Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The best New Year’s resolution

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Another year passes, but not with great anticipation for improvement as I have mostly hoped for before.
Some years are more hopeful than others, but many are simply an education on the futility of the world, and our inability to learn from our mistakes.
Madness, according to Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
We are a mad race, and one quick to abandon rules we cannot live up to, and so therefore believe should not exist.
I live in a bubble in some ways because our world is marching towards an apocalypse of our own making, and we are too stupid to even see it coming, let alone stop it, or pretend that we do enough – such as becoming paperless in favor of renewable energy, when in truth paper is renewable, and the devices most of us walk around with as if we are the walking dead come from resources in places we need to spill blood to get, and which cannot be regenerated, and behind us, we leave a landscape of electronic ruin so poisonous that our grandchildren will likely be born with three heads.
We have in some ways reverted to the misconceptions of the 1950s in which bigger is better, and I live in a city where I will eventually be driven out by this passion for hugeness I cannot possibly afford or would enjoy, although generations after me will see as normal.
This is the year when anti-racism became fashionable again – after decades of privileged whites hunkered down in suburbia with police to keep their borders safe. The righteous new breed of liberal found nothing wrong with invading a basketball team owners home to undercover his racism – aka any NSA or CIA operation – but then switched sides after cops killed black men in several high profile cases and found the cops under attack. For the generation of kids returning to the city streets bad laws and racist police practices helped make safe, picking a side was difficult.
Of course, that jerk Patrick Lynch screamed bloody murder when a New York City mayor pointed out how unsafe it is for people of color to walk the streets, while Lynch and his ilk protected bad cops who did the killings in the first place.
The so-called feminist movement managed finally to bring down Bill Cosby, adding yet more confusion over the race issue. This feeding frenzy is part of a larger anti-male backlash by largely hypocritical women who played with fire when they were younger in a strange daredevil game, in which they got their cheap thrills by hooking up with bad boys and then came to realize bad boys really are bad boys, and then started hating all men, good or bad. And in the process of liberation, morality and common sense have been abandoned for privilege.
Cosby, whose alleged sins clearly crossed all lines of morality, became a symbol of feminine power to strike back in a war as old as humanity itself and which will never end – partly because modern feminists buy into the media idea of beauty and attraction, and do not understand the basic wisdom that comes with not waving a red flag in front of a raging bull.
This is also the year when gender itself because a muddled mess, and going to a public toilet leads to some very confusing chamber mates. Gay liberation has been trying to mainstream gay life ever since Stonewall, but success is fraught with peril, and what transpires from here on end will be an endless confusion of political correctness, even the most politically correct will find as a minefield.
An old professor once told me that it is unwise to tear down an establishment – no matter how imperfect – before you know what you will replace it with.
We have no idea. We just tear down walls as if they are all like the one that once stood in Berlin – and sooner or later, we’re going to go too far and tear down the wall of a dam and have everything come crashing down on our heads.
New Years each year is always one step closer to that to me and so the best New Year’s resolution for me is to hope that someone somewhere knows what they are doing, when in fact, I know they don’t.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Seashore Christmas

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Our Christmas will be down the shore as we make plans to head there tomorrow.
I guess I’ve ached for this for some time, even though it is not the same shore town that I was used to traveling to each Christmas until my grandmother died, and the world as I knew it changed again.
This is a tough time of year for me, partly because time has stripped away all of the usual traditions I knew, and unlike with the past when such things occurred, no new traditions have replaced them.
When I split from my grandfather’s house in the late 1960s, I was able to find a new family among my friends, establishing a Christmas Eve tradition that filled in the gaps that often occurred with my regular family – especially during the upheaval of family life that took place during the 1970s.
But from about 1977 on, I made a regular trip to Toms River where two of my uncles, an aunt, my grandmother, and mother had settled.
So fixed a routine, I came to associate the beach and ocean with Santa Claus, and often spent Christmas Day strolling the board walk of Seaside, chill or no chill, feeling some empathy for the seagulls and their lonely cries.
Even my best friend wound up down there for the first few years of that routine, so that we not only got together for his birthday on Christmas Eve up north, but often met again on Christmas Day when he went to see his girlfriend in Toms River.
All this ended in 1991 with the death of my grandmother, and my mother’s move north a short time later. I thought perhaps I could revert to the ritual of fiends, who still gathered on Christmas Eve, but this came to an end in 1995 when my best friend died, and the group of friends scattered for the most part, and though we tried to get together again, it just didn’t feel right without him.
I made a few trips to Toms River during the 1990s to see in particular my ailing uncle, and once I even brought my mother south with me so that it almost felt like Christmases of old – it was the last time brother and sister would meet before that uncle died, and within a year, so did my mother.
The oughts as the early 2000s are called were largely devoid of tradition, a wasteland that lacked the spirit I had clung to for so long.

Discovering Asbury Park again, seems to have brought back a sense of this, and with the weather predicted to be bearable, we will go south again, hoping to pick up Santa’s trail, and like three kings far wiser than I’ll ever be, follow some star to some sense of rebirth somewhere we can hear the roar of the sea.

