I spent a summer cooking supper at an artist colony in the Virginia countryside. Robert Johnson was assigned to “train me.” Five minutes after we met, Robert sent me into the pantry after a pot. As I crossed the floor, I heard his voice sing out behind me, “Whoo-wee! She’s got that Chicago walk!”
Robert was the colony factotum. He did anything as long as there was money in it. He cooked, cleaned, transported, mowed grass, posed for visual artists, barbecued. He fleeced the fellows at poker. Then he’d gamble away both his winnings and his earnings down at the local convenience store. “Ooo, do I feel lucky to-night!” he’d say as he left to put in his numbers and lose more money. The colony’s fellows were in awe of him. Robert was the real deal – a wild man, a free spirit, an outlaw – something most of the artists aspired to be, someday, when they could afford it.
A lot of the fellows came from big cities. To Robert, these artists were alien beings, creatures who dressed funny and were disturbed by normal, everyday things like cows and black snakes and tall grass and silence. He found them skittish; euphoric one moment, gloomy the next. “When these peoples gets in a bad mood, I just leave ‘em alone,” he said to me, “or pretty soon we’d have two peoples in a bad mood.”
Since he was a fellow cook, I asked Robert once what he liked to eat. “Tuna fish,” he said. “And corn flakes.”
“What about your vitamins?”
For years, I’ve been getting up every morning and writing for a couple of hours – working away on novels no one wants to publish . . . yet. The combination of intense creativity and unforgiving intellectual discipline involved in getting an imagined world exactly right satisfies me as much or more as anything in the real one.
Once that summer, I printed out a draft of a novel and laid the formidable stack of pages on a table in the dining room. Robert stood looking down at them.
“You type all these pages?”
“What you do with them now?”
“I’ll send them to my agent in New York.”
“And that agent, he send you money, right?”
“No. He’ll try to sell the book to someone else.”
Robert shook his head. “Whoo-wee! If I typed all those pages, and I sent them to some man in New York and he kept them but didn’t send me no money, I believe I’d be on the bus!”
This, from a man who regularly lost serious amounts of money on the numbers.
An un-air-conditioned kitchen during the southern summer is a pretty live-and-let-live place. I wrote; Robert gambled. I took my rejections; he took his losses. We both managed to pay the rent and have a pretty good time.
God bless the children that’ve got their own . . .