Thursday, May 3, 2012

5-02-12 Pictures of Tommy - a memoirist’s blog #3


Brother Tom got into poetry a few years after our mom passed away.  He called me up.

“Laurie--“ He called me by a name I’ve not used since the age of 12, around the time Tom cracked up.  I told everyone to call me Lauren then. “--Laurie, I’ve got some poetry and I want you to look at it.”

It was flattering for him to call and ask me because I was in a graduate school program in Connecticut to be an English teacher.  He probably thought I knew a little about poetry, and I do.  Not a lot, but just enough to 1. know what I like, 2. to enable me to rattle off some names  of poets and kinds of poetry, and 3. to get in trouble.

“Uh, Tom, sure.  I’d love to read some of your poetry.”

“I’d like to read to you. This one’s called--“ Omigod, was he going to read aloud over the phone?  There’s no way that would work well -- with me, poetry needs to be seen as well as heard because I’m a visual learner, first.  That much I took away from my studies for my Education degree, the multiple intelligences theory of learning.

I cut him off.  “Tommy?  Uh, Tom?  Please, I am better with poems and reading if I can see the words --“

“What, Laurie?  You don’t want to hear my poems.  You don’t think they’re good enough.”

“Tom, what do I know?  And how would I think they’re not good enough if I haven’t seen or heard them yet?”

“You just aren’t interested.”

“No, you’re jumping to conclusions.  Give me a chance.  All I’m saying is I won’t get as much out of them if you read them aloud and I can’t see them.”

“Oh. . .”  He takes a half minute to stop and think.

I continue. “So, do you have my address?  Can you mail some to me?”  This was around Y2K -- the year 2000 -- and he didn’t have email.  I didn’t even know if he had a computer.  Everything about Tom was shrouded in mystery, partly because I was saddened to hear about his circumstances and didn’t want to know.

I remember visiting him one time in Woodhaven, Queens, at his apartment around the time he’d been placed there.  A program for mentally ill adults, Phoenix House, helped him to move out of a group home and into a place of his own for the very first time, at age forty something.  Good for him!  But, when I was actually at the place, my heart broke: the one-bedroom apartment in a rundown 1920’s tenement on a tiny side street in semi-urban Queens, was tired out, ugly, small.  There was nothing “nice” about the place or its contents.  The used furniture was cheap and drab and uncomfortable.  Clutter was strewn everywhere, magazines, books, papers, CDs, tapes.  Tom asked if he could play guitar and sing a song for me.  He’d been playing blues guitar -- mostly electric -- most of his life, always bragging that he was really good.  Sure, I said, play something. He played a slow song, something with a nice lick, and he played well.  Tom sang along, too: not a pretty sound, but he was sincere and on key.  His tone was unpleasant, but the pitch was all right.  He sang a song by his idol, Eric Clapton.  I couldn’t tell what it was, though, because I don’t listen much to Clapton.  Tom looked disappointed that I didn’t know the song -- which was due to the combination of his not singing well and the song being one I only heard on the radio occasionally.

It was “You Look Wonderful Tonight.”  I can’t hear the song nowadays without choking up.

 (Tom's "wonderful tonight" blues idol, Eric Clapton)

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