Sometime in the mid-80’s, Joe Head and I were sitting together in the Western District Carroll County courthouse, watching our City Council get sued for violating the Freedom of Information Act.
And Joe said something so funny, endearing, smart, exasperating, and lovely, something which so encapsulated the loving dynamic tension that frequently animates my funky, quirky little former home-town, Eureka Springs, Arkansas, that I have remembered it all these years.
Joe, who for decades was my mailman, was one of those people with whom one’s connection could be described as peripheral, accidental. Yet he brushed my life and values fundamentally.
Joe Head left us recently; by which I mean, he died – in the midsummer of 2022. He was 86.
To tell you about Joe, and how he shaped my life in that small Ozark community, we’ll take a route at least as twisty as the one he drove as a mail carrier.
For this story starts, and ends, in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where (despite being born in New York City), I lived for 40-some years of my life.
A SERPENTINE ROUTE WORTH TAKING
When people discover Eureka Springs, built eccentrically up and down the valleys and rises like a European hill town, they tend to think of it as “magical” or “enchanted.” But should they decide to not merely visit as tourists but actually move here, whenever they come to town, and whenever they leave (if they do; I did, after having lived there all those years) they always remember the so-called “early days” as being the most magical and enchanted of all.
What they actually mean is their early days.
For proof, I give you Virginia Carey.
NINE QUICK STORIES, AND SOME ADVICE FROM VIRGINIA
In the midst of my own early days in Eureka Springs — I was a month past 18, it was January, 1971, and still deep into that “magical, enchanted, place like no other” perception — I became friends with her. She was 76, had moved to the Ozarks during the Depression with the favorite of her three husbands.
To give you an idea of Virginia’s general feisty kick-assiness, I will tell you nine quick stories about her:
1. She used to tell me, “One of these days I’m just going to get on my broomstick and fly away.” Folks, she died in 1977 — on Halloween.
2. In those days, and I know this may be hard for you to believe, I was insecure, uncertain of myself, full of self-doubt. Virginia thought this was ridiculous and I should get over it. So her nickname for me, once she detected this was “Lowly Worm,” later abbreviated to “Lowly.”
3. The first time she had me over for tea (brewed, not from a bag), she served it in a sky-blue iridescent Occupied Japan era tea-set. The cups were intimidatingly tissue-paper thin; so delicate they looked as if they’d break if you breathed on them.
I hesitated, almost afraid to pick mine up.
While I wasn’t exactly clumsy, neither was I graceful. She must have seen my eyes widen when she set mine in front of me (along with homemade lemon bars — the first lemon bars I had ever had, and the ones I still make; the recipe is in the Dairy Hollow House Cookbook). Assessing my misgivings accurately, she leaned towards me and said, “Now, we’ll just be ladies if it kills us.”
4. She once said to me, “I feel that we are of an age, Crescent. What that age is, I don’t know.”
5. She’d been married three times, and, as she put it, “They’re all dead. That’s not a good record, is it?”
6. She eloped with the first when she was 15, below the age of consent in — was it Alabama where she was raised? — slipping out of the finishing school her traditional family sent her to in a vain attempt to make her less feisty. But, she reasoned, the judge would surely ask her her age. Anticipating this, not wanting to lie, heaven forfend, she wrote the numbers 1 and 8 on a piece of paper and put it in her shoe. “That way, “ she said, “When the judge asked me, ‘Are you over 18?’, I could honestly say, ‘Yes, your honor.’
7. Her second husband, Bill, who was quite a bit older than she was, was the great love of her life. With Bill, during the Depression, she moved from Dallas to the Ozarks. She learned to ride horseback, and to split kindling. She recalled gloating to Bill, when she finally got the hang of kindling-splitting down, “Bill! I made the chips fly!”
8. Her third husband she married on the rebound, and quickly divorced. “He was a sad-sack,” she told me, making a long, gloomy, imitative face. “If I had been thinking straight I would have seen it. He wanted me to take care of him. A grown man! ‘I don’t know, what do you want to do?’ ‘Oh, I guess.’ Long sighs. No enthusiasm. No, that wasn’t for me.”
