By Nicole Hostetter, contributor
No one knew where he came from. No one knew why he was here.
The man with the quill pens and the ponytail simply showed up in Harrisonburg one day in 1975, and soon after, so did the manifestos. They first began circulating on Eastern Mennonite University’s campus — those handwritten treatises of margin-to-margin black lettering.
The pages were beautiful works of organized chaos — tidy lines of indecipherable stream-of-consciousness in clear capital lettering. Politics, community, feminism, sex, the military, God, Moby Dick. It was all there.
Those who received a manifesto usually viewed it in one of two ways: As the ramblings of an unsound man with a superiority complex or as disorientingly intriguing insights that hinted at some part of the universe locked onto the page, unseen to those untouched by such profundity.
Quiet Tortouga Please, a local fixture known for making all of Harrisonburg his home, was the author. And although he stopped writing them years ago, his penchant for intense philosophical debate endured. Please died May 10 at the age of 80 after being moved from the three-sided shed where he had set up camp for years.
The shed was just out of sight, tucked behind a stand of brush bordering a church at the corner of Chicago Avenue and Waterman Drive. But Please would make himself seen, often walking his bike to Red Front where he’d sit on the bench or argue with the manager or perhaps find his way to Food Lion to another bench and another opportunity to debate with passersby, willing or otherwise.
But as familiar as Please seemed to many in Harrisonburg, he remained largely an enigma — even to those who would call him a friend. What was behind all his philosophical explorations? Why wouldn’t he leave the place he’d staked out behind the church? What prompted him to rename himself Quiet T. Please? What drew him, the eldest son of a well-known New Orleans family, to Harrisonburg in the first place?
For some of those questions, only Please knew the answers. As for why he first came to Harrisonburg? The answer: turkey feathers.
Roots in New Orleans’ high society
Please was born Stanton Paul Chassaignac, Jr. on Oct. 12, 1935. He was the first of seven children of Stanton Paul Chassaignac Sr. and his wife, Katherine O’Brien Chassaignac.
Devout Catholics, Paul and Katherine Chassaignac were wed under the soaring vaulted ceilings of Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church. It remains a landmark, embodying old world grace, built from brick and stone and nestled between Audubon Park and Tulane and Loyola universities.
“I mean, that was society to get married there,” said their daughter and Please’s sister, Carol Watermeier, 73.
Paul Sr. came from society. His father, Dr. Charles Louis Chassaignac, was founder of the Tulane Poly Clinic, which later became Tulane University Medical School. Before establishing the school, Charles had studied medicine in Paris with his uncle, Dr. Edouard Pierre Chassaignac, a prominent French physician. Charles Chassaignac settled into life in New Orleans’s Garden District with its grand homes standing testament to the city’s history and wealth.
Katherine did not come from society. She came from Brooklyn, New York, and was of Irish descent. At 11 years old she was celebrated for swimming across the Mississippi River. A news clipping from the event states “Wee Miss O’Brien is First Feminine Swimmer to Swim the Mississippi.”
Photos show her hoisted onto the shoulders of a brawny man in a crowd of celebrants. The lanky girl beams, head held high, in her one-piece swimsuit and bathing cap.
“She was a celebrity,” Watermeier said.
The Chassaignacs would go on to have seven children — Paul Jr., followed by Katherine — Kay for short — then Ann, Carol, Betsy, Mary, and “Pop” Louis all arrived within the span of a decade. And Paul Sr.’s salary as a mechanical engineer at Loyola University meant there was little left over for philanthropy balls and tailcoat tuxedos.
“Dad didn’t follow the uptown society because he really couldn’t afford it,” Watermeier said. “We had the name, we had the clout, but didn’t keep up with it because they couldn’t afford it with so many children.”
The nine Chassaignacs shared a modest three-bedroom, two-bathroom home on Camp Street near Audubon Park.
“We didn’t have a whole lot,” Watermeier said. “But we had the best of everything including education.”
