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Adventures with Clarence: names, recognition (1st of an indefinite series - 3/27/21)

Updated: Apr 4, 2021

In the mid-‘80s, my guitar, Clarence, and I opened for a comedian in Charlottesville, VA. My law-school roommates and I had seen him on Letterman, and we looked forward to hearing his set. After my handful of covers, the comedian came out from backstage and graciously kept the crowd clapping with several rounds of “how ‘bout that Mary Donovan?” (more clapping than I deserved).

This guy's a pro, I thought. He must have held day-jobs and moonlit his comedy-act for a long time, and appreciates appreciation. He made sure I got plenty, and I’ve never forgotten his generosity.

“Good evening, folks, I’m A. Whitney Brown,” he said. “Someday, I hope to be THE Whitney Brown.”

He was off and running in place. What a joy to watch him work the crowd from backstage, with his deadpan wit.

Coming from a large extended family, including other Mary Donovans – cousins, their spouses and children – I loved his opening joke. (Personally, I treasure being just one of those many.) It landed like one from Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner’s Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe in the late ‘80s, a show my sister Jeannie and I saw in DC. As the character Chrissy, Lily says, “All my life, I always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific.”

By that time, A. Whitney Brown had joined Saturday Night Live, and was more of the The he’d wanted to be someday. (For 10 years now, I’ve had a wonderful colleague named L. Whit Brown. His is short for Whitman.)

Names, labels, assignations, such curious matters. I once asked my mother how her Uncle Shake got his name, and she didn’t know; she’d only known him by that name, all her life. I tasked her to ask him at an upcoming picnic and she came back with a story. “So, he was both a football player and in theater class in high-school, and his teammates ribbed him by calling him Shakespeare on the field. Then just Shake.” No one called him anything but that since, and he was in his 80s. An even better story than I’d hoped for.

Most of my mother’s southern relatives were called by their middle names, often surnames from their ancestry. Uncle Spencer’s first name was John, although he was never called that. My mom was named Portia, but they’d always planned to call her Betty, from her middle name Elizabeth. Her mother, Lois, always used that middle name, not Alta. That, we learned, came from her female ancestor Alter Ego – no joke. Not sure if they called her Ego or Alter, but my grandmother thought Alta sounded more feminine, and changed it legally, even though everyone always called her Lois. To us, she was Grandmommy.

My hairstylist in the late ‘80s, Gregory, had a beautiful surname, Frangipani. With that name and his many talents -- cutting by day, and hand-knitting spectacular coats for wealthy DC women or whipping up a gourmet risotto at night for his longtime companion, Raymond -- I would bring up all things Italian in his chair. He knew I sang at night, drew and sold some animal portraits, and that my grandmother Donovan had told me we had “some Italian blood from your DeGrasse ancestors.” Sometimes Gregory would mumble, ‘also German’ but Frangipani was his identity. He’d grown up a military kid, mostly in Hawaii, where the flower grew, also known as plumeria. When the weekly Home section of The Washington Post did a cover story on Gregory and his own, carefully tended frangipani flowers, I asked him how they found out about him and his name/flower connection.

“I called them. Suggested it would make a good story.”

Loved that, his moxie! as they used to say.

Only after he died, one of too many from AIDS in those years, did I understand his name fully. All his relatives listed had a long German surname. So he had chosen the name Frangipani. Because he loved the flower, its sound, and Hawaii, and the idea of being Italian. In my grieving him, his obituary under the “F” names felt like a hug from him, who still lives within me.

My great friend from our teenage years, whom I met as Barbara, found she couldn’t join the actors’ union in New York with any combination of her given names, and had to think up a new one. Under time pressure and struggling to think of a whole new name, the answer landed: take two letters from each of her sisters’ names, and become Lyrysa. Perfect.

Throughout the pandemic shutdown, whenever I run into a kid on the street or in the woods, they start talking. (Outside a pandemic, I’m usually the initiator of a chat with a child. Now they seem starved for adult attention other than their parents’.) One girl, maybe 4 or 5, a couple blocks away was heading with her family to their car. She looked at me and asked, “What’s your name?” I told her, and she said, “That’s MY name, too!”

I looked to her mother, who nodded. “Wow,” I said. “I’m so glad to meet you. I don’t meet many young girls named Mary these days.”

