THE BITTERSWEET WORLD OF MR. ADAMS
Original Version dated c. 1963
CAROL AND I cruised slowly up the driveway for our first view of what would become our new home. It was a supremely idyllic setting, complete with an old wooden barn, a formal arrangement of boxwood gardens high enough to hide in, and a small greenhouse for year-round cut flowers to enliven the interiors of the stucco-over-fieldstone farmhouse mansion owned by our landlord-to-be, Howard Wolf. There was also a large pasture for a nervous herd of sheep and a chicken coop opening onto a fenced yard for the birds to strut about and peck with head-jerking, wacky looking determination at who knows what.
Mr. Wolf was waiting for us in the driveway behind the barn. We felt obliged to address him Mr. Wolf due to his age and station in life. Although this was the causal, early 1960s, he was dressed in a tweed sports jacket, dress shirt with button down collar, and a tie. We came to learn that this English Gentleman looking outfit was his usual costume as he went about chores on his estate and not meant to impress his new, young tenants. He dressed like this even when he was pruning his rows of raspberry bushes or tossing garden debris in the sweet smelling mulch pile. How else would a taciturn lawyer working in a prestigious Philadelphia firm appear on his estate? He looked at us with little warmth through very thick, out-of-fashion wire-rimmed glasses; a drop of mucous dangling from one nostril. The only thing that seemed discordant was how he referred to his rarely-to-be-seen wife. He called her Cupid. Carol and I often chuckled with the thought that Cupid was a more suitable name for a pole dancer. Her real name we learned was Martha.
Mr. Wolf walked us to the iron gate of our new house. The adorable cottage looked straight out of a fairy tale. It was an intimately scaled, cream-colored Victorian-style gardener’s abode with white trim, and dark green shutters. Two steeply sloping arrowhead gables sat above the second floor bedroom windows. A simple porch protected the front door. The house and its gardens sat behind a waist high iron fence that defined our rented area on three sides. We would be living in one small corner of Mr. Wolf’s seven-acre estate. In my youth, before turning to architecture, I had wanted to be a farmer so I immediately felt that through some divine intervention that I had come home.
Carol and I quickly settled into our new abode. Each of the eight rooms was about the size of the walk-in closets (10’ x 15’) in the grand Tudor-style homes that surrounded the estate. We loved the house’s sense of intimacy that we brought to life with a truckload of antiques and hand-me-downs, mostly from Carol’s parents who were instrumental in finding this very special place to live. The intimacy of it all soon led to the birth of our first child, Aaron; a cute, smart, funny kid with red hair, a bit of belly, and a stutter he would later outgrow.
One sunny spring day, Carol and I felt Aaron might enjoy some white ducks roaming the patches of lawn that encircled our cottage. Quite spontaneously we set out to buy some ducklings from the pet store on Old York Road in Jenkintown where we had previously bought tropical fish, a bird or two, a cat that gifted us with more kittens than Aaron could count, and a crazy Gordon setter than had an intelligence deficit and needed psychiatric care.
As we approached the beautiful old Friends Meeting House on Meetinghouse Road just minutes from our home, we saw a few white ducks waddling around under the big oak trees that graced the property. We drove in and asked a gardener where they had been acquired. He pointed to a gray, weathered building, or fusion of buildings, on the far side of the golf course, which wrapped around the Meeting House grounds.
”You’d better talk to Mr. Adams,” he said, “they belong to him. Just cut across the golf course and there’s a gate in the fence. He’s landlocked you know.”
Like eager children, we ran across the grass, leapt over a brook, circled a few greens and finally arrived at what might be called a gate. The pungent perfume of chicken, duck, dog and quite possibly human defecation suddenly hit us squarely. We looked around for Mr. Adams and finally saw him straight ahead of us, past a noisy chicken house, perched on top of a ladder tapping nails into several roughly sawn gray boards.
In a voice that was surprisingly full and clear with only a trace of disuse, he answered to his name then slowly worked his way down the ladder, unlatched then re-latched makeshift barriers of chicken wire and finally stood before us with a questioning almost suspicious look on his face.
As soon as we said we were interested in his ducks, he unlocked the gate and graciously stepped back for us to enter a long narrow yard speckled with poultry droppings. Carol hesitated, but I reassured her with a smile which she correctly read as infatuation with our discovery.
Mr. Adams wore two wrinkled plaid shirts. They appeared glued together with sweat and grime. Tucked into them at the waist was a dusty red tie that looked prerevolutionary. (Apparently he and Mr. Wolf went to the same haberdasher.) Snugly fitted to his head was a dark blue, inside out woolen cap with a few twigs caught in the weave. His face was lean and stoical somewhat emphasized by a three week old white beard. His nose was dirty, his eyes somewhat reddened and collected on one ear was a considerable deposit of dry blood. His knees were bent and bowed and his pants had never seen an iron since the day they were bought. His shoes were untied but we did not comment.
Carol later told me she was very scared seeing him close-up and I do recall her continually suggesting we return to purchasing the ducks from the pet store. She whispered to me “to let this busy man return to his work.” But I thought the old coot was beautiful and enchanting. I couldn’t leave. Whenever I see anyone who exudes an air of integrity, and in every detail of his existence, reflects an honest relationship to the life he leads, I am all ears and eyes.