Paul Jr. grew up doing regular kid things — playing marbles, arguing with his siblings, listening to music. He excelled in baseball during his four years at the all-boys Catholic De La Salle High School. He had friends. He dated girls. He worked at a record shop part time and held other odd jobs — a requirement for children in the Chassaignac household where a strong work ethic was valued.
Paul and his youngest brother Louis shared a bedroom in what used to be the family’s breakfast room. They used the former pantry as a closet. Then, Paul Sr. fashioned a makeshift room for his eldest son out of a cabana in the yard so he could have more privacy.
Paul attended Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge for a while, then studied architectural engineering at Tulane. He never completed degrees at either but continued to work and carve out his own path, adhering to his developing set of principles.
“He only bought the best and that was his belief,” Watermeier said. “He was handsome. He was good looking and dressed like you wouldn’t believe. He had impeccable taste in clothing and in everything he purchased.”
But there were times when he could be difficult to get along with. And he had idiosyncrasies which could cause rifts in his relationships; people couldn’t always understand where Paul was coming from on certain issues.
Paul lived with Carol and her husband briefly in his early 30s. Sometimes he would promise to mow the lawn and forget. Sometimes he would get agitated by the little things, like the brand of soap Carol and her husband used.
“He had to have things his way,” she said. “We had to buy the soap that he wanted. He could be difficult. If you said the wrong thing then he would get angry. You had to be on the same page. And of course, we weren’t. I think his views were before his time, and maybe he knew something we didn’t know.”
The uniqueness of Paul’s worldview became more pronounced when he took a job as a laborer for the Audubon Park Commission in early fall of 1969. The position was eight hours a day, six days a week. But Paul typically only averaged 25 hours. According to a case brought before the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals following his dismissal, “he asserted that he did not work on rainy days and would not work on Thursdays because he would be unable to attend meetings of the New Orleans City Council.”
When Carol became pregnant with her first child, Paul Sr. suggested it was time for his oldest son to give Carol and her husband some space and move out. He did.
He went to New York. He went to San Francisco. And then family rumor has it that he went to a place where there was an abundance of turkeys — an ideal place for finding the perfect feathers with which to make quill pens.
Please finds his place in Hburg
Sometime around 1975, Quiet Tortouga Please settled in on the North End of Harrisonburg. Shortly after his arrival, a buzz spread about the man who penned long manifestos on religion and philosophy with quill and ink, and handed them out to students on that area’s campuses.
A collection of those writings now reside in the Special Collections department of James Madison University’s libraries. They arrived in late May from an out-of-state donor who had kept a trove of Please’s writings and heard of his passing.
In his early years in Harrisonburg, Please did not have a permanent address and instead slept in fields and secluded spots.
Despite his desire to be alone, he still needed a place to clean his body. Ruth Jost, former director for Blue Ridge Legal Aid and a friend of Please’s later in life recalled an early interaction with Please at the law office. He made a simple request to the secretary, who passed it on to Jost: Could he use the washroom to bathe?
“What struck me about it was his carefulness and his courtesy and in the way he made the request,” Jost recalled. “He was really concerned with how he appeared and how he presented himself to other people. Some people might just say ‘Can I use the bathroom here?’ but he prefaced it here by saying ‘I’m fine with my circumstances, but I would like to be able to be cleaner when I am around other people.’ It was such a courteous and gentlemanly way of making the request.”
Jost agreed, and early some mornings in the late 1970s, the full upstairs bathroom would be discreetly unlocked for Please. For nearly 40 years after that initial interaction, Jost stayed in touch with him. In recent years, he would walk his bike alongside her and her husband as they made their way to church Sunday mornings.
“It might be a nice warm day and he would catch up with us and he would walk his bike along with us and engage in these theological debates that he really enjoyed pursuing. And he was so earnest and so intense – so you just had to love certain things about him,” Jost said.
A reader, a writer and an urban legend
Please was a voracious reader, and also regularly wrote lengthy opinion pieces to the editors at the Daily News-Record — submissions that didn’t always make sense but were full of conviction.
He ran an unsuccessful write-in campaign for Rockingham County Sheriff in 1979. Having no fixed address, Please couldn’t secure a spot on the ballot, but the Daily News-Record interviewed him for a candidate profile that June anyway.