9. Perhaps this is why she did not hesitate to make pronouncements on my own romantic and sexual life. She felt, in general, that I settled for unworthy male companionship.
In particular I remember these two exchanges. At that time a man I will call Jake Jakowski lived in, and tomcatted around, town. I had had a distinctly unmemorable one-time misadventure with him.
Virginia: Jake Jakowski! How could you? He’d fiddle anything that was hot and had a hole in it!
Me (defensively): Well, you’re a lot older than I am, Virginia. I still have… needs.
Virginia: Well, just sit on a bathtub edge covered with a towel or something and rub yourself against it!
She shook her head in disgust, glared at me, and repeated, with disbelieving scorn, “Jake Jakowski!”
MURRAY, AND VIRGINIA
10. On the other hand, she approved of a man I’ll call Murray Holderman. Most would have thought him inappropriate and a bad bet for a relationship — he was married for one thing, and lived in New York for another – but Virginia was not most people.
I only saw Murray when I went back to the city, which was then maybe two or three times a year. He was an agent and a music promoter; his obituary quoted Glenn Gould saying he was “the last great impressario.” Although Murray worked primarily in classical music, he represented the Youngbloods (“Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together and love one another”) as well as, improbably, Ravi Shankar.
His wife was Swedish. Britte. I never asked him if Britte knew about us.
Truthfully, I didn’t think much about her. Murray’s and my affair, though that term’s a bit highfalutin for it, was affectionate, somewhat passionate, conversation-rich. It stretched out over two years. He was 38, I was — maybe 19, 20, by then?
I broke it off after I happen to pass him once on the street in New York City (what are the odds?) — with Britte.
Once she became real to me, I couldn’t do it.
… AND GROWING UP
In writing this, I did a deep Google dive and learned Murray died in 2020, at 92, and Britte died that same month. I also learned he was far wealthier and more famous than I had any idea at the time; as I read his achievements, about which I knew almost nothing, I realize he was also extraordinarily humble, at least with me.
Murray came to Eureka Springs just once, when Britte was in Stockholm for a week. He stayed in my funky little shack of a house (in addition to the home he shared with Britte, he owned a beautiful carriage house in Manhattan; it served as his office, where we often met when I was in the city).
In Eureka, I cooked for him (including his first smoothie, ever; he liked it, noting that, because I put a handful of nuts in it, “It has some texture.”).
I didn’t have a car then, so he walked, as I did, all over town. I introduced him to my friends.
One set was a couple, about a decade older than me, who lived in an expensively restored Victorian. Call them Mike and Susy. At the time, I greatly looked up to them and always brought visiting friends by to meet them. They talked a good line, presented most respectably. I had not yet seen their essential willingness to use others when it served their purposes; I was among many who were taken in by them. Their fall from grace in my eyes was a hard one, and it cost me a lot of money — twice. This was part of what edged me away from my own “Eureka is so enchanted” point of view.
But it would be several years before circumstances ripped the Mike-and-Susy blinders from my eyes.
After meeting them, Murray assessed Susy thus: “Utterly sexless.” I didn’t know what to make of this. I just took it in, sensing that he had more dislike than he was saying.
I must digress from that here to drop in what my late father said, also after meeting this couple, on another occasion, shaking his head as we walked away: “That Mike — if you shake hands with him, you better count your fingers to make sure you still have all of them.”
While I was perplexed by Murray’s assessment, I flat-out didn’t believe my late father. How could these two adored, trusted men be so wrong?
Later, I realized both Murray and my father had both been so right.
VIRGINIA GIVES HER APPROVAL
But back to Virginia Carey. The three of us had tea; Murray and Virginia and me. He adored Virginia, and she liked him.
I don’t remember what he said of her, but Virginia deconstructed him and the relationship, thoughtfully, later on, when it was just the two of us.
