December 19, 1980
Well, Christmas is another day closer and the year’s end after that.
The semester ends today and like a messenger traveling across some dreaded war zone, I deliver all my final papers – allowing me to proceed onto my next level of learning.
Semesters seem too short to get all the work I need get done, yet long enough to wear me out, and make me ache for their conclusion.
On top of all that, I’m ill again – with some cold.
But then everybody I know is ill. Susan has a touch of it. And Marcy.
I ran into Garrick, Pauly and Ricky yesterday and they looked like zombies, just waking from the deepest bout with death and took deep breathes as if their last.
We met at Sterns in Willowbrook Mall, and for a time, drowned our misery with bad food at a mall snack bar.
Garrick claimed he could not taste and drowned his cheese steak with hot sauce, and act that I knew he would regret later just as he did when I lived with him in the Passaic apartment and he took me out drinking, bragging that he could eat more jalapeño peppers than I could. I refused to take the bait and refrained, which did not stop him from demonstrating just how many he could eat, and his moans from the bathroom later kept me up all night.
Pauly, in his usual egocentric piety, moaned a lot and said he was bored with our company and should have stayed home where he could suffer in peace.
Ricky stared through the glass barrier at a waitress with a low neck blouse who had bent down to retrieve a coin from the floor, a pleasant vision to men contemplating the end of existence.
It felt good to be around them again, as miserable as they claimed to be.
Outside, the sky had turned gray and a wind rattled the skylights that illuminated part of the upper floor of the mall – while the chill of the season piled up ice on my car so that I spent a good half our chiseling my door to get it open, feeling all the worse for the exercise.
Back home, on Passaic Street, the wind made beggars of us all, as men and women huddled against it as they walked from the Polish market to the Polish church, stopping off at the Polish bar to get something to warm them. Many dive into doorways till the gusts calm.
I feel something like a lost leaf, being blown from one place to another without any clear indication of where I might land or what forces are the cause, or even if my life has any real purpose despite my pursuit of dreams that may not materialize, regardless of what my professors claim.
My art professor has joined the short line of confidence-building educators who think I’ll amount to something, which is more confidence than I have in that regard. After a decade working as a truck driver, warehouse man and rock & roll roadie, I’ve seen too many people with talent wasting away – more talent than I’ll ever have, more ambition, too, growing old without cashing in. I’m not in this game to cash in on anything, nor do I have any natural talent. I’m obsessed and driven, determined to make something happen that I have no right to expect.
So I park my car and sit to watch the world blow by, the last of autumn’s leaves, evading the ice to cling to my windshield. The wind knocks over a metal trash can and sends it rumbling down the sidewalk, a stream of food wrappers like a tail behind it.
Trucks roar down 8th Street headed towards the bridge into Wallington, each rumble shaking me and my world, as if more than just the semester is ending, as if I have turned some corner into some new life, facing new obstacles I may or may not be prepared to handle, a slippery and illusive as the icy sidewalk outside, the icy street over which trucks and cars travel.
I already miss my old life, secure with a steady paycheck and the indignity of unimportance, always looked down on as someone who works to hard and grinds my nose against the millstone for nothing.
College is suppose to elevate me somehow, make me more important, allow me to hobnob with better crowds, get up front in the line – the way Joey Ramone once got us all into Club 54 when other people had to wait.
I hated that idea. I still do. But I understand why John and the others got off on it, just as they got off on being in Hendrix studio to record the demo a few months ago. They like feeling like stars, being fussed over, being made to feel important, even when it is all an illusion and that any real importance has to be self-generated.
From where I sit the world looks like some impressionistic painting my art professor says I should study more closely, but with the paint still fresh, dripping more like a Jason Pollack painting than anything from Monet, everything weaving into everything else, tree limbs into the backdrop of sagging wooden porches.
Somewhere in this mix, I smell the scent of fire, a wood stove stirred up by poor relations on this block, who have collected fallen limbs near the rail road track and river to cheat PSE&G out of its daily blood money.
For some reason, this puts me in the Christmas spirit, despite Pauly’s vulgar comments about the holiday when we jaunted through the mall, especially when some poor fool tried to beg spare change from him.
“I gave up painting for this?” he said, referring to the numerous watercolors he created each Christmas as gifts. “I’ll give him money only if he promises to do sit on Santa’s lap”
I felt sorry for the bum and gave him all the coins I had in my pocket, and got a giggle thinking he might spend them trying to get a picture of himself on the mall Santa’s lap, and wondered more soberly, what he would ask for: a roof over his head, a job, or maybe if he was as foolish as I was, a future.”
It’s hard to think that we’re all turning 30 this year (Pauly already has as has Hank) and still pondering the future when most of those are age are settled down with families.
Back home, alone, I felt the ache, not of cold or illness, but of uncertainty, wondering what it all means, and where it will all lead, and if it doesn’t work out, how I’ll ever get back.