“I’m going to try and organize people to help them to prevent crime rather than rely so much on the sheriff to do it … People stop crime, not police,” he told the reporter.
The article includes more of his philosophy about community policing: “He noted that during the aftermath of a natural disaster, people willingly aid others, and he sees no difference between that and the current general state of affairs. ‘We need some kind of spark. And I am that spark to help people to get together to do what must be done.’”
Seven years later, Please ran again for a local government position. In June 1986, he garnered one vote in the city council election.
Even though he never came close to being elected, these endeavors raised Please’s profile and became a public figure in his own right. The unofficial statesman of Chicago Avenue.
A public Facebook group devoted to “Remembering Downtown Harrisonburg” has generated hundreds of small remembrances and speculations regarding Quiet T. Please.
“Story has it he was a professor at JMU”
“He had a doctorate from stanford”
“He had worked for nasa”
“Worked on the Twin Towers as an architect”
“QT is like the Northern Star ………….. a constant presence still riding his bike and living on his own in Harrisonburg after all these years.”
“Was Quiet T the one who would stand on a milk crate on Court Square and rant about this and that?”
“He got some bad stuff and went off the deep end.”
“He isn’t the gentle homeless man some like to think.”
“Still have a quill pen he crafted 40 years ago”
“He was a simple man that had led a simple life with odd and end jobs his whole life and spent thousands of hours alone reading and reading and reading and thus developed his theories on his own over time.”
By simply being himself for 40 years, Please became an urban legend.
‘He did not want to go inside’
Carol Watermeier and — and the rest of the family — never stopped worrying about Paul. When their mother fell ill, she wanted to see him before she died. Even though he was gone, he always remained her oldest son, the boy who made her a mother.
“He was afraid that if he came home people would make remarks about him with his ponytail and this and that, and he was afraid that it wouldn’t be the right thing to do,” Carol recalled. “But we didn’t care [what everyone else thought]. We weren’t going to make him change to come, ‘That’s their problem,’ I said.”
He did not return to New Orleans before his mother died. Instead, Paul wrote a letter. It had the word “love” written all across it.
“I love you, Mom. I do,” he wrote.
His siblings often wondered what he was doing and how he was managing to survive in the elements. They became acquainted with the owner of a nearby auto garage when Paul called one day to check in from the shop. Occasionally, without her brother knowing, Watermeier would phone the owner to check on her brother. Two siblings came to find him one day, to see their brother whom they had missed for so many years.
“They had never been to Harrisonburg,” Carol recalled. “And they were driving down the highway in that area, and don’t you know, they see Paul riding his bike and they followed him to see where he lived.”
They followed him to the shed and tried to think of ways to encourage him to move indoor without offending his strong sense of independence. Their pleas went unheeded.
“It was a good visit, but he did not want to go inside, or have him be put in a home or something, because he said that would kill him, to have every day routine that you had to do. He did not want to go inside.”
Paul became agitated at the suggestion. He became gruff and argumentative. He would stay in Harrisonburg — in the home he had created for himself.
“That’s what he wanted,” Watermeier said. “He was a man of meager means who didn’t need material things. We were taught the finer things, and sense of direction and guidance, and I guess he just wanted to do it his way. And that’s the only way you can do it, is to break off and go do what you wanted to do.”
“Why to live outdoors?” Carol asked. “I’ll never know. Maybe everything was so natural, and that’s what he believed in. Maybe he found beauty in trees, or anything.”
She paused and sighed deeply.
“I don’t know.”
A last ‘Hello’
“He was a man of deep principles and he wasn’t going to compromise them,” said Ben Wyse, an acquaintance of Please’s.
The pair would talk about their shared love of bikes. Please had strong opinions about bike handlebar design and appreciated craftsmanship and good machines. There was discussion of politics and religion as well. Wyse appreciated that facet of Please’s life.
Wyse shared this at a recent vigil held at the home of Earl Martin and hosted by those who knew Please in Harrisonburg. About a dozen people gathered to share stories.
