Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Chuck

(This is among many accounts I've written that should have but never made the pages of the paper. As many know, I write about everyone I meet and everything that happens to me)

December 3, 2008

Charles (his friends call him Chuck) says he doesn’t worry when his defibrillator goes off.
It does this about once a day at least sending 800 volts of electric into him to keep his heart beating.
“Only if it goes off twice in a row do I need to go to the hospital,” he says, but also says that the frequent jolts have him concerned.
At 69, this staunch Bayonne native has lived a charmed life, a sports coach for most of his long years whose body has betrayed him.
Two years ago, he suffered too deadly strokes in a week; either of one should have killed him.
The back that he survived brought him back to his Catholic faith where he recently became a Eucharistic minister.
“I haven’t been here in 30 years,” he says, believing that his surviving the near-death experience was an act of God he doesn’t question.
Although heart ailments struck when he was still a young man, he only learned after his stroke that his heart was a blood-clot making machine, firing deadly bullets at his brain – one of which may some day put him to rest.
Chuck, an Irish Catholic, if full o stories and recounted several sporting events in Paterson during the 1960s when he discovered I hailed from that neck of the woods as well. In one instance, he was a coach and recalled splitting his pants before half time and was forced to officiate that way for the rest of the came.
Another time – somewhere around 1967 – he made his way to the Thanksgiving Day game between rival Paterson football teams, Eastside and Kennedy, where he was scouting for talent.
“I was sitting high up in the stands around the 20 yard line,” he recalls. “I looked around me and saw nothing but black people. I guess that made me a little nervous.  But it wasn’t until I started to take notes that some guys to my right started to give me a hard time, demanding to know what I was doing. They had a real attitude. Then some guys on my left told them to shut up and explained how I was scouting. After that, we all got along just fine. They even passed me a bottle of wine so I could stay warm, and I drank. When I got back here, someone asked me if I minded drinking out of the same bottle as them and I said `No way.’”
Chuck thinks about death a lot because death is always with him.
“The other day in the Acme near City Line I was getting some ice. The staff had put up a sign saying to be careful about the wet floor and I was except when I turned around I fell over a cart someone had left behind me. I landed on the floor hard. I kept thinking that after all I’d been through, I was going to die because some jerk left a cart there.”
He thinks a lot about God, too, and has become more and more involved with his church. Last year, he asked the priest if he could become an alter boy knowing that the school from which the church recruited was closing.
The priest laughed and told him, “Sure, but I can’t promise you the other alter boys won’t beat you up.”
Yet the preset saw something in Chuck and a short time later asked him to administer communion.
“While I might not be a devil, I’m not saint,” Chuck tells me. “I didn’t know if I was worth and asked the priest if I was. He told me only I know if I was or not. I told him I would think about it – and did, and later, I said I would give it a try.”
Chuck trained for a few months, learning what he needed to do to perform one of the most sacred rituals in the Catholic faith.
“Then I got a note from the priest that I had to attend Mass on Dec. 24,” he says. “I asked him what this was about since I always attended that mass anyway. He said this time I would be helping him with communion. I felt so humble. I still feel it, humble and yet proud.”



Sunday, December 29, 2013

The pieces left behind



Sunday, December 29, 2013

Bright sunlight flooded the road ahead on this post Christmas trip of Scranton – the mp3 player filling the car with memories from a time I didn’t intend to recall but could not help: Crosby, Stills, Nash; The Beatles; Elton John, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
Each of these things brings back images like the week of Top 40 hits CBS used to play every Saturday night – one week’s songs so vivid I stood on the railroad bridge again as I had at 16 with the plastic portable radio pressed against my ear.
This trip was like a trip I took nearly 40 years ago when I went to see my still-infant kid with Hank and Garrick – each song some song we would have sung along to during the two hour 100-mile trip between Montclair and Scranton.
But Scranton had grown with images more recent and so each mile is imbued with new, added meanings that tumble through my head as I drive, the music, the mood, the passing scenes like a flashback.
The leaves, just turning during my last trip, have been stripped from the trees so that on either side of the road the branches reach towards the sky like outstretched hands, the fingers pleading with the gods for some grace to be reborn when the cold eases and spring comes again.
Although the air had a chill, the temperature was above normal for the Jersey part of the trip, and only when the car got near water – Pine Brook and its always flooded woods (and Hank’s old warehouse), and snow showing nearer to the Delaware Water Gap.
As is the case these days after too much coffee at home, I needed the rest stop at the Gap, not just to use the port-a-johns, but also to gaze at the break in the mountains and feel as I always feel when I am there: humbled and insignificant amid the majesty of the natural world. Ice floated down the river, and snow showed here and there along the shore.
Someone’s German Shepherd ran up to me to sniff my heals before being healed by its master and before I went on, crossing the real and imaginary boundary between my life in Jersey and that other, dream-life on the other side – a life that is both past and future at the same time, filled with images of things accomplished and things yet to be done.
Traffic grew thick and finally to a standstill near The Crossing Mall reminding me of the holiday madness that grips people and stirs up their herding instincts.
The music got less distinct as the mountains filled my ears with that bubble it took miles to pop. So by the time the car rolled along the ridge of the Poconos on Route 380 I was almost deaf, and felt even more dream-like, except for the nagging gas gauge that told me in no uncertain terms that I would not reach Scranton if I failed to find gas – and eventually pulled off an exit early to satisfy that hunger.
But this road like the previous road carried a back-breaking load of memories, sad and happy, but mostly nostalgic – missing people in my life that had come connection to this part of the planet – this road and the next which is a ribbon road going down into the heart of the city – the path I had taken to Scranton since my first visit in 1971.
My newborn child, my then girlfriend and soon to be wife, and a large box-like vehicle filled with out possessions heading west like Okkies pilgrims fleeing not a farm dust bowl, but a dust bowl of post hippie Greenwich Village where junkies had replaced troubadours and despair had replaced great dreams.
In Scranton, this time, my daughter talked about the place of her birth in less than glowing terms, saying how the village was no longer the village, and that the era that have given rise to great inspiration had become a wasteland of wealth – rich people without manners or culture making the junkie era look attractive, even though the cold water flats we lived in back then, had heat and new paint today.
My daughter and ex-wife greeted me with presents I had not had time to buy for them, due to lack of time and several weeks of illness – the hectic pace of this life not at all what I had expected in anticipating closing in on retirement.
The scary part was that my daughter like my best friend years ago looked ahead towards retirement as if it was something other than what the British call “Waiting for God.”  People who put off their dreams to old age rarely live to see them realized, but I kept this last bit to myself, taking my daughter to the local mall to buy presents that would come wrapped in packing paper, not bows, and then to dinner at an over priced and over rated fish food place before making our way back to her house for good byes a few hours later.
The return from Scranton is always painful because each time I drive home I leave a piece of myself behind, and there will be a point – not far from now – when more of me remains there than what I carry away.
The trip home always comes with the added burden of traffic, and life that grows more and more hectic as the miles shrink, and this case, an accident near Route 3, forced me to divert from the usual pattern and take another route for the last lap, coming home exhausted and somewhat sad.