Slipping and sliding

December 18, 1980

Who is left but the color guard when the band ceases playing?
Crowds still clutter the sidewalk, a meandering mass that flows from one glittering holiday display to the next, like moths attracted to flame, seeking last minute shopping deals.
Meanwhile, a single drummer marks time for the last of Passaic’s parade with little left for the participants except to wait for next year’s performance.
Passaic is cold and the only paraders left are the pigeons waddling down the streets pecking at crumbs left by kids and other onlookers, who have moved on to do what is most necessary this last week before Christmas: shopping.
Thick clouds decorate the sky like a cotton roof stuck up there with glue and prayer, destined to fall a bit at a time and cover over streets already laden with ice and chunks of previously fallen snow.
It is still three days until the official start of winter, but the season stomps over this city with heavy boots.
It is my first winter in Passaic without Pauly and Garrick, who have moved on to better digs elsewhere in Jersey.
I feel alone – although their ugly faces keep popping into my head as I expect to see them around each corner, each saying “hello,” or “good bye” or “go to hell.”
I am completely isolated again, a condition I thought I had escaped by leaving the Montclair rooming house, only to discovered that I had packed my loneliness in my bags and brought it with me, only to unpack it now,
I carry it with me even as I stroll these sidewalks and hear the ring of the church bells.
Perhaps they are some sign of hope, something to cling to that will allow me to drag myself out of my current malaise.
Last night my girlfriend came stinking of Christmas cheer, and we cried.
I am so worried about her leaving for Colorado next August that I forget that I still have today.
I also forget how easy it is to lean on her for support and how heavy a burden I must be, knowing in the end I cannot depend upon her or anyone, but have to stand on my own two feet as I have always done – and doing so means being lonely.
It is perpetually winter and the ground always slippery, leaving us to grab hold of something or someone at intervals to keep from falling. But such things are always a temporary relief, something we cannot depend on to last, like an ice covered rail that appears at most need, but soon gives way and leaves us to stumble ahead without support or guidance.
There is the practical stuff such as getting another job now that the Christmas gig at Toys R Us winds down.
But after more than a decade working steady jobs, I understand that labor of any kind is just a trap, something I must do to survive, but should not expect to prosper.
The experiment of college has only incited me to riot, making me ache for things that are only remotely possible, dangling the hope of success when in reality offering only the key to a larger and more elaborate jail cell.
There is hope in it, but not for the mass of people who move through these like cattle to feed the job machine.
And yet, attending school was enough of a distraction for me to keep on. Now with the winter break, I’m lost again. My friends, who had until recently, shared my misery, gone to find new plantations, while I trudge along here in Passaic, slipping and sliding through life’s winters, fearing to tread, and yet equally scared to stay put.

Monday, December 22, 2014

A blue Christmas at Toys R Us

November 29, 1980

“It must be the heat,” one of the customers said as I rang them up and they moved on.
The heat?
My bones ached from the chill even inside the store where I was working for the Christmas rush.
Something had made my pen explode in my uniform shirt pocket, leaving a rink of ink like a bullet hole just over my heart, spreading like a disease to my fingers and then my arm. I even left stains on the cash register keys and left my fingerprints on a number of boxes. I claimed when customers complained that it came off poorly printed labels until some smart assed lady accompanied by a crude dude noticed the stain on my chest and asked if I was bleeding.
“Sure, I’m of royal blood,” I thought, but kept this to myself, bearing the brunt of their abuse with a grin.
I tried hard not to blush, but by then the blue had blotched my skin here and there, and I couldn’t get the manager to give me a break long enough so that I could go to the restroom to wash it off.
He passed my station several times with a strange twinkle in his eyes as if he thought all of this too funny to have it stopped so soon.
This steamed me. And each time I looked back down at myself, I found another patch of blue, and that the circle on my chest left its imprint on my inner arm as if I was Gutenberg and had just invented the printing press, using myself as both press and paper.
I did my best to hide these blue abrasions, bending my wrist in unnatural ways, slumping my shoulders until I looked like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
A lot of people looked at mere queerly. Most thought my whole act as amazingly funny. Some customers refused to move on immediately and would stand and stare and ask, “How come you have all that blue all over you?”
These were mostly kids so the concept of justifiable homicide would not have held up in a court of law.
Eventually, I gave up and started to boast about the pen that had exploded in my pocket, treating as if I had done it more or less intentionally.
Some of the people then came up with theories as to why it had occurred.
But not everybody was pleased.
One lady complained about the blue marks on the ears of the teddy bear she’d just purchased, and didn’t buy my claim that some of the bears came from the factory that way.
“It’s the humidity,” I said, trying not to look down at the poor stuffed creature and how I had marred it.
She pointed to my breast and its spreading circle and told me I was full of shit.
At that point, I told her I had to go to the men’s room, and flagged down the manager who was suddenly concerned about the hold up in the line, standing behind me to listen to my string of excuses.
Finally, he closed down my register and told me to go wash up.
“It’s the heat,” one of the customers said as I made my way away from my station.
But my ears and face were red with a blush that only made the blue marks look darker.
“Yeah, it’s the heat,” I thought.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

That Christmas in the projects

December 24, 1980

My mother has always loved Christmas.
Even when we were down and out and living in the roughest housing projects in Paterson, she refused to give up on the tradition.
Unemployed after suffering intense eye strain sorting through electronic parts at a parts warehouse in West Paterson, my mother’s money dwindled, and yet, at nine, I still pestered her for presents that I generally got in the more plush times when we still lived in my grandfather’s house in Clifton.
We were dirt poor, and took refuge in the heart of the ghetto where my mother ran often in her effort to escape a family she feared and resented.
I still don’t completely comprehend all the issues, only it evolved out of her mental illness, and has she regressed, we often fled into places like the projects or drug-laden places like Carroll Street in Paterson.
I should have felt guilty wanting so much when we had so little, but I was too young to fully understand the depth of our poverty or the extent of my mother’s madness.
I knew enough to not spend too much time in the apartment with her and the voices she claimed she heard, instead seeking refuge in the ruined neighborhood that surrounded the projects. But I had to come back to the apartment to sleep or to fix up my face after being in some fight or another with neighborhood gangs – not a race thing so much although my white face stood out too much in a neighborhood that was mostly one of color – but a conflict over importance and how little any of us had in that part of time.
We had a tiny Christmas fake tree set up in one corner of a very large and largely barren living room. For the most part, the Christmas tree was the only thing in that room because we lacked money or desire to purchase furniture. We didn’t even have rugs to cover the titled floors and so the reflection of tiny tree’s lights and the over abundance of tinsel glittered on the scuffed tiles creating an amazing, if also disturbing effect whenever I came into that room.
Sometimes, I would stand on our balcony and stare out at the other balconies encircled with blinking, colored Christmas lights, realizing that this was indeed Christmas, and I watched the first snow flakes fall while standing there as well, transforming the world beyond the projects into mounds of what might have otherwise seemed like sand, these, too, taking on aspects of the seasonal lights in the buildings beyond. Even the flash of passing police and fire vehicles seemed festive.
But I felt lonely and isolated a remote being that had no place in my mother’s mad imagination or even the violence of the streets. In those moments, I felt like I was the only person alive in the world, or that had I barely existed.
Sometimes it was difficult for me to tell what was mad, and whether there was more sanity in my mother’s voices than in the screams and gunfire I sometimes heard, or the violence I saw, or the fights I barely survived.
But during that moment when the snow first came, when the scars of the half demolished buildings got smoothed over in shrouds of white, everything seemed perfect, yards filled with this magical stuff that had arrived just ahead of Christmas as if a perfect present for me.
In the morning, of course, all this would change as the white surface became marred with thousands of footprints. But even then, when I made my way down into the muck, and left my own mark, it felt good for the moment. Perhaps I didn’t think much about how soon that mark would fade.
All such markers do over time or lose significance.
I don’t think I actually believed in the existence of Santa Claus at that point, something that had last only for the few precious years when I lived at my grandfather’s house while my mother resided at Graystone.
Even if I had, we had no chimney in the projects for Santa to climb down, and the doors upstairs and downstairs were always locked.
But I do remember my mother calling me back inside that evening, her voice wavering not with madness but with love of me she would never lose.
I would not sleep well over Christmas Eve. I slept fitfully every night while living in that place, but on that night in particular, as if I hoped for some special present that would transform all the strange feelings I felt, all the madness inside me, inside my mother and outside in the world we had to live in.
I remember not turning back inside at first when my mother called, but staying there, shivering in my PJs on our 13th floor balcony and staring out at the other buildings, as snow swept across the face of them, obscuring them like smoke.
Later, one of my uncles would come and tell me that Santa had left presents for me at my grandfather’s house.
I missed the place – even though later I would run away from it often and eventually succeed. But at that moment, when the world expected Santa to arrive at any time, and my mother pleaded for me to get inside and sleep before he came, I wanted only to return to the sober if not quite sane existence of my grandfather’s house, where I had a yard to play in, and had snow ball fights with neighbors not fist fights with street gangs.
Maybe I knew I would eventually have to return there, that my mother’s madness would drive us back. Maybe I just hoped too much for a Santa to come who I already knew did not exist. But when I drifted off the night, I could almost hear the sleigh bells ringing, and perhaps I imagined him landing on our balcony, and so on Christmas morning searched the landing for signs of reindeer prints, finding only my own.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A special moment in a perfectly ordinary day

