Jul/Aug 2005 Nonfiction

Exodus for Some (A Memoir)

by Barry Southam

Broken glass crunched under my feet as I walked up the path leading to an old villa in Grafton. A front window had been knocked out and cardboard crudely shoved over the hole. It was a warm, early spring day in 1969 and I was looking for somewhere to live. Nothing expensive as I had quit my job on The Dominion months ago and the savings were almost gone. A hitchhiker I had picked up outside of Hamilton suggested I try this place and laughed when I asked how much a room would cost. "Just ask for Jim the poet. He'll sort it." When I queried the name, he confirmed that the poet Jim was James K. Baxter. (For the non-Kiwis reading this, Baxter was perhaps the best-known poet in New Zealand, celebrated both for his poetry and his eccentricity.)

The house had been elegant once. The solid front door had carved wood panels and a large brass door knob and knocker. No one answered, but the door was wide open, so I wandered in yelling "anyone home?" Lying on the hallway floor among the dust and discarded food wrappers was a speaker with its cord trailing along the carpet. I followed the cord to the kitchen where the player was still turning and put the arm back on the record. Nancy Sinatra started telling me it was a long way to Phoenix and what was going to happen when she got there.

I stood wondering what to do next. A loud bang and scuffling noise came from the walk-in pantry and then a rope ladder unfurled from a hole in the ceiling, followed by a pair of sand-shoed feet. The feet wiggled their way on to the rungs and started descending. A waistcoat came into view, then finally head and shoulders. A pair of blue eyes blinked at me through granny spectacles.

"Greetings earthling," said their owner.

"Good morning, "I replied. "Just dropped in, have you?"

"Hah! Not bad. Yes, I'm Magpie. You the new guy taking over from Jim?"

"No. I just want to rent a room."

"Ah, the rent," Magpie said as he swung on to the floor and walked out of the pantry, in which there was very little food. I waited as he scratched his ear thoughtfully. He looked about twenty, a rather disheveled young man with uncombed and knotted hair, wearing creased clothes that suggested he had slept in them.

"The rent. Something I must tell you about that, in case you take over."

"But I've only just got here," I protested.

"Well, someone has to. And ummm... I should explain about past arrangements. For me, that is. You see, I don't pay any rent because I'm not really here."

"You were just repairing something in the roof?"

"No, I live up there. Well, sleep up there. I've made myself a space by cutting out a few cross beams and putting some flooring over the joists. Bit cramped, but it does me. Rather drafty with no walls, but I've got a good sleeping bag. So that's why I don't pay any rent, as the room doesn't really exist."

"Which is why you're not really here."

"Exactly," he beamed, like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland.

"Magpie. That's an unusual name. How come?"

"I like collecting things that other people chuck out. And of course I have a nest in the roof."

Magpie walked over and examined the cupboards, which were as bare as the pantry. A battered, blackened toaster lay on its side on top of a stove that had not seen any Ajax for months. He found some stale-looking bread and put it in the toaster, then turned round and gazed at my suitcase.

"That all the gear you got?"

I nodded.

"Not much furniture here. But I suppose you could take over Jim's room when he leaves. You could have his mattress. He won't be taking it with him."

"Doesn't he have a bed?"

"Nope. Sleeps on the floor on a mattress. No chairs either. He's really into austerity. It's his new philosophy. He got busted for vagrancy recently, case comes up in a couple of weeks. He's waiting for that before he goes down country."

I asked Magpie about the "new philosophy." He explained that Jim had undergone a conversion from alcoholic to being a Catholic, but had sorted out his own version of Catholicism. Love was the new doctrine.

The house was a sort of one-man safe house, with Jim acting as a father figure, social worker, and spiritual adviser. There was a large turnover of tenants with new people turning up all the time to replace those who had gone back home, paired up and left, been put in jail for drug offences, or been admitted or committed to one of the city's two psychiatric hospitals.

"We get the lot in here," Magpie said, scraping a jar for some jam for his toast. "Battered wives, runaway teenagers, alkies, boobheads, hippies, pill heads and drifters."

He was interrupted by a knock on the back door. Two long-haired and bearded youths stood with packs on their backs, smiling engagingly. They said they had heard Jim was heading talking about heading south and just wanted to say hello if he was still around. Magpie pointed towards the hallway.

"First on the right. He's still in the sack. Long night."