I guess the rain that we expect here in Jersey City today will fit my mood.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

They said there’d be snow on Christmas



December 22, 1983

I guess this is the closest I’ll get to a white Christmas: snow at four o’clock in the morning that is scheduled to turn to rain.
So here I sit in the middle of Willowbrook Mall parking lot, my car slowly being devoured by snow; feeling lingering tenderness at having Anne to share this holiday with.
But I also feel a twinge of jealousy seeing my ex-girlfriend seeking to hook up with Pauly, my best friend, and wishing it was me she sought out with her return – when Pauly only feigns interest, and doesn’t want things to go as far as she does. She wants true love with a real artist, and she isn’t likely to get either with him, and he knows it, and goes along with it for the ride, just as he always does, in the end, ending up where he started while leaving women like her along the back tracks of his life.
He can’t afford to admit he is vulnerable to the same intense feelings I was when I was with her.
She wants to belong to some institution of higher knowledge, an academy of art and science, to which he would not accept membership even if it was offered – the old Groucho Marx idea that he wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member.
So he’ll let her tag along until she becomes a drag.
Perhaps he’s wiser than I was, seeing no more future there than with any of the other tag-alongs he let tag along over the years.
He knows when to keep his distance, especially when she is determined to conquer him.
Maybe she’ll succeed this time, able to play off his vanity so that even he – especially being as lonely as he clearly is – comes in out of the cold.
I think this while I sit out in the cold in the middle of Christmas madness, as I watch the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future float by along the walk, each carrying shopping bags from Bamberger’s. And I keep thinking that sometimes on nights like this, it’s better not to be alone, regardless of the debt in woe that must be paid when Christmas is over.
And I keep staring through the snow-covered windshield for some star of guidance that the heavy clouds won’t reveal, and wonder will the snow turn to rain after all, or keep on snowing.


Friday, December 20, 2013

A gift from beyond



Friday, December 20, 2013

This close to Christmas, I ought to be in the Christmas spirit, but I’m not.
I’m too ill, having caught a cold and forced to take drugs that numb my thinking.
I’ve done no shopping, although I somehow managed to get my Christmas cards sent – a feat I did not accomplish over the last two years, partly because each year I was saddled with the aftermath of eye surgery.
Christmas means more this year because I suddenly have family again.
Christmas became more and more diminished as members of my immediately family passed away. Each year saw a new loss and so by the time of my mother’s death just after Christmas in 2001, I seemed alone.
I had my daughter and my ex-wife, of course, but the core family I grew up with was gone.
This was made more painfully evident in 2010 with the death of Uncle Ted, the man closest to me, and then, in early 2012, Alice’s husband, Peter, who had become as close to us as anyone.
The discovery that I had sisters and brothers this year makes Christmas mean something again, although I’m too weary from the last few months of work and this week’s illness to fully appreciate it yet.
I need to take a walk in the woods alone to think – something I have always done in the past when change comes upon me – or even to wander around New York, although with Cooper Union stealing so much of the landscape I remember in the East Village, this is no longer as enjoyable as it once was.
New York is no longer a friendly place for people like me and so I must find that sense of spirit somewhere else.
Ultimately, of course, we are all alone – sometimes finding soul mates that help us travel through this and perhaps other lives.
We struggle to work out the difficult passages as best we can, forced to depend on our own resources.
Our soul mates, our friends, and those who know us best can at best provide some comfort, but rarely more. If we are very lucky, some few who know the deeper truths, can promise to keep faith with us – if not providing solutions, then at least, not blaming us for the solutions we find for ourselves.
People tell us that life is a gift; it maybe; but it is also a burden.
If we are lucky, we learn in this life that we live other lives beyond the boundaries of the one we wake up to each morning, and sometimes, we have others who keep us company there, and guard over us in this world and that.
These souls are always there for us, always holding our hands even when we seem most alone.

The great gift is finding that they exist in this world as well as that, and an even greater gift to have met them here, even if ever so briefly.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

My destiny in life



Thursday, December 19, 2013

I have to stop wishing Happy Birthday to people for a while; with rare exceptions, this has mostly lead to bad news.
I guess this is because people I care for or cared for always remain fixed in my memory as they were when I last saw them, like snap shots.
They never change and generally neither do the feelings I felt about them.
So more is the surprise when time catches up with these images in my head.
This happened a few weeks ago when I heard about the death of my old friend, Ralph – who I last saw in the flesh just prior to my going into the Army in early 1969, but whose memory and friendship I carried around inside of me for all these years, undisturbed even by the photos of an older man I received a decade ago.
He remained the vibrant person I dragged into so much trouble when we were young, and who learned the real advantage of a movie usher’s uniform with the girls in the balcony.
Hearing of his death shocked me. He was only a few months older than I am, and I discovered his death only after I wished him a happy birthday on Facebook.
This happened again yesterday, not with as close a friend, but one of the more talented Hoboken musicians I had written about fairly often in the 1990s. Over the last decade, he had moved out to other parts of the world, but kept in touch via email and Facebook.
Earlier this year, he posted a message about waiting on a transplant – liver or kidney, I don’t recall.  But he sounded desperate. So when I wished him a happy birthday yesterday, I included a note saying I hope all had gone well.
It hadn’t. A message from his friend came back saying he had died.
All this comes at a difficult time of year since most of those closest to me were born near Christmas – including my one time, best friend, Hank, who always insisted on getting two presents, one for his birthday, and one for Christmas, refusing to get cheated out of one because he had the misfortune of being born on Christmas Eve.
He should have gotten a transplant, too, but had played games with his bad kidneys, finding a scoundrel of a doctor that allowed him to maintain his life style although he was falling apart inside.
Several years ago, we also lost one of the guitarists to our band, and shortly before that, the bass player – all in need of some repair to a major organ they could not get in time.
Ironically, the day of the guitarist wake I got an email from him – lost somewhere in the remote places of the cloud – suggesting we should work together on a video.
Such messages have been common with those lost who were close to me. Hank left several messages – appearing as a bat to Pauly, and a crimpled pigeon to me. The strangest came to Garrick a few days after Hank’s death in 1995.
A few months before Hank’s death, lightning struck Hank’s house and fried his phone and answering machine. This happened just prior to Christmas, and so we had a hard time getting a hold of him.
A few days after Hank’s death, lightning struck Garrick’s house, frying his phone and his answering machine – with one exception. The machine retained the last message Hank had left prior to his death.
Unfortunately, the last memory I have of Hank is not a good one. It came on Christmas Eve 1994, when we traditionally get together. This was a few months before his death, and he had grown old. He looked 80 or 90 when he was only 45, and acted it, forgetting things, and when we took off for our traditional Christmas Eve get-together; he drove like an old man.
I miss him, but I miss the vibrant younger Hank, and often go back to older photographs trying to restore his image in my mind.
Inside of me, each of these people, here or in the hereafter, remain alive in me, and always will – which is one reason I write about people I meet.

