Shel Silverstein: the Little Library Where the Sidewalk Ends and Jennifer Johnson

A few years ago, in an attempt to be a cutting-edge, high-tech institution, the powers-that-be decided that the school I teach in didn’t need a library. The library is superfluous, they claimed. Students have all the information they need on their phones in their hands. (As if information was all that students need.) And so, quickly, the library was gutted, the librarian dismissed, and the books were donated, destroyed, or “disappeared,” From its ashes rose a Maker-Space and a Learning Commons. (If you are not currently involved in modern education, don’t ask.)

littlelibrary

“The Library Where the Sidewalk Ends” on Valentine’s Day

A few colleagues and I couldn’t imagine a school without a library, so we built our own. A “little library” it was, and ones like it appear in neighborhoods, towns and cities throughout the U.S. (I once was at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for such a library on the porch of a bar in Key West, although it was much more of a Key West celebration than a library opening.)

Anyway, the library thrived with people taking and leaving a variety of books, CDs, and even art works.

The library itself was located in an odd place in the middle of campus. There was a cement sidewalk that jutted into a swatch of grass and then just ended. When I would announce new additions to the library, I would refer to it as “the library WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS.”

where the sidewalk endsAnd every student and every adult knew what I was referring to: the delightful first collection of poems by Shel Silverstein that every student had loved as a child and every adult of a certain age remembered reading to his or her own. The poems in Where the Sidewalk Ends are silly, irreverent, charming, and knowing. It’s the silly irreverence that children most love: as if the adult Silverstein—unlike other adults in their world— was clued into the fears, the joys, the silliness, the incomprehension, the absurdity with which they view the world.

Yet, Silverstein was more than a children’s poet. He began as a cartoonist, and a successful one. It was his cartoons that prompted his publisher to suggest a book of poems. He was also a playwright–David Mamet called him his best friend–with over 100 one-act plays under his belt.

And he was a prolific songwriter. He had a number of hits with what could be called novelty

Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein

songs: “On the Cover of the Rolling Stone,” “Sylvia’s Mother,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and the “Unicorn” song ( you know,           “green alligators and long necked geese… .”) But he also had a solid stable of songs recorded by a slew of people: Dr. Hook and his Medicine Show, Loretta Lynn, Bobby Bare, Belinda Carlisle, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Marianne Faithful, Johnny Cash among others. I remember the first Judy Collins’ album I ever bought featured a rousing protest song called “Hey Nelly Nelly.” I didn’t recognize the name at the time, but it was written by someone named Shel Silverstein.

And so it comes to a song I have recently rediscovered. I was buying tickets to see Todd Snider in concert and was looking for the one Todd Snider album I own. I couldn’t find it. So instead I pulled out a Robert Earl Keen album West Textures which features a charming Shel Silverstein song, “Jennifer Johnson and Me.” (Snider mentions a Robert Earl Keen song in one of his own songs which is what originally had driven me to this album.)

Anyway, the song tells the story of a man who finds in an old suit jacket pocket a black-and-white photo (‘three for a quarter”) from an arcade photo booth. The picture is of him and an old girlfriend, Jennifer Johnson. The singer is well into adulthood now, and the photo is of him when he was in late adolescence, sitting with Jennifer Johnson.There is a sweet nostalgia in his memories of their innocence, their hope, and the belief in “forever.”

It’s a sweet song, and I opened up with it on Saturday. I think I will keep it in my set list. Here’s the tune, by Robert Earl Keen:

The Hemingway House, Key West

Hemingway House, Key West Illustration 2014 jpbohannon

Hemingway House, Key West
Illustration 2014 jpbohannon

I have always had a love/hate relationship with Ernest Hemingway. For a long time, all the machismo got in my way: the big game hunting, the bull fighting, the boxing, the boasting, the egoism, all seemed to be compensating for something, a sense of insecurity perhaps, to put it in simplest terms.

And yet, I love his writing. It is pure and clean and powerful and elemental. I can still feel the the visceral punch in  “Indian Camp” when the father removed the blanket from the young husband in the upper bunk. Or, the pared-down, gradual dawning of realization in reading “Hills Like White Elephants” or the existential abyss yawning at the end of a “A Clean Well Lighted Place.”

