The Thursday Porch
Mathematics has always fascinated me, though I have never been very good at it. But the fascination has been such that over a period of many years I accumulated a rather good collection of mathematics textbooks, thinking I might dive into the serious study of math as a hobby in retirement. Well, I am sixty two years old now, and have been semi-retired for a few years, and this is the first time in several years that I have given more than a fleeting thought to my math books, and my potential math hobby. If I am going to study math, I really need to get on with it. A decision needs to be taken before this year is out, either get going on the study or write it off.
For many years, back at least to some point in my thirties, a constant theme in my life has been having to write off almost everything I ever wanted to do. I wanted to build a giant, full-basement-size electric train layout. I wanted to be fluent in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and a few modern languages, to include German. I wanted to build and operate a ham radio station, and read the collected works of Maimonides and Faulkner and Aristotle and Montaigne and Augustine and eight hundred seventy nine other authors, preferably in the original languages, and write my own operating system for the 80x86 chip family, along with some organ fugues. There is not time.
Shooting pool is one of the things I wanted to do and never did much of. But my fascination with it does not turn on gambling, or even winning. My fascination is with the physics of the game, and with the mathematics that we use to think about physics. The mathematics of pool apply number to space and time. The coefficients of sliding and rolling friction on felt, the gyroscopic effects of english on a ball, the difference between ideal and actual reflection off a rail, these are what draw me to the table.
* * *
The Newman Center on the University of Tennessee campus at Chattanooga occupied a former dwelling house on Oak Street, on the north side of the street, separated from the Cadek Conservatory by a trench through which ran a track of the “belt line”, a network of rail lines that connected warehouses, factories, foundries with the rail yards.
The old University of Chattanooga had been taken over by the University of Tennessee, which claimed that its intention was to keep UT-Chattanooga what UC had always been—a small liberal arts campus. Of course UT did nothing of the kind. It immediately began functioning as a galloping metastasized cancer, engulfing the area around its campus at an ever increasing velocity.
One of UT’s early conquests was the Canterbury Club, the Episcopalian student center. The Newman Center at the time was under the jurisdiction of a young, liberal priest, who, seeing Canterbury’s plight, invited Canterbury to merge with the Newman Center, which he graciously renamed the Catholic Center. Well, many Episcopalians think of themselves as catholic—I did when I was one of them—so the name worked pretty well. Until, that is, the Presbyterian Center was overrun by UT. They put out feelers for a new place, and, finding none, were also invited to move into the Catholic Center. But Presbyterians are in no way catholic and don’t like to be called catholic, and they regarded moving into the Catholic Center as their last resort. And that’s how the place came to have its third title, proudly proclaimed on a colorful sign out front, “The Last Resort.”
* * *
Ralph Moore was educated and suave and a few years older than me. He was also the chairman of the Black Panther chapter in Chattanooga. His political thought was based on Marxism. And he wanted to make a difference.
One way Ralph made a difference was by organizing an in-school hot breakfast program in some of the poorer neighborhoods in Chattanooga. He contended that a child could not pay attention in class if his belly was cramped with hunger. He may have been right, I don’t know, I never went to school hungry.
Ralph got many of his supplies for breakfast from grocery stores in the areas served by the Panther breakfast program. He and two or three members would speak with store managers and owners, explain their program, and ask the store to donate foodstuffs in damaged packages, past the expiration date, etc., things that could not be sold. Most of the stores were glad to help out. One was not.
In the poor black neighborhoods there was probably no city block where Ralph was not known in at least one or two homes, and he was highly respected. Especially after he got the breakfast program going. So when the Red Food Store on East Third Street declined to help the program, Ralph thanked the manager, headed for the door, and on the way muttered to an assistant, “Well, I guess we’ll have to shut ‘em down.” And he did just that. He and a few of his boys set up a picket line in front of the store, on the city sidewalk, and paced up and down carrying signs saying that Red refused to help the Panther breakfast program. The store did not actually close its doors. But its sales were painfully slender because the people’s respect for Ralph was such that few would cross his picket line.