It’s my destiny in life.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Beating my head against the millstone



February 25, 1982

It doesn’t take a lot to realize how stupid I’ve been.
Fotomat?
This is absurd.
I can’t even consider taking a job like that.
So I think, maybe I should become a baker again – a nice, comfortable and messy job, one that can keep me in food, clothing and housing for the rest of school.
Why not?
If I have to work, why should I have to learn all the garbage these people in Fotomat want to teach me: become a computer overnight?
Love photographs, customers, and freezing in a tiny little booth at the remote end of some shopping mall parking lot?
Then this job is for you.
Sure, you get great services as an employee: half price on film processing, a third off the cost of film.
But you can’t eat film, and lately, the cost of food has taken on Grendel-like proportions.
It just won’t do.
So I air here (lay here actually under a ton of blankets) and ponder my options.
I could go back and beg entrance to the Willowbrook [Mall} prison I just escaped. But that seems drastic and degrading – especially to some of the staff who would like to see me humiliated. I had left with idea that I might make a living as a writer and so got a bit haughty. Lesson one: never get haughty when you’re always on the verge of starvation.
I could consider going back to the Paterson Dunkin (which has a new staff and less violent night time conditions since I last worked there – fleeing last when bullets decorated the front window along with the Christmas display).
Ah, such evil choices one must make when it comes to choosing work – personal freedom vs. being a wage slave.
Yes, I get more of my own stuff done when I’m not elbow deep in donut dough – more research, and writing, better engaged in my art. But how is art served if I starve?
Besides, the first draft of my current novel is done, and the second draft just begun – and I’m already stumped, seeking inspiration and originality in that block by block rewriting process that shapes into a world war inside my head. How long before I can sell anything, I can’t say, but I know I’ll need to eat before I can.
I need food, clothing, and housing – the three evils that haunt me always, as silly as that sounds.
These days, I envy Pauly even more and how he somehow manages to do what he wants when he wants, somehow working around these three ghosts when I cannot.
After three months of living the bohemian life: of writing and school, my vacation ends and I must once more play the game and rebuild the foundations of my life.
For all my isolation, I’m mostly depressed from such a slim existence.
I suppose I’ll organize the proper boxes and paste the proper addresses on the front.
Fotomat, ha!
There’s so much pointless stuff to learn and too many regulations.
Garbage.
So if they’ll take back this prodigal son, I’ll go back. I’ll feast on labor.
I suppose we all have to find importance in certain channels. Bohemianism is not for me (Not that I didn’t or wouldn’t enjoy more).
But reality steps in and I’m not the first victim.
So back to work, slave! Back to the flour and the world of imitation baking.
The times are hard enough without beating my head against the millstone.

So Dunkin Donuts here I come.

Not confusing what I do with what I do to survive



Saturday, December 14, 2013

The change is in the air – along with the threat of snow.
Few things last in this life time more than for a few years these days or maybe never lasted. I had pictures of the world in my head from the post World War II era growing up of great hope and promise. I have pictures of my family moving into the old house on the hill, all of them thinking that the world had become renewed and that the boundless future lay ahead.
Perhaps it did, for the brick layers, and those who build their future piece by piece – a conservative idea I didn’t always believe when I grew up in the 1960s and assumed that we could depend on Big Brother to protect us, to provide us with all those necessities the greedy of the Post Civil War denied – But godfathers and robber barons simply change their tactics and operate behind the scenes, pulling levers like The Wizard of Oz, and deluding the masses of people into believing that the future is bright when it is only bright for those who rise to the top of the froth.
But capitalism, criminal or legal, elevates very few, and as Thoreau pointed out, most of us live our lives in quiet desperation, either accepting our fate as cogs in the wheel of this machine or defying it, and becoming frustrated by it, and eventually crushed by it.
Some enjoy the benefits of power for a while, and then fall out of favor, or find their no longer needed, and get cast aside, desperate to find some new venue upon which to start their climb (or slide – depending on your point of view) into a new pyramid of power.
This isn’t just political or criminal, it is life.
I’ve been through so many changes of jobs in my life that I have seen the petty power structures rise and fall, mini-Roman Empires to which the small cling to for sense of worth.
Somehow in my life, I have been immune to these – either because I had positioned myself rightly as indispensable or because of sheer luck.
As a baker in the 1980s and early 1990, I saw my shop sold a dozen times – each time watching those who grooved closest to the new boss, building a relationship with the new boss, only to lose status as the next boss sought out his own cronies he or she could trust.
I was always above the fray, because people didn’t mess with quality bakers back then. these days, machines have made me history, and I am referred to as “a stick man” making me realize just how Mark Twain felt after training to become a river boat pilot only to have the end of the Civil War destroy that industry. Something similar is happening in the news industry in my time but it matters less to me because I am at the end of a career not at the beginning as Twain was back then.
But the concept remains the same.
Survival depends upon personal power, ability to transcend change – not just dependability. (The most essential cog can be replaced in any machine I learned long ago.) But somehow, you need to believe in yourself to such an extent that your power does not rely on some higher power (expect perhaps the highest power) and that what you do matters more than what recognition you get.
This is a long view because of the ups and downs that it entails and the eventual belief that in the end what you do will make a difference and bring about what you want.
The art world is littered with people who gave up their dreams, settling for less or moving onto something else because the road to what they was as success got too hard.
I remember a friend who came to visit me in the Garfield Dunkin donuts commenting that I was better that what she saw, that I ought to have another more respectable job.
I quoted Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty,” and said, “Try not to confuse what you do with what you do to survive.”
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, these are the same at the same time. Most often they aren’t. But at every moment of my life, what I do to survive matters as much as what I aspire to do. And although sometimes, this is a huge struggle, it is the only way I can survive the ups and downs and changes of power that go on around me. I work for a boss, but deep down inside me, I work hard at whatever I am doing because it is the only real way to survive.




Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A boy named Ralph



Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Today’s Ralph’s 62nd birthday.
I didn’t know that until facebook told me. We were in the same class in St. Brendan’s together as kids, part of a class that still reverberates in that school was one of the most unruly in its long history.
Ralph was the clean-cut kid who lived on Delaware Avenue in Paterson (his mother was the kind of person who didn’t approve of kids like me and who put plastic over her furniture to keep off dust).
She had nothing good to say about me when I showed up at his house, and forbade him to see me.
Which he did anyway since we both hung out with Frank and his brother and often met as Frank’s house. They lived two and a half blocks away on Dundee in a neighborhood where everybody lived pretty much within a few blocks of each other and of the school.
I was always getting into trouble and so anybody with me got into trouble also – although it wasn’t until after we stopped being classmates that we got close.
Ralph apparently was born in Newark and moved to Paterson a few years later, in time to attend Kindergarten with me – our teacher was Mrs. Grady, who was still teaching thirty years later when I went back to the old neighborhood.
I often go back, searching out the icons of my childhood, the school, the church, my old house, the houses of my friends including Ralph’s, although after his family moved to the Clifton side of Crooks Avenue, I was unable to pick out which one was his and just sort of strolled up the block in reverence to that time when his mother walked into the house and found it filled with cigarette smoke, spilled booze, and her son’s head slumped on the table after I had just won his savings in a poker game.
She put her foot down and told me to get out, and I did, hearing from him later how she forbade him to ever see me again.
He attended St. Joseph’s High School and had ambitions to go to college – which apparently he did not. When I went into the Army, I came back to his house to find him, but his mother, Ida, was not impressed and said he had gone away to school or something like that.
I learned later, after I had gotten out of the Army and left west on a three-year crime spree I called a magical mystery tour that he had joined the Navy after he got out of high school. He apparently went into electronics after that.
I actually never saw him again, but hooked up via the internet to find that he had started a new life out in Pennsylvania. He had married, divorced, fathered three kids, and had lived a good, if sometimes lonely life out there in the world.
When I spoke with him on the phone about a decade ago, he had not yet met his wife, and seemed a bit down and out, and I felt that old kinship with him – always making plans to come see him when I was out seeing my daughter, but I never did.
Indeed, my message to him via facebook today was to pick up on that old plan.
I never stopped being his friend. He is part of that collection of people who travel around in the back my head, something who never aged, always that Ralph I worked with in the Clifton Theater – where I tried to get him fixed up with girls (when I was done with them), teaching him out to make out with them in the balcony, and to get places I guess he later learned to get to on his own.
He is the boy I played board games with him my basement, and taught how to play poker (I never did say I was sorry for winning his savings – a mere hundred or two), and I guess there were a lot of things unsaid that still linger in the back of my head, even now, which I will have to commit to prayer since for every boy like me who quits school and gets in trouble, there has to be a boy like Ralph, who dedicates himself to those values I have abandoned, the good boy, who befriends the bad boy, and teaches boys like me how to become good boys even if it is a hard road.
Knowing that he is dead, doesn’t change anything. Ralph remains one of my best friends, will for an eternity.