“You know, sometimes something like that can work out well, for someone like you,” mused Virginia aloud, over tea. “He’s married, he lives somewhere else, that way he won’t interfere with your work. But you still have the romance and sex and … flutter.” She wiggled the fingers of one hand when she said “flutter.”
She believed my work was important. She believed that while I should have sex, romance, and flutter, I shouldn’t get sidetracked by them. She believed, though I didn’t come to realize this until much later, that loving and being comfortable with myself was essential; had to come first, last, and in between.
I didn’t mean to fall down the Virginia rabbit hole, let alone drag in my time with lovely Murray, loathsome Mike and Susy, then-horndog Jake Jakowski.
But this is by way of returning to Joe Head, and that “Eureka Springs is so magical” thing, and the seemingly universal fallacy of its good old days being in the past.
And the North Star of learning to love oneself side by side with learning to love others.
The good old days, the past, it turns out, were whenever you discovered Eureka Springs. Although I think this has broader implications: in the past, we were always younger, and usually less wise, than we are now.
People are still moving to Eureka Springs, and for them, it’s their early days, and the town (whose motto since the 1880’s has been ‘Where the Misfit Fits”) works its allure and fascination on them still. How often have I heard, “We came here, and we just fell in love with the town, and here we are!”
But back to my own early days.
For while I was in the first blush of discovery of the town, in love with Brigadoon-like, enchanted Eureka, Virginia — Virginia! Who was herself so extraordinary to me, so magical, then and still, in memory, now! — Virginia used to say with a sniff, “Eureka Springs. It used to be special. But now it’s just all keeping up with the Joneses.”
JOE, THE WHISTLING MAILMAN
And now we return to Joe Head. He left this world on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. At 86, as I mentioned.
His son, Gary, told us on Facebook: “Dad got all new fishing tackle this morning. I’m sure that he will be guiding his friends to a big ‘un real soon. Heaven gained the best man I’ve ever known.” Later, announcing the memorial service at Faith Christian, he continued this idea. “The attire is casual (fishing shirts encouraged) as we know Papa is already fishing in Heaven.”
I never knew Joe as a fisherman. Though I knew he was a Eureka Springs native, I didn’t know until I read his obituary that he was the president of his high school class in 1953, a year after I was born.
There is no logical reason why we should have liked each other so much, but we did. I, a vegetarian, do not eat fish, I’m a New York native, I never finished high school. Yet Joe embodied, for me, much of what I most loved about Eureka.
If I too perceive my early years in Eureka as magical and enchanted — and I do — Joe Head is partly why.
He was my mailman, as I’ve said. He was also the kind of Christian, they don’t, in my experience and opinion, seem to make much of any more.
I’ve mentioned the little shacky house I then lived in, just down the hill from Ethel Rhiel who owned and operated the last existing dairy that gave my neighborhood, Dairy Hollow, its name.
When I say “shacky” I mean that, for instance, the shower didn’t drain, other than by overflowing and slowly leaking through the bathroom’s rotting floorboards. My rent: $80 a month. I often had to scramble for it.
One of the best things about that little house, though, besides the fact that it gave me shelter, was that it was on the outskirts of town. It offered lots of tree-tops to look out into. It was quiet and very private. But almost as significant was its mailing address — Route 4, Box 1.
Box 1! This meant I received my mail early in the day, about ten a.m.
This was important.
HOW MAIL MATTERED THEN, AND WHY
In 1971, there was no Internet. No email. No cell phones or personal computers.
I was and am a writer. If I submitted a manuscript, or made an article proposal (now called a pitch) to a magazine (remember magazines?), I sent it by mail.
If the publisher or magazine accepted it, or rejected it, I heard by mail.
If they bought it, I eventually received the check (usually a couple of months later than it had been promised), by mail.
Catching up with distant friends and relatives also happened by mail. Why? Because you were charged, by the minute, for “long distance” — calls made on telephones (receiver attached, then, by a curly cord to the large, heavy, usually black stationary instrument) to a prefix other than your own (prefixes, the three digits, originally two letters and one digit, that follow area codes, were around before there were area codes… oh wait, ‘nother story).