* * *
Louis Kelly and I used to shoot pool at the Last Resort. We played eight ball, in a sense. Formally it was eight ball. But Louis liked the game for the same reasons as I did, and when we played we were prone to make, not the shots that would lead to a win, but the most interesting shots from a physics standpoint. Now “interesting” had a loose correlation with “difficult”, which is to say that a large portion of our shots missed and our games generally took half an hour or more. This made us heartily unpopular with those waiting for the table, who sometimes stood around making our play unpleasant.
In the spring of 1974 the Last Resort announced that the summer program would include having the Resort open on Thursday nights. There were to be organized activities, including discussion groups and bridge games, and lessons for those who did not know bridge. Contract bridge was another of those mathematical things I wanted to learn but never did. Louis shared my interest. Both of us thus looked forward to this expanded activity program on Thursdays.
Alas. The first Thursday night program came, and not a single scheduled activity materialized. Nothing was happening except for some guys shooting pool. That’s about all that ever happened at the Last Resort, that and a very good lunch every day and boys and girls necking in secluded corners (well, all right, in the chapel). The guys were hostile when Louis and I wanted to book our turn at the table. And I figured, the way things ran there, that pool was all that would ever happen on Thursday nights (which is exactly how it turned out). So I gathered up Louis and two or three more and said, “Forget this stuff. Let’s go over to my house and have a beer on the porch.”
* * *
At the height of Ralph Moore’s popularity, he qualified as a candidate for Public Works Commissioner in Chattanooga. But that’s getting ahead of the story. What happened at the Red Food was that Ralph and his associates were arrested. The associates had to be let go, since picketing from a public sidewalk is not a crime. But Ralph’s remark about shutting down the store had been overheard. Some prosecutor looking for a way to get a handle on Ralph saw in that remark the crime of felonious extortion. And that is what they charged him with, and they booked him, and they let him go.
That was some two or three years before Ralph stood for election. The accusation was placed in a file cabinet. When Ralph qualified for election, local powers feared what might happen if the Department of Public Works, whose employees were almost all black, fell under the control of a popular black leader. The old extortion accusation was retrieved and Ralph was summoned to court. He was found guilty of a felony, making him unable to hold public office under Tennessee law. He was sentenced to a couple of years in the state penitentiary. He never went there. The authorities put him in the county work house until after the election, and then let him out in return for his promise that he would stay out of Chattanooga politics.
I guess Ralph had more sense than I do. I, at least back then when I was less than thirty years old, would probably have refused that deal. Ralph took it. He was popular. He had been in line to win the election. Even after he was disqualified he gathered some four thousand votes out of a total of thirteen thousand. But he saw nothing to gain in Chattanooga, and he was interested in working for the Party headquarters in Oakland, and that’s where he went after he finished a degree he was working on.
* * *
Old General Frazier had lived at 516 Vine Street until the end of his life. After his death his widow, Margaret, moved to Signal Mountain. She had the old house divided into two flats, one of which I rented from early 1973 to late 1975. The lot on the west of the house belonged to the Siskin Foundation, which also had one of its buildings on the east side. Beyond that were the conservative synagogue and the old AFL-CIO Labor Temple. How I regret never seeing the interior of either of those two fabulous places before the university overran them, not to mention failing ever to go to a synagogue service while I had the chance.
It was to the porch of that house that my little band repaired when we left the Last Resort. We popped some corn and had a few beers and just had such a great time that we said, “Let’s do this again next week.” And we did, and the week after that, and the thing evolved into a sort of coffeehouse.
We developed minimal ground rules. Each week I made plenty of popcorn and iced down one case of Pabst Blue Ribbon (in returnable bottles, the cheapest thing I could get). Any other food or drink had to be brought by the guests. No one was to enter the house except for a visit to the bathroom. Exuberance and enthusiasm were encouraged; getting drunk was not. Use of marijuana or any other drug was unacceptable.