Sunday, December 8, 2013

Kathy's Wedding or how I met Doreen

Kathy's Wedding or how I met Doreen (link)


This is a very long journal entry that continues some of the tale I posted with "a stranger on campus" but also ties into my meeting of Doreen, someone I spent some time with during the early 1980s.
I wrote this right after the wedding, and did not yet know I was going to get involved with Doreen.
Doreen passed away a few years ago, much to my regret.

Alien encounter



April 5, 1980

The door was open when I got there, swung back, flat against the wall as if someone had flung it open.
I wondered if I should go in or get away.
It wrong, even violent – like an invitation to a police station, and not the kind of invitation I thought I was getting from her glance at the bar.
But me being me, I had to go in.
Maybe more out of curiosity than attraction.
While the woman at the bar was extremely pretty – maybe too pretty for someone like me – she also had something odd about her, some mysterious thing that differed from all those gals that claimed to be mysterious.
Had I been anybody else from the band, this would not have been a problem.
Mysterious meant something else to them, and only added to the moment, where as I didn’t believe in one night stands and so needed to know more.
There was nothing mysterious about the room, a typical highway motel room with a dresser, TV, phone stand and bed.
She was on the bed. Lack of light made up for her lack of clothing, but I could still tell in the slanted light from the street that she was naked.
Her eyes glinted with a greenish glow I could not explain since the light coming from the street had an amber tint.
“You should shut the door,” she said. “We don’t want everybody knowing what we’re doing in here.”
“And what are we doing in here?” I asked, but complied in closing the door, making the darkness more complete, but did nothing to extinguish the glow of her eyes. This seemed to grow more intense.
“What do you think?” she asked. “Why do you think I invited you here?”
“To show me your etchings?” I asked.
She laughed, but it was a bit shrill, as if to suggest she didn’t think I should be making jokes at a time like this.
“Come over here and sit on the bed?” she said.
I heard her hand pat the bed and I headed in the direction of the sound and the green glow.
The unusual scent of her perfume that I had noticed vaguely in the bar grew overpowering, and I staggered a little, as if drunk, when I knew I could not be drunk the one beer I had washed down the pretzels with.
My knees hit the bed in the dark. Her hand curled around my arm and forced me down – until I half lay on the bed with her.
She drew my hand to her chest, palm curling around the curve of her like a baseball mitt – but this baseball had a tight little knot at its center, and felt just a little moist.
“Squeeze it,” she whispered.
I did. The knot sprouted a few more drips.
“Lick it,” she said, and I drew my fingers to my mouth.
The moisture tasted sweet and then, like a vapor, it vanished.
“Lick it,” she said again, this time, her hand circling my nick, drawing my face to where my hand had been, so that my mouth closed around that moist little knot and I tasted the sweetness again.
A strange sweetness, I thought, like something minty, and I wondered if she had coated it with something, but my mouth became too enmeshed with it to release any words, and the licking turned to sucking and this drew even more of this into me, a taste turning to vapor, which immediately went to my head.
I might have been ingesting pot or some other exotic drug, so overcome was I by it. And I couldn’t get enough. The more I got the more I wanted, and the more she let me have, until finally she touched my hand and drew this down to her thigh.
“Touch me,” she said.
And I did, feeling even more moisture there as my fingers explored, and she moaned.
No, an odder sound than a moan, like something I hadn’t heard before in this or any other context.
“Taste it,” she mumbled, and I again drew my fingers to my mouth.
The taste was hot. Not warm like blood, but hot like lava or some exotic spice I had not encountered in any dish I had tasted on this side or any other side of the border.
“Lick” she said, and drew my head in that same southern kingdom, where the intensity of the taste was even more potent than the one I had sampled above. But instead of making me drunk, it started a flame inside of me, so I became like she was, and no longer needed to taste or touch, only feel the in and out of things, hearing yet more unusual sounds that even before, and the rasp of my breathlessness as if I was running and could not stop.
Somewhere in the middle of this, I heard her voice in my ear, a whisper between my huffing and her moans, “Am I your first alien?”
“You mean as legal or illegal?” I said, trying to sound coy.
“No,” she said. “I mean the other kind.”
It took a long time for that to sink in – maybe I hadn’t heard it at all. Maybe I had had more than one beer at the bar or someone had spiked the pretzels. Maybe I just misheard something in the heat of it that later explained how I felt when I woke up alone – she no where to be found, nor was my clothing, or my wallet – although she did leave me the car keys.
I never saw her again at the club. Some of my friends when I asked them about her, said they’d not seen her at all.
I did not report any of it to the police.
I didn’t know what to say or how to explain, and thought maybe I had imagined the whole thing, especially those things I felt in the dark, the touch and being touched, the tasting and being tasted, and other things that I could not explain or describe, except to think if she was telling the truth, then her kind of found a much better way to probe my kind, and worse, I wanted to try again.
Maybe some day, I thought, in some far off universe.
But I won’t hold my breath.