She shouted, “But now you know meeeeee!” Yes, and thank goodness.

Baby names come and go, sometimes by skipping entire generations. How many babies in 2021 are named Linda, Susan, Karen, Barbara, Mary, Jennifer? But I have friends with girls named Camille, Hazel, Iris, Lydia, Mabel, Maybelle, Mercy, Esme -- all from a good century ago.

My Takemine (imitation Martin) steel-string guitar is named Clarence. His neck, frets and body are somewhat smaller than most, ideal for my hands. I bought him over 40 years ago, and don’t think I could play a full-sized acoustic now. Many people assume I named him after Springsteen’s saxophonist partner-in-song, Clarence Clemons. A good guess, even if not his eponym.

I got him during college when I realized people would pay me to sing in backrooms, and my nylon-stringed “Joe” couldn’t quite hold up his end. (I think I got $25 for Joe, from one of the guys in my dorm.)

At the hospital where I worked during and post-college, some of the names on the file-folders were hard to believe. When I asked, the special-ed teachers insisted these file labels referred to real, twin girls they had met and assessed: Syphilis and Gonorrhea. Maybe sounded like Phyllis … or that they just ‘went together’? Another file had the first name Won-Ton. There were many others. I remembered how the Chevy “Nova” had sounded great to the makers, but sold poorly in Spanish-speaking countries; it means, of course, “doesn’t go.” Names. Words. There’s no end to their mysteries and meanings.

Back in high-school, my boyfriend called me “Murphy” or “Murph” almost exclusively; I could never get a clear answer from him as to why. In college, enough people called me “Mary D.” that some thought my last name was “Dee.” And if you’ve landed on this website and seen the About page, you may know how I got nicked “Muffin” at a young age. In grade-school/Catholic-school, we knew a family in which all the girls were named Mary (Something), but were called the Something – Beth, Alice, Anne, Ruth, Rae, Ellen, etc.

My law-school roommates called me “Doc” at the time of A. Whitney Brown’s show. (Initials M.D., plus day-job in a hospital, and having come from the state of MD, postally.) Most of their friends had no idea my name was Mary. (“Doc coming to the party tonight?”)

Another summer gig with Clarence was also short, but in a less-expected venue: the Masonic Temple, “chartered in 1799,” in downtown Charlottesville. The Masons had reached out to the UVa entertainment office for a recommendation, someone to ‘keep the ladies occupied’ while the men-folk secreted away to conduct presumably Masonly business. They offered $50 for 20 minutes of entertainment, and the office called me. (Willfully, I did not wonder about the presumably Masonly things or those gender-based social tiers, back in the ‘80s. The tiers were so normalized then. Women had only recently been given the legal right to hold their own credit, thanks to RBG. And I was always trying to find gigs and save money somehow, pay down my out-of-state college loans.) Hourly, $150-per is still, in 2021, my highest rate of pay.

A couple of friends with a car agreed to drop me off and hang around the outdoor Mall.

When I walked into the Lodge carrying Clarence in his case, the Grand Master said, “Well, here’s the Lady with the Git-Fiddle!”

I had never been called such a name (before or after). Lady-with-the-git-fiddle vibrated all throughout my set for the women-folk. I’d guessed they might like Patsy Cline as much as I did? Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Leon Redbone – my grandparents’ kind of songs – some un-harmonized Everly Brothers? Whatever tunage I’d learned to pull off with Clarence and no formal guitar training. I added Carly Simon’s Anticipation, thinking they’d at least seen the old ketchup commercial.

The Masonic ladies sat so still and listened so politely, I couldn’t read the hall at all. I was more used to people pouring beer out of pitchers, leaning into each other and talking, only half-listening to me, for many years. Inside our usual conversation-background bubble, Clarence and I felt comfortable. We preferred it! Even a couple of stools (one for me, another for my set-list and glass of iced-tea) and a microphone for each of us – if not an actual elevated platform – created a safe separation.

I know this sounds contradictory, but I most loved performing when it felt like no one was paying attention. When I was an R.A. in college and my 'girls and guys' wanted me to play for them right in our living suite, I would make them turn around and look out the window. Seriously, I wouldnt' (couldn't?) sing until they stopped looking at me.

