It’s fall 2016 and the new and elegantly massive Gaillard Center is finally opening, a year and a half after it was supposed to. There’s a black-tie gala, a symphony performance, and a selection of arias from Gian Carlo Menotti’s operas. Charleston’s glitterati are primping — gowns from Berlins are going fast. Meanwhile a bustling hive of workers is buzzing around the grounds tidying up for the long-awaited night. Just down the street, two old and weathered guys — one lanky, silver-haired and wide-eyed, the other short, hunched and squinty — are having drinks in the understated elegance of the Zero George courtyard.
They’ve always wanted to meet: the rolling stone balladeer and the agrarian writer. Both are renegades, both are poets, both are aging peaceniks and weary environmental prophets, and neither got an invite to the Gaillard opening (though Taylor Swift, Darius Rucker, and Matthew McConaughey, inexplicably, did). So their PR agents — college pals from NYU — hatched a conspiracy to finally bring them together and crash the gala. It was a half-baked plan involving untamed electric guitar and a protest, in verse, against excess. Wendell Berry sips Kentucky bourbon and Bob Dylan drinks green tea as they try to finalize their scheming:
Wendell Berry: What? What’d you say, Bob? I can’t hear you. That annoying high-pitched screech, that loathsome drone.
Bob Dylan: Ha, jeez. From you, too? Yeah, I get that all the time. My voice, or what’s left of it. I don’t try to make it sound like this, like a scratchy, squealing.
Berry: No, no, my friend. That’s not (he pauses, raises his voice) what I’m talking about. I love your voice — it’s so pure, so … Dylan. I love its gravel-road gravity, its tenacity. Your vocal cords are like these here hands (shows his huge, wrinkled hands) out digging in the fields. When you sing, it’s like a hard-honed tool, a work instrument — there’s beauty in its cragginess, its rough edges. No, my friend, it’s those damn leaf blowers I’m talking about. I can’t hear you over that goddamn gas-guzzling leaf blower brigade over at the Gaillard Center grounds. What were you saying?
Dylan (waiting for the blowers to abate, for a quick interlude): Ah, yes, the gas-guzzling locusts. And it’s doing nothing but just blowing in the wind. The dust, the leaves, the Starbucks trash tossed on the street. What’s wrong with a rake? A broom?
Berry: I’ve used the same broom for the last 25 years. The handle is worn so it fits my hands just right. Handmade corn broom, people think it’s made from corn, but the fibers actually come from sorghum grown on a nearby organic farm.
Dylan: My granddad Zimmerman had a cousin who made brooms. Hadn’t thought of that in years. The times, they are a changin’, and my voice, well, yeah, it’s sure as hell changing too. People think I do it on purpose, exaggerate its eccentricity. Shit, I’m ragtag enough. Glad you like it, Wendell. I wish I had your Southern pipes. I’ve heard you give readings on YouTube. Your voice is like an audio version of George Clooney’s looks — gilded, sexy — even for an old man.
Berry (blushing a bit, clears his throat, changes subject): Folks at the local association of the blind near my farm make the brooms, sell them to support the association. Best sweep around. Sweeping is like meditation, you know. Probably like playing guitar too. Repetitive. Soothing. You think ol’ Willie McTell over in Georgia ever knew blind broom makers?
Dylan: The answer my friend is … huh, I ain’t got any idea. But he sure could play the 12-string. You play any instruments, Wendell? I could teach you C and D chords, real simple, then we walk into the gala and launch into “Million Dollar Bash” or what about “Gotta Serve Somebody”?
Berry: I was thinking “Girl from the North Country,” only we change it to “Lowcountry.” Me, I’m a fan of your somber, nostalgic lyrics. This town, the South, is all about nostalgia. “Remember me to one who lives there, she once was a true love of mine …” — and we call out the names of the African-American families who once lived here, who were displaced when the original Gaillard was built. But, yeah, you’re right. We probably need something louder, more grating. Maybe we should bring leaf blowers? One decent use for an otherwise unnecessary, ineffective lazy man’s gadget.
Dylan: Brilliant! The critics would love it, finally something in tune with my vocals. Hey, before the gala, I’d like to see a few more of the sights in Charleston. You know, those moss-draped plantations. You want to see the land, right, Wendell?
Berry: They are out on Highway 61. We could revisit that.
Dylan: Nice. A simple twist of fate —I like it. Better splash down that bourbon, Wendell, looks like a hard rain’s about to fall.
Berry: Sure, cheers to you, Bob. To us, and to health, to simplicity and song, to poetry and place, to speaking truth to power blowers (laughs, clinks his glass with Dylan’s tea cup). Let’s go find some shelter from the storm. I hear there’s lots of space over there at the Gaillard.
Stephanie Hunt is a writer, editor, cycling advocate, and old-style broom sweeper in Mt. Pleasant. She is also a contributing editor for Charleston Magazine and writes for numerous regional and national publications.