Nov. 1, 1980

A bright morning brings in November, but not with the chill or threat of frost.
Instead, we get the amber of clinging willow leaves and the brown rustle of leaves fallen from other trees, swept ahead of each footstep with the wind.
This early, the sky is milky and red with clouds streaming across it like unfurled sails bearing us to some future of wealthy and success.
A silver sliver streaks across that sky on a flight path of the airport outside Newark as an old woman with extremely bent back moves along with street with a large, black plastic bag stuffing it full of leaves that litter the walk in front of her house.
There is life in this ritual and the crackle and scent of crushed leaves that boast of the end of fall.
For some reason, these things make me think of the sea as if the leaves were the foam of waves, flowing across the yards and streets, catching on street sign posts and telephone poles where like sand they mount up and remain until the next gust or the gust after that moves them again.
I ache for the un-raked lawns where the piles are deepest, and where I could as a boy bury myself, taking on the scent of earth that seems to have escaped me all these years later living so long in a decaying city.
I bathe now in the slanted sunlight that seeps through the still-lingering leaves and casts a patchwork of shadow and light all around me.
This is Saturday, and the cars move through these streets with an urgency different from the usual morning rush, hectic, but not obsessed, as drivers locked in their metal cages rush to take advantage of their days off that the work week normally denies them. The metallic skins glow for a moment, then dull again, only to glow once more as they move through these alternating pools of shadow and light.
From time to time, a car stops, a door opens, a weary father climbs out to test the chill of the air. Along the sidewalk, a paper boy (in this case a girl) tests her timing with a sideward pitch, mostly hitting the top steps of the few porches that populate this block. The father, satisfied with the mild temperature, whistles and from one house or another, kids pile out the front door and into the still opened door of the car.
The birds alone continued to chirp after the car door slams, their singing filling the air with the sense of change the season brings, and anticipate the fading that bring us to the deep freeze and the frozen river top and the struggle of life above and below that ice.
The highway, only a block or so away, begins to raise its voice, a dull roar that again sounds like the sea, but has more odious connotations, this, too, a little later than the usual time as my clock ticks from seven to eight, and I imagine the bleary faces fresh from last night’s Halloween celebrations. All that remains now are the memories of the costumes and the bags of collected still-un-devoured candy on top of kitchen counters, while the wind blows the wrappings of candy devoured during the night.
The stiff breeze rattles empty booze bottles in the gutter, and has a bite to it that contradicts the warmth of sunlight.
Someone coughs, and a man appears at the front yard of the house next door, a cigarette smoldering between the fingers of one hand, while the fingers of the other clutch a steaming cup of coffee. His face bears shadows of a needed shave. He moves slowly, hacking with each step like a badly tuned car engine, his feet stirring up the leaves that have blown across his driveway, which he turns down, and vanishes, although leaving one more cough behind before the slam of a car door and the whine of its starting engine sound. I wait and watch until the car backs out the drive and onto the street, and then moves off with a huff, leaving behind it an even deeper silence.
With the exception of the moving leaves, the wind has no voice, only its chill kiss on my face, a caress that even the birds feel, and they chirp more as if needing to fill the vacuum the distant highway cannot fill.
A squirrel darts down the trunk of a tree, pauses, looks around, then hits the ground running, seeking supplies long buried for this time of year to bring back to its winter lodgings. Some trash cans are overturned in our car port, hinting of the nocturnal visitations of skunks and raccoons seeking also to supply themselves.
I am caught up in this stillness and how it seems to grow around me, devouring the faces big and small faces this morning brings.
No more doors open. They are muted mouths sealed, wordless to defy this moment, or defile this feeling I get from this special day that is not particularly special in any other way.
A cardinal drops from one bare branch to another, gives its sharp chirp, as stark on the tree limb as the last red leaf of autumn might be, then drops again to the ground to dig in the fallen leaves near the edge of a concrete wall, a bit of royalty in this most ordinary scene, claiming rule over everything it surveys, then lifting off suddenly at the shrill laugh of a child I cannot at first see, a child who pops out from an alleyway across the street.
The moment is gone.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Hands up; don’t shoot

Saturday, December 06, 2014 This is not the way it is supposed to be;
When we elected a black president, we thought the killing would stop, or that black people would have an ally in the government they could call on when things got tough on a local level – the way our flawed memory made it look back in the day when Kennedy was president or LBJ.

It was never as good as we remember it, and just the same as it is now, black president or white, the black man on the street still walks with a target on his back – and behind the gun that shoots him is a whole parade of public officials thick with excuses as to why it happened and how they will do their best to keep it from happening again, embarrassed liberal mayors who promise justice and deliver bullshit, conservative congressman who screech about law and order after they have spent decades degrading the system so that poor people – most of them of color – must feel ashamed to want public assistance, or even get what they deserve from government, because the rich whites do not want to have to share the wealth they have made off the backs of poor, underpaid working class or more nefariously feeding the drug machine they thought would help quell the riots that broke out a generation ago.

We get tea party jerks telling us how much urban schools cost, and how much people in the suburbs have to pay in taxes after white people fled the cities in order not to have to live side by side with people of color, or share the wealth that whites made in the aftermath of a war that was designed to save the world from fascism.
Taxes rose because whites decided to build white-only enclaves elsewhere, building new roads, new schools, and new shopping districts (then called malls) that would keep them from having to improve the places they abandoned.
But they always ached to come back, to retake the cities, and so invented laws that locked black men away at a rate that only the Nazis might envy and we supposedly fought a world war to stop, building prisons so that the streets might be “clean again,” and safe again for whites to feel comfortable in.

The police, of course, were always the barrier between the races, regardless of what color the faces were wearing the uniform, much like the British soldiers that occupied this or that country – they always had house slaves they could trust to betray their own, to help become part of the shock troops that kept the rest of the slaves in line, while white men still served as overseers.
But jails became too expensive, too, and our society to its credit (if you dare call it that) was just not willing to go as far as the Nazis did in creating a final solution. This said, a man in a jail cell could die from AIDS because jail guards would not protect him from being raped, or from a host of other less notorious illnesses because providing healthcare to inmates was not society’s first priority.

But people of color simply didn’t die off fast enough and so we return them to the street, jobless, dreamless, no more ready for the world than when they went in, and often with families starving because whites did no more to make the cities better than when they fled in the first place.
Gentrification has become the new means of social control, constructing living spaces people in these cities can’t afford, narrowing the landscape of the ghettos in much the way Nazis did in the precursor to sending them to the camps, so that like rats people of color had to living in smaller and squalid spaces while watching white prosperous people build new enclaves inside the cities, and day by day watching their own existence deteriorate.
Now, it is not distance that keeps rich from poor, or patrol cars guarded gated communities in other parts of the state, but shock troops of cops prowling the border between neighborhoods, like an occupying army, their duty to serve and protect.

You can’t blame cops. They are the of the stick held by the hand of a system of justice never designed to live up to its name, Justice, but to guard wealth and protect a way of life which does not include people of color.
Of course, we all bought into the fallacy that if we elected black leaders and we got friends in government that somehow those leaders would change the culture and stop inevitable social cleansing this generation’s gentrification actually is.
But the, what we get is a black president arming white police with military weapons, and we know it can’t be for the benefit of those being shot down with the ordinary kind.
We have seen this before. Jewish activists say the pattern is always the same: you strip people of their rights, isolate them, and kill them. Fascism, by whatever means, whether a gas chamber or city zoning, always operates the same way, and always comes to the same conclusion, someone lying dead in the streets.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Bill Cosby: A tragic hero?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Here we go again.
Another main stream black man is torn down from his pedestal – or perhaps, undid himself.
Bill Cosby differs from OJ Simpson in most ways, partly because as a co-worker put it, many people of every color grew up with his TV show, and indeed, came to see him as The American Dad.
OJ was always little more than a minstrel show success, a sport star whose physical accomplishments brought him into our homes each week. We admired his skill, but never really got to know or admire the man.
Cosby is different. He got inside of us, and convinced us that he was just like us.
And this is even truer now, painfully true, because we have discovered he is extremely flawed.
Although the idea that he is a tragic hero won’t sound good to most feminists, it is an accurate description of Cosby, someone brought down from great popular power by his own inner flaws.
Unlike Othello, the other classic tragic hero, Cosby’s flaw hurts women, creating victims and misery, ruining whole lives for a moment of his self-indulgence – if indeed, the mounting accusations are true.
I don’t want them to be true. I want to continue to admire a man I have admired for so long.
But like all fallen heroes, the real tragedy is the betrayal of faith, and the loss those beyond the man feel when they have misplaced their trust.
We trusted this man to be what he said he was, a standard to which we could all hopeful aspire (few of us manage it), and now, with the man’s image crumbling, we are left with a rubble and no one to cling to.
Othello’s fall was tragic because he failed to live up to his own potential; Cosby’s is tragic because he has undone all that he has accomplished, and we will have to step gingerly through the wreckage, searching for any pathetic nugget of dignity left behind.
The problem is with his crimes – if they are true – is that they are so horrible as to scorch the very earth, and so as to taint forever anything he has touched. We will no longer be able to watch him as The American Dad and not see the rapist, or hear behind his protests over loss of value when it comes to hip hop and not think of the women he supposedly drugged.
What is wrong with the man, we think? So popular a figure, could he not simply have hired a prostitute if he so needed sex?
But this is not about sex. This is about power and powerlessness, and his crime is one of violence, not lust. He took advantage of trust, of people who came to him as a mentor or he put them in a powerless position so he could do what he wished. This is little different from the man who imprisoned women in his basement for decades. This is about Cosby having power over his victims. Sex was only the excuse.
And so his fall from grace is our fall from grace as we scramble to find a new more legitimate hero to believe in. But his fall will also make us skeptical that we can ever find another hero or if such heroes actually exist.
And that is the real tragedy.