The pair bounded up the hallway and hammered on Jim's door. He emerged bleary-eyed and straggle haired, looking much older than when I had seen him last. Quite a shock. The taller beard threw his arms around Jim, followed by the shorter one. The three then came into the kitchen and set up coffee cups. Magpie and I may as well have been invisible. Oh, well go with the flow, I thought, and began studying the inscriptions on the kitchen wallpaper.




There were also several poems written on the wall, one signed Hilary, another Jim, and many with no names attached. Critics were obviously lurking and not slow to respond. One poem with lots of beating wings imagery had scrawled underneath it "strictly camp."

Meanwhile the taller beard started pacing about the kitchen talking about going North to buy land with money earned from the hydro works, and then a tale about some Mangakeno Maoris who challenged them by tugging their beards and saying "What's this stupid thing growing on your face eh ? Why don't you shave?" and they had replied "Why don't you grow a beard?"

"We met the challenge, see," tall beard said. "So we stayed with them and drank all night and went out pig shooting in the morning. I've learnt about thirty words of Maori. Then we got stoned on Mount Ruapehu and I wrote this."

A crumpled piece of paper was handed to Jim who examined it with great solemnity and then handed it to me, for some reason. This was the first time he had acknowledged my presence. Strange bodies appearing in the kitchen was obviously the norm and required no formalities. I read the scribbled lines as their author continued to stride around the room.

"It's poetry," tall beard said, "but it's years ahead of its time."

It was. Incomprehensibly ahead. I nodded and handed it back without comment. After some further talk the two beards were off again. They were replaced almost immediately by an unhappy looking Maori youth who had come to talk to Jim about his problems. The counseling session continued in the kitchen, regardless of who was coming or going, or listening. Which was all I had to do, not having had a chance to discuss with Jim who I was and whether there was a spare room.

The young man had two major problems, as he saw it. He was a Maori and a homosexual. Jim listened then launched into a monologue. He assured the young guy that the Maori would always be strong on community and theology, and that the Pakeha would always be strong on technology and commerce. But things would get much worse and eventually the Pakeha would turn to the Maori to learn again how to live. He had visions of a new race born from a combination of the two, with the best qualities of each, and these would in turn influence the Pakeha.

Magpie snorted and said he could not imagine the Pakeha commerce leaders being influenced by anything but what they had been since the Romans first started minting the stuff. Jim nodded, and the young guy started looking depressed again.

"Ah yes, we always push our way to the head of the table. We can't help ourselves," Jim said.

For the rest of the morning various people who came to talk Jim, including some from the house next door, which was also under his wing and made up a sort of urban commune. There was much hugging and kissing and I was told later that the Russian style hugging between guys was being encouraged by Jim to break down the "puritanical hang-ups of the middle class about the body being taboo."

In a break between conversations Magpie confirmed I could crash in the lounge and eventually I could have Jim's room. His two women friends were also going to shift so they were reminded less of his absence.

"They look after him, they're very close," Magpie added.

Jim wandered back into the kitchen so I asked him about the house next door. He told me it was headed by a solo mother and was owned by the same landlord.

"But it will go under soon," he said looking at me with doleful eyes underlined by large black bags. "The people there have committed all the crimes that will send the authorities around, and they will take away her children."

"What crimes?" I asked uneasily.

"The crimes of the poor," Jim replied with a shrug. "They have no money, they have no jobs, and some of them smoke dope in their unhappiness. And if the authorities don't close it down, then it will collapse under its own weight. She has a big heart and turns no one away. Soon there will be too many on that one ship and it will sink. But it will stay afloat for a while, and give refuge to all those adrift who cling to it. And that is good."

"And this place? Same fate?"

"It is built of the same materials."

Well, I only wanted somewhere temporary. I offered him some money for rent in advance, but Jim just smiled and suggested I keep it in the meantime and then wrote down the name and address of the landlord. He seemed to be assuming I would take the job over. Magpie grinned a "told-you-so" grin.

I lost track of the days and weeks that followed as people had crises and partied on. So much happened my diary went into overload.

Sleep for me in the lounge became an increasing problem until a small room became available next to the laundry. An alcoholic buddy of Jim's, discharged from prison, took up residence in a borrowed room and added to the chaos by winding up some of the residents and moving in another ex-con of gorilla proportions to act as his minder. He was no respecter of Jim's beliefs. On one morning some lively conversation had been bouncing along until Jim announced he wanted to get up now and say his morning prayers so would we all clear off out of his room. No one moved, so he said simply "fuck you then" and went and knelt in the corner and began praying.