Anyone willing to adhere to the rules was welcome, and was welcome to invite others. We never knew who would be on the porch. Harry Geller (the son, not the psychiatrist) was there frequently and he delighted in calling at passers-by, inviting them in. Some accepted. The conversations were as variable as the people.
At this remove I remember only one conversation from the Porch. That was the night David Hawley came. Hawley was a young lawyer who lived on Lookout Mountain and practiced in Chattanooga. I faintly seem to recall that he was in the firm Kefauver had once practiced in, but I may be wrong on that. David was unapologetically conservative, what would be called “paleo-conservative” now. He was the chairman of the local chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution.
About as opposite as you could get, politically anyway, from Ralph Moore, who showed up not long after David did. Davis Gunn had invited Hawley and I invited Moore, and it was not by accident that they were invited for the same night.
That was the one night, out of two years, that all the talking was done by just two men. An arch-conservative and an avowed Marxist. How I wish I could have recorded that conversation, or that I had just made notes on it. They debated all evening, I’d say at least three hours, in well crafted phrases, softly delivered, both of them clearly euphoric as they sparred, thrust, parried, and all the other guests listened. I don’t know if Ralph and David ever met again. They certainly were friends by the time they left that night.
* * *
My companion at the time, Carol Robinson, met Ralph at a coffeehouse hosted by the YMCA in Chattanooga. It was just after he got out of the workhouse. The coffeehouse did not run late and when it was over she invited Ralph to come and meet me. It was the first of several visits, in both his home and mine, and I think the only one at which we ever talked about politics and Panthers. We became friends at a more personal level. I suspect my house was the only place in town where Ralph could just be Ralph and not have to be a Panther for a couple of hours.
Ralph, like me, was a single parent. He had two boys and I had one, all quite young. My son liked Ralph as his sons did me; they would climb me like a ladder when I went to Ralph’s house.
Ralph had the boys for half of each year. He was a native of Chattanooga but had lived in Oakland for a while and had married a white woman there, with whom he had the boys. He told me that they had loved each other very much, and still did. Their difficulty came in the fact that he was a Black Panther activist and she was a Communist Party activist. Both organizations were strongly against interracial marriage and had hassled Ralph and his wife until they split up. Knowing Ralph—a loving man, but one also committed to his ideology—I imagine it was a pretty hard experience. Perhaps they got back together, at least informally, when he returned to Oakland.
* * *
Tony Puckett spent some years as a long haul truck driver. In that capacity he met a lot of black drivers and soon found they were among the most interesting men he had ever met. Prior to his truck driving time he had lived in rural Tennessee, where there were no blacks, and he had something of an edge on him when he spoke of blacks. I used to say racially loaded things to him just to roil him up.
One evening he and I had been out to a restaurant in East Brainerd and were returning to downtown Chattanooga. At supper and in the car I told Tony the story of Ralph Moore. He had mentioned that he needed to stop by a grocery store. The timing worked out just right for me to take him deep into the black area, to the very Red Food store where Ralph had been arrested. We went in and I continued to work him, striking up conversations, flirting with the cashier. Tony was irritated but would not give me the pleasure of saying so.
When we left, just as we reached my car, another car pulled into the adjacent space. A black man was driving and a white woman sat beside him. Tony made my day. He got into my car, jerked his thumb toward our neighbors, and said, “There’s one of them Communist girls.”
* * *
Bill Raoul was the president of Cavalier Corporation, at the time a major manufacturer of soft drink vending machines. He was a serious Episcopalian and many a day he walked from the plant to Christ Church (a mile away) to hear the noon mass. He was also the ranking member of whatever the commission was that had authority over the Episcopal student center—one of the three components of the Last Resort.
