Lummox Journal

A Week with Hugh Fox

by Elleraine Lockie

This article was originally published on Centrifugal Eye

        I didn't know which gender would arrive at the train station. He could have come as either: Hugh Fox, small press legend and renowned anthropologist for over thirty years, or Connie Fox, his alter ego and author in her own right who often appeared in the flesh. Slightly nervous, hoping a year's worth of e-mails would enable me to recognize the inner Fox either way, I arrived an hour early. As I waited by the passenger entrance door, I found myself getting more and more curious about Connie and hoping it was she who would walk off the train. I also reflected on the week ahead when Fox would be collecting information for his book, Portraits, in which I'm one of four female West Coast poets he studies.

        My slight disappointment at not meeting the corseted, red-lipsticked, stilettoed, big-haired beautiful woman I'd seen in a photo gave way immediately to concern when the tweed-coated and hatted mountain man before me mumbled (as he enfolded me in a bear hug), "Bad news, Pal . . . mouth's half paralyzed." Visions of a mad drive to an emergency ward and of a stroke or Bell's Palsy blinded me momentarily to the man who resembled a mischievous Santa Claus with no beard but with grey/white flowing hair, rosy cheeks, skin that would make a young woman jealous and a little-boy "foxy" twinkle in his eyes. His laugh was a sound that would resonate through my world for the next week, as would his well-acted charades.

        Driving to my home in Sunnyvale, California, Foxy told me about how his mother enrolled him in endless acting, piano and singing lessons as a boy, and how he performed roles in Chicago's All Children's Grand Opera Company – once with the Metropolitan Opera. His young life was filled with ballet, concerts, the study of violin and composition and art lessons at the Chicago Art Institute.

        At bedtime that first night, Foxy emerged from the guest bedroom wearing a bright red undershirt and red checkered pajamas. He said, "How about we go for a walk?" Off we went, him glowing like a fire hydrant and with a tendency to veer to the center of the streets, me black as the night in the sweats I sleep in and preferring to skirt the sidewalks. This became a nightly ritual, neighbors be damned.

        The next morning, Foxy sat down at the breakfast table in his tweed hat and blazer, pen and notebook in hand ready to get right to work. When I told him hats weren't required for breakfast, he responded, "My Irish grandfather said, ‘Always wear a tweed hat, me boy,' and I do." He was incredulous about the healthy breakfast I fed him (one I have every morning), and I later heard him tell one of his wives on the phone that I'd forced three pounds of oatmeal down him. It was my first live experience with Foxy's zany ability to exaggerate, although I'd had many an e-mail bursting with this trait.

        No, he's not a polygamist; he just stays emotionally close to his two ex-wives, as well as to the one to whom he's been married for eighteen years and together with for twenty-seven. Ex-wife Two lives in his second house three blocks from him in East Lansing, Michigan, and Number One comes to visit often from Kansas City. I could never tell by the adoring tone of voice (that always concluded with a bit of baby talk, like what I say to my cat) just which wife or which of his six kids were on the other end of the line.

        After breakfast that first morning, we engaged in one of my rituals – one or two hours of writing at the local Starbucks. Here is where I learned that Foxy talks to EVERYBODY – people in coffee shops and restaurants, shoppers, streetwalkers... He'd try out all the many languages he speaks on each person, and if there was no response, he'd revert to English and say something different each time like: "How old do you think I am?" or "As your priest, I want you to get down on your knees and thank God for this beautiful woman you're with."

        People reacted in vastly diverse ways: some picked up immediately that he was just having fun and would reciprocate. Others were polite but firm, like the woman who told him that her husband, who was in the bathroom, was very jealous so no, Foxy shouldn't pretend that he was an old boyfriend. Still others looked around for a fast escape route.

        His favorite audiences were people of ethnicities different than his, and he'd always try to guess their nationalities. One extremely thin, dark-skinned woman (Foxy was sure she was Ethiopian) ran out of Trader Joe's after he said she should follow him around and buy what he did if she wanted to be skinny. He was so bothered by her reaction that he talked to the store manager about her, imparting his suspicion that she ran away because, maybe, she was an illegal immigrant or a shoplifter. She was still on his mind the next morning and, with almost childlike befuddlement, he considered her behavior strange.

        He saved his best antics, though, for my friends and acquaintances when I introduced him. He would become suddenly both blind and mute, staring straight ahead and putting his limp hand out for my help, much like a puppy's paw-shake. Or he'd have some other less-definable-but-serious ailment. It was always a surprise.

        Lunch on that first day was at a deli en route to the Hakoni Gardens in Saratoga where we were going to write haiku. Foxy said to the waitress, "This is my daughter. We have to eat out because I'm afraid she'll poison me to get my money." When she looked over at me sternly, I rolled my eyes. Still, by the end of lunch the girl felt so sorry for him that she'd pat him on the back every time she walked by.

        Later in the Gardens' Zen-like gift shop, two women employees were loudly and brashly discussing inventory. Foxy turned to me and asked if he should tell them they'd just ruined the whole peaceful experience of the Gardens, and I said no. He told them anyway. No joking this time.

        He was also serious over dinner that night when he emerged as Professor Hugo Fox, Ph.D. in American Literature, and discussed the eighty-plus books he's published (including the first book written about Charles Bukowski and Lyn Lifshin) and detailed his numerous archeological discoveries. The Professor stayed around for the evening, sharing his life story in immaculate detail: a mother who at times dressed him in girls' clothes and immersed him in the arts before demanding later that he become a physician like his father.

