Saturday, May 31, 2014

Top of the world

Saturday, May 31, 2014

I looked over the top of the world from the highest part of the city and felt the wind of change coming.
This is something of a silly concept since each day things change, and we keep looking for omens that will predict some major change in our lives or the world.
This was a cool day with bright skies, like that day now nearly a decade and a half ago when I stood atop of towers in Secaucus and looked across the Palisades to see one, then a second smoldering tower on the far side.
No wandering jets struck anything on this rise to the top in Jersey City this week, but I was struck by a similar feeling, of something passing that can not be brought back, a loss of something valuable that perhaps nobody but me would miss, and even I am hard pressed to put my finger on what it is in the first place.
I’ve been singing old songs from the 1960s, and realize that we had it right back then, and let something important slip away that we also cannot get back, a sense of innocence perhaps, or perhaps a sense of purpose.
When the overdressed tour guides who brought me up to the top of the world told me it was time to go, I was reluctant to leave, not because I felt particularly attracted to the new arrangements they had made in this old place, this magnificent tower among many magnificent towers, but because whatever it was I was losing still resided there, perhaps only a memory, a lingering wisp of something that was slowly evaporating from the top and was about to get whisked away by the wind.
This place, a nursing facility built at the height of rising American power at the pit of American poverty, was always meant to exude the opulence that the new masters had brought to it, the polished marble of its lobby, the fabulous reach it had over the world, the movie theater built into its belly in a tribute to excess. Nothing was being lost here, but rather something restored to what it once was. So this was not the change I felt, or the sense of loss, or even the odd feeling I had come to this place for some purpose and once there, could not discern what it was.
I have wandered the feet of these great towers for several decades, watching them slowly decay, and then watching their face get painted white again, while at their feet the darkness of poverty remains, poor neighborhoods strewn with people whose lives are constantly in struggle, who must once again look up at these towers with envy as the patrons here shuttle in and out, sleeping in the midst of human bondage, but escaping it without seeing it.
Coming down into the luxurious lobby used by movie makers to recapture the gilded age of the 1930s, I felt like an invader – even some of the other guests did not particularly find my torn jeans and denim jacket suited to the occasion in which women wore evening gowns and men everything short of tuxedos. I had more in common with the security guards who chuckled as I came and went, seeing me as an invader, too, but one with an invitation to the ball whose fairy godmother had forgot to sew me better clothing or supply me with glass slippers so I might look and fell the part.

When I walked away to my car (which was had not turned back into a pumpkin, I still felt the ache of change, and it wasn’t even midday, let alone midnight.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Bob’s famous bookstore in Boonton

May 25, 1980

I don’t know what Bob was thinking when he opened a book shop on Main Street in Boonton.
Maybe he liked the way the street looked, so quaint and small town with its barber shop, market, library, police station. Maybe he liked the fact that he didn’t have to travel far to get to the local tavern, or the small pond.
Maybe he liked the fact that this main street looks more like it belongs in San Francisco than in New Jersey, a street that tilts high, and then suddenly veers south near the top.
I don’t even know why he opened a book store at all, except for the fact that he’s collected so many books for so long since long before high school, he figured he might as well try and make a living at it – only these aren’t the kind of books other people would want, taking a PhD in multiple subjects to get passed the introduction of each.
Hank and I come here often, wandering off to the pizzeria when we get hungry for something other than hours of talk over literature and best sellers, sitting on the stoop with books, comic books and cokes hour after long hour, often waiting for Pauly to appear or an excuse to leave.
I like the town because it makes me think of all those small towns I passed through going to and from the west, but a tiny town twenty odd miles from Midtown Manhattan, and sitting here makes me think of other times, perhaps better times, and all the silliness we three have inspired in the name of wasting time, washing up here finally in this odd place, wasting even more time as we watch traffic and the steady trickle of cars going up or down the steep hill.
It is always amazingly hot in Bob’s book store, as if the books exuded steamy breath their content could not inspire, making us sweat, making us ache for something other than intellectual pursuits. We talk about authors we’ve read, and haven’t yet read, though rarely talk about what is really on our minds, the intensity of feelings that remain closed books in our lives, books whose covers we dread to open for what they might do to us, each having opened on or two previously, only to get sucked in and spit out, only to become wounded by an adventure we never expected to take.
How desperate am I to strive to become a wordsmith when some words scare me, four letter words like love or lust, words for all our high talk we do not mention except as remote concepts, and yet, words thrill me, chill me deep in the bones even in Bob’s boiling book shop, the thrill of laying claim to something and conveying it so powerfully other people are moved. They pop up like flowers each time I pick up and pen and start, as if contained in the pen or my fingers, instead of my mind, bordering the imaginary streets I wander in my dreams the way trees and parking meters line these streets.
This building we sit in or in front of, looks like a box, built with red bricks of alternating shades of red, light and dark, except near the base on either side of the front stoop which have pale, perhaps once white bricks. It is an old building, but not so old as the post office which has a big brass door and a big brass sign, with sunken windows on either side.
Sometimes sitting here, I see Main Street as a river, like the river I hang out on when I’m back home in Passaic, each store front a little pier lined up along its banks, catching bits of its debris and its travelers, but like leaves floating down a brown river, these visitors rarely stay long. Even we wander off sooner or later, even if Pauly never arrives, searching maybe for those lost four letter words we are so fearful to mention when we sit here, seeking someone beyond the pages of this book to make them feel real to us.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Waiting for the next shoe to drop

