Well, school started for a lot of kids this week – and it got me thinking about my first day of school many years ago.

Mind you, it was grad school, but “The First Day of School” seems to have the same connotations no matter where you go or how old you are.  I got in touch again with a friend the other day, and she was telling me how nervous and antsy she was about the first day of school.

Then I found out she was a teacher.

I guess those “First Day of School” jitters never really go away, huh?

So the first day of school I was thinking about was when I went to Grad school in Athens, Ohio, and I got there in September, a number of years ago.

You know that song, “Try to remember, the kind of September… when life was sweet, and oh so mellow…”

Honestly, I don’t remember this particular September as being quite the gentle one mentioned in the song.  This one involved moving across the country, to a place I’d never been, and doing something that everyone but me thought I was really good at, and learning to be better at it.

I was graciously given a ride down from the Cleveland Airport from my friend Renee’s parents, who were a nice transition from leaving a place where I knew everything to arriving at a place where it seemed I knew absolutely nothing.  We got there in the evening, with enough light to take my suitcase and pack up to the third floor walk-up apartment (a semi-finished attic that was being rented out).  I turned the radio on I’d had shipped ahead on to hear something familiar, only to hear stations from Chicago to West Virginia.

Wow – They were a far cry from what I was used to.  Everything was so new, and I suddenly felt so very far from home.  In fact, not only was everything new, but there was just so much of it to absorb.  On top of that, aside from Renee’s parents, the closest person I knew was a minimum of 2,000 miles away.  The adventure of it all seemed to pale in comparison to the enormity of the distance from all things familiar.

The closest phone was a phone booth at the grocery store a couple of blocks away, so I walked over there and called home to let my folks know I’d arrived and was getting settled, (and, honestly, to hear a familiar voice).

The next day I decided to explore my surroundings, since I was expecting to be there for at least a year, possibly two, so I went for a walk.  I’d been writing a letter, so I took the clipboard I had the paper on, slung one of my cameras over my shoulder and headed out.  I was more than a little astonished at people’s reactions to that.  I’d be walking along, taking pictures of the campus, writing in the letter that I had on the clipboard about what I’d seen, and people would see me and give me a really wide berth, like they didn’t want anything to do with me.  Later I realized that I must have looked very official, and people just wigged out a little, not realizing that at the time, that all I was doing was taking pictures for a letter I was writing to my folks.

Oh well.

One thing I learned on that walk was that the humidity in southeast Ohio was a little different than it was in Seattle.  I won’t say it was humid, but I will say that if you had a potato chip that was too large, you could fold it in half before you gnawed it to death.  It was so humid you really didn’t get much wetter if you jumped into a pool, a shower, or a bathtub.   The apartment I was in had an air conditioner, but all that did was change the climate in that attic apartment from hot and sticky to cold and clammy.  In a nutshell, it went from plain uncomfortable to just plain gross.

I also began to understand the concept of big porches, which we don’t really have much of in the northwest.  You might spend time inside, and you might spend time outside, but that halfway point between the two, the front porch, really doesn’t exist where I come from, so it’s a whole different culture, just by that very little architectural thing, and one of the things you do on a porch is just sit there and watch the world go by.

Now, given that my place had no porch, and because there were very few places in it where you could actually stand up all the way, I found myself staying there mainly to sleep, and the first quarter there I did surprisingly little of that.  The girls on the second floor downstairs smoked, so there was this constant stale smoke smell that permeated everything.  Well, not everything.  If you got close enough to the air conditioner to be cold and clammy, the stale smoke smell lost out to the slimy, mildewy, air conditioner smell.

Ummmyeah… an olfactory experience not to be missed, I tell you…

Not.

On the walls was this old (actually kind of pretty) pine paneling.  But the one thing I really liked about the apartment was the location.  It was literally across the parking lot from the school of art, where I had most of my classes.  I could be in class in 2 minutes flat, assuming I was in the apartment.  Usually I was in one of the studios, the darkroom, or the computer lab.  Like I said, I used the place for sleeping and that was about it.

And so, like many other people in the area did in the evening, I went for a walk, just to get out of the house.  And that early evening, while walking up the street, no cars moving anywhere, I saw a guy, sitting on his porch, at his house, across the street.

Alone.

He was rocked back on a chair, gently fanning himself with a ratty old hat, watching the world go by, which at that moment, consisted of just me.

“Hah!”

(Hah?)

I looked around.

He clearly couldn’t be talking to me.

I mean, he was all the way across the street from me.

In Seattle, where I’d been, there was always traffic.  You wouldn’t dare talk to someone across the street without looking both ways to see if you’d be interrupted or hit by a car or truck or bus coming by.

I looked left and right.

Still no cars.