A new bed

A new bed

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Trip to Vegas (1970)

July 11, 1980

Merrill find the small black kitten in the parking lot of Two Guys in Garfield brought the memory back about the two black cats Louise and I inherited in Las Vegas that last time we were there.
We didn’t even have a home.
We had hitched up from Phoenix with all our possessions on our backs, and the single thought of finding Gil – who we’d learned had picked up and moved there from our last seeing him in Phoenix.
Gil, a plump man that looked more like a grocery store clerk than a drug dealer, had taken us in when we passed through Phoenix a year earlier on our way back to Denver and – we had hoped to Alaska, and again on the way back when Alaska turned to be out of reach.
But the year had taken its toll – on us as well as we were to learn on Gil.
We had no wheels this time, and had hitched to Phoenix from L.A., and when we found Gil gone (the person pointed us to Las Vegas), we hitched from Phoenix to Las Vegas, with the last stretch on the wings of a high flying gasoline truck on a roller coaster of a road that looped this way and that, up and down, and around in what was supposed to be a north/south highway, after the madman behind the wheel picked us up half frozen from an overnight in the desert. We had unpacked a large white blanket with the hopes of attracting a ride in the dark after having spent hours staring up at the sky full of stars.
I remember seeing my first shooting star that night as it streaked across the sky overhead, and then others, a regular light show we kept mistaking for omens that someone would eventually stop and pick us up, some truck or van would pull over and let us in.
We never expected the gasoline truck to pull over or for the grinning face of its driver to look out and say, “well, what are you waiting for? Get in.”
And so we did.
“Thanks,” I said, once we had settled onto the front seat with him. “It was getting pretty cold out there.”
The driver grinned. He was a round man and big, fattened around his middle on greasy food from highway diners. But he was as warm as sand and a cheerful as a rising sun at dawn.
“Yep,” he said.  “It gets mighty chilly in these parts after dusk, and the sand cools so quick as to have you think its snow by moon light.”
He laughed. His bellow filled the whole cab.
“Where are you headed?” he asked.
We told him Las Vegas and he chuckled again.
“Going there like those other folks to make your fortune?” he asked.
We laughed and told him, no.
“We’re trying to find a friend,” Louise said.
The truck had started moving again and her dog, Midnight (a black terrier she had gotten in LA) bounced on her lap as the truck hit a bump. She sat on the hump of the transmission.
“Most folks I meet on the road travel this way to get rich,” the driver said. “They clutch green in their fists, misers keeping their money safe.”
He laughed again, a bellow that again filled the cab.
“Then they come back along the same road, thumbs stuck out, heads down, eyes staring at the ground as if searching for pennies, looking plum tuckered out, and without any green,” he said.
He fell silent as the desert glowed outside with the first touch of dawn. Clumps of grass appeared like fingers pointed towards the sun, and hills rolled northing heading towards the place the map said a dam existed.
I lit a cigarette and closed my eyes, listening to the dog scratch and the heavy breath of the driver exhaling in a near sigh.
I didn’t dare tell him how our fortune had been made and lost already, how our riches had come from New Jersey and not Las Vegas, and had dribbled away in LA like the receding waves of Santa Monica.
I said nothing, and yet, I got a feeling he already knew or guessed.
This may be why he started to talk. The words came out slowly, hesitantly, as if he had to dig each one up like a deeply buried sand crab which he let wiggle before letting it go.
“I know you,” he said. “Oh not you in particular, but a thousand faces just like yours, all wearing the same strangled look, like a medal or a bleeding heart. I’ve done this here run for eight years, and the LA to Denver run for ten years before that. I’ve seen your kind walking the sides of highways like lost sheep, with your eyes sunken and your thumbs hanging out. I guess maybe I looked like that myself once – lost.”
He lapsed into an uneasy silence as if he’d wanted to say more, but wasn’t sure we would listen. Louise nodded out on my shoulder with the dog’s big eyes turning to look at me and then at the driver, head down on its two front paws.
I petted him, and then I glanced out the side window at the short streets and the red sandy rock now sprouting up like some new kind of plant, a plant unlabeled by science, never classified in any books.
I guess that’s what I felt most inside of me, the lack of classification, a lack of importance. School never taught me who I was, just what other things were. The teachers made a point of stressing hard, core facts like what Washington or Jefferson did. They told us that two plus two added up to four. But they never told us how Washington hated water, or that Jefferson hated Hamilton, or that two plus two doesn’t put a meal on a table or a buck in my pocket.
But you had to have money before you could count it, and count it, I did.
I counted every bill I had taken from that safe back east, glancing over my shoulder the whole time, terrified that my uncles would discover me.
“You know, kid,” the driver suddenly spoke again. “I spent a long time running to every bar and every bitch from here to Needles and it didn’t do me any good. You goat find a place and stick to it – even if it’s a hole. Maybe we all have to settle down soon or later. Some folks settle in a home with a nice lawn and a station wagon, other settle for nothing, taking cheap jobs and women until they die.”
Again, he paused and I found myself staring at him, drawn to what he was saying like a fly to fly paper.
“Where do you come from, Marty?” I asked, suddenly curious about the man and what he had settled for.
The road twisted in front of us and he swung the wheel in silence with only the hum of tires growling beneath the truck like some partly tamed beast waiting for a chance to spring away.
Marty chuckled, raising Midnight’s ears. The man glanced at me his warm blue eyes, thanking me for a chance to speak and help slay his own ghosts.
He said he was born, raised and died in a little dust bowl of a town called Simon’s Ridge, ten miles north of Needles, and a million years away from anything else. It was a ghost town with living ghosts, desert rats and sorry old men who spent their lives in the town’s main attraction, the Golden Bear Tavern, telling tales that had died fifty years earlier but with a sense of undeserved importance. Even the town’s name had come from a doubtful legend, involving someone who had killed thirteen Indians and six cows in an epic adventure.
Marty had seen all of them come to the small town from other places like LA, where nobody wanted them to settle in the small town until they passed away. Some were even losers from Las Vegas looking to hide out until they found another dollar to go back or a razor to cut their wrists.
“They would steal the dollar if they could,” Marty said. “Or beg for one, promising to pay you back ten fold when they came into their own.”
The town also attracted every dusty stranger and horny cowboy from a hundred miles around, drunken but with just enough cash to pay for an hour upstairs above the bar with Marty’s mother.
“For a long time, I didn’t get it,” Marty mumbled. “When I finally did, I lit out for LA. I was 15, and found work loading trucks.
The problems came later: drinking, women, and fights that led him to confrontations with the police.
Marty shifted gears as the road wound around in the direction of Boulder Dam. The landscape changed into ridges and valleys, all carved out in red stone and short shrubs popping out of sandy soil.
I ached for the sight of a single tree – and evergreen that might break up the bleak landscape pale gravel.
Marty went on with his tale, but I only half listened. I kept trying to make sense of what we had done, seeking some logic to why we had left LA in search of Gil, mapping out the first trip in my mind when we’d first met him on our way to Denver.
We had stumbled into Phoenix with about five grand left from the original bundle of numbers money I had looted from my uncle’s safe in New Jersey, and left Phoenix with only four, not realizing the loss until we’d reached Albuquerque where I’d had a chance to count it all out on top of a dresser in a cheap motel.
We’d been ripped off of some of the money I had ripped off, and I recalled leaving the bag open slightly in Gil’s place while we – me, Louise and Dan went out on the town looking for LSD to take.
And here, I had thought they were just so kind to us, taking us in as they had, and feeding us, and seeing us off again with broad smiles – when the whole time they had plans of their own to escape Phoenix, and used their stolen cash to make the move after we had gone.
I shuddered. The sleeping Louise stirred on my shoulder but did not wake. Midnight shifted, snorted and gave me a dirty look.
Now, we were flying back into Gil’s arms, this time with only twenty dollars to our name. We were hoping to make a withdrawal from the money deposited in Gil’s wallet. After all, it was the least they could do.
I kept thinking of Gil’s wife, a quiet, but clear-eyed woman, always smartly dressed for her job as a civilian secretary working for the Phoenix police – a perfect cover for her husband who sold small amounts of drugs to pay the rent.
The truck roared down the final winding hill towards the dam. Marty’s hands shifted gears with the agility of a circus performer, rarely slowing down the truck even as the worst of curves, sending me into a quiet panic as I pondered what would happen if we overturned with all of the gas in the back.
But my thoughts kept drifting back to Phoenix, and how we had wanted to press on, after having spent one night in Phoenix, sleeping in the back of the van, and how Gil and his wife had convinced us to stay over for a few days.
“You can always leave in the morning,” Gil’s wife had said sweetly, but the tone felt wrong, like a Sweet Tart, pleasant at first, only to turn sour later. But I never suspected anything, even when the police surrounded our van in the parking lot of the Taco Bell the night before we were scheduled to leave.
“You’ll be going to jail for a long, long time,” the undercover cop said, a shit-eating grin on his face, coffee-stained teeth glinting with the flashing police car lights.
Someone had tipped them that we were carrying drugs. But the police cruiser lights slowly fell away when after their search they found nothing except our growling dog, Midnight, and one pot seed at the bottom of a butt filled ashtray.
I never suspected Girl or his wife until later.
As the winding column of the river and the dam appeared, I realized that we had a lot to collect here, to make up for a year of being over our heads in poverty, barefooted and jobless on Hollywood Boulevard.
And then, I caught up with Marty’s stream of talk and realized that what he had come up to also fit me.
“You just can’t ever get even,” he was saying. “You try and try but you just can’t do it.”
And we both sat still in this ever moving tank of gas as the giant concrete arms of the dam welcomed two more losers to the edge of Nevada, welcoming two more into the flock.
Louise sniffled and stirred, and eventually wok, her eyes red as they clung to the edges of sleep.
Midnight greeted her with an excited bark, as if he could read our immediate future, and could see what we could not, perhaps even foreseeing the two black cats we would pick up – the only fortune we would actually get out of coming here.
I thought all this ten full years later as I stared down into the cardboard box Merrill had acquired to house her new found parking lot kitten, it stretching up, claws scratching as if to climb out, desperate and empty, hungry, just the way I felt, but hungry for something more than just food or fame, hungry for some satisfaction I had yet to achieve, and perhaps never would.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Puff piece