Jim's alkie mate promptly started making cracks about the "hotline to God" and then started bellowing "C'mon God, strike me down with a thunderbolt. Give us unbelievers a sign. I'm ready!" Still no response from the corner, so he told a particularly blue joke in a loud voice.

Jim just kept praying, then calmly got up and went off to have a bath followed by the two women. Much splashing and squeals of delight followed.

Finally the day came for Jim to attend court on the vagrancy charge. Several of us went down for support and to enjoy the theatre of the event. We were rewarded by him delivering an eloquent defense, maintaining that he was not destitute but earned money from his poems and giving lectures. The judge questioned him about his assets including the fact he had only a mattress to sleep on, no bed or bed wire.

"Sounds like no visible means of support to me, Mr. Baxter," says the judge, and everyone cracks up.

Back at the house after getting the charge dismissed, Jim finished loading his few belongings into a pack and tied his boots to the bottom. One of the two young women Magpie called "the handmaidens" came out wearing a black dress and carrying a cardboard box. She stopped by me and looked at me hard before finally speaking.

"You taking over Jim's room?" she asked. "You might like to pin this on the wall then if you're taking over."

She handed me a piece of thick paper rolled up like a scroll and then walked off. I unwound it to find some sort of Jim manifesto headed up NOTES ON COMMUNITY LIFE numbered one to twelve.

1. To hold the head up—no servility
2. To have and give—share kai and money
3. To speak honestly—no concealment among friends
4. To love and express love by the embrace—this cracks the paranoia, then the soul appears on the surface of the friend's face. The soul is always beautiful.
5. To avoid intellectual pursuits that are solitary—community life means a rapport with all members. Social intelligence is more important than academic intelligence.
6. To avoid the lust for special possessions—this always produces quarrels.
7. To let stronger members help weaker members—a small contribution is as good as a larger one.
8. To do manual work in common—preferably work that makes things grow.
9. To learn from the Maori—in any community respect advice of experienced members.
10. To let discipline be decided by group decision.
11. To have no intervention in disputes over sexual matters.
12. To have no use of hard drugs.

They were signed "Hemi"—Jim's new Maori name. Magpie looked over my shoulder inquisitively while I was reading and snorted.

"Looks like Jim has been up the Mount and is now passing on the stone tablets."

"But I only want a room, "I half muttered to myself.

"Should have about as much success rate as the originals," Magpie added.

"Why is he leaving?" I asked.

"Got too much for him maybe. Hassles with the fuzz, the rent, the power board. People freaking out all the time. Couple of weeks ago some whacked-out student went berserk with a knife and nearly sliced Jim's stomach open. Missed by inches. Doctor Dan had to come down with his little bag of tricks and pump the idiot full of tranquillizer. Can get a little heavy round here at times."

"Charming. I had noticed. That the only reason?"

"Oh, I think he had a dream or something as well."

Jim reappeared looking soulful. I did not get a chance to ask Magpie more about the dream as a group arrived to say their farewells and they also knew Magpie. For the next hour or so there was a solid procession of people coming to say goodbye. Finally Jim padded out the door in his biblical looking gear and bare feet with his pack and boots under his arm. A woman in a dusty Mini was waiting outside to give him a lift to the end of the motorway where he could start hitching. After one final hug he climbed into the car and disappeared up the road in a cloud of blue smoke.

Back inside all that was left in Jim's room was a battered and multi-stained mattress shoved against a grave headstone that had been used as a seat. In the corner was a lot of candle grease.

"Jim sure did a lot of praying," Magpie said, nodding towards the corner.

From the room next door I could hear someone weeping. Back in the kitchen a young couple sat with their arms around each other with looks of utter misery on their faces.

"Think I'll split uptown for awhile. Bit of paranoia around that the drug squad will bust this place soon as they hear Jim's gone," Magpie said, and headed into the hallway.

"Before you go, what was the dream of Jim's you mentioned," I asked.

"Oh, back to nature and the simple rural and spiritual life or something."

"Where is he going?"

"Somewhere down south. Place with the craziest name. I thought he was kidding, but it really exists. It's called Jerusalem."

The woman in the black dress sat on the front verandah sobbing quietly for hours.


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