MAXWELL:  A haven for the Thanksgiving holiday

11/27/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

SAN ANGELO, Texas

For the first time in many years, I will not spend Thanksgiving with relatives and longtime friends.

Each day during the last two weeks, several people have asked me if I was returning to Florida for the annual turkey day celebration. When I say “no,” reactions are always the same: sympathy and deep curiosity. For West Texans, Thanksgiving epitomizes the region. Whether I and other outsiders like it or not, West Texas is deeply conservative, God-fearing and, above all else, family-centered.

Faculty members and students alike have invited me to their homes for Thanksgiving dinner. I have not accepted any invitations because I have found a wonderful surrogate family: the owners, tenants, artists, studio renters and friends of the Old Chicken Farm Art Center.

Every day, in fact, is Thanksgiving at the Chicken Farm.

In all of my adult years, I have never been in the presence of such warm, generous, selfless people, nonjudgmental people. Roger Allen, founder and owner of the center, sets the pace with his easy-going, simple approach to life, his wise view of the world and his commitment to egalitarianism.

Politics are not worth much at the Chicken Farm. If you are a Republican, that is your business. No one else gives a damn. If you are a Democrat, you might as well keep your unhappiness to yourself because no one wants to hear you moan and groan. Oh, they will listen to you, but do not expect anyone to follow your platform, or to support your effort to get even or to malign a person of a different political persuasion.

What my neighbors and companions care about most is your humanity, your willingness and desire to live and let live.

By nature, I am a loner. Here at the Chicken Farm, I live in a one-bedroom loft in the main house. I have a private bathroom and windows that give me views of the neighborhood. Roger, a former public school art teacher and potter, lives downstairs. We eat most of our meals together. When I do not want to have human contact, I simply go to my loft and remain there as long as I wish.

For a writer, a loner, this is the perfect set up. But I am never lonely here. I see and hear people come and go. People inquire about my well-being without interfering. They want to know how my teaching at Angelo State University is going. They want to know about my columns. They want to know the status of my screenplay and novel. They want to know if I am comfortable in San Angelo.

And the Chicken Farm is a place where the intellectually curious convene. For many years, the center’s front porch and its living room have served as seminar spaces, where people talk and argue late into the night. I have been here since August, and already I have enjoyed discussions that range from George W. Bush’s lack of gray matter to the high cost of Broadway performances.

The Chicken Farm is a family, and Thanksgiving is a special time. Artists and art lovers from all over Texas and other parts of the nation will be here for four days of exhibitions and revelry. Yes, food (four turkeys) will be plentiful, and drinks will flow. Guests do not need invitations. You just show up and bring an interest in other people.

I already have been warned to complete my work before Thanksgiving morning because many people will be coming to see me and to welcome me, the St. Petersburg Times columnist, to San Angelo. Some will come, of course, to meet someone who actually voted for Bill Clinton twice.

Guess what I know already? No one will come to see me for malicious reasons. That is not the way of the Old Chicken Farm, where malice is a term to be discussed, not a sentiment to be experienced.

Several of my students have wondered if I am the only African-American at the center. I am. But for one of the few times in my adult life, my race, my obvious black skin, is not a liability. My difference, my race, is my worth. Here, I am comfortable with my race, and others _ Anglos, Jews, Arabs, Hindus, Indians, Mexicans _ are comfortable with it, too.

The Old Chicken Farm is an oasis of love and respect in a place that prides itself in being a collection of rugged individualists; where wide-open spaces and limitless horizons swallow up the mundane events and acts that define human life; where parched, lunar-like countryside reminds us that we cannot control nature; where even loners value the company of caring neighbors.

I will not spend this Thanksgiving with blood relatives and longtime friends. I will spend it with my new family and with my new friends _ people who accept me simply for who I am. I cannot imagine a better Thanksgiving holiday.