Saturday, November 01, 2014

The Star-Ledger ran a puff piece on Asbury Park just prior to an election of no confidence in the current administration – and included Madam Marie’s as a lure for the upscale population city father’s hope will repopulate the one-time working class resort.
This has always been a sale pitch designed to make the place attractive to “a better class” of people, and it seems the media is going along with it – most likely for the advertising dollars.
This pitch comes at a time when the place is filled with vacant lots and a shortage of off-Boardwalk eateries in a town that is currently known for its music, its gay hotel and a funky way of life serving as bait in a game that will later become bait and switch once the upscale people move in and there is no room for “artists.”
Indeed, the one off Boardwalk sports bar/eatery is so overcrowded that after five on some nights you have to wait an hour or more to get seated with prospective upscale people spilling out onto the street like street gangs of old.
One owner of a somewhat funky place on Cookman complained about the city’s plans to upscale the community, noting that it would only draw in people who already have homes elsewhere and merely want summer residences.
“They won’t invest anything in the community,” she said. “They won’t care about the schools or the services. They will come here in the summer and then leave.”
The puff piece in the newspaper – like several others in more local papers – clearly was placed to help influence an election in which voters want to throw the city father’s out because of their persistent misguided vision of what Asbury Park is supposed to become, and put in officials that will look to create a more legitimate city rather than a playground for the wealthy and perhaps void the monopoly of the developer who currently gobbles up property to build it.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Al Bum’s Halloween