No “snail mail.” Just mail. THE essential connection to one’s larger world.
And for me, to my income and profession.
I didn’t have a car. Didn’t even know how to drive. If I wanted personal contact, other than with my up-the-hill neighbor, the adored Ethel Rhiel (who was in her 80’s, and still milking eight brown-eyed Jersey cows by hand twice daily), it required a walk of a mile or so into town… a walk that began with climbing a very, very steep hill up and out of Dairy Hollow. This took commitment.
How thrilling it was, then, to discover I would not have to wait until later afternoon to get mail, but instead receive it early in the day. I’d hear the car come up the road — the special post-office car, steering wheel on the right, sometimes hear the slam of my large metal mailbox’s door being shut, and there was the news, good or bad, of the day. In warm weather, when the windows of my little house as well as the car, were open, I would sometimes hear … whistling.
I don’t remember when or how Joe and I first introduced ourselves to each other, but we did. Perhaps a registered letter that I needed to sign for? A package? Nor did I come out every single morning I heard him to say hello and have a brief chitchat. But once I connected with Joe, that cheerful, whistling human being, I often came out and we’d converse. He radiated friendliness and curiosity; he was at ease with himself in a rare fundamental way that put others, including neurotic 18,19, 20 year old me, at ease. We must’ve had these hi-how-are-you-nice-weather exchanges a couple of hundred times over the years. We gossiped about whatever was going on; he was also intrigued by the fact that my livelihood worked by mail.
But it was more just friendly checking-in; it was true and respectful connection, and it always left me feeling better than I had.
SLICK AS …
And oh, Joe’s ease with Ozark patois! So homey you could have missed the intelligence and kindness underlying it. Ask Joe how he was, and about half the time he’d say not ‘fine’, but ‘fine as frog hair.”
Think about the last frog you saw and you’ll understand how fine frog hair is — so fine as to be invisible! That’s pretty durned fine.
Another time, I was home recuperating after surgery, unable to get out of bed. Since I couldn’t get out to the mailbox, Joe brought my mail to the house, just inside the door. (How’d he know I was sick? Because in those days, everybody knew everything about everyone. As the redoubtable Richie Campbell, loosely a fellow alternative type, told me, on my very first day in Eureka, “You don’t take a shit in this town without someone telling you how much toilet paper you used and what color it was.”)
I owned the shacky little house by then, and had improved it some. About a month before that emergency surgery, I had completed putting in a new bathroom, and refinished all the floors, pine underneath the linoleum I had ripped away. They were very shiny, high-gloss. Joe knocked on the door the first time he brought the mail there, opened it when I called “Come in” from the couch where I lay, recuperating. After asking me if I needed anything and setting the mail on the table, he glanced down. “Wow!” he said, and let an impressed whistle. “That floor is as slick as snot on a doorknob!”
Later, from an older man my late husband, Ned, worked with in Little Rock, I heard a variation on this: “slicker’n owl shit on an ash hoe handle.”
I treasure both of these iterations. But Joe’s came first.
MAIL… AND, ONE PARTICULAR MALE, AND HIS CAR
Then, this. I was living, in those days, the way we young, loosely alternative types did in that pre-AIDs, pre-Herpes era, easy birth control era, when abortion had, not long before, been made legal.
Eventually, long after my thing with Murray had ended, I had a couple-of-months-duration relationship with a fellow who lived in Eureka. Like many single men then and there, he was an odds-and-ends carpenter/handyman. Ike drove an old car: finned, rusting here and there, a door given to falling off. Maybe a Chevelle?
The first time he spent the night with me at my funky little shack in Dairy Hollow, he parked his hot and very recognizable hot mess of a car outside said shack.
Joe, seeing it in the driveway, left Ike’s mail along with mine in the mailbox.
“ARKANSAS? WHY ARKANSAS, OF ALL PLACES?”
Some in my world have always been, and remain, bewildered by my choice.
