If you’re like me, part of the intrigue of city living is seeing the same strangers around town, maybe wondering about them.
Like maybe a man and his daughter in a maroon Volvo wagon. He’s tall and lean with a long nose and a thick shock of blonde hair; she’s thin and pretty with big blue eyes. On top of the car are a long purple kayak and a little red one. They’re drinking giant smoothies full of peanut butter and protein powder. He’s 64 and she’s 11. They are partners in adventure. Lewis and Clark. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
That kayaking dad was Edwin Gardner, who died last week from injuries sustained in a bicycle accident on Montagu Street.
Edwin was returning from a morning row on the Ashley River in one of the wooden gigs that he and a group of junior high kids built 15 years ago. Edwin and friends had started the Mosquito Fleet to reconnect inner-city children with Charleston’s rich history of boat building and boating.
The original Mosquito Fleet was made up of fishermen who rowed out in the morning and sailed back in the evening with the sea breeze, and Edwin believed the “rich African-American waterman culture of the Old South was every bit as colorful and deep as New England whaling and lobstering.”
I first met him in 1996 when I was doing a story on the Fleet. He was sitting on the dock cross-legged, meeting with his crew. A former teacher, he had this strange, exciting way of talking to the kids. I was so envious of his authoritative rapport with young people. It seemed to be about the greatest thing a man could aspire to.
After the kids left, he explained how the program gave them a sense of ownership.
“They can say, ‘This is my team, my boat, I built that.’ ” He checked his watch. “And speaking of, I’ve got to get home to my wife.” At the time he had been married less than a year, at age 50, to architect Whitney Powers.
Whitney knew he was the man for her when, at a David Mamet play on their first date, they traded quotes. Hers from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” his from Robert W. Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”
Edwin biked, drove, and rowed around this city as though he had an ownership stake in it. Charleston was a poem to be lived, constantly in need of a new reading or a revision. Think of a modern Walt Whitman, always on the lookout for the new and the strange.
“One of the things I learned from him was the best thing you could do in life was to talk to someone you didn’t know,” his friend Wally Yost said of him.
Edwin would get pumped up about great street art, raise hell about what he considered nonsensical earthquake concerns for downtown schools. He loved that the stoplight at the corner intermittently washed his Harleston Village living room in red, because it was urban and noir. He painted over a fluorescent streetlight because it glared into his daughter’s bedroom.
He worked to make sure the bright towers of the new Cooper River Bridge wouldn’t lead baby sea turtles away from the ocean. He served on task forces, headed his neighborhood association, went door-to-door for Obama in North Carolina. He thought Election Tuesday should be as exciting as Super Bowl Sunday.
Edwin Sumner Gardner V was born in Nashville, Tenn., on Sept. 19, 1945, into an old Nashville family. (The first Edwin Gardner was born in 1810.) His father was the longtime treasurer of Vanderbilt University.
He was at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville when the true story behind Dead Poets Society took place, attended Andover with George W. Bush, studied at Sewanee and Vanderbilt with the Southern Agrarian and Fugitive Poets, and had a short story published in the Sewanee Review. He went camping with the Brits who brought the Outward Bound program to America, trained dolphins in the Florida Keys, and came to Charleston as the first development director for the S.C. Aquarium.
We first bonded because he was a writer too but mainly because he had an edge. We spent a lot of time making fun of things together. I don’t know which he enjoyed more, a great Spoleto show or a really bad one. I remember a somewhat unsuccessful jazz oratorio based on Whitman’s poetry, and Edwin walking out of the Sottile singing “I CELLL-ebrate myself” in a haughty baritone.
I remember running into him at an estate sale one morning. He was carrying his daughter Olive in a Baby Bjorn, and we were walking around this old lady’s cramped little apartment South of Broad. There was a collection of cartoons of hippopotamuses in the kitchen, a tiny bottle of Chanel No. 5 in the bathroom.
“Oh, see this was the bottle of expensive perfume, this was her lottery ticket, her last hope. She was saving this for the day she met that wealthy suitor who would take her away from all this.”
He never said a dull thing. When he was in the bookstore I own on King Street, it was like a Paris salon. He was a business liability. He would spew liberal politics, say whatever he wanted about books, tell you what he hated. This includes Pat Conroy’s books, during Pat Conroy’s signing. He saved our bacon that day; we were short-staffed, and he stood in a tent on a cold, rainy day and managed the line of people for hours. He and Olive made a game of it, staying into the night breaking down tables.
He still had the energy and convictions people had in their twenties, but he was from a generation that said things to people’s faces in proper public discourse, as opposed to hiding behind online comments.
He never stopped writing. For his daughter Olive’s ninth birthday, Edwin created a Nancy Drew mystery game in the Circular Church graveyard. The kids had to use clues from the grave markers to discover letters Edwin had scripted on parchment and hidden in little wooden boxes. Eventually everything fit together with a Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque sightline, pointing to a clue up in the bell tower.
The whole party could easily have made for a popular interactive Historic District attraction, but for Edwin it was just part of the fun of being a writer and a dad and on to the next thing.
The last time I saw him was a few days before the accident. The kayaks were on top of the car, but he was driving down King Street alone. His daughter was away at summer camp. He always said those were the hardest two weeks of his year.
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