Oct. 31, 1980

The ghosts haunt; they fly by night and come to scream and howl; they bang on things; they rattle their chains.
There is a thrill in the air, as well as a chill, shivering down children’s spines as they stumble down concrete paths invading door after door with masks on and baskets, and an unquenchable thirst for excitement.
It’s the same now as it was when I was a boy when me and Dave darted out from dark places formed by the crisscross of street lamps.
I dressed up at a bum one year, something Leonard and Craig would never let me live down once they caught me on the street. Both of them signed my grammar school year book “to my favor Al-bum.”
For a while it was funny, but it eventually wore thin, and for a time I came to hate them, but even that faded, and it never stopped me from dressing up when Halloween came around.
Dave always dressed up as a ghost; I dressed up as a hobo. And we continued to invade houses in our neighborhood with a paper bags until we started to hear the whispers behind us as the doors closed saying, “They’re a little old to be trick-or-treating.”
Even then we laughed, and developed another strategy, attaching ourselves to groups of kids so we didn’t stand out as much. They appreciated having larger kids around because by that time, other larger kids didn’t dress up at all, but slunk around in shadows waiting for groups of kids to come along so they could grab the bags from the smaller kids and run away. Dave and I scared them off, only a few times getting into a fight that attracted so much attention, these kids fled fearing someone would call the police.
We kept our costumes simple – not like today where they cost a fortune to buy.
We figured if we wanted to rot our teeth with candy, we weren’t going to go broke doing it.
Tonight is Halloween. I’ll be going off with my girlfriend to see my best friend’s band play, although I’ll still look out at the kids on the sidewalks, and wonder just how safe they are – this being a much more violent time than when I grew up, and with far fewer people like me and Dave to dress up as ghost and bum to fend them off.  We hear all the talk about razors in apples and people with guns, and I wonder if perhaps I would trade my hobo outfit for one that resembled a cop’s. Maybe I won’t think too much about it, especially with the crew that hangs around the band. I’m sure most of them will dress up, and I’m even tempted to do so myself, certain that I can find a ragged pair of jeans and some old coal dust from down in the basement.
I’ll probably get drunk anyway.
But I know my costume is my memory, which swirls around me, wrapping my present in its arms, keeping me whole wherever I am, filled with the echoes of Craig and Leonard shouting, “Hey, Al Bum!”

Mischief night

Oct. 30, 1980

It’s the day before Halloween, a day that meant real trouble when I was young – not for me, but for every single car window within blocks of my house I could lay a piece of soap on.
We called it goosey night; elsewhere people called it mischief night.
But over the years, I’ve seen the tradition fade from the somewhat maniacal passion we put into the evening’s festivities.
Halloween itself was supposed to have been the wild night, the night before All Soul’s Day.
But society found ways to clean up the wild holiday so that eventually a new night evolved in which we could let out our wild spirits.
Yet in my travels, I found some places never expanded the transition, and the idea of a night for mischief seemed as alien as some of the characters that showed up at people’s doors begging for treats.
In Portland, mischief night was still Halloween, keeping with the tradition that ghosts and goblins let loose prior to All Soul’s Day, so that trick-or-treaters were often intermingled with mischief makers like me. But even at that it is tamer than what I’m used to back east, and only those from my part of the country recognize the difference, or are even aware that mischief night ought to be on a different night than Halloween.
People in the southwest seem to know nothing of this primitive habit, and look on me with shock and dismay when I mention it, asking why anyone would so such an uncivilized thing as that.
And to tell you the truth there is no way to explain the exhilaration I’ve felt fleeing down a dark street, staying in the shadows street lamps cannot illuminate to the pop, pop, pop of leftover fireworks and the raised voices of angry people trying to find out where we went so they could ring our necks.
Or the smug pleasure we felt walking to school the next day when we saw red-faced people scrubbing soap or wax off the windshields of their cars. Sometimes, a besmirched store display would go all the way into the Christmas season uncleaned, giving us a good laugh each time we passed knowing that those marks were ours.
We were leaving our mark on the world, getting our small piece of immortality.
Something people today seem not to understand, even though many of them grew up in the same place and time as I did.
Knowing all this, I’m still debating whether or not to move my car to some “safe” location, seeing myself red-faced in tomorrow’s cold scraping soap, wax or worse off my windshield.
When I was younger and on the other side, I saw it all as right and proper – and important ritual I had to do each year on this day.
I was telling people I existed, even if they didn’t know exactly who I was.
These days, I’m still trying to leave my mark, not with a bar of soap, but in other ways, and these days, I want people to know exactly who did it.
Still, I feel the urge to get some soap. If I do, I’ll start with my own car.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Museum to the Icon of Asbury Park

October 19, 2014

His face stares back at us through the window so that we might never forget who he is and what he’s done, this icon of Asbury Park to whom so much is attached – the fingers clinging to his shirt tails so that something can survive here when so much else has not.
This place is like a church with images of holiness we feel even though we are separated by class and time, having never met this savior from the streets, and likely never will, but rubbing shoulders with those who have, high priests of this new religion who lead us through the litany, a never ending passion play in which their god has not yet been crucified and perhaps may never, leaving this city – this place from which he sprung – to be sacrificed instead, while he tries real hard to keep his hands clean, a combined Pilot and Christ, over whom we rub our own hands and ponder out own guilt.
And when let into this new chapel of love, we look upon his apostles in their various poses, guitars instead of crosses, a saxophone, the notes of which we hear just by looking, and the highest of priests giving us a brief and sad tour of this Nazareth by the sea, and how like Jerusalem of old, awaits the invasion of Roman legions, and the desecration of the Philistines who will build their own chapels on the foundations of musical places of prayer, and will change money in their need to make this place over into something other than it was, with this one last holy place to testify to what went on before the walls of Jericho fell.
Luck and antiques brought us back to Cookman on Sunday to find the music museum open and a display of official E-Street Band and other photos as well as band photos from nearly every facet of Springsteen’s career.
We had passed the store front a number of times during previous trips, but it has always been closed, leaving us to peer in at unexplained memories. We came to this place on this day only because of a last minute reluctance to leave Asbury Park so soon – and as we always did during our visits to Cape May, we took one last stroll, hoping we might find some bit of magic we missed. In Cape May, this stroll usually allowed us to see dolphins or butterflies absent earlier in our visit.
Finding the museum open, we went in, and became drenched in nostalgia for a time, place and performances we had no living memory of. The museum was displaying photos taken by the official photographer of The Stone Pony – which included a number of pictures taken at Clemons’ night club in Red Bank.
The photographer was even on hand to talk about the history of these clubs and the history of Bruce.
I had seen the photographer earlier at The Stone Pony when the Jody Joseph Band had played along with students – as it turns out – from a school run out of this very museum.
I had a number of questions – one of which involved the physical look at The Stone Pony which seemed different from what I remembered during my visits in the 1970s.
And for good reason.
The place had changed hands several times, even owned by Dominic Santana, who I knew as the owner of Hardgrove CafĂ© in Jersey City. He apparently got overwhelmed running The Stone Pony and sold his interest to a developer who has since gobbled up nearly all the sacred music institutions in Asbury Park, either to knock down – as was done with the Fast Lane, Student Prince and other less noted places, or to use as a sales pitch for the condos destined to fill every square inch of what had once been a working man’s seaside amusement city in a monopoly city fathers granted because they were too inept to deal with the problems they were elected to solve.
The developer currently owns the Stone Pony, the Wonder Bar, and large chunks of the historic boardwalk. Because of the name recognition of the Pony and Wonder Bar, the developer has invested into upkeep on the buildings – including addition of a doggie outdoor area at the Wonder Bar where dog owners might get drunk while their dogs romp around.
At the Pony, the developer added a canopy to the front door, and raised what had once been a very leaky flat roof. None of these changes, however, guarantee the bar’s survival, but the developer will squeeze out of them all possible good will, after which they will likely also vanish, once public attention is turned elsewhere. One plan would move all such institutions up onto the boardwalk so as to make even more vacant land available for even more condos so that the city fathers can collect even more taxes and drive real estate prices so high working people can no longer afford to live in Asbury Park in an upscale version of the old song, “Another Pleasant Valley Sunday.”
This conversation with the photographer also dispelled a popular myth that Bruce had purchased The Stone Pony to save it – when Upstage Club still rots only a block from the museum.
The photos in the museum were well worth looking at, giving image to what I had only heard or read about, a physical reality to a world that once was but can never be again.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Dark morning