One day we heard that the Episcopalian authorities were about to cut off funding for their share of the operation. I was an Episcopalian at the time and I wrote to Mr Raoul, defending the operation of the center and inviting him to lunch there to see it for himself.
He came; but it was apparent his decision was not subject to review. He explained it succinctly: the purpose of an Episcopalian student center was to provide the students with an anchoring spot for their faith, not to shoot pool and neck and play the stereo. He observed that masses were not said in the chapel and the Blessed Sacrament was not reserved there. There was no religious instruction or discussion, and seldom was the chaplain present. And that was that. The Episcopalian funding stopped.
Shortly after that the chaplain was replaced by Father John McVernon, a crusty old prison chaplain from Brooklyn, his magnificent stature crowned by steel-gray hair cut in a flattop, his person always clad in priestly black. And he made the same observations that Mr Raoul did. He set out to make changes. It did not take him long to decide that the student center ought to be an exclusively Roman Catholic operation.
I remember well the letter he sent to the members of the Presbyterian committee responsible for the student center. After citing his grounds in one tight paragraph, he wrote, “Now, therefore, in view of the above, I judge that the Catholic Faith is to be presented on this campus in a more traditional manner.” And he invited the Presbyterians to withdraw.
The Presbyterians requested a meeting and he granted it, and they were sorry. Did I say he was crusty? The ranking member of the committee started explaining what sort of decision Fr McVernon should have made. And he shot back, “Do you, a protestant minister, presume to tell me, a Catholic priest, that my decision was wrong?” The joint Catholic-Presbyterian student center came to an end.
* * *
So did the Thursday Porch, for the Presbyterian authorities bought the Frazier house and evicted me and the other tenant so they could use it for their student center. When we got wind of the pending purchase, and with the approval of Fr McVernon, I called Mrs Frazier and tried to get her to sell to the Catholic authorities instead, for the University was about to bulldoze their now exclusively Catholic center. But Mrs Frazier, a Catholic herself, would not back down. She said she would have much preferred to sell to the Catholics, had she known they were interested, but she could not go back on the word she had already given.
As for me, I found quarters in the Glenwood Garden Apartments, in the immediate vicinity of the Red Food Store, and lived there, shopping frequently at the store, until going to Atlanta in 1977.
* * *
The events of which I write occurred more than thirty years ago. I have written this account as I remember those events. I could well be wrong on many details. I do not warrant that my narrative is accurate. But I think it is not too far removed from what actually happened.
Two or three times I have tried to track down Ralph Moore, with no success. Even in an internet search I can find no mention of his political adventure in Chattanooga. His career seems to be all paved over now, as are the Last Resort, the Frazier house, the synagogue, gone, like shadows after the sun has set.
I told you in the “Bus ride” story that the passengers on that bus included a former Black Panther. At Abilene I overheard him to say something about having worked at the Oakland headquarters. I wanted to ask him if he had ever heard of Ralph, if he knew anything, but I did not want to butt in on his conversation. I went to find him at the next rest stop and could not. As with Ralph, I don’t know where he disappeared to.
* * *
I like catchy titles, such as “The Thursday Porch”. This essay was built around the title. I started out wanting to tell Ralph Moore’s story. But I realized before I ever started writing that I knew very little of his story, not enough to make an essay. But he did come once (at least, I couldn’t be sure now how many times) to the Porch; and if I mentioned the Porch in the essay I would need to explain what it was; and that led me to combine Ralph’s story with the story of the Porch, the two giving me enough material for a good essay.
As I was collecting my thoughts before beginning to write this morning (these last two paragraphs are actually being written first) it occurred to me that “The Last Resort” would also be a good title, since the Thursday Porch was, in a sense, born at the Last Resort. But I quickly ruled in favor of “The Thursday Porch”. “Last resort” is a phrase you have heard all your life. But you never heard of a Thursday Porch until today.
© 2008 Joseph Mansfield
2008.01.19 First draft