Friday, May 09, 2014

It is the Friday before my birthday, and the rain makes it feel more like early April than May.  I ache to walk down by the river, but I don’t want to get wet. So I sit in my office and stare down at Washington Street like I’m in the midst of a dream.
This is never a good time of year for me – that almost half way point in the year when I wear down like a defective Energizer rabbit, and struggle to make it through the week so I can rest.
It’s not age so much as the time of year when the resolutions I made at the start of the year seem too much a burden for me to carry on with.
Freud called it an anniversary syndrome – in which we attach meaning to certain days or events when they really lack any significance other than what we assign them.
I tend to have two times of year when the world falls apart – mid November and mid-May. They are usually associated. Mid-November historically brings about a major change in my life, not good or bad so much as different – significant shifts in my world to which I must adapt. By mid-May, I am faced with the consequence of this change – especially if I have failed to adapt to it. I am forced to make choices between alternatives, neither of which I will be happy with, but I must somehow decide is the least of two evils.
 Much of all this is done in hindsight.
I see the significance of the November change only when I am confronted by the obstacles in May.
So here it is May, and I’m waiting, wondering what shoe will drop that will make the year’s choices obvious.
Ultimately, each choice made in May makes me stronger, although it is like being in the midst of a crisis which you do not yet know the outcome of.
It always seems bad at the time, and like the hindsight looking back at November, hindsight looking back at May makes me realize how much I’ve grown.
But I’m on the cusp, waiting, watching, wondering what comes next, when we the next shoe drop, and will it land on my head?

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Side Kick

Saturday, May 03, 2014

I learned about Tony’s dying only recently, although the actuality of it came some time ago.
For those of us who scatted after graduating elementary school, those friendships and feuds we achieved early tended to mean more than any we collected later in high school, and so the list of names that we have in our head and the faces we collected as school mates are better reflected in our 8th grade year book than in the later ones we gathered in schools far from home.
Tony’s name came up during a conversation with another old classmate from that era, someone I had heard off, connected remotely with through still other classmates, but had not talked to since 1965’s graduation.
I had missed our 30th anniversary in 1995, partly because of my job, partly also because of Hank, my all time best friend I had hooked up during my high school years.
Our school was a collection of mostly white Italian kids from North East Clifton and the Lakeview Avenue section of Paterson, and we came in every shape and size, living up to many of the stereotypes TV would later paint for us.
Tony was classic mobster sidekick, slick haired, thin, with a somewhat sleazy manner that made him love switch blades and pointed leather shoes.
But he was a side kick to a Pollock named Leonard, who during all the years of grammar school was my arch enemy, the boy who took pleasure in trying to bully me until finally, one night during a boy scout meeting, I took both of them outside and beat them up.
Actually, it was more of a slapstick comic scene on the front lawn of the school, where I hit Leonard over the head with one of his own shoes while with my other hand kept rolling Tony down the hill just to keep him from annoying me.
The scout master walked in on the scene, threw Leonard and Tony out of the scouts, but for some reason took pity on me and let me return, even though I was as corrupt a scout as Leonard and Tony were, treating out weekend camp outs as a kind of keg party and an opportunity for revenge. I had once let their lean-to fire expire during a winter weekend when we got trap at the camp in the middle of a blizzard. I also cheated in scouting competitions, winning all sort prizes such as map reading and compass direction by guess work.
I think the scout master saw hope for me, where as he did not for Tony or Leonard, and honestly hoped scouting could save me from my worst tendencies when he already knew Tony and Leonard would end up badly.
Some people are capable of changing; others not.
My best friend, Hank, was doomed to die, because he could not get out of the record groove life had deposited him in when very young.
Tony was the same way.
As a toadie for Leonard, he was not overly ambitious – a major flaw in the shark-eat-shark world of corruption, where only the most crafty and vicious manage to rise to the top of the pond scum. Tony had he been born in another generation, might have hung on like my uncle did, just another mafia soldier doing his little bit and getting his little bit back. But we were all filled with expectations of our generation, and all fell into the same traps of drugs and delusion of grandeur.
Tony didn’t even end up in the Paul’s Tavern the way most of our male classmates did, taking up the stool his father had kept warm for so many years. He shot up and became one of those characters who came knocking on old friends’ doors, begging to get enough for another fix, until he got one fix too much, and passed on.

So hearing of his dying was not a surprise, just a sad disappointment because even are enemies are dear to us after so long a time of expended energy, and more the shame for the wasted effort.

Friday, May 2, 2014

May Day

Friday, May 02, 2014

May Day isn’t May Day anymore. At least, not the kind of May Day hippies in LA used to pitch at me during my days in that part of the world.
I remember how excited Gil got that May Day we spent in Las Vegas, a man so wrapped up with LSD, he used to get high when he stopped taking the drug.
For him, it was about the green and flowers his missed back East.
I never knew where he actually came from, since I first met him in Phoenix during my passing through that town several times early in 1970 – side trips out of LA where I spent most of my time.
When we went looking for him again in late April, we heard he’d moved to North Vegas and so we hitched up there to find him, with the half hope we could settle there (which did not happen).
Gil was a conflict of intentions, a man who on one hand strived to be “a player,” someone on the inside of the velvet ropes with both feet planted firmly on the red carpet to wealth and success, and yet at times, he ached for simple things, and I remember standing beside him at the Burger Chef burger grill as he talked about May Day, and how back east somewhere he lost his virginity – if not around the May Pole, then in some similar personