by Pat Lynch
Our first house in East Sacramento was on 56th street—a shady, modest rental, a good place for kids. One day I, age four, was confined to the living room, my punishment for running naked down our street, an offence you’ll be relieved to know I have not since repeated. I gazed forlornly out the window at my sister, Kathleen, who brought flowers and little bugs to show the baby, Moira, who sat in the playpen. Mr. Tanner came up the walk and my mother went out to meet him. They paused to smile down at Kathleen. Mr. Tanner said, “Look at those beautiful eyes,” and, “I swear, that child has pink hair.” It was true. Kathleen’s bounty of hair was strawberry blond and under certain slants of the sun it turned from red/gold to pink. It pained me to hear Mr. Tanner praise my sister, who had along with everything else, a perfect sprinkling of freckles. Everyone liked Mr. Tanner, but I loved him, loved his deep laugh, loved him in his suits with the almost invisible stripes, his shiny shoes, the important array of pens on his inside pocket, loved everything about him—and here he was, carrying on about Kathleen and her hair and her big fancy eyes.
He came into the house with my mother. “We don’t have to put up with these speed fiends,” he said while my mother signed his latest paper. He saw me sulking, fully clothed now, on the couch. “Is Somebody confined to quarters?” he asked my mother. “Somebody is in Durance Vile,” my mother said. What today is called Time Out and older generations called Getting in Trouble my mother called Durance Vile. The phrase originated somewhere in medieval British literature and it meant, broadly, punishment and isolation. In our house when you were in Durance Vile you couldn’t go out to play. I usually felt that I was placed in this status unjustly though I was beginning to realize that I lacked some of the simpering goodness possessed by more docile kids. Mr. Tanner sat down beside me. He told my mother he needed a helper to walk with him and deliver his papers to the rest of the block. “Up to the stop sign and back,” he said. “I need somebody who’s fast.” My mother made a frowning show of resistance, then said that if I was good, very good, and held Mr. Tanner’s hand when we crossed the street, and did what he said, I could go.
Liberation. And Mr. Tanner to boot. Holding his hand, head high, I strutted down our little walk, past Kathleen with her fluffy pink hair, through the small wooden gait and back to the freedom of the street. The mothers on the block signed Mr. Tanner’s papers. If nobody was home I left one of his cards in mailboxes that were low enough to reach. When we came to a corner house on M Street a couple of ladies came out to greet him and before long a cluster formed. In the group were two of the big girls of the neighborhood, a six year old and seven year old who roller-skated on our street and were allowed to chew gum. Is this your little helper? the mothers said of me. “This is my Chief Assistant,” Mr. Tanner said, and a respectful murmur came up from the ladies. I felt instantly as tall as the seven year old. Mr. Tanner had no wife or children but now he had me, a Chief assistant. Then they talked about traffic. Something had to be done. People drove like maniacs. Nobody at City Hall would do anything. “Bunch of lazy nincompoops,” one tall, especially vigorous lady said, freezing the phrase into my brain forever. I learned that speeding drivers were not only fiends and maniacs, but demons as well. Maniacs, fiends and demons: it seemed noble work to rid our streets of these creatures.
It was marvelous being Mr. Tanner’s Chief assistant. I could neither read nor write but I gazed at his papers with a look of solemn understanding. When I got home I did not bolt into the back yard to play around the apricot tree but sat with dignity on the couch. Mr. Tanner told my mother I was a great help to him. Then he and my mother talked on and on about the traffic and now I really wanted to run out back to play. But I stayed put so Kathleen could see how grand I had become, sitting around with the grown-ups.
Our father came home from San Diego where he had been on some kind of Navy trip. He said 56th Street in Sacramento California was the most beautiful spot in the universe. I told him about Mr. Tanner and he said, “Does he come around a lot? Is he trying to be your mother’s boyfriend?” My mother laughed and said Mr. Tanner was a pain in the neck to the powers that be because he was trying to do something about traffic. Then she said she would run off with no boyfriend unless Ray Milland drove up in his sports car. I knew Ray Milland was a movie star, and unlikely to pull into our driveway, but who or what were ‘the powers that be?’ What was City Hall? Was it a hall like ours with two bedroom doors? Where was the Navy? What was a nincompoop? Before I could ask our father wondered if it was safe to allow me to distribute leaflets with Mr. Tanner, and my mother said, “Yes. I know a good person when I see one.”
Our father met Mr. Tanner the next day and I continued as Chief assistant. One day we put blue papers on the odd numbered porches, yellow papers across the street on the even numbered, and that’s when I discovered that some numbers were odd, and learned about the grid. Mr. Tanner was willing to answer questions. He said a city was like a house and the neighborhoods were rooms, with the City Hall being the den where the Dad figured out the bills. But in my house there was no den and our mother paid the bills and our father was often gone to the Navy. Mr. Tanner said that was fine and said my mother was a gorgeous, smart woman. He said the ‘powers that be’ were the people in charge of everything and sometimes they were good and sometimes they needed to be kept on their toes. But what did ‘on their toes?’ mean? Mr. Tanner usually smiled; he never sighed or rolled his eyes when the questions came. When we got home he always stayed to chat with our mother and they laughed and looked at pictures of clothes in the Spiegel’s catalog.
One drowsy summer morning I sat, captive, in a straight chair in the corner, back in Durance Vile. A dog yipped outside. Inside the tall wall clock ticked interminably. A sudden screech of breaks startled us, followed by a harrowing, high-pitched scream, a long one. Shouting at Kathleen and me to stay inside, our mother ran out the door. Kathleen and I climbed up on the couch and looked out the window. The seven-year old girl lay in the street, arms cast wide, wailing. Doors snapped open and mothers ran to the child. Mr. Tanner came in a lope from around the corner. In seconds we couldn’t see the girl any more because the crowd of hovering adults hid her. But we could hear the screams. Then the ambulance, shrill and somehow reassuring, then the police, two cars. A woman was helped into the ambulance after the child. I don’t remember who ran over the seven year old but I heard a grownup say it was a woman in a hurry.
Mr. Tanner came over that evening. He told my mother that the girl would stay in the hospital, getting a cast on her leg and having something done to her hip. Then he turned to me and said I was never, ever to run into the street. It hurt me to have Mr. Tanner speak so sternly, but I didn’t cry. I knew he wouldn’t stay mad.
I did cry in the fall, however, when he said he was moving to New York City for some horrible job doing some horrible thing. I sobbed and kicked the apricot tree. I said I hated New York City. He said he would always remember me as his wonderful helper and friend. I said no, no, no, and wept, and yanked towels from the clothesline and threw them on the grass. Later I stood stiff as a board while Mr. Tanner gave me a goodbye hug and a little kiss on the forehead. There was no Durance Vile after the tantrum and that night my mother let me stay up late and color. In October I got postcard from New York, a glossy picture of giant buildings. My mother said that one of them was City Hall.
I don’t know anything more about Mr. Tanner. He was my mother’s age so he must gone now. We moved to 42nd Street, then left East Sac for the suburbs when I was twelve. I didn’t return until I was in my forties. When I retired I became conscious of neighborhood issues, especially traffic, and joined East Sacramento Preservation. Here I met a number of people who revived that old memory of Mr. Tanner. Activists. Some of them might be called pains in the neck to the powers that be, and all of them have a developed sense of community responsibility. I don’t always agree with everyone on every issue or tactic, but I respect and like each of them. In that way, at least, I am like my mother: I know a good person when I see one.