It was 33 years ago today




Sunday, December 08, 2013

This is the day that John Lennon died – now 33 years ago.
Hank and I had a theory of numbers based on some of The Beatles out takes and Christmas fan club recordings, where like Number 9, 33 and 44 had some significance I can’t make heads or tails of all these years later.
Maybe it is the Christ-like concept of double threes – Three is a sacred number in mythology.
At the time of Lennon’s death, I was seated before my typewriter in my cold water flat in Passaic, trying to finish my daily dose of writing before retiring. I had WNEW-FM on in the background when the announcer interrupted the music to say that John had been shot – and within moments, verified his death.
The details didn’t emerge until the next day. But that moment like the shooting of Kennedy, and the attacks on 9/11 left an indelible memory in my mind, of where I was, what I was doing, and how I felt.
The DJ put on John’s “Working Class Hero” and didn’t bother to edit out the “fucks,” suggesting very much how he felt at that moment, too.
I had grown up with The Beatles and the mythology of their changing the world – more than Dylan or Elvis, they formed the heart of my beliefs, almost like a religion. I remember my rich neighbor who attended a private school in Passaic Park getting a haircut he could comb back to look straight enough for school, but when combed the other way, resembled a Beatle’s mop top.
Indeed, despite the outrage of my more than a little reactionary uncles, I grew my hair the same way without the bother of a disguise combing for school – something that irritated the nuns as well.
My punishment each time I got into trouble in school or out, was a trip to the barber for a haircut – a military style crew cut, when, of course, my uncles could actually get their mitts on me.
More than photographs, which were very few during the 1960s, Beatles’ hits became snap shots of my life (along with some of the Beatles imitators and of course, The Rolling Stones).
I changed as the Beatles changed, growing more complex and confused as reflected in their music. I remember my friends singing the songs from St. Peppers on the bus to high school. Hank and I sang most of those songs in the balcony of the theater where we worked as ushers, frustrating the manager who could hear the echo of our voices, but could not locate us to get us to shut up and get back to work.
 By the time the White Album came out in 1968, I had already embraced revolution with the likes of David Peal and Abbie Hoffman, temporary heroes I soon shed myself of when I finally developed opinions of my own.
When I took my own magical mystery tour across country (with the police and mob hot on my trail at times), cassettes of Beatles music kept me company, often through some of the loneliest moments. I took my first LSD trip to Beatles records and tapes, and these remained part of that sound track long after I gave up drugs.
The announcement of the breakup of the Beatles in 1970 crushed me – as it did Hank, and we working as messengers in New York City at the time, convinced ourselves that this was just a joke, like the one about Paul being dead. And even after that, we sold ourselves on the idea that the Beatles could sooner or later come back together.
We had a very long wait. But we waited.
And then, someone shot John.
Neither one of us ever got over it. This was a family member, someone who we loved as much as our closest relative, and someone we both mourned every year this time – even that last year just prior to Hank’s 45th birthday, when Hank and I both knew that he would not seen another anniversary of John’s death or even another birthday. Ironically, just after Hank’s death in March, 1995, the Beatles did get back together – using some old John recordings to release two new Beatles songs.
I still think Hank’s arrival in the afterlife had something to do with it.
These days, I can’t mourn one without the other, and so this day of mourning John, is also a mourning of Hank – who I miss just about as much as anybody, and who by singing in the streets with me, allowed me to sing inside myself and grow as an artist. He and John became models of living that I still embrace as artist and a human being.



Friday, December 6, 2013

The stranger on campus


(from journal for feminism class)

Nov. 27, 1981

I called “C” today in the vain hope of catching her still in Aberdeen.
This sounds like a western town, but it’s here on the East Coast where she lives – or was living, and is now gone.
It’s been two years since she tried to kill herself – too many pills to erase the memory of too many lovers.
The suicide didn’t work.
Back then, I didn’t understand why this stranger wanted to end her life, especially someone Roland told me was so full of life and complete.
“She tried to die in my arms,” he said.
But Roland being Roland, he found this romantic, something he needed to get down on paper.
I wrote something as well, something dedicated to a person I hadn’t yet actually met.
I was appalled by the idea that anyone would want to end their life just from the lack of love.
I talked Roland into stuffing the poem into her suitcase at the hospital, figuring she would find it and presume Roland wrote it.
Or that someone somewhere actually wanted someone as bereft of love to hold on.
Human beings are a terribly lonely bunch for the most part, isolated in our own shells of flesh, and trying to express in words and actions just what might be going on inside.
“C’s” attempt at suicide was a message I thought I understood back then, an attempt to say that things are so confusing that the only way to top the motion inside is to stop everything at once.
So she put on the brakes.
She found the poem the next day and called Roland to find out who wrote it.
“I knew he didn’t write it,” she said later. “The style wasn’t romantic.”
Roland, holding out under my threat to kill him, kept silent.
He was also protecting her. She had tried to kill herself over one man; he wasn’t going to let another man into her life so soon.
I didn’t know what she looked like. So I could have passed her a dozen times on campus and never known.
All I had were the back-stabbing statements of her so called friends who called her “foolish” and said “she got what she deserved.”
“The fucking girl ought to know better than to mess with professors,” one of her male friends said.
He seemed jealous to me; as if he didn’t know how to compete.
Another male friend said the professor told her off after finding out she had slept around.
But there was something missing here and as I sat on the coach in the dorm room steaming over this bullshit, Maria – sweet Maria – saw my eyes burning with rage.
These fools missed the point of her message, passing judgment when they should have offered comfort.
No one heard the voice that screamed for help. No one saw human being rent with wounds she could not heal for herself.
Not even Roland.
And that surprised me most of all, since everybody considered him “sensitive.”
Instead, he was in his room writing about how having a woman trying to die in his arms had made him feel.
So I wrote my poem, had it delivered, thought about it, and disappeared, deliberately avoiding the dorm after that, avoiding all those I knew knew “C.”
Fate, of course, had its own plans for me.
So one day walking along the concrete path between one building and the next, I saw Roland standing near the gym. He was laughing. He was among a group of people.
He called my name and ran up to me, grabbing my sleeve to pull me along to join the group.
“Where have you been hiding, boy?” he asked me.
I shook my head.
“I haven’t been hiding – really,” I liked and look around at the faces, most of whom I had seen at one time or another at the dorm, some of them were the same soured faces that had badmouthed “C” when she was still in the hospital. Then I saw a face I didn’t recognize.
Yet I did, from the look of pain in her eyes, hollowness which scared the shit out of me.
“I got to go,” I said quickly and turned, but just as quickly, Roland grabbed my arm.
“You should meet,” Ronald said.
“I don’t think so,” I said and tugged my arm out of his grip.
“Don’t be that way,” C said and smiled softly, and I sighed.
“So you know?” I asked.
She nodded, her loose blonde hair shifting with each nod. “Roland told me,” she said.
I glared at Roland.
“Oh, don’t blame him,” C said. “I told him if he didn’t tell me I would sneak into his room some night and burn all his poetry.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I mumbled with a weak shrug.
But it did matter.
I felt assaulted by the pain in her eyes, the terrible sense of isolation I wanted to, but could not fill.
She squeezed my hand and laughed, but this was a hollow laugh, too, the Tin Man’s chest knocked upon and sounding empty.
This was C, attractive and vulnerable, and if I wanted it, easily mine.
“I really do have to go,” I said, but she didn’t let go of my hand.
“Why don’t you come with me and help me by a gift for someone,” she said, pulling me in the direction of the student center.
I heard the whispers of the others behind us, those vultures from a week earlier, who now saw me as another one of C’s conquests.
This was a secret language men use amongst ourselves.
I wanted to stop right there. I wanted to tell them to fuck off.
But C continued to tug at me unaware or unconcerned about the others, and her mood enveloped me and I let myself be led.
Later, we sat on the back steps of the student center, cool air brushing passed us.
She looked at me and shoot her head, then asked, “What are you after?”
Her tone was as chilled as the wind and her gaze hard.
The words hurt, but I understood them.
She understood how the world worked, and how everybody had a motive for everything they did, cruel or kind, and I was no exception.
“Sex and money,” I finally said.
She stared at me for so long with such intensity, I wondered if I should brace myself for a slap. Instead, she laughed.
“TouchĂ©,” she said, then hugged me. “I’m sorry I’m so suspicious.”
But she had a right, and I told her so.
“I’m no saint,” I said, but thought more bitterly about her friends and how they gloated over her demise. She had every right to suspect me – a stranger.
“But what DO you want?” she asked.
“To write,” I said, looking away, down at the pit where the cars parked, each windshield glittering in the bright bitter sunlight. “To be loved. What does anybody want?”
Again, she was silent. She squeezed my arm again. There weren’t a lot of words left in either of us just then.
I didn’t know when she got up to go if I would ever see her again or what would happen to her, and if she would survive.
I just watched her walk away.



