The Man Who Bought Me Records

The albums that I listened to in the night had come to me from Bill Bartley, a grammar school teacher who had taken a special interest in my education. I was in his class when I was ten years old but our friendship continued for years after that.

I began by helping him with yard work around his house, for which he paid me. He would come down to my parent’s Italianate villa in his Rambler which was already old in the 1970s and we would trundle up to his house in the hills. I would sweep leaves in the sloping gardens that surrounded his house and sip lemonade with him when our work was done.

The house was remarkable. It was nestled under the trees in the Oakland Hills. Part mountain cabin, part modernist sculpture with towering, two-story windows looking out to the San Francisco Bay, I realized even then that such a house was an unusual possession for a grammar-school teacher. Mr. Bartley must have inherited some money and then scrimped and saved to have been able to maintain such a place — hence the rattling Rambler which was challenged to even climb the hill to his place. He was very proud of his home and each year he would bring his students on a tour of his house as a special end-of-year treat. The highlight for most of us was his waterbed, an object of great fascination for all us 12-year-olds. In 1977, Mr. Bartley was one of the early adopters of the modern waterbed – created in 1971 in San Francisco and originally dubbed “the pleasure pit” by its inventor. No wonder we were fascinated.

One day, turning from Hampton Avenue on to La Salle on our way up to his house, we passed a woman driving the other direction. I recognized the boy in the car beside her as John D., who was a year or two ahead of me in school. He had lost his father, something that was lurking in my life as Wilson was very ill and mostly confined to his bed now. Mr. Bartley practically snarled as they went by. He could not contain himself. “That woman, that bitch! How dare she forbid me to see her son!” Then he shut up, holding back any other words that might have spilled out from his frothing mouth. I knew then who I had replaced.

In addition to yard work, Mr. Bartley would invite me to the symphony. He would pick me up in his Rambler and we would cross the bridge to San Francisco. He had an eight-track tape player and we would listen to classical music on the ride. At the symphony I learned the uncomfortable art of not falling asleep. I was terrified of letting Mr. Bartley down but inevitably the drowsiness would overtake me and I would struggle to keep my eyes open. I tried to stave it off as long as I could. I would pinch myself but everyone knows, that doesn’t work very well. Once, to stay awake I tapped along to the music with my fingers on the armrest. Afterwards the woman next to me wanted to know if I were a pianist.

He brought me classical music albums as gifts, hence my collection of three albums: Sibelius, Mahler and the Guarneri String Quartet playing the Debussy and Ravel quartets, one quartet to each side of the album.

Sometimes he gave me more elaborate gifts, such as the Kodak Super-8 camera he brought me one Christmas. He let my mother know that he would like to stop by. He came with a young man with a beard and leather jacket who had the air of someone being on his best behavior.

And anyway I didn’t really need it: I already had access to nicer cameras made of brushed steel and leather, and not the cheap brown plastic of the Kodak. Wilson’s closet was full of camera equipment, from miniature Minox spy cameras to Nikons bought in Japan and even a medium-format Bronica that my half-sister Madeleine had abandoned and then demanded back just after I started using it.

And I thought it strange that he had come with his partner, someone whom I had never seen but who must have been important in his life if they were spending Christmas Day together and making formal social calls. I had never seen Mr. Bartley with any romantic partner and it seemed he should not have chosen to bring him to our house on Christmas Day. I felt he was crossing a line he should have stayed behind but once again no one else seemed to notice.

There was a lot they didn’t notice, starting with the waterbed, the extensive time alone together up at his house, the ever more elaborate gifts. He also gave me the Italian bike that some traveller visiting from Europe (another lover?) had left behind. I restored it and rode it for several decades.

But I was increasingly wary in his presence. The last time I saw Mr. Bartley he again brought me to his house to help with yard work. When I finished he set me in front of his TV to watch an afternoon PBS broadcast of Bizet’s Carmen. He did not sit; I felt his eyes on me as he crossed the wooden floor behind me doing his chores. At last he couldn’t contain himself. He stopped behind my chair, wrapped his arms around me and said, “I love you so much.” I sat there frozen and did not say a word.

He pulled away. I heard him moving softly around the house. I sat blankly in front of the TV. Eventually he drove me home in silence and he never called the house again.

When they called some years later to tell me that he had died of AIDS, I took the news as if from a great distance. I knew I wouldn’t go to the memorial service.

At the same time, he was one of the most interesting people I knew growing up. He shared his passions with me generously. He took me to see my first foreign film, first symphonies, and introduced me to classical music, the architects of the Arts and Crafts movement, J.R.R. Tolkien and landscape gardening. There was a determined artistry to his life. Many of the things I still love I first shared with him.

One response to “The Man Who Bought Me Records”

  1. Denise Avatar

    Kevin, just this morning, I came across this story of yours from last December…what a nice surprise! Once again, you inspire me to consider writing about my life. These early-life experiences can leave a deeper mark than those that follow. I had a similar experience with a flute teacher, who offered lessons in a music store/house on Shattuck Ave. A few years of a close, inspirational relationship ended upon his declaration of love. He recoiled when he recognized that I did not reciprocate. This betrayal of trust is difficult for a youth to process. We feel insecure enough that we do not share it with others. It is good to hear your story – both how important this person was, the dark and light marks left, and the irreconcilable end (chocked full of heartache and lessons about humanity). Such is life, right? So many irreconcilable truths…especially in passion and fear.

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