“He found a path that made sense to him and made sense to his principles and he wasn’t going to compromise that because it wasn’t part of our cultural norms,” Wyse said.
“I think that’s one of the lessons he has to teach us, that we have to think through how we live, think through the things we do and the path we choose, and think about whether we’re following a path because it’s what’s culturally normative, or are we doing something that makes sense based on our principles?” Wyse said. “He was very principled.”
Soon after the church took over the land he lived on, Please was asked to leave but refused: It was his home.
Concerns from the church leadership grew over his health and age, and how a man in his 80s could continue to live exposed to the elements.
Community members brainstormed ways to get him off the property and into a more permanent structure. Perhaps a camper could be parked on someone’s land? Maybe a tiny house could be built inside the shed?
The plans never manifested. The new property owners did not want him to die of exposure on their land. Please continued to refuse to leave.
In early March, Quiet T. Please was charged with trespassing. Police brought him to jail, frail in body, but strong in mind. At his court hearing on March 11, he arrived in a wheelchair. Please complained to the judge that the jail was too cold for his liking. And when told he could be released only if he would agree to stay off the property, Please refused.
“This guy,” Ruth Jost laughed. “He’s obstinate.”
Jost and Please’s lawyer, along with Tom Domonoske, a longtime acquaintance of Please’s who lived nearby, tried to figure out what would happen next.
They learned Please would be transferred from the jail to Sentara Rockingham Memorial Hospital. Jost sped to the hospital, desperate to find anyone who could tell her what was happening.
A security guard directed her to a unit where she scanned the hallway for her unlikely friend of 40 years. And then she saw him being wheeled past her on a stretcher, surrounded by staff. He was beaming.
“He just said a big glorious ‘Hello’ to me as he passed me in the hall – looking gloriously clean,” Jost recalled. “He was getting attention and care that he desperately needed and had never been willing to ask for or admit to. He seemed on top of the world.”
That is the last time Jost saw him.
Please was transferred to a mental health facility outside Roanoke, then back to a transitional care facility in Harrisonburg where he died of heart failure.
It took three pickup-truck loads to clear out the shed after his death. For years, it had been a cloistered sanctuary for Please in an otherwise complicated world.
Today, the packed dirt floor is dotted with stray pieces of plastic and aluminum. The rusted metal skeleton of some kind of vehicle takes up a third of the floorspace.
It had been a place to store his bikes and his projects. His bed and his clothes. Piles of belongings accumulated into small mountains, between them a valley carved out for his sleeping space. Buckets wringed the outer edges of the shed, filled with an unknown murky liquid.
Now it was empty. A quiet space.
“I think he was loved,” Jost said.
“Or whatever you want to call it. It’s strange,” she added, her voice breaking, “but he was bizarre and amazing and irritating and so many things but he was also so earnest.… Maybe one lesson for all of us is that under the surface of someone who seems bizarre and disagreeable and sort of amazing is a complex person. And maybe all of us are a little bit poorer for having not known all that was there.”
Domonoske attended the vigil for Please earlier this month.
“His passing means that I will not be better in the future in the way that I am better now from having interacted with him because he continually taught me patience — me being patient, me having to up my patience game, me also having to up my ability to not interfere with someone else’s life and to how strongly would I adhere to the idea that people get to determine by themselves how they want to live,” he said.
“It’s a loss,” Domonoske said.
Carol Watermeier doesn’t know Domonoske or Jost.
She has not been to the Friendly City before. But she heard of the vigil when Richard, the owner of the auto garage, passed her number on to one of the attendees. He called to give his condolences and discuss arrangements.
And she was struck by the consideration when the funeral home called her family to tell them the exact date and time of her brother’s cremation — to allow them to say a prayer as his body was prepared for its journey home to Louisiana.
She thinks of the nearby business owner, whom she telephoned to check in on her brother.
And she sometimes rereads comments online left by those who cared enough to write something after Please’s death.
“I think it must be a small community of lovely people,” she said.
A community made one smaller on May 10.
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