Once I sang in the organ loft of a synagogue at my friend Myra’s wedding, a gorgeous song in Hebrew (“Erev Shel Shoshanim”) that her brother sounded out for me on a cassette. Something about coming together in a garden of roses, in English. No one could see me up there, besides the organist. I was only sound, and I loved being only sound.

Maybe later-night in a club or backroom, after many pitchers of beer, people would look up and beg me for ‘sad songs.’ I had plenty of those, too, in my repertoire. I understood how they wanted music to help them cry, about whatever and everything, whether beer-induced or however. How grateful I felt to serve as a conduit for that crying, with simple noise that my mouth, fingers and Clarence could make.

But I digress. Clarence and I filled up those 20 Masonic-ladies’ minutes with noise – I could say that. Afterward, the women clapped generously and thanked me for “something just for us, special.” To this day, I don’t know if they recognized or appreciated any one of those songs. Or how much that mattered to them.

I did leave the lodge with money to treat my car-owning friends to dinner; they found the whole gig (and setting) hilarious. For me, it was one more moment, on-stage, when I just wanted to bring something to friends I hadn’t met yet, to connect, with whoever was kind enough to sit and listen. No small connection, that. Like A. Whitney Brown, or any other performer, trying to relationship, to reveal ourselves and know others, somehow.

I couldn’t explain to these women – much less my own mother -- that my 6-string companion Clarence deserved half the money we earned together. She had pushed me and my older sister Lori toward piano lessons, but it didn’t ‘take’ for me. Lori took to the piano, but also helped me beg our mother to buy a $20 Sears “starter guitar” in Chicago, with a red-and-black body. Lori ended up shrugging about our guitar, but that -- I took to.

It was portable! I could easily carry that Sears guitar out onto the front porch, then its trade-in Joe onto a Greyhound bus from DC to Charlottesville, then put Clarence into the trunk of a swim coach’s car to sing at my friends Kim and Mike’s wedding, on a plane to sing at Scott and Joanne’s wedding, and down the road, across the Atlantic to play in the tunnels of subways in London and Paris. Part of me understood that already, in 4th grade, I think, holding that red-and-black starter-guitar. I just put my fingers where the dots were on the chord diagrams, and we made noise out on the porch, or when fewer people were home.

Clarence, adopted from a guitar shop on Elliewood Avenue, remains to this day one of my longest relationships, human, tree-derived, or otherwise.

I named him after ‘Clarence Oddbody, Angel, 2nd class’ – a character in a Christmas movie starring Jimmy Stewart. I had never seen the movie until college, when my friend John F. dragged me to that campus $1-movie. At first I protested, since I had to study for an exam, so thank goodness forever for his powers of persuasion, his kindness of heart, and understanding of true priorities. It really is a wonderful life. Having a life, at all. Thanks, John.

Since then, I’ve learned the human brain only fully matures around age 25. So much to learn, still, before then, without realizing you’re still ‘growing up.’

Clarence and I have had so many adventures, he’ll need another post or two down the road.

But in thinking about names and assignations, one more now from the Clarencepedia. Fast-forwarding to my return trip by thumb and rail in the U.K. and Europe.

When I realized being a teacher-aide and almost qualifying for food-stamps wasn’t a permanent day-job path, I asked myself, ‘What’s the scariest thing you can imagine doing these days?’ The answer rose, ‘Sing for people without any separation – no stage, no stool, no microphone. See if any sound can come out, from inches away.’ Honestly, I was not sure any sound would come out.

I landed first in London and fairly quickly made back the expenses of my trip. The scariest thing I could imagine doing -- popping open the hinges of Clarence's case, lifting his strap over my head, then opening my mouth to sing, just inches away from passersby? Scary only for a minute or so. Then the hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of our making noise together took over. We made noise, like always, but now people threw money at us in real time.

People there didn't treat buskers like beggars, like they had back home, but more like 'thank you for entertaining me on my way to work, school, a museum.' The Tube stations at Charing Cross and Tottenham Court were most lucrative. Even in the off-season for tourists, my pockets were bulging for exchange after an hour.

After a month there, I carried Clarence across the Channel on a ferry (the Chunnel was still being constructed) and found a UNESCO youth-hostel in Paris. Métro Odéon turned out to be my favorite. People in those acoustically friendly tunnels threw so much money at us, including 10-franc pieces (the Euro dimension was still being constructed).

