Tea Bazaar-1 (Part 1 of 2 parts)

This is part one of a two part piece.

In January of 1958 The U.S. launched its 1st satellite, Explorer-1 which broadcast for 4 months before falling silent. In February a 7,600 Mark 15 Hydrogen bomb was misplaced in the waters off Savannah, Georgia. In March an Atomic bomb was dropped on a house in Mars Bluff, SC (the conventional explosives destroyed the home but nuclear fission did not occur.) Also in February of that year Ruth Carol Taylor was hired as the first African-American flight attendant only to be fired 6 months later because she got married.

In April of that year a dorky little kid in Rome, New York turned 13 and 3 months later The Ponitails girl group charted at number 7 with “Born Too Late.”

The dorky little kid was me and I really don’t remember hearing the song all those years ago though I almost certainly did because many years later I would hear it and it would sound vaguely familiar.

The song is a melancholy, bitter-sweet lament about an early adolescent girl (think “Joanie” in early episodes of “Happy Days”) being too young to gain the interest of a boy (probably) in his mid-to late teens. I love the song because of its perfect musical honesty. It’s the purest, sweetest female doo-wop you’ll ever hear—and its absolute unflinching innocence is heartbreakingly beautiful (to an old guy like me anyway:))

I reference the song because it immediately came to mind as I sat down to write this post about a very nice lady named Gwendolyn. Gwendolyn is the owner of The Twisted Branch Indian Tea Express—a tea room and short-order restaurant up a flight of stairs off of the Charlottesville Downtown Mall—a restored historic district and pedestrian mall in the old part of Charlottesville, VA. Gwendolyn told me she loves the sixties and feels (in so many words) she might have been “born too late.”

Several days ago I spent an afternoon “photo-wandering” on the mall as I like to do a couple of times a month—it’s my favorite place for street photography these days–a place to stalk the elusive, amazing image shutter-bugs are always chasing. I’ve stopped in at the tea room several times in recent months for lunch—I love the atmosphere—the quiet, snug, almost secret feel of the place and because I can get vegan & vegetarian food there and not feel like some sort of geriatric, hippie weirdo.

The place has a sixties feel that I love. I’m a sixties-kid despite what you see when you meet me meet me—slightly sloppy middle-class attire, bald head, short hair (what remains), glasses and clean-shaven face. But make no mistake—I came of age in the sixties. The slightly irrational, counter-culture idealism, the self-absorbed, bohemian-tribal music and the ambiguous, one-size-fits-all mysticism—is at the mental, social and emotional core of this dithering old wanna-be photo-artist. I may look like just another retired old boomer-fart but my soul has a full beard and shoulder-length hair and the faint but unmistakable odor of marijuana still lingers. Peace man.

Gwendolyn is one of those people who seem familiar the first time you meet them. Her manner is very accommodating, interested, gentle, thoughtful and accepting yet quietly, firmly and somehow, sadly focused. I asked her about the soup of the day—she told me about the lentils and the brown, organic Basmati rice and I said OK—”lets do the lentils”—and would she mind if I took her picture and she says sure—why not?

End part one–reader–you can continue reading the whole piece or come back tomorrow for the second half.

Begin part two.

So I ask Gwendolyn to look into a mirror on the wall at me while I shoot her reflection then we walk out back to a very pleasant roof-top patio decorated with sun-faded prayer flags. I shoot a dozen or so frames and we talk a bit. I tell her she looks and seems like a sixties girl though she’s too young. I tell her about the George Harrison sitar story I recently posted and she actually not only knows who the Beatles were but their names.  She says she’ll go to the website and read the story (Hula-Hootenanny-2 (Parts 1 & 2)).

I sit on a cushion and eat my lentils. Customers wander in a few at a time—Gwendolyn speaks to them, seats them—takes their orders. The place is quietly busy—everyone drifting privately in their own little self-space bubble—soaking up the comforting quiet and distance from the CNN and Wal-Mart world outside and their lives spent always thinking about where they need to be next.

I finish my lentils, chew and appreciate the warm dal bread—I do my own drifting—listening to the human murmur and the silence it occupies.

Dropping my plate and glass in the dirty-dishes tub in front of the kitchen counter I wave at Gwendolyn as I head down stairs and out onto the mall with its lush green Southern Pin-Oaks moving gracefully in the warm Virginia summer breeze over sidewalk cafes and young couples seated at iron mesh patio tables and chairs.

I amble along the shady, brick-paved mall boulevard studying empty shop windows, enigmatic doorways, street performers playing guitars, vendors offering colorful scarves, hats, wood carvings.

And all the time I’m stalking the elusive amazing image, in my mind its 1970 and I’m walking across main campus under towering oaks between ancient, ivy-covered buildings. I find myself humming and singing the Youngblood’s big sixties hit, “Get Together,”—“C’mon people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now…”

Everyone around me on the mall—all these busy people—moving, sitting, standing, speaking, eating—living the long, rich moments of their young lives. I’m here in this beautiful human community in 2010 but I’m also walking across campus 40 years ago singing an anthem from a time when love and peace were not just possible but our birthright.

I look up through the collegiate oaks four decades ago to skies somehow deeper and more expansive than these I see this 2010 day and they weren’t just blue–they were “Freedom-Blue.”  In those days young people believed in something called “Freedom.  We never truly found it but we all knew it was possible–just a bit out of reach–and the quest for that precious someday united us in an exciting and  pure and innocent way that now seems to have vanished–crushed by the dark weight of 21st century cynicism, fear and doubt. It seems to me young people today do not aspire to freedom. I believe they have no understanding of the concept as we understood it 40 years ago.

As I walk across the 1970 campus I meet the eyes of dozens of beautiful young women moving between classes through the moments of their lives and on to the shared darkness of the next millennium. In the passing students I meet the eyes of Gwendolyn, she briefly returns my gaze, smiles absently and continues on her path, vanishing into the moving, milling, changing bodies and the life that leads where all lives lead—toward a bowl of lentils, a bit of kindred spirit conversation in a quiet place and the ongoing search for an elusive image.

Despite the warm summer temperatures the shady breezes are pleasant and soothing—a hundred lives are being lived all around me in the mall sunshine—the endless currency of youth being spent without thought. I wonder how many of these good people were, “born too late.” I have never felt that way—I have always been grateful for when I was born—and when I came of age. The sunshine and life of this CNN and Wal-Mart moment in time continues all around me. I love these strangers living their lives in this I-Pod world, looking down into their “Smart-Phones” for direction rather than looking upward.  In my mind, as I continue my search for that elusive, amazing image, I sing to them–an anthem from another time when the skies were a different shade of blue and freedom was something that could be pursued and one day grasped–a time fading like Gwendolyn’s prayer flags, “C’mon people now, smile on your brother—everybody get together, try to love one another right now…”

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