In fact, no trucks.

Or buses.

Not even a stray cat to make life interesting.

“Haaaayadoin?”

(Haaaayadoin?)

(oh… “How are you doing?”)

I looked back at him – he was looking right at me and obviously talking only to me.

“Uh, fine?”

“Naaas weather, ain’it?”

Nice?

Nice?

I started thinking of that potato chip I mentioned earlier.  It wasn’t – oh, he’s making conversation – I get it.  I’d lived alone for the last year.  I was completely out of practice of simply making conversation, but I gave it a try.

“Um… a little humid.”

He smiled and waved the ratty hat at me.

“Have a naaas dayie”

I waved back, pondered the whole exchange for a bit and kept going…  There was something about the way he waved that would repeat itself a couple of years later in a totally different setting, but that wave, and the willingness to just say hi to a stranger, was something worth more than I realized at the time.

I’d rented the apartment sight unseen from a lady I only knew through several other people.  In fact, I rented it from a payphone at the Safeway on top of Queen Anne hill in Seattle. I’d never done anything like that before, but it worked out well.  She’d mailed me a key to the place, so I was able to get into the apartment, and when I was all settled in there in Athens, I called her, and she came by to show me around.  I didn’t realize that “around” would include a guided tour of the whole town, but it did.

She took me for a ride in her old metal flake green convertible that, honestly, reminded me of a cross between split pea soup, and the worst cold I ever had.  For some reason known only to her and God himself, she had eye shadow to match the car.

She was an absolute sweetheart, but being driven around in a huge convertible snot green 1972 Cadillac with white leather seats by a little old lady, (and I mean little, my gosh, if she was 5 feet tall I’d have been surprised.  She had the seat all the way forward, an old pillow tucked behind her, and was driving this behemoth with her toes) just wasn’t what I was expecting as a young college student ready to take on the world.

I clearly had a lot to learn.

She took me for that tour of town, showing me where everything was.  Most places have a “downtown”. Athens has an “uptown”.

We stopped at a traffic light, in the left lane, the big V-8 engine in front of us almost silent, and were talking a bit about town when another convertible pulled up beside us.  Actually, “pulled up” is far too gentle a word.  This was a bright, fire engine red, convertible VW Rabbit, and I, who had been living alone for over a year, was suddenly faced with four – um “college women” who just, for lack of a better phrase, simply materialized beside us with a little ‘scritch’ of their tires.  The girls were, let’s just say they weren’t the “California Girls” in the Beach Boys song, but Lordy, they would sure have found a place in it… I think somewhere between the “Southern Girls” and the “Midwest farmer’s daughters” – they would have fit just fine… They were dressed for the weather, full of life and fun, laughing and giggling.  I was just getting my mind, and, admittedly, eyes around what I was seeing, the girls laughed, said, “Hi!”  The light turned green, and they were gone.

Um.

Wait?

I looked left, and a thought crossed my mind.  The little old lady peering under the steering wheel hadn’t always been old.  It made me wonder if, at some point, this little old lady with the green eye shadow, driving the green Cadillac with her toes had been a young college student once, and what stories she might have to tell about times when she was young.

I didn’t know, at the time, that my life would forever be changed by the things that happened there in Athens.

I didn’t know that I’d work so hard that even eating 4 meals a day I’d still lose 30 pounds in 10 weeks.

I didn’t know then that I’d do things, make friends, and have adventures in the next few years that I still smile about today.

I didn’t know then whether the dreams I had of being a globe-trotting photojournalist would pan out, but I was sure going to try.

There was so much, that fall, that I didn’t know, and as I think now about sitting there in that green Cadillac, I realize that the little old lady must have been able to look back at the kind of September that I – well, not that I was about to experience, but the kind of September I’d remember, too.  She, by driving me around, was sharing her own memories, her hangouts, her little secrets, and in a way, allowing me to be a part of her reliving her own youth.  It was, I realized years later, an honor, and a privilege, to be allowed to be part of that moment in her life.

All during the writing of this, I’ve been drawn back to the song … (listen – or read the music and lyrics)

(music © by Harvey Schmidt, words © by Tom Jones)

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Then follow.

Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow,
Follow, follow, follow, follow.

Try to remember when life was so tender
That no one wept except the willow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That dreams were kept beside your pillow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That love was an ember about to billow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Then follow.

Deep in December, it’s nice to remember,
Although you know the snow will follow.
Deep in December, it’s nice to remember,
Without a hurt the heart is hollow.
Deep in December, it’s nice to remember,
The fire of September that made us mellow.
Deep in December, our hearts should remember.

And so, as I hum the words above, I think back with fondness on the memory of a very little old lady in a very big car, who allowed a young student’s September to be a part of the December in her life.

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