Easy Chair — From the September 2017 issue

Now and Then

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The present is by common definition the instant between the not yet and the already, a moment as narrow and treacherous as a tightrope. But you might instead define it as all that is remembered by those who are currently alive. A version of the now ends when living memory gives way to secondhand memory or recorded history — when the last veteran of a war dies, or a language loses its last fluent speakers. As long as such witnesses are on hand, the now is something bigger than it seems.

Which brings me to Mary Elizabeth Philips, whom I met in 2014, on her ninety-eighth birthday. A lively, gregarious woman, she was born in the South, moved to San Francisco in 1937, lost her first husband when he was killed in the South Pacific during World War II, was happily married twice more and widowed twice more. She had worked throughout her life — by turns as an accountant, an antiques dealer, and a real estate agent. Now she was being threatened with eviction; an investment corporation had bought her building and was trying to empty it out, one tenant at a time.

On the day of Philips’s birthday party, friends and people involved in the housing rights campaign crowded her modest apartment, which was filled with Asian antiques, photographs, and little notes about where household items were located and how they worked. Her neighbor, who worked at a public school and was also facing eviction, had told me that Philips liked strawberries, so I brought a strawberry meringue cake and not nearly enough candles. Philips, her hair an ethereal cloud above her animated face, sat in a bamboo chair in the middle of the clutter, reminiscing about the city she had known before the war, a city that I will never visit, though it is the same one I’ve lived in most of my life.

Each era has its own temperament, and one of the joys of listening to Philips was the gaiety and dash with which she spoke. The mood she communicated as she talked about her past — the impression of having met what arose with pluck and humor — was partly hers but partly her whole generation’s. Philips laughed when she described telling doctors that she was in such good health because she’d survived smallpox as a child. She blithely claimed to have met Bonnie and Clyde on a Texas highway during the Depression, recognizing them only later, via a picture in the paper. Wartime blackout curtains, she noted with pleasure, were green on the inside. She met her third husband when his chair collapsed at a party; as he lay flat on his back, she leaned over him and asked, “Do you play bridge?” He did.

Often her anecdotes drifted, as though she were browsing the pages of a disorderly album. On one of my subsequent visits, she was telling me about her habit of lingering with friends in bookstores, when suddenly she remembered a particular book she’d lent someone decades ago and never gotten back. Unprompted, she began to expatiate on its subject: Mary Ellen Pleasant, a black entrepreneur and abolitionist of the nineteenth century.

Pleasant was an extraordinary figure. She reportedly funded John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and, after the Civil War, fought in court to integrate San Francisco streetcars. She was a successful businesswoman at a time when both her race and her gender might have been expected to bar her from such a role, and late in life she was embroiled in scandals with members of the elite white society for whom she acted as a power broker and confidante.

Unsurprisingly, Pleasant was saddled with stereotypes. When she was seen as a deferential servant of whites, she was called a mammy; when seen as a dangerous player in white love affairs and financial dealings, she was a sinister voodoo priestess. Though Philips remembered her as a liberator, the book she had read was a 1953 biography called Mammy Pleasant, which indulged both clichés. Because Pleasant was not, as Lynn M. Hudson’s more recent biography puts it, a “clubwoman, heroic slave, self-sacrificing mother, devoted wife, or church deaconess,” she was excluded from “the canon of acceptable black heroines.” Her irreducible complexity, her unfitness for the usual categories of good and evil, meant that she was largely forgotten.

Listening in 2015 to a woman born in 1916 praise a woman born in 1814, I felt acutely the long reach of the present. It seemed, sitting there, that the city we both inhabited was a place full of overlapping gestures, of people looking backward and passing something forward, of the coherence of a storied landscape. It was easy to believe that something of the present would survive and be loved when it, too, became history.

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