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I hear the rain before I see it, this dark October morning, a week or so before my world converts again to Day Light savings, and I feel the rain before I hear it, a heaviness on my chest that stirs me out of sleep and my usual dreams of the deep sea. Like John Lennon, I am the son of a sailor – though it may be the only thing we have in common. I am also the grandson of a boat builder and so feel the tides rise and fall inside of me, sensing the change of seasons just before they arrive.
Drenching rain like this at this time of year always marks the real shift from the lingering warmth to the edge of bitter cold, a harsh fact of life I have come to accept if not quite welcome, since I need one to realize how special the other is, the cold to make me understand the tenderness of warmth.
And yet, my best moments near the sea do not come with bright sun and intense heat, but with the moody gray of heavy clouds and the lonely cry of seagulls bemoaning the change, as they begin their long search for food.
This is midweek, and so I will not see the sea for several days, yet already know a chill air will greet me, if not gray skies.
I ache to walk near the edge of the water, risking the cold kiss of the waves as they consume the sand near my feet – and like Madam Marie, trying to predict which one will come closest and if I will have time to escape the hissing touch of the water when it comes.
Here in the real world, everything is slick, the headlights illuminating dull pavement so that the streets do look as if paved with gold, wet now, but destined in a short time to grow slicker with ice, a risky proposition in a place where people do not handle adversity well.
In the dark of early morning, I feel the madness of the planet, and see people who have given up all civility in order to get somewhere ahead of everyone else, even if it isn’t worth getting there. The radio newscasters report collisions and crashes now instead of mere accidents, because they have ceased to be accidents at all, but the careless aftermath of careless acts of careless people I have to steer around, and like with the waves, predict how close they will come before making contact.
We are all invisible in the dark, shadowy shapes hutched over steering wheels, peering out into the dimness ahead, trying to get some place safely. I keep thinking of my father, who sailed through an atomic cloud as a seaman, and later died of cancer – and wonder if there was a connection, and if he felt the same sense of being lost as I do on mornings like this – and the same sense of impending change.
The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 came in stark sunlight with extremely blue skies, and so I have come to dread sunlight, knowing that disaster can strike even when I can see for miles and miles the way I could that day. Perhaps it is because we assume we are safe when we can see all, and make no similar assumptions on dark mornings like this, when we are overly cautious and thus manage somehow managing to avoid being hit by the waves – the instincts of a son of a sailor more acute in foul weather, when the chill of the air gives warning.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Cat people of Ocean Grove

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Leave it to us to stumble over the cat people of Ocean Grove during our last stroll there before making our way home last weekend.
And for them to have migrated there from our neighborhood in Jersey City was even more remarkable.
We were making our way down into the side streets off the beach for a glimpse of the Victorian era houses that lined either side when we came about Barbara and a number of others pulling weeds and cutting back the grass where it encroached on the sidewalk.
Their Victorian was as big and magnificent as those to either side of it, but in sadder shape, and with multiple cats in every window.
Although Barbara’s family had moved from Griffith Street in Jersey City in 1959, she still recalled fondly growing up there.
“It was as good place to live and go to school,” she said.
She and her family still come back to tend the family graves in the cemetery on Garfield Avenue.
“It’s a wonderful place,” she said, referring to the graveyard. “We like wandering the paths afterwards.”
She inherited the house when her parents died and it’s been a struggle ever since.
“We just can’t keep up with it,” Barbara said, testifying not just to how exclusive Ocean Grove is with its wealthy families and its expensive bed and breakfast places, but also to the plans for nearby Asbury Park which has delusions of grandeur as the city father’s dream of turning the hold vacation of the working class into something exclusive, if not as push as Deal, then at least, upscale as Long Branch, where people like Barbara (and for us that matter) would not be welcomed.
“We have volunteers helping us fix up the place,” Barbara said, suggesting that she may have had some warning from the city, and openly pointed out neighbors who object to having the house become a haven for local stray animals – especially cats.
“We’re thinking about moving to Delaware,” she said, one more migration of the working poor from a state that caters to the super rich and the extreme needy, the wealthy new population raising property values to the point where ordinary people can’t afford to live here, or pay the taxes if they are like Barbara and got their house free and clear – this also the future of Asbury Park once the new development moves in, city fathers rubbing their hands in anticipation of getting new revenue from the condos.
This won’t affect Ocean Grove much, since it is historically a religious community and has already become an enclave too exclusive for the working poor to afford. But in Asbury Park, where building after building has been demolished in an economic game of musical chairs, old families may be driven out one by one along with the iconic institutions the city fathers are too ashamed to maintain.
Bruce Springsteen’s line from “Provin all night,” came to mind then: I’m working real hard to get my hands clean,” showing the struggle to fit in with this new world full of clean hands.
But Barbara’s hands are covered with dirt from hard work, something that seems very alien to the new world this place has become.
Yet as poor as these people were, they insisted we live with something from their garden, and loaded us down with tomatoes and plums, which we at later at our first meal back in Jersey City.