It started with a picture. A photograph from 1973 than went with an article in the now long-defunct Georgia Gazette. It’s of Sam Thorsen and me on the back porch of my parents’ house on Perry Street–the office of our neighborhood newspaper The Downtowner. We were 14 then. I hadn’t thought of that photo in years and yet when I saw it again recently the memories of that time came back so clearly I wondered if they were real. It was almost like seeing a photo of strangers and imagining for them a plausible backstory, but this was my story, our story.
Sam and I were effectively the same age, he was born in November, I, in December. So he was one month older. That month was a big deal then.
He was the youngest of three with John and Leslie before him. I was the middle son of three. My brother Ruskin was two years older and Graham would have been about three then.
The Downtowner was one of our good ideas in a time when our ideas were generally less good than mischievous like maybe pool hopping at the DeSoto Hilton, or swiping cigars from Elliotts and smoking them on the roof of Sam’s carriage house, or building a fort in an abandoned garage.
And, downtown Savannah was hairier then and smellier. There were more bars, at least one on nearly every square and more scattered between. Harry’s and the Basement were within a block either way of my house and a liquor store was on the corner of the lane. It was not unusual for me and Ruskin to go out to the car for school and find a drunk sleeping in the back seat or under the back steps. There was also the guy who used to regularly sleep under our front stoop. He would help himself to our milk that was delivered twice a week from Starland Dairies.
There were little grocery stores, confectionaries, shoppettes; Joe’s, on Barnard right around the corner from the Thorsen’s house on Gaston. Joe sold individual cigarettes as well as seasonal fruit. My grandmother who lived at 10 W. taylor St. would give us dimes to spend at Mrs. Dolgoff’s down the block on Whitaker. Our favorite, Aunt Lee’s, was on Barnard and Jones. The couple that ran it got held up a couple of times, She was shot once, but they still stayed. We liked them because they had good candy and sold us illegal fireworks smuggled in from Hardeeville across Talmadge Bridge. We got firecrackers and bottle rockets and M-80s that could really do number on a mailbox. They also sold us cigarettes if we told them that they were for our mothers.
So there were municipal benefits to our publishing a newspaper. Although it’s run was less than two years, The Downtowner was popular. At the end we had a distribution of about 200. The Savannah Morning News ran a story on us. We were on TV. Both the CBS and NBC affiliates had morning talk shows and we made both. Sam and I enjoyed the attention and had fun with the paper. We wrote and edited articles on old manual typewriters. We sold ads mostly to the shops newly sprung on River Street. I could hear Sam always the pitchman working those grown ups. He could sell and I learned from him. I copied his pitch and we sold space. A business card for five bucks.
Every two weeks, Sam and me on our Schwinn Racers delivered our latest edition soliciting ads along the way and never passing up an opportunity to pedal to the top of the Levy’s parking deck and fly back down. So many memories, too many.
John emailed the photo to me a few weeks ago.
He brought his family down for a visit in April. We got together a couple of times, had a meal and we all met up on River Street for coffee and to let me take a few photos of them before heading back to their home on Long Island. Savannah sticks with you. We talked about Sam and reminisced about how lucky we were to grow up as we did in Savannah. we laughed about the Hellions a would-be street gang and their leader who gave his name as Nookie. He ran his show out of his grandmother’s house on Taylor Street right under the I-16 offramp. The Hellions were around and every now and again one or more of us would get in a situation with one or more of them. I don’t recall any serious injuries on either side. But we laughed, John and I. And I took some photos. The best, a snapshot really was of them on Factor’s Walk with the old Ola Wyeth branch of the library in the background. Memories on memories, new reminders of things long past and those more recent.
Pictures. I sent my photos to him and he sent back the one of Sam and me.
Then, Leslie (Thorsen) Bensley and her husband Charlie, came down from Jersey in May for a wedding. We got together a couple of times. And I took a photo of them, happy and in Savannah. It had been her who sent the Downtowner photo to John and then he sent it to me.
Sam died too young in 1990. He was an early casualty of AIDS. Ruskin, too, died too young in 2012. He collapsed in a hot yoga class and was dead before he hit the floor. The EMTs restored his pulse, but he never awoke. We had to let him go a few day later.
But we have the pictures and we have the memories and that is a start. And we will always have them and our brothers live in our hearts as big as life and bigger. And we know. We always know.