it depends, after all

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Bill Galloway, a pharmacist from Rutherford, N.J., discovered recently that he is one of the last surviving links to a poem that has confounded and delighted readers for decades: William Carlos Williams’ brief, cryptic pastoral “The Red Wheelbarrow,” from 1923. Galloway, who is 86, lives in a placid back corner of Rutherford on Elm Street, the same street where he was born. A century ago, a peddler named Thaddeus Marshall lived a few doors down. It was in Marshall’s yard, the critic William Logan argues in the new issue of Parnassus, that Williams, who was a doctor in Rutherford as well as a poet, saw the red wheelbarrow and the white chickens that make up pretty much the whole poem.

On a weekday evening in early summer, Galloway was pleased to share what he knew about his neighborhood’s past, but sorry that the search hadn’t started earlier. “All the people that could really talk about this have been dead for years! I mean years! I don’t mean ten, twenty, thirty years. Forty, fifty years!” Galloway, who still works ten-hour days, six days a week, had just gotten home. He is wiry and energetic, with the manner of a much younger man, and he shifted restlessly on his flowered sofa. President of Rutherford’s historical preservation society, he is an avid amateur historian, attuned to the attrition of cultural memory, and keen to rescue what he can.

“My great-grandmother died at 110. She was born in 1840,” he said at one point. “She’d seen Lincoln. She told me old stories about the Civil War,” he said. “I was interested, I’d sit down and listen to her, but I never wrote it down. Who thought about writing things down? Biggest mistake of my life.” He has since done extensive research into his geneaology, including an analysis of his DNA. “I have a cousin, a blood cousin, who was an aide to George Washington. You’ve heard of Bonnie and Clyde? Clyde Barrow was my cousin.”

Though Williams mentioned the street peddler by name in interviews about the poem, calling him “Marshall,” Logan is the first to track down his identity and address. “I liked that man, and his son Milton almost as much,” Williams said in Holiday magazine in 1954. Elsewhere, he described the reverie that gripped him when he spotted the wheelbarrow in the rain in Marshall’s yard. Logan found, in the 1920 census, a Thaddeus Marshall with a son named Milton at 11 Elm Street; insurance records from the time show a sizeable chicken coop in the backyard.

Galloway found out about his neighbor’s role in the Williams poem through Rod Leith, a borough historian whom Logan had contacted. Though Thaddeus Marshall died in 1930, two years after Galloway was born, the Marshall family lived in the house through the sixties. In those days, “you learned everything at the dinner table,” said Galloway; he never heard his parents talk about Marshall. He remembered Milton, who smoked Lucky Strikes, and Milton’s wife. “They talked about her all the time, because she was a dancer at the Cotton Club. She danced for the Blackbirds of 1926. She was a beautiful woman,” he said. “They say that was one of the greatest dance teams in the history of this country. The Rockettes couldn’t shine their shoes.”

It occurred to Galloway to ask his neighbor, who had recently been interviewed by the Library of Congress. “He was at Normandy. D-Day.” He grabbed the phone. “He’s a little older than I am. He might know a little more about it. Donald? Donald, pick up,” he said into the receiver, and hung up. “He’s there,” he said. He ruminated for a moment on Marshall’s grandchildren, whom he had known; one, he said, had gotten her doctorate degree from Columbia University. “A very bright person. The whole Marshall family was very bright.”

The phone rang. “Hello? Donald? I got a lady here that’s interviewing me about the Marshalls. Did you know Thaddeus? … But you didn’t know anything about him, did you? No.” They chatted briefly about a mutual friend who had graduated in 1935, and then he hung up.

