Sweating yet another birthday

Published 1:09 am Sunday, September 5, 2010

Birthday toasts made a steamy Carolina night even warmer, as an amazing collection of people ate a frogmore stew and celebrated Todd Johnson’s 50th year.

It was, Todd said, his intention to spend his birthday in unbridled August heat, a porch screen away from the mosquitoes and tree frogs and cicadas.

He lives in faraway Connecticut now, but Todd Johnson remembers well August in the South. He wrote his first novel, “The Sweet By and By,” in the lyrical language of his North Carolina childhood. Remembering is part of his stock and trade, and Todd wanted this pivotal birthday to harken to childhood, including the hot nights.

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And so here we all were, a Whitman Sampler of people, celebrating on a porch in a treehouse of a house, a house secluded on an island that allows no cars and limits development and is a ferry ride away from the normal noise and bustle of real life. The lack of automobiles alone brought me back several shades of sanity. If only there were entire states devoted to pedestrian-only traffic.

I met the Yale Divinity School graduate last March at a Hoover, Ala., book festival. It was one of those affairs that can be lousy with poets, pomposity and preening. Todd made this one different. He made it memorable. And I’m not even talking about his flawlessly executed and incredibly funny book talk. I’m talking about his company.

The night before our scheduled lectures, we talked too late about too much. I felt it the next day but didn’t care.

I was charmed by this former teacher and studio singer — he crooned a lot of advertising jingles about toilet paper and so on — and the Broadway producer of “The Color Purple.” At the conference Todd seemed genuinely interested in everyone else, not given to lofty pontificating or posturing or arriving late to be noticed. Todd was a regular guy, except a regular guy with exceptional talent. And he had this incredible sense of drama that he trailed like a feather boa.

I didn’t see him again until the birthday party.

Turns out I’m one of a multitude of Todd Johnson groupies. Most of the party guests had known Todd a lot longer than I and had better stories to share, or photographs. I, on the other hand, had merely played a hunch and won.

And so, while Hank Williams sang his plaintive ballads, those of us who determinedly made it to an island we’d never before heard of got to know one another. And the common denominators were open minds, creative spirits, glistening foreheads and Todd.

In the island heat, I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite passages from Todd’s book: “It’s too hot for a picnic. I’m positive that this must violate the Health Department’s standards for what you can make old people do in rest homes. … When I look out the window, even the birds look hot to me; their back feathers shine like mirrors in the sun. All their movements are so fast and jerky, it’s a wonder they don’t have miniature heart attacks. Their hearts must be bigger than their brains or else they’d hide up in a cool longleaf pine.”

As soon as the last shrimp was peeled and the last toast offered, we all headed out of the familiar heat of Todd’s childhood into the air-conditioned house. We were spirited, not stupid.