Sunday, November 13, 2011

A portrait of James Street

Somehow or other, I wound up owning a copy of Life in a Putty Knife Factory, a collection of humorous anecdotes published in 1943 by journalist H. Allen Smith. In addition to reminiscences of celebrities such as H. L. Mencken and Tallulah Bankhead, Smith also talks about some of his fellow journalists and writers.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of the writers he talks about is James Street, author of Good-bye, My Lady, the quintessential basenji novel. As a service to my fellow basenji enthusiasts, I now present, in full, Smith's account of Street. (Is Life in a Putty Knife Factory still under copyright? I eagerly await word from Smith's literary executors.)

* * *

(the following excerpt is from Chapter IX: Taking Pride in My Profession)

One of my best friends among authors is James Street, whose typewriter erupts novels, short stories, movies, magazine articles, and indignant letters. Mr. Street is forever working himself into an elevated dudgeon, usually over some fatheaded Yankee's gross misinterpretation of the War Between the States. He is from Mississippi, and most of his writing is about the South, and he spends long hours worrying over the Dred Scott decision, the Missouri Compromise, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. When he has achieved a proper degree of anger, he leaps to his typewriter and lets go with a long letter full of bitterness and invective. He seldom mails one of these letters. He writes them, signs them, thrusts them into envelopes, puts stamps on the envelopes, then lays them on a table and sits and glowers at them for an hour. Then he tears them up.

Like myself, Mr. Street attends the movies regularly. Whenever he happens into one involving the habits or history of the South, he comes away in a tremendous fury. I remember when he went to see Gone with the Wind. He came out of the theater cursing David O. Selznick and everyone else connected with the production. Mr. Street's violent dissatisfaction with the picture was based on one single detail: he said that in the burning of Atlanta the fools had the smoke blowing in the wrong direction.

He is a neighbor of mine and works in a room where he pursues one of his hobbies -- collecting potted plants. He has a couple of hundred plants, of all shapes, colors, and sizes, in that room, and on entering it a visitor sometimes finds difficulty in locating Mr. Street and his typewriter. Whenever I find myself in the place I unconsciously begin making Tarzan noises and start peering through the foliage for Dorothy Lamour.

I first met Mr. Street in the winter of 1933 at a Santa Claus convention. He had just come up from the South and was writing feature stories for the Associated Press, whereas I was doing the same for the United Press. One day a note came in the mail saying the department-store Santa Clauses of New York City would hold a convention at Grand Central Palace the following afternoon. This was the period of the NRA Blue Eagle codes and the Santa Clauses were assembling for the purpose of drawing up a program of ethics. A novel spectacle! By the very nature of his calling a department-store Santa Claus has to be a proficient liar -- a man as fundamentally dishonest as a real-estate agent. Moreover, I know it to be a fact that the average department-store Santa Claus hates and despises his customers -- the little ones -- and would enjoy nothing so much as running amuck in a crowd of tots.

At Grand Central Palace I wandered around in the various exhibition halls, finding no Santa Claus convention, and at last I sat down near the elevators to rest my feet. I was sitting there when an elevator door opened and a short young man stepped out. He glanced all around and then approached me.

"Begya pahdon, suh," he said, "but I'm lookin' for a bunch of dad-blamed Santy Clauses."

It was Mr. Street, and soon we were sitting down comparing notes and swapping newspaper experiences, and after a while we went wandering and found the convention. The Santa Clauses were in a little room far off in one corner of the building. There were about a dozen of them, and they had a keg of beer on a table. They were dressed in their Santa costumes, all but their whiskers which had been laid aside to facilitate the taking in of beer. If you have ever seen such an assemblage of Santas, minus their whiskers, you have seen something. And if you have ever heard them talk, you have heard something. They came in all shapes and sizes and there wasn't a jolly one in the group. Since that day I have never believed in Santa Claus.

So that was the beginning of a long and interesting friendship. Mr. Street and I sometimes go adventuring together, and while our roamings occasionally prove trying to organized society, sometimes even offending the body politic, we have fun.

There is one story I want to tell about Mr. Street but to get into it I've got to bring up the matter of the round chickens. One day in 1942 I chanced to meet a citizen of Peoria, Illinois, who was visiting in New York. He turned out to be a chicken fancier, and he said he had come East to acquire some round chickens.

"Round chickens," he said, "come originally from India. They got practically no necks and almost no legs. A hen will weigh as much as fifteen pounds and a caponized rooster will weigh as much as twenty. If they scrooched up a little and bounced, you could almost dribble them like a basketball. The poultry growers of the country are going to get wise to these round chickens. They got almost as much meat on them as a hog, and it's wonderful white meat. Once we get going with them, you won't go into a restaurant and order fried chicken or half a broiled chicken. You'll order a chicken steak."

It is the clear duty of a writing person, when he hears such a thing as this story of the round chickens, to get to work and find out all the facts, so I got to work. After a couple of hours at the Public Library I concluded that the Peorian had reference to the Cornish game chicken, or one of its kinsfolk.

Next I telephoned the Department of Agriculture's poultry division. They dug up their best chicken expert and I told him the story.

"Well," he said, "I think the man from Peoria is pulling your drumstick. If he says these hens grow to fifteen pounds, he must have hens with some ostrich blood in them. And the roosters -- if they got to weigh twenty pounds -- would be unmanageable. You'd have to build a steel-and-concrete fortress to hold roosters that big. They'd tear down an ordinary chicken house and they might even turn on their owners and murder them."

On my way home I stopped at Mr. Street's house, having remembered that in his early days he had been a chicken fancier. If these round chickens existed anywhere on earth, I figured Mr. Street would know about them. Having swallowed a good dose of quinine, I took my machete and hacked my way through the jungle of his study until I found him at his desk. We made our way back over the perilous trail until we reached the living room, where I laid the results of my research before him and did him the honor of asking his opinion.

He grinned at me and said he had never heard of round chickens and that, moreover, he was willing to make a confession.

"I was never actually very handy with chickens," he said. "It all dates back to an unhappy experience I had with chickens in Mississippi."

It appears that when Mr. Street was first married, down in Mississippi, he was a preacher -- the youngest clergyman in the country, known as "The Boy Preacher of the South." Under provocation he can still loose a sermon that'll curl the wallpaper. As a preacher he had a house and time on his hands so he decided to raise chickens. He built his own chicken house and made an elegant structure out of it. He bought a tribe of Rhode Island Reds and a flock of Plymouth Rocks, and then somebody told him that he should be careful never to let the breeds mix. He should never, they said, permit the Rhode Island Red roosters to raise dust around the Plymouth Rock hens, and the same went for the Plymouth Rock rooster and the Red hens.

So Mr. Street constructed his chicken house carefully with an eye to segregation. The building had two sections and there was a long chicken run with a fence between. This was certainly all correct, and he moved his flocks into their respective quarters.

He was extremely careful to keep Rocks separated from Reds at night. In the daytime he simply let all the chickens out into the yard together.

"Somehow," he said, "the notion was in the back of my mind that if I kept them apart at night, everything would be okay. I had this idea in my head that they only did that sort of thing at night. Before I knew it the whole thing was a mess. That's how much of a chicken expert I am."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I loved reading this. Thank you so much for sharing it. I got the impression that Street could be righteous, but not as angry as the opening anecdote makes him out to be. But I guess his sense of humor helped keep that temper reined in, huh?