Thursday, December 5, 2013

Changing the world




November 11, 1985

She must be all of twenty five or twenty six by now, having graduated college two years ago, a Connecticut child who came to New Jersey to get away from her more or less privileged life and family to get shocked by the real world she found in the heart of Paterson.
She reminds me of some of the kids I met in the 1960s, who came to the big city when they realized that there was something wrong with the ideal lives they lived in the suburbs or Midwest.
I guess that’s why she insisted on going on this march, appalled by the tales she’d heard about Apartheid.
I went along because I caught the fever again, seeing the old spirit reborn in this young girl.
She really does have charity and hope, a true innocent.
I met her in a speed reading class at the college during my first semester. She was a slightly plump young lady spouting definitive opinions about everything from a few chairs behind mine.
She had an opinion about everything and wasn’t shy about broadcasting them.
Her plumpness actually made her more attractive. She looked like an old fashioned girl, a good ole American girl, the girl next door kind of girl.
Her glasses, I recalled, fogged up each time she came in and out of a building in cold weather, and I remember them fogging up in the Student Center when I saw her there.
I told her I was a poet and gave her a copy of what I thought back then was my best poem.
The poem didn’t hold up, but she did.
She turned up the next semester with another poet from West New York, a poet who I became very close to for a while.
But she outlasted him, and became a brief romance – someone very open and warm, who in my confused state, I hurt deeply.
The other poet, I learned later, hurt her as well – perhaps because he still struggled with his sexual identity. She wanted love – a real love, a last love, and could get neither from either of us since we both were looking to something else, perhaps love of language or art.
Still, when I needed a shoulder to cry on, she was there for me, listening to all my heart break over some other woman when she had suffered a similar heart break over me.
She tried desperately to keep ties with both me and the WNY poet, but the WNY poet grew more reclusive, and I found myself wandering in the underworld’s dark places where a good hearted girl like her would never go.
She envied both of us, me because she thought I had a purpose, and the other poet because had a soul.
But he broke her heart again when he fled school and took up Satanism, and finally decided to embrace his gay side. He had struggled for most of the year with this, and when he gave in, he went far beyond anything she could accept.
I remember how long and hard she cried over his leaving.
She got married to another man, a practical man, a religious man about a year ago, and began working with old people in some of the local nursing homes.
But she maintained her faith, and her outrage about what went on in South Africa, and so when we marched through the streets of Newark, we connected in a strange way that we had not before, brother and sister of revolution, giving me a feeling I hadn’t felt since the campus anti-war protests almost twenty years go.
She truly believes she can change the world.

Maybe I’m too cynical. Maybe down deep I know we can’t. But she makes me want to believe we can, and I guess that’s a start.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A special case



March 1, 1975

A special case.
That’s how the nuns got around me in grammar school.
They put that on the cover of my file and stashed it away, knowing they needed to know nothing else about me.
I was six then and in the first grade, but already asking uncomfortable questions about God, and so innocently, they couldn’t just label me as a troublemaker (although I suspect then thought I really was.)
So they called me a special case instead.
They always said “Yes, Yes,” to me and nodded or winked at each other, although I could sense them wincing each time I raised my hand to answer any of their questions.
I guess they thought they might whack me into line when I got older and into later grades, using the back of their hands or rulers they used on other troublemakers.
Back then in those kinds of schools, parents didn’t raise a fuss when nuns belted misbehaving kids.
But at six I was just too young for them to get away with it.
So they patiently endured my unbearable questioning of faith, even restraining themselves through the second grade, though by the time I reached the third grade they could not cease to shout, demanding I read my catechism – which I only made worse when I shrugged and said I didn’t believe anything the catechism said. This equated in their minds to heresy, but if I was still too young to beat, I was certainly too young to burn on a stake, and they refrained.
By the fourth grade, they sent me home with notes, which I brought back signed as proof they’d been read, but nothing came of them. With one exception, my uncles, and grand parents largely didn’t care whether or not I questioned the existence of God as long as I stayed safe in Catholic School where I wasn’t getting beat up by thugs in the public schools for saying worse to them.
Special case or not, I didn’t fail – even religion. I simply gave them answers they didn’t like or asked questions about their questions, over which they could hardly find excuse even to beat me.
Perhaps even they had the same thoughts and struggled against thinking them, while I – not having yet learned to fear eternal damnation – spoke my mine freely.
I gave them plenty of other reasons to beat me, but never with that, and more than once nuns sat me down to explain how there are some questions that ought not to get asked, then fled in a flight of panic when I asked them why not.
By the fifth grade, one nun in particular found many good reasons to beat me – sneaking up behind me in the back of the room when I slept through some lecture I didn’t care to hear. She hit the back of my head so hard the sound of it echoed in the hall. But I never cried, which only made her angrier, and made her hit all the harder the next time and the time after that. She might have gone on to kill me if sister superior hadn’t told her to stop.
And when this nun asked why, sister superior simply said, “He’s a special case.”
After that, I only got hit for things I really did – and that was more than enough, although it never hurt as much as they thought it did, and I simply refused to cry.
Somehow I knew the minute I cried, they’d won – and I refused to let them win.

But I did feel sorry for them, especially later when I got older and realized how trapped they must have felt in their own lives, unable to ever ask questions about who God was and why they believed in him, too scared to do anything but believe.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Nightmares



Saturday, November 30, 2013

Nightmares when they come always come early in the morning, shaking me awake at some pre-dawn moment with all the anxieties my conscious mind sweeps into corners during the waking day.
Last night’s were about the usual subjects: lack of money and pending bills, unmet deadlines, cats I need to get adopted, unanswered correspondence with a few new additions due to films I’ve been viewing: ghost stories such as Dragon Fly, The Blair Witch Project and 12 Monkeys combined with more real films such as Kill Your Darlings.
Allen Ginsberg and I have a strange mutual history, separated by a decade and a half.
We both lived in Paterson, and both had to deal with mad mothers who controlled our young lives and steered us in odd directions that God, fate or something else wanted us to find.
Both of our mothers wound up in Graystone Park mental institution in New Jersey, paths crossing in odd ways. My mother worked at the hospital when Ginsberg’s mother was a patient there. My father and mother met there, training for a career in nursing that my father would go on to pursue, after he and my mother split in the early 1950s.
As with Allen, I became the sole focus of my mother’s existence, someone, however, she didn’t always recognize during my Saturday pilgrimage to the hospital to see her. The hospital had a long history with my family. My grandmother’s father had spent time there in the 1920s, suffering some mental condition from a fight he had with his own father that had resulted in his getting a clever imbedded into his skull – the affects of which did not show for years but eventually led to his madness and his death in a hospital in Middletown, New York. Later, the uncle I cared for over several decades ended up there with his routine attempts at suicide.
Seeing the film and the fictional Allen visiting his mother there brought back some of the pain, and thus stirred up material for my early morning nightmare.
But I had set the stage earlier in the day yesterday when I finally got to talk to a sister I didn’t know I had (found out earlier this year I have three half sisters and brothers), and a step mother who was willing to talk to me about the father I never actually met.
This is the stuff of poetry and nightmares, and so naturally, I had the second first, and will eventually get down to shaping words that will fit the feelings that all these things brought on, just I will eventually meet the deadlines I need to meet, and pay the bills I need to pay, and get on with the conscious life I must lead after full wakefulness comes.
This is also the anniversary of George Harrison’s death – one of my heroes, and someone who made the year 2001 even more painful: 9/11, his death and my mother’s death all coming within a few months of each other. In my mother’s madness, she thought she was responsible for the terrorists’ attack she saw from her window in a Union City nursing home, and no matter how I argued to the contrary; she refused to believe she wasn’t.
I suppose in some ways, we all are.