Thaddeus Marshall was born in South Carolina and had moved to Rutherford by 1900. Logan speculates that Marshall earned his living in Rutherford selling, by wheelbarrow, the chickens and eggs he raised in his backyard coop. (Marshall’s occupation in the 1910 census was “street huckster.”) Milton worked for the railroad. From his inspection of the census records, Logan surmises that the neighborhood was mostly white; Galloway, who is black, remembers it as the black part of town. “Blacks lived on three streets: Grove Street, Elm Street, and Wood Street. These three streets were blacks only.” Most, Galloway said, came from Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

And most came to work. “There were loads of millionaires in Rutherford, I mean legitimate millionaires.” Many blacks took jobs as maids, chauffeurs, butlers, or cooks, Galloway said, or they worked for the railroad or the post office. “Those were the jobs. White people didn’t want those jobs.”

“I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into my writing,” William Carlos Williams said of Marshall in the Holiday interview. Was it unusual at the time for a white doctor and a black street peddler to be, if not friends, then at least familiars? For blacks in Rutherford, Galloway said, “There was no place to go for doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs, or anything else. You had to go to the white man. The white undertakers in town buried all the black people … I was brought into this world by Dr. O. V. Wry, and he was a white doctor. I was one of his first babies.” There were stores that wouldn’t serve blacks, Galloway remembers, but, he says, “We all went to school together, we all played together in the streets.”

Galloway remembers a certain social harmony, now gone, that came from everyone being in each other’s business. “People do not socialize like they did years ago,” he said. “We’d come out on a hot summer day and sit on out on somebody’s steps, two, three people would sit together, kids would be playing hop-scotch in the street or jumping rope.” Most people in the neighborhood attended the Mt. Ararat Baptist church, in the middle of the block. Vendors of all stripes patrolled the neighborhoods: fruit, vegetables, the milkman, Dugans Bakery. “Every Saturday morning Mr. Vincent would be here with his green cart and his fish.”

Wherever the poem’s oblique emotion comes from, it works on readers like “a Rorshach blot,” as Logan writes. “The wheelbarrow is parents,” writes one online commenter, “the rainwater, their tears from raising children, represented by the chickens.” “There are red wheelbarrows glazed with rain water beside white chickens for all of us,” writes another, “and we just call them something different.” “This poem is clearly about a mouth,” writes a third.

For Teresa Marshall Hale, Thaddeus Marshall’s great-granddaughter, the poem is straightforward. “I’m extremely literal,” she said, reached by phone at her home in Roselle, N.J. From her own family research, she knew that Marshall had peddled vegetables and chickens from his yard. “To me it was just, this is what he’s observing about my great-grandfather.” She had read up on the poem since learning of her family’s connection to it, but nothing she read had trumped her view of it as a kind of family snapshot. “There are thousands of interpretations of that poem, and I’m like, ‘Y’all just don’t get it.’ ”

In Rutherford, the poem still has a low-key celebrity; a red wheelbarrow is chained to a tree in front of the library, and the windows of a vacant storefront in town are papered with an oversized copy of the text. When it turned out that Marshall was buried in an unmarked grave in East Ridgelawn Cemetery in Clifton, Rod Leith took up a collection, and funds for a headstone were promptly raised. The headstone will be placed in a public ceremony on July 18th.

And what did Bill Galloway think of the poem? “You know I didn’t read the poem? I don’t tell anybody that,” he said conspiratorially, running a hand over his head. “I’m supposed to know these things.”

A visitor offered to show it to him. “Yeah!” He slid over and peered through his glasses. “Oh, rain water,” he murmured, and then laughed softly. “Is there any more to it?”

After another minute or two of conversation he paused, blinking. “I used to play in that backyard. At one time, my best friend lived downstairs. The Jetter family.” He went on, “Pretty nice-sized backyard. I remember, very vaguely, chicken coops back there. But a lot of people had chicken coops in those days.” Mrs. Jetter liked to garden, he said, and the yard was full of flowers. “I remember sitting down there one Sunday afternoon and hearing them singing in the church up the street. You could hear the choir singing, and my friend and I were sitting back there playing a game.”

No wheelbarrow, by then. “I was sitting back there in the early thirties. It was gone.” He shook his head. “But that’s something.”

Lauren Puchowski