It’s been a while since I read one of the novels. I remember A Sun Also Rises fondly. The damaged romanticism of  Jake Barnes, the alluring aloofness of Brett Ashley, the thirsty landscape of Spain are all still vivid in my mind despite how long ago I last read it. And while critics claim A Farewell to Arms to be the better written novel, The Sun Also Rises remains more important to me.  (A colleague just last month called it the worst novel written in English! Oh well.)

And so, with this ambivalence about Hemingway, I visited his home while in Key West in early June.

The home is extraordinary–and rich in story and history.

photo

The front of the Hemingway House on Whitehead Street in Key West. Photograph 2014 jpbohannon

In the 1930s, Hemingway moved to Key West with his second wife–Pauline Pfeiffer–whose uncle purchased the house on the corner of Whitehead and Olivia Streets. And although, Hemingway claimed that he was “restless” in Key West, at this house he wrote a great deal of what would be his most important work.

The house is a two level structure built in 1851 by Asa Tift, a successful architect and salvager, and the Hemingways bought it in 1931.  Today, the home is an Historic Site and remains filled with the Hemingways’ furniture and artifacts.  Throughout each room are both original furnishings and memorabilia–posters of movies made from his novels, photos of Hemingway at various stages of his life, of his family, and of various celebrities and writers. The bed in the master bedroom is actually two double beds that Hemingway wired together and the headboard is a gate made of Spanish mahogany that Hemingway and his wife had seen in a monastery in Spain.  A bench in the foyer is from the same monastery.

Hemingway's Writing Studio in Key West Photograph 2014 jpbohannon

Hemingway’s Writing Studio in Key West
Photograph 2014 jpbohannon

Behind the main house is a “carriage house” in which Hemingway had built a writing studio on the second floor.  In order to ensure his privacy, Hemingway had a wrought-iron catwalk stretched across the patio from the bedroom to his studio.  This was the only means in and out.  Today, the catwalk has been taken down and there is a narrow stairway from the patio to the studio door.  It is an ideal working space.

The house also has a large pool–the first ever in Key West.  Hemingway and Pauline had wanted to build a pool, but cost was prohibitive.  They had bought the house for $8000 dollars, but building a pool in the remote Keys was expensive. Instead, Hemingway built a regulation sized boxing ring. Much to Pauline’s dismay, her dream of lounging poolside had given way to a ring side seat to her husband’s sparring bouts.

However, Pauline got her way (and ultimately the house itself).  Hemingway had started an affair with the writer Martha Gelhorn, and the two of them had met up in Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War.  When Pauline caught wind of the tryst, she promptly had a over-sized pool built–at the cost of $20,000, two and half times the cost of the house.

When Hemingway returned he was none too pleased.  In one gesture of comeuppance, he dragged a urinal from what was then Sloppy Joe’s (and is now Captain Tony’s) which had been thrown curbside during renovations, and brought it home as a watering trough for his many cats. As he told his wife, “you have your pool, and now I have mine.”

And it is the cats that retain their residency.  Hemingway loved cats, particularly 6-fingered, “polydactyl” cats. He believed them to be good luck. There are countless photos of Hemingway with them–while he wrote and while he lounged. (Apparently, they were the only others who had access to his studio.) Today, all of the 48 or so cats on the property are descendants of Hemingway’s cats–and all of them carry the gene for the polydactyl mutation.

One of the many six-fingered cats on the Hemingway Huse property. photograph 2014 by jpbohannon

One of the many six-fingered cats on the Hemingway Huse property.
photograph 2014 by jpbohannon

But after the cats and the pools and the writing studios, after the womanizing, the wives, and the bluster, after the houses and the legends and the suicide, what we are left with in the end is the writing.  As I said earlier, it is pristine and clear and purposeful.  Hemingway was a great reviser, mostly paring down and paring down to the very essence of what he wanted to say. As he famously told an interviewer, the hardest part is getting the words right:

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
(Ernest Hemingway, “The Art of Fiction,” The Paris ReviewInterview, 1956)