered there is nothing—nothing, nothing-to do in Cortland, New York, on a Sunday, so we went to a tavern where the tender gave us both our draft beers at noon—dollar a piece, and said, “You guys want some Zitis?”
“It’s free. Italian place across the street gives us a huge pot every Sunday.”
So he brought us two huge bowls of “zitis” covered in homemade sauce, fresh garlic bread, parmesan cheese, and with the two beers it all came to $2. Plus a cute black lab wandered around the bar sitting on everyone’s feet. Nice day.
Baltimore, where we met Baby, more commonly known as poet Karen Head, and where we met a young Nelson Demery who was at one of the readings, gave Karen her moniker, Baby, and said to the three of us, “I’m thinking of changing my name to Jericho Brown, what do you think?” Nice guy. Really good poet.
Huntsville, Alabama, was fine, quiet, uneventful, until we went for a drive, passed the Top Hat Barbeque and knew immediately we had to eat there and that if we had car problems surely one of the eighty-five tow trucks would help us out, and where we turned and turned and turned until we crested a hill in horse country and saw a citadel known as Mother Angelica’s EWTN Studios, which looks like Oz, a huge walled complex.
Dozens of other trips through the years from Ligonier, Pennsylvania, where we went into a toy store so I could buy my then infant son a gift and I asked the girl at the counter where a good place to go out that night might be.
“Well, there’s Joe’s Bar and Dead Zoo.”
We both looked up at her.
Joe was a hunter in the early nineteen hundred’s, and he owned this bar and turned it into a veritable museum of some of the once-greatest animals in the world—including an elephant, lions, and more. Plus, shuttle games and duck bowling.
And of course St Petersburg, Russia, where Tom came in second place for “best questions of the trip.” Sitting at lunch he looked up from his soup and said, “Hey Bob, what is the difference between hot and cold Borsch?” To his credit, before I had a chance to respond, he put up his finger and said, “okay, that’s not what I meant.” (Number one was in the Field of Mars when a woman asked me, “What are the hours they keep on the eternal flame?”)
I miss those days, a lot. Not the college, or just about all of the people I ever met there. But Tom and our journeys.
Like the time at the Jewish Mother when I was reading with Tim Seibles, but Tim got lost so while waiting, Tom got up and spontaneously created poems that kept everyone’s attention.
Or the time he couldn’t be at a reading in Norfolk, Virginia, so Tim came in his stead, but Tom’s daughters where there, both under ten at the time, and before Tim was going to read a poem that dealt heavily in sex and language, he asked me on the side, “Is it okay? I see some kid’s here tonight,” and I said, “They’re Tom Williams’ daughters,” and Tim said, “Oh! Okay, they’ve probably already heard this one then.”
Or the time he ran into my mom and dad on Amtrak and talked to them all the way to DC.
Or the time we went to Ashville and found a raw bar with really really tainted oysters. That was a long drive home.
Or when he came to my parent’s home to help my dad cut a branch off of a tree leaning out over the river, and Tom couldn’t stop laughing, saying, “Your Dad sounds just like Dustin Hoffman.”
Or when for my last class I ever taught at that college—advanced Creative Writing, Tom came in and read some work, and helped me finish that three-decade gig just right.
What’s next Tommy Two? What’s next?