When he explained he had no baby ducks available, we felt as though we should leave but as soon as I said, “The gardener down there said you were landlocked,” sweet Mr. Adams began his bittersweet story, a story so beautiful, so personal, so human, that this man’s filthy, disordered little world becomes loveable.
A yellow cat with an enormous head appeared in a small opening in the cinderblock wall of the chicken house. It sat down very slowly, as many cats do, and stared at us with a dumb, possibly retarded expression. I believe that his ugliness and his evil retardation might be contagious so that when Mr. Adams asked us if we would like to see the greenhouse he had been building, I felt relieved.
As we passed the cat, I circled wide as one would do in the vicinity of a venomous critter or a leper. We followed Mr. Adams as he unlatched then re-latched the rickety chicken wire barriers. We were now standing where we originally saw him up on the ladder.
We were then escorted into the main yard. Many ducks, a few chickens and several theatrically posturing roosters clucked and quacked and spread out in waves of fluttering feathers as we move amongst them. We turned and there in front of us was the almost complete and decidedly laughable greenhouse. As I studied it, I came to understand something of the beauty and charm of Mr. Adams’ world. For Mr. Adams was building his greenhouse out of a motley assortment of glazed window frames, no two of which were alike. In fitting them together, he no doubt encountered the same problem that one would have if asked to assemble a puzzle with pieces no two of which came from the same set.
The result can be likened to maybe a beaver dam. It had the same haphazard construction, the same rustic informality, the same hint of ingenuity and the same apparent lack of aesthetic consideration. But surprisingly, as does a beaver dam, it harmonized beautifully with its surroundings and in a sense became a living extension of it. I’m sure his poultry regarded this new addition with some vaguely defined sense of pleasure because sunning proudly on the roof was a rooster.
Mr. Adams then led us through a cemetery of empty bottles and cans to a rather sizeable pond hidden in a grove of trees. This was the single vestigial trace of what once had been a grand estate. Around the pond one could still see the crumbling remnants of Victorian monuments and pavilions, testaments of vast wealth.
It was here that Mr. Adams’ White Pekins and Muscovys exchanged informative quacks with the wild Mallards that stopped here every year alone their migration route. A scarf of daffodils and a few Siberian Dogwood shrubs encircled the pond. Mr. Adams broke a few flowering branches off the dogwoods and offered them to Carol. There is something moving and incongruous about seeing a grizzled old man with little apparent sense of beauty reveal his tenderness through a gift of flowers. Naturally we wondered whether there was a woman in his life or ever had been.
As we walked back from the pond, we passed an old blue truck with a coat of rust as thick as bark half buried nose down in what was once a mud hole. Now that we had walked almost all the way around what I assume was just the barn, I wondered where Mr. Adams lived. He pointed towards something that vaguely resembled a porch. In front of the porch was a large rusted barrel filled with trash and topped with a dead duck. Carol and I glanced at one another.
In one sense Mr. Adams’ entire establishment was little more than a filthy, weather-beaten, disorganized array of rusting, rotting, reeking trash given life by an array of birds, a strangle looking cat, and a most unusual man. But much like the man himself and his grimy, wrinkled face, there was another dimension to Mr. Adams’ bittersweet world with its landlocked history and its own uncommon form of integrity.
Fifty-five years have passed since the recounted events occurred. Things have changed. Carol and I are no longer married but still close friends. Our daughter, Julie was born and is married and living in California. Another marriage for me has come and gone, but like the first, that friendship endures as well. Mr. Adams and Mr. Wolf are no longer living; nor is Cupid.
Sometime after Carol and I moved from the gardener’s cottage, the property was sold, the barn demolished, the cottage and greenhouse torn down and the boxwood hedges removed. The hedges had been brought over in 1740 by John Worrell who named the place after his wife’s ancestral village in Wales. Worrell, a man of importance in his time, bought the land from John Barnes, an English member of the Society of Friends and (perhaps his wife) Sarah Fuller. In 1684, William Penn had granted patents to the couple for the claims they had taken out two years earlier.
Tockington was replaced with an uninspired development of builder houses accessed from a cul-de-sac. It’s a place I never want to see again, even out of curiosity.
As for Mr. Adams’ landlocked parcel near the Friends Meetinghouse in Jenkintown, a recent search on Google Earth revealed not a trace of what once was the Bittersweet World of Mr. Adams. The beautiful Quaker Meetinghouse is still there but additions have been added to the original structure.
The photo I used for this post is not of Mr. Adams (I took none, but if I had had a camera with me at the time I surely would have.) Instead I used a photo I took in Ibiza, Spain around 1976 of a tiny man who, like Mr. Adams in many respects, also raised chickens. Although I spoke near to no Spanish, I managed to buy a half-dozen memorably delicious eggs. One such egg is visible in his right hand.
The first four paragraphs of this writing and the Epilogue were created in December of 2018. The balance was rewritten based upon a paper I wrote about 1963 for a creative writing course at the University of Pennsylvania while I was studying architecture. The story is true.