        The teen-aged Hugh wore nothing but English and Harris tweeds that his mother had tailor-made: pants, suit coat and cap (all scratchy). He always carried a leather briefcase and later smoked a pipe. A regular Sherlock Holmes. This elicited taunting from the other boys at school. He developed a stutter at fifteen that lasted for years, which is now hard to believe he ever had, given his extremely extroverted personality.

        He purposely flunked out of medical school to pursue what would eventually be a professorship at Loyola University and University of Michigan, with interspersed Fulbright Fellowships taking him to Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil. He received grants to study in Argentina and Chile. He lived in Spain, made yearly trips to Peru and visited ruins in every South American country.

        He was the first person to recognize Phoenician writing on pots in Peru and statues in Bolivia, Sumerian writing on other Bolivian statues and pictures of Lebanese goddesses on pots from tribes in Mexico. Then he correlated all these discoveries into one theory that rocked the world of archeology. While here with me, he found twenty-some of his books at Stanford University Library.

        He also talked freely about his late conversion to Judaism and about Connie: Connie didn't survive the castration surgery that Hugh chose to have in an extreme effort to combat prostate cancer. Her clothing and personal effects lay boxed in Hugh's garage, and she is, for all practical purposes, dead. But her stories live on through Hugh and her books, one of which was released in 2005 by Presa Press. I believe Connie's story should be written by him, rather than me. I'm sorry I missed out on this her part of him; I would have liked her.

        Now that he's in his seventies, Foxy said his preoccupation is with "death and how to get the maximum out of the little time we have above ground." I can attest that he lived this philosophy for the week we were together. Every following day resembled the first one in its serendipitous and often outrageous course.

        At Starbucks Foxy wrote twenty poems and a long essay over the week, while I worked on one poem, looking for that killer ending (It's easy to see how he has thirty unpublished novels, short stories, plays and poem collections). He tired quickly of my healthy breakfasts and turned to oatmeal cookies, Starbucks' maple strudel muffins and Butterfingers from a near-by store.

        New interests and talents radiated from this Renaissance Man. There was nothing he wasn't interested in learning, and more than a week with him would have been required to even skim what he already knows. One evening I demonstrated my Yamaha player piano with its renditions of Chopin. After one of the Preludes, Foxy said, "Turn it off," and he sat down to play a virtuoso Chopin-like piece that he had composed. There are dozens of tapes of his original piano pieces at home.

        We saw and loved a matinee movie of The Queen. On the way home in the car on his cell phone, Foxy told one of his wives that I "ate popcorn like a horse eating hay." (I had to; he was stealing it.) He later declined an evening movie invitation from me . . . something about the popcorn. I went anyway (and ate popcorn).

        We took day trips to Monterey/Carmel, where his joy at being alive took the form of impromptu hugs on sidewalks and the holding of my hand as we walked. We visited and were visited by his friends and relatives in the Bay area. His dear friend and poet of many years, Karla Andersdatter, came to spend a couple of days with us and to attend Foxy's featured poetry reading in Santa Cruz, hosted by Brian Morissey (Poesy Magazine) and Christopher Robin (Zen Baby). Foxy is the only poet I've ever heard who can get away with stopping in the middle of a poem to chat or talk about the poem, then finish it and still have his audience's rapt attention. A true entertainer.

        We then drove to San Francisco to meet A. D. Winans, another small press icon and long-time friend of Foxy's. We arrived early, and while waiting, Foxy shimmied up to many a female bystander listening to street music and asked her to dance. The only one who would have accepted (me), he didn't ask. I was becoming a friend with whom he treated with no pretense, as he did also A. D. Their meeting was a pleasure to witness, like watching two bull elk from the same herd come to terms after locking horns (After a thirty-year friendship, the two had a recent falling-out over contents in Fox's most recent book). Foxy asked first thing, as we all sat down for coffee, "So do you forgive me?"

        "I'm thinking about it," came from A. D.

        It was clear to this observer that things are copasetic with the herd leaders once again. Honesty and, yes, affection that goes way back was unmistakable, albeit behind a mask of maleness. Besides, staying mad at Fox might just be impossible for anyone.

        He and I had only one confrontation. It happened right before his formal interview of me, which he had wanted to film with his new camera to be on a DVD that would accompany Portraits. I had told him previously that I wouldn't allow the interview to be photographed. He reluctantly agreed but then changed his mind as the interview in my living room was beginning. There was a fierce display of willfulness on both our parts. Readers will have to wait for the book/DVD set to see how it was resolved.

        Leaving for the airport on day eight held a sadness for both of us, lightened only slightly as we were going out the front door when Foxy said, "Wait, I forgot my cane."

        "You don't have a cane, Foxy." I said.                                                                     

Recently, Ellaraine Lockie has been to Kenya on a poetry fellowship, to Centrum in Port Townsend, WA, for a poetry residency, has received her tenth Pushcart nomination and just won the Elizabeth Curry Award from SLAB at the University of Slippery Rock in PA. She has a Rooftop Chaplet coming out from Adrienne Lewis' series and a chapbook from Patricia Wellingham-Jones' PWJ Publishing.