“Arkansas?” countless New York friends and colleagues have asked me incredulously. “Why Arkansas, of all places?”
How could I explain the joy of conversation with Joe Head at, say, a gallery opening?
Had I stayed in New York, I would not have known many people outside of my set; literary, over-educated, creative, neurotic, somewhat focused on prestige and accumulation, tendency to drink in excess, all about the same age, competitive. (I knew that set; it was my parent’s set).
But Joe and I standing there, in discussion, both more dressed up than usual for the occasion? I felt, as he and I conversed, though I don’t remember specifics, grateful down to my corpuscles that I was getting to have an interesting conversation with my dear mailman: about art.
I simply loved, and continue to love, talking to people who are kind, thoughtful, smart, funny, yet have a different set of life-shaping experiences than my own, and have arrived where they’ve arrived. Which is always, in some ways, similar to where I have landed, and in other ways, utterly different. That’s why it’s so interesting.
It’s harder to have these kinds of conversations in these partisan, divided days. I miss it.
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION… AND GLENN
Which brings me to the story of the City Council’s Freedom of Information Act trial, sometime in maybe the early 80’s. If I remember rightly, the Council had voted for and given a bunch of someones (themselves? City employees?) raises in secret session.
This was illegal. A journalist brought suit against them.
The more I listened to the then-council duck-and-weave, bob and cover, lie and get caught in it, the sadder I felt.
Corruption, in my beloved Eureka Springs? No, no! Say it isn’t so!
The trial was a big deal in town. Citizens slipped in and out to watch the proceedings. At one point, as I sat on those oak benches in our wondrous old courthouse — the same one where my friends, the artist, writer, and storyteller Zeek Taylor and his long-time partner Dick Titus, were married, by the way, in 2014, the first same-sex marriage in the South — who should slide in next to me but Joe Head.
We listened for awhile. Then there was a recess.
I turned to Joe gloomily. “This is so depressing,” I said. “Joe, why don’t you run for city council? You’re a good guy, you were born here, you’re truthful and straightforward, you’re smart and fair, you would never pull something like this. And everybody likes you!”
Joe said, “Well, Crescent, I just can’t do it. It’s not only that my daddy was mayor for awhile and it near about killed him. It’s because I’m a Christian. You see, I served on the Park’s Commission for awhile and… Glenn Wallis.”
Glenn. A hugely gifted landscaper-gardener — he designed all the parks that surround many of Eureka’s springs — he was swarthy, muscular, compact, obnoxious, argumentative, opinionated. (He did not speak to me for some years because I put ricotta cheese in a lasagna I brought to a potluck, and Glenn thought ricotta in lasagna was an abomination). His hair hung in thick waist-length waves; his checks said “Glenn Wallis, The Hairy Fairy.” He usually wore a beanie with propellers on top, and bracelets on that swarthy arm, from wrist to elbow.
And he chaired the Park’s Department. For years. Until he moved away from Eureka, I think in the 90’s, and was never, to my knowledge, heard from again.
Joe continued, “Sometimes I’d have to go over to his house to talk over Parks business, and he would come to the door wearing a negligee. It’d get me so mad! Which is why he did it. And see, Crescent, I’m a Christian, I have to love people. I have to love everyone! I remember once he said to me, he said, “Joe, I was born queer, I am queer, and I’m gonna be queer till the day I die.’ And I said, ‘Glenn — anybody can change!’ ”
I mentioned Richie Campbell earlier. It’s strange; I only ever talked to Richie that once, on that first day I was in Eureka, though we’ve both been around all these years. But he said something else besides the toilet paper thing that has stayed with me.
“See,” he said, “Eureka is built between two mountains, West Mountain and East. The energy gets trapped between ‘em, and it just kind of vibrates back and forth.”
CONTENTIOUS, LOVING — BUT WE TALKED TO EACH OTHER
That’s why I see what Joe said as encapsulating the loving and contentious dynamic tension that I referred to at the beginning of this story. It’s an energetic tension, which so often animates Eureka Springs, and kept me there so long.
And I still love that funny little town, even though I do not live there any more.
Two people could hardly have been more different than Joe and Glenn Wallis. They had conflict. They didn’t agree. Neither of them was ever going to convince the other.
And yet they engaged, including through conflict. They both worked for the town, making it more wondrous.
At this viciously, dangerously divided moment in America, when civility seems an endangered social practice, possibly already vanished except as a maybe-myth, like the ivory-billed woodpecker, Joe still stands as a beacon to me.
Difference did not divide the two of us; it didn’t even divide him and Glenn. Joe never once tried to convert me to or even talk about his faith. He never told me my own life and beliefs and practices were wrong or sinful. He never implied that his were superior or the one and only way to salvation. His faith was lived, expressed in service, humor, and loving-kindness, maybe even in his whistling.
This is true, even though he could not, at least back in the ’80’s, days before there was much discussion or understanding in much of the straight world of what we now call LGBTQ, begin to accept or understand that being in a sexual minority is not in the “anyone can change” category, any more than skin color is. But Joe, in his telling me about this exchange with Glenn, painted himself as the one who needed to get some work done, because he was having a hard time loving Glenn. (And having known both of them, and having been ostracized by Glenn because of that damn ricotta, I have to say Glenn was not easy to love; not because he was queer, but because his was a deliberately obnoxious temperament; the flip side, I suppose, of his also being a gifted visionary who created beautiful gardens all over town.)
So. Despite the prejudice you can find in this story, you can also find anguish, and hilarity. I still feel Joe carried a lantern, radiating light. For me, for Glenn, for the town.
Where the energy vibrates back and forth.
That town where I was, and am, privileged to have learned that conflict and cohesion, difference and commonality, do not cross each other out. Rather, they ferment growth and development. Or they did this for me.
Virginia, Glenn, Murray, my father, Ned, Jake and Ike, even Mike and Susy — and so many more from my own early days in Eureka, which coincided with my own long-gone youth. All shaping forces.
And how did they shape me? They taught me about love: some by what and how they lived, some by the opposite.
HEAVEN. OR NOT.
When my father died, oh how I longed to be able to believe in an afterlife; to believe that we could meet again, talk again. What a comfort that would have been!
When I lost my beloved husband, Ned, I felt that same longing surge and batter the walls of mind and heart.
I know Joe’s extended family and friends mostly believe in an afterlife. I hope and feel certain that they find deep and reassuring comfort in this, in the face of his loss.
But I cannot, with personal integrity, hold the belief that there is any heaven and hell save what we create for ourselves and others here on Earth. And that is why I am saying my farewell here, in this story, and why I did not go to the memorial at Faith Christian.
TO THE TWO OF THEM
Oh, Virginia. Writing this story sent me to my own archives, where it turns out I had a file on you. I found and reread the letters you sent me, felt, across the years, finally fully understood the extent of your hopes and wishes for me.
Once, when I was recovering from that surgery, you wrote me, “While you are recuperating try make peace with yourself – it is the greatest satisfaction one can know. I am thankful you will be around to fulfill your potential, which can be a wonderful thing for all.”
Virginia, it took me until I was nearly as old as you were when we met, to truly, consistently, be at peace with myself, and in equipoise.
I think you’d be pleased at how I turned out. I am sad that you died without knowing.
Oh, Joe: that photograph your son has posted. You’re in profile, facing right, fishing rod in hand, looking out over Beaver Lake. In the sky behind you is a rainbow. You look so very much at peace, too, glowing with a quiet reverential joy.
The definitive answer on afterlife will come to all of us directly soon enough.
But I can say that in our, in my, difficult bittersweet precious earthly life, you, Virginia Carey, and you, Joe Head, each so dear, each so much yourselves, brought me closer to the stuff of heaven.
I raise a delicate sky-blue Occupied Japan tea-cup full of hot brewed tea to both of you, who kindly schooled me in love: in acceptance of one’s self and others, in becoming lovable… as in able, slowly, to love.