Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Buck Naked in McCorkleville -- Part I

I can pinpoint the exact moment when my relationship with Miss McCorkle, my elderly landlady in Charleston, S.C., during the early 1980s, went from barely civil to Civil War.

It was during a late-afternoon summer squall, causing the shutters outside my second-story apartment window to suddenly bang violently against her pink Gingerbread Victorian house. At that moment, I was buck naked, packing furiously for a trip, and yet I knew I had to do something right then about that damned air conditioner window unit. But more on that later.

I had come to live in Miss McCorkle’s home, which I decided to call "McCorkleville," under less dramatic, though still urgent, circumstances. It was the spring of 1982, and I had just accepted a job at the News & Courier in Charleston. The pay was minimal, but I was thrilled to be moving to Charleston, a jewel box of a Southern city.

I had only one weekend in which to find an affordable apartment, and I was determined to live in Charleston’s expensive but beautiful historic district. Having combed through the newspaper classifieds (remember them?) for unfurnished apartments, I found nothing remotely within my budget. Then I spotted an ad for a furnished apartment in the historic district, which promised to be ‘reasonable.’ Though I owned a full set of furniture, I dialed the number. Miss McCorkle answered my call almost immediately. I asked a few questions, then inquired about the rent.

“I don’t believe in discussin’ money over da phone, don't you know,” came the answer. She spoke in that curious old Charleston accent—a bit of Gullah (that curious Southern sea-island dialect) mixed with what sounded like a twist of Boston Irish, with a twinge of German thrown in to keep me completely confused.

Miss McCorkle agreed to show me the apartment and gave me the address. The house was in a prime location, in the lovely and (back then) untouristy Ansonborough neighborhood. It was the only Victorian on the block, if not the entire neighborhood. I had already learned that true-blue South of Broad Charlestonians regarded Victorian architecture as vulgar and desperate for attention, like a heavily rouged spinster.

6 Wentworth Street--formerly "McCorkleville"
I rang the doorbell. Presently Miss McCorkle materialized behind a parted front-door window curtain, her mouth forming a small ‘o.’ She appeared, at first blush, to be a heavily rouged spinster herself. “Come in, come in,” she said, impatiently ushering me into her parlor.

Miss McCorkle was blue-haired, bony, and wiry, with a long thin face that often contorted into an expression resembling an exclamation point. If some Hollywood studio had had the poor judgment to make a movie about a senior-citizen Popeye, Miss McCorkle would have been ideally cast as the octogenarian Olive Oyl.

I stole a few furtive glances around the McCorkle parlor. The shutters were closed tightly, blocking out as much of the afternoon sun as possible. Dust particles danced in the few cracks of sunlight that managed to break through, galvanized by the softly whirring blades of a World War II-era fan sitting atop a lace-doily-covered table. A complete tea set was laid out on a center coffee table, with four white porcelain cups, a small fissure in each one. Upon further examination, I noticed the tea pot was cracked, too. Miss McCorkle noticed me observing her tea set. I expected her to ask if I’d like some refreshment.

“You married?” she asked. Oh, how I hated it when little old Southern ladies asked me that question. 

“No ma’am,” I replied. I'd been with Nick for about a year at this point, but for obvious reasons, made no mention of it.

“I never got married neither,” she said. “I’ve lived in this house all my life. I was born here. My daddy built it. He was from Germany. My mother, she was Irish.”

“How old is the house?” I asked. Judging from its Victorian style, I guessed the house was circa 1900 and, judging from Miss McCorkle’s blue-gray hair and ambered appearance, so was she.

Miss McCorkle ignored my question. “Let’s go on up,” she said, leading the way to the apartment, which consisted of the entire upstairs: a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, and an enormous bathroom dominated by a bear-claw bathtub with separate hot and cold spigots but, unfortunately, no shower head. The ceilings were about 10 feet high, the furniture rickety and uncomfortable, and the floral wallpaper faded and curling. There was a large  balcony, however, facing out onto Wentworth Street, as well as a back entrance.

Only at the conclusion of our meeting did Miss McCorkle reveal the rent: $175 a month. Even in 1982, this amount was an unparalleled bargain and my heart lept. She didn’t require a deposit or a lease, and she didn’t ask for references. I gave her a check for the first month's rent on the spot.

As I turned to leave, Miss McCorkle mentioned that her younger sister lived with her. “She was married to the mayor of Summerville,” she added with an exaggerated roll of her eyes. I wasn’t sure if Miss McCorkle was expressing disapproval of her brother-in-law, politicians, the town of Summerville, the institution of marriage, or all the above. “But he died and now my sister, she can’t take care of herself no more, don’t you know, so I got to do it.” This time, rather than roll her eyes again, Miss McCorkle moved her head from side to side to illustrate her displeasure--a look I was to see all too often.

Part II next week: Unearthly moans from downstairs, a disdain for strangers, and the first air conditioner confrontation. 

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  1. What a wonderful Charleston story! I will have to scope out the house next time I go downtown. Ansonborough sadly has become a bit more touristy yet is still a mix of old and remodeled Charleston.

    Cannot wait for the next installment!

    1. Thanks Colleen. You're right, Ansonborough is a bit more touristy now but still fantastic.

  2. Dang it, Jim! I was just getting into the story when you cliffhang me like that! :)

    Can't wait for the rest.

    1. Sorry, Claudia -- the story would be just too long for one blog post. Plus I love leaving people hanging...

  3. You know, of course, that this is the great beginning to a slasher movie, right?

    I can't wait to learn more about Miss McC and the great a/c battle!

    1. JuJu, I was thinking more along the lines of "Hush...Hush...Sweet Charlotte" or "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"

  4. Uh, hello, I am waitinggggggggggggg??!! :-)