I would head to a bank and hope they’d exchange my bulging pockets into paper francs, then take Clarence back to the hostel before I’d bop around the city for the rest of the day. At the front desk, students handled the check-ins each day. One in particular, I believe his name was Sammy, told me he was born in Algeria, now studying in Paris. Sammy would always ask how my singing day had gone. Between my remembered French and his modest English, we could chat, in the daily way you do with certain people (outside of a pandemic).

One day he asked about my guitar.

“Oh. His name is Clarence,” I said.

Sammy laughed; I’m not sure he was asking that, exactly.

Then he lifted his eyebrows and crossed his eyes. “Comme ça?”

Wait. Which tiny pouch of my brain twinkled at Sammy's crossed eyes?

“Le lion, Clarence?” he added.

Clarence, a lion, and cross-eyed.

Daktari,” I shouted, and laughed as well. Flashback to reruns from the late ‘60s, a TV show about a veterinarian in Africa. There might have been a movie, too, featuring Clarence. Wow, I thought, whether in Algiers or Chicago ... I’d forgotten all about that Clarence, and in the moment, all about Springsteen’s sax-player.

“Oui,” I said, “je me rappelle le show.”

I tried to explain how my Clarence was actually named for an angel in an older movie, starring Jimmy Stewart. “Connais-tu?” My desk-clerk friend didn’t know the movie or the actor. He said he liked that my guitar had an angel’s name.

After singing for a couple of months, I needed to start using my rail-pass; I’d planned to tumble around the rest of France, Italy, some places I’d been and loved, others I’d never been to before. The risk of Clarence being stolen or injured was too great, once I started roaming by myself. And I’d made back more than the cost of the trip, so he could rest. I needed to trust someone.

Sammy promised he would take good care of Clarence while I was gone for a month. Sometimes you have to trust someone.

I tried not to worry while I ventured west to the Normandy coast, St Malo and Mont St-Michel, those stunning tidal plains, then south and over to Firenze, where I felt at home, then up north to Cologne, a Roman town inside German borders. I missed the feel of holding Clarence, his very vibrations, and regretted how soft my finger-calluses had grown. Yet I knew he was better off behind that desk.

When I got back to Paris, I went straight to the UNESCO hostel and asked for Sammy.

“Oh he doesn’t work here any more.”

My throat, my heart. All the internal organs. I couldn’t breathe.

“But. He has my guitar. My name is Mary –“

“Ah, oui. Yes. I know Sammy, he is a friend, and I will let him know you are back. Come back in two days.”

In three days I had a flight back home. I could barely sleep. In two days, I checked back and the new clerk, who told me he was also Algerian and studying in Paris, reached down and lifted Clarence over the registration desk.

Pretty darn sure I teared up. Totally sure I hadn’t really taken a full breath for two days. “Merci, merci mille fois!” I asked him to give my best wishes to Sammy, and to fare well himself.

I’m looking at Clarence right now, inside his case, across the room. By now, during a year of pandemic rootedness, I would have thought I’d picked him up more, worked up deep calluses again.

It’s not that I think of making noise with him as a part of my past. It is, but he’s a present companion, and I do sing constantly, even if in my head, to find a good pace in the woods.

Like most of us, I have multiple avocational interests, and there are only so many minutes during one spin of a planet’s axis. If I were to suggest to Clarence that writing this blog might be another kind of singing, he might grin and shut his eyes, settle in for another nap.

My friend Gregory Frangipani used to tell me, as I sat in his salon chair, “I’ve had to work hard to charge what my art is worth. No one could afford to pay me for the time it takes to knit and line a full coat like I do; it’s a labor of love. But I can’t undersell myself either. And you need to remember that, Mary Donovan!” He pounced both his hands on my shoulders, scissors pointing moonward.

As I wheel around the sun again and again, I have no idea what’s-worth-what. I recently received a new designation/label at work, which carried $0 more pay with it. Yet it somehow 'counts' for something. A true value seems rarely monetizable. But that lovely German/Italian flower of a friend still makes a point, for all of us who labor and create and relate out of love, whatever we need to express and however that feels right, within our tidal shifts of work and other work and moonlight.

My guess? The brain doesn’t fully mature even at 25, and that’s another gift from him, from beyond. One day I hope to make it to Hawaii, to smell those petals growing wild.

Thank you for reading this adventure with Clarence. However you do, sing out!

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