The Soapbox Papers

The Soapbox Papers is my two-cents worth.

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Location: Beloit, Wisconsin, United States

I am a cross between Tinkerbell and Calamity Jane.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Good Night, Mother Goose

I lost a friend this week. Thomas Bruce Reese has left the Planet. I feel his absence somewhere in the center of my being.

I haven't been well myself, and had not been to see Tom since last spring, though I kept promising myself I would go, kept thinking of him and what I would say when I saw him next. I wanted to tell him his babies - the stray cats he adopted - were being cared for. I wanted to tell him that he had been in my thoughts and in my heart. I wanted to tell him I valued him and our friendship, that I cherished the silly gifts he gave me: thrift shop jewelry, books, a purple teddy bear, the recycled greeting cards, the newspaper clippings he thought I'd like with notes in the margin, written in his ornate scrawl . But I didn't go. Perhaps it's just as well. His friend, right-hand man, and eventually, the man who looked out for Tom's best interests and kept the rest of us informed, Malcolm, says he suffered from dementia, as well as the physical ailments that come along when a body turns 89. Malcolm said Tom believed he was the director of a very successful art gallery. While the financial books would say that belief was a lie, in the minds and hearts of many of us poets, artists and musicians around St. Petersburg and beyond will swear his belief was correct. Depends on how you define success. Tom was a friend, a mentor, a critic, a hero and a nemesis, depending on whom you ask, and the time of day you ask.

I will leave the history writing to those who know more than I - Google "Thomas Bruce Reese" and you will find websites and stories - one even with a mostly-accurate timeline - much of which I know is true, some of which I suspect is embellished. I understand there is a book in the making about Beaux Arts Gallery and Coffeehouse, his far-reaching contribution to local culture. When Tom became ill, his Gallery and Coffeehouse, on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, went on the market. This was not the first home of Beaux Arts. The history will tell you that, and as I said, I will leave the history writing to those who know more than I. But let me tell you about what I do remember...

I remember a man who sat in the open air of the gardens of the original Beaux Arts coffeehouse on Sunday afternoons and listened to a parade of open-mike performers, sometimes with his eyes closed; I remember how he commented at the end of each performer's set, for good or for bad, on their selection of material, their performance skills, or sometimes the history related to the performance.

I remember picking Tom up (This was when Tom could no longer drive -- many of us breathed a sigh of relief!) early on Sunday mornings and being treated to breakfast at a little restaurant in downtown St. Petersburg before we went to the Mainsail Arts Festival or other annual event. I remember not being able to keep up with him at those art shows, him, armed with the latest flyers for Beaux Arts events, flitting like a large and colorful butterfly (how he loved his bright clothes!) from place to place, talking with old friends and inviting new friends to his Gallery. I remember him trying to pair me up with unsuspecting visitors to Coffeehouse - it bothered him that I had, for a time, chosen to remain unattached. I remember him getting up and walking out of the Gallery in the middle of my recitation of one of my poems, saying (not quietly - Tom gave no criticism or admonishments privately or quietly!) he would not stay and listen to a piece of work that I cared so little about that I would read it too fast, or too carelessly. If I didn't care about my work, he said, why should he...

I remember helping him clean up the gardens, but having to check with him before tearing out what most people would regard as weeds. Tom recognized all species of plants and called few (I can't recall a single one!) a weed. I remember (after an afternoon of that ) going across the street to the gay bar where we had what he called "a dollar dinner and a dollar beer." When a friend of mine from another organization was the performer at that bar - a talented cabaret singer/entertainer - I remember excitedly dragging HIM across the street so he could hear her and appreciate her talent. And how Tom loved dance and drama! As late as the mid-nineties he would throw costume galas to see how everyone came dressed.

Because of his gruffness, sometimes, because of his very direct way of speaking, many of the younger people who visited his coffeehouse on open-mike night overlooked his direction, his attempts to teach them how to be better at what they did. But Tom Reese could have taught Bob Dylan to speak distinctly, one syllable at a time; he could have taught rappers to slow down in their delivery: he'd have said, "Your message is too important for you to race through it!" And he would have said it loudly. Toward the end, he said everything loudly. Somewhere on the premises was a hearing aid or two, but he seldom had one in use. Yet he missed little. Maybe because of his age, maybe because not many knew he had a degree in Fine Arts, many did not take him seriously.

I did. I learned a lot from Tom. When I started to get sick, he knew. He'd even call me when I had been away too long. I tried to explain it to him,tried to tell him how my mind was beating me up so severely it was hard to leave the safety of the blankets, then, much less my house. "Are you writing it down?" he asked. Sadly, much of it went unwritten, as I believed then that if I got through the worst of it, who would want to remember. When I made my uncommon appearances, sometimes during the day when he was alone, he was always glad to see me, always ready to tell me who some of the new performers were. He would show me the latest paintings and scuptures in the gallery and take me on a tour of the side garden.

I last toured the side garden, the front and the parking lot on my own, with the permission of one of the tenants, once the "For Sale" sign went up on Central Avenue. I documented it with pictures of the place - too few, and none of the inside - that I wanted to keep to remember those years. A friend of mine says it is the end of an era, now that Tom is gone. The place is sold, and will be torn down to make room for - something else. But a part of Tom carries on in so many of us, I doubt the era is over. Recently, at a grocery store, someone who knew me told the young man packing up my groceries that I am a poet. The young man stopped a moment and looked at me and launched into a spirited rap -- and I caught myself telling him, "Slow down, slow down! What you have to say is much too important to rush through like that!"

I remember how Tom would ask about people he hadn't seen for a time, and the poem I would read at the end of some of those coffehouse nights:

Counting Sheep

And the sheep have
gathered into a tight knot
near the haystack
where the little boy sleeps.

I’ve heard it said
that in the course of a day
every single sheep in the flock
will rub against its shepherd --

perhaps not in affection,
but in acknowledgment;
perhaps not in devotion,
but in loyalty.

Mary’s lamb was different --
one on one acceptance, probably;
devotion, affection --
trailing around behind her
like a ripped hem. It was
the talk of the town.

Po Peep wasn’t
the shepherdess type -
easily distracted,
no doubt scatterbrained
(quite possibly blonde)
yet even disenfranchised,
her sheep came home – remember?

Close your eyes.
The sheep are coming home again,
one by one -
even the little black one,
his wool shorn, filling three bags.

Rest easy. Everything is going
according to Plan.

Goodnight, Mother Goose.

From the collection, Bartering Copyright (C) Smokey Combs, 1993 All Rights Reserved


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