Friday, November 29, 2013

Harry Potter as Allen Ginsberg?



Friday, November 29, 2013

I took a stroll down memory lane today – literally and figuratively.
The film – staring Harry Potter as Allen Ginsberg – was just too intriguing to miss, especially when it dealt with the early years I had been researching anyway.
The theater was on the lower east side, a part of the planet Hank and I wandered frequently in the late 1960s, and near where my daughter was born.
I spent time there later although it was not there that I met Allen Ginsberg for the first time. But since the theater was located on E. Houston, it brought back each memory of him.
The film called “Kill your Darlings” (a news room term for getting rid of complicated sentences something I am sometimes guilty of in my column) the film deals with the meeting of the core Beats – Carr, Burrows, Kerouac and Ginsberg. While not completely accurate, the film was precise enough and dealt with the first of the three Beat deaths and perhaps the most troubling – Carr’s murder of his gay lover.
Harry Potter (I can think of him as no one else) was brilliant in his portrayal of the young Ginsburg and his coming out as gay – this being horribly shocking no doubt to Harry Potter fans, although in many ways, even the Potter character had those tendencies despite his getting married and having kids at the end.
I met the real Ginsberg in our home town of Paterson on what I believe was his 50th birthday. He had returned to Paterson for what was then called “The Great Falls Festival” (later renamed in his honor) at which time he got himself in trouble with the mayor of the city for admitting he had just smoke a joint prior to the reading. The mayor issued an arrest warrant later based on Ginsberg claim.

The reading went well enough. People treated him like a returning hero, and after the event, even through him a birthday bash at a local café, and since I was one of the local poet/writers who had participated in the open reading, I was invited to attend. By the time I arrived, Ginsberg was drunk and in full glory as all the girls and boys grooved up to him. He was not your typical rock star type, but accepted their adoration with little arrogance. But he was horny, and seemed to be looking around for someone who might keep him company later, in private, at which time he noticed me.
At first I thought he was joking. And then when I realized he wasn’t, I told him to go away.
This seemed to often the host of the party more than it did Ginsberg, a slight that left me out of the poetic social club for several years – until the memory faded.
I saw him read a number of times later, and if he recalled me during those meetings, he never let on.
In the mid-1980s, my friend Michael and I barged into a lecture Ginsberg gave at William Paterson College where we accused him of selling out.
He had just abandoned City Lights publishers for a major publishing firm, and we saw this as something of an affront to those who admired the Beat movement and all it supposedly stood for. Ginsberg did not call the police, although the professor did ask us to sit down and be quiet or leave.
We sat down.
Years later, I saw Ginsberg several more times at the Dodge Poetry event (when it was still tolerable and held at Waterloo Village), one of the last events before Ginsberg’s death – after which I was invited back to Paterson to take part in his memorial service.
Over the years, I got to meet many of the other Beats – not Carr or Kerouac – but some of the others Ginsberg helped, some still residing in the same Lower East Side I strolled through today. All but one of them are gone now – the last few clinging to the old traditions in Hudson County and Woodstock, New York – the poet remains alive in me, especially when wandering streets to which I always connected with him even before I actually met him. Hank and I as teens had scoured these very streets for the remains of the Beat movement Ginsberg and others had started in the late 1940s, and in some ways we never found it, or at least not until today seeing it portrayed in the film and then walking out again into that same world Ginsberg spent so many years living in, his feet strolling along these same walks, seeing many of the same things I saw in the twilight.


Christmas job at Toys R Us



December 4, 1980

A missed a day here, a snap of a twig, a beat of the heart, a call from the wilderness.
I missed a day in a long, long series of thoughts. And here I am repeating myself, beginning again where I last left off, starting from scratch.
Yesterday, I worked on my term papers – although really I worked on just one when I had planned to write three.
Getting just one done was struggle enough before I had to head off for my seasonal job at Toys R Us, where the other employees give me the same odd look that my summer job did when they saw me writing.
Inevitably, they always ask the same question: “Are you writing a book?”
But there is one exception, a very loud lady who talks for the sake of talking and could give two shits about what I’m writing as long as it doesn’t interrupt her talk.
There’s a guy I like who is both funny and lazy at the same time. He started the same day as I did and for some reason, this has become a bond between us, as he deliberately tries to crack me up when ever possible, and most often succeeds – at the most inopportune times. So often as not, our wandering boss catches me in mid laugh I struggle to stifle.
Bob – my bonded friend – often wanders around the wide aisles carrying merchandise. I suppose this is a cover so that he looks busy when caught doing nothing.
Sometimes, he tosses a football to me down the crowded aisles, over the heads of the customers, leaving me to catch it or else let it hit some unsuspecting patron in the head.
When he’s not wandering around, he stands in some remote corner eying pretty women and grinning.
He tells me he just got off a ship last month and hadn’t gotten used to the ordinary world and its way of life.
“I’m a seismographer,” he tells me, boasting about his year-long trip on a geographic survey ship. He tells me he wants to go into computers. “That’s where the real money is.”
A lot of times, he falls in and out of songs, perhaps some odd habit he got during those lonely days at sea. These days, he sings the lyrics to the Christmas carols the store constantly plays the Musak versions of.
Last night, we helped the day shift stock the shelves in the company of a guy named Jim.
“That man is seriously crazy,” Bob whispered to me as Jim climbed monkey-like up the pallet racks in back to the top, from which he tossed down to us cartons of games and toys.
Then from down the aisle the boss yelled, “How many times have I told you not to do that?”
It was like the voice of God, making me and Bob jump a little. Jim only shrugged.
“Sorry about that, boss,” he said.
The boss glared at us. “One of you get him a ladder so he doesn’t fall.”
I moved, when Bob didn’t.
The boss settled in front of him and stared at his face, “Who are you?”
“Bob,” Bob said, giving a last name I never caught.
“You new here?”
“Na, I’ve been here a week.”
“How come I’ve never seen you before?”
“Guess because we’re both lucky,” Bob said.
The boss shook his head as he strolled away mumbling.
“Nothing like being anonymous,” Bob said to me with a wink.
Jim tossed more cartons down, but ignored the ladder when it was time for him to come back to the floor.
Later, I found Bob in a corner of the store with a broom. He wasn’t sweeping. He was just leaning on it, grinning, and told me somebody told him he should sweep.
But he wasn’t. This is a standard ploy to look busy only when someone like the boss is looking.
I told him the boss may not know who he is, but that won’t stop the boss from firing him.
Bob shrugged
“No one cares,” he said. “They never do.”
Bob drives Darcy crazy.
She’s Garrick’s cousin who lives in the same apartment building where I live in Passaic. She started just after Thanksgiving and has some kind of seniority, walking around more or less as the boss’ assistant. Neither of us listen to her. Me because I know her too well. Bob because he could give a shit.
She’s always catching the two of us at some grief, goofing off or being in aisles we aren’t assigned to.
Bob likes the back aisle, the one that makes up one whole side of the store and extends from the front window to the warehouse door in the back. This is his favorite place for playing catch, and where we spend most of our time when we can get there, the football rising and falling in endless Hail Mary passes. Each time Darcy catches us at it, she yells, and it has become a ritual of hers to sneak up on us – sneaking down the aisle nearest the warehouse door behind me or Bob.
This time, she got behind Bob just as he threw a very low pass just over the heads of the customers – something he did from time to time to see if they noticed the ball whizzing over their heads.
Darcy stepped out just as he released the ball aimed at me, and just as the boss – who is a foot taller than most people -- stepped out between me and the ball. He wasn’t looking at Bob or Darcy, he was looking at me, wondering why I was standing there doing nothing with my mouth wide open and my hands in the air.
I was looking at the horrified expression on Darcy’s face as her gaze followed the flight of the ball – which inevitably was aimed straight at the back of the boss’ head.
I woke up this morning thinking how much I’m going to miss Bob, and whether he will ever get into computers like he said.


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Alice’s Restaurant in front of Macy’s


 
Hank

Thursday, November 28, 2013

No holiday was ever so important as this one was, when it came to my best friend, Hank, the hippie I met when working as an usher in the Fabian Theater in Paterson in 1967.
We met again in early Spring 1968 downtown, when he promised to come over to my grandfather’s house to hang out.
Being young and foolish, I did not anticipate the culture clash when he strode through the front door to greet the collection of red necks I called my uncles.
“We’re just here to listen to records,” I told them, and then ushered the bell-bottomed, Nehru-shirted long-haired Hank into the dinning room where our only stereo sat – the glares of my uncles following us the way a sniper’s rifle might, each waiting for one false move from Hank.
I closed the pocket doors on their grim faces in the living room. Hank produced an album with a strange man naked from the waste down on the cover, and the name Arlo Guthrie underneath.
I had presumed that we would be listening to my uncle’s collection of records that encompassed country and western and other conservative classics at the time.
From the moment, the needle hit vinyl, I knew there would be trouble, Arlo’s voice going on and on about that Thanksgiving in the church and the trash, and finally when he reached the point about the draft board and started screaming “Kill! Kill! Kill!” and the pocket doors opened to show stern faces even Mount Rushmore would envy, I sank down and wanted to die myself.
Out, Hank went, forbidden to return, and me forbidden to seek him out.

But being 16, I didn’t listen and soon hung out even more with Hank, traveling everywhere, especially to New York. He never tired of speaking and singing every word from the record, and once nearly got us thrown off a New York City bound bus that got stuck near Paterson Plank Road in North Bergen, after he ran through the Alice the Restaurant song word for word three times.
We dreamed of going there, and eventually did, but more importantly, he wanted to sing this song at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And so, one what was the coldest Thanksgiving I can remember, we made our pilgrimage there, and with teeth chattering and the wind threatening to tear off our hats, we sang that song word for word, drawing as much attention from the spectators as we did from my uncles – although some young Hare Krishna girl appreciated our effort, and felt sorry enough for us, to drag us into a coffee shop to buy us Hot Chocolates, and to later wander off with Hank for something even better, while I made my way back to New Jersey, the words of that song still reverberating in me, better even than the turkey I got when I finally reached home.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Chasing the wild turkey



November 26, 1981

My uncle Frank was with me tonight as we looked for his brother along Route 37 in Toms River.
Ritchie was on the loose again, only this time roaming around barefoot and in short sleeves on a day when the temperature fell below freezing.
We shiver even in the car wearing down jackets.
I kept wondering how Ritchie felt.
Or did madness provide its own unique protection, insolating him against the elements after it robbed him of everything else?
“I used to hate going home for the holidays,” Frank said as he drove, twisting the steering wheel to avoid things we could only vaguely see through the misting glass, both of us trying to clear the windshield with our gloves. “There was always something going on. Fights and other shit.”
We both recognized how much the family had deteriorated over the last few years, brothers and sister scattered across the state and even beyond, as if they could not put enough distance between each other for comfort.
This wasn’t new, but none recognized the signs until after I was born and my mother went mad – a family illness that tends to come out in the weakest link, reflecting a struggle for power among the strongest, held in place by a most powerful grandfather – and later by his loving daughter, my mother’s sister. When passed away, so did the family for all intents and purposes – revealed most evidently in the family’s next weak link Ritchie.
This was his fourth attempt since my bringing him down from Passaic to Toms River for Thanksgiving.
I could not trust to leave him alone up north, and he resented my dragging him to meet a family he had no use for any more than they had for him.
Each member of the family had taken turns taking him in, mostly for a week or two. Frank gave up when Ritchie decided to sleep in the cab of his carpentry truck rather than on Frank’s fold out bed, drawing scorn from neighbors who complained about the drinking and the stench. Ted already had my mother and my grandmother to take care of did not need one more of the old family to interfere with the raising of his own family.
He didn’t mind us visiting, but could not handle a mentally ill drunk.
So Ritchie got dumped on me, with the suggestion that I might commit my wayward uncle into one of the less than fine institutions such as Greystone or Bergen Pines, or the terrifying Willowbrook on Staten Island.
They had asked me to do the same thing for my mother, saying that I was so poor that the state could not expect me to pay when each of the other family members had a house or savings the state might tap.
Having my mother in such a place for most my childhood, and her pleading for me to get her out, I could never sign anyone into one of those places – even Ritchie, who I had hated most of my life.
Ritchie terrorized me during those early years when I was still impressionable and my mother in the hospital. I would be sitting on the floor watching television or reading a book and he would come into the house in a drunken stupor and lecture me about everything I was doing wrong in my life. Later, when I started to get in trouble with the law, and got dragged home in the back of a police car, my punishment was to work for him – something each of his younger brothers also suffered until they grew big enough to tell him to fuck off.
I never got big enough and so I avoided him, hiding out in my room, or finding places out of the house to hide – and eventually, I fled the house entirely partly to get away from him.
So it is one of life’s ironies that I should get stuck taking care of him when he got too unstable to take care of himself.
Ritchie may be crazy, but he’s also crafty, playing an assortment of head games – whether to mess with me or get sympathy, I can’t tell
He used to limp around my cold water flat complaining that his leg hurt until I noticed it was never the same leg he complained about, and he stopped.
We found Ritchie finally stumbling towards the on ramp to the Parkway and put him in the back seat of Frank’s car for the drive back to Ted’s place for lack of any place else that would take him. We called the hospital down here and they said they didn’t have room. The police had stopped him on the side of the highway earlier – but did not pick him up even though he was clearly under dressed for the weather.
Ted and his family left for north to see his in-laws, leaving me to lock Ritchie in the spare room downstairs.
But I have to stand guard until it is time to drive back up north for fear that he will again climb out the window and take to the highway barefoot.
Happy Thanksgiving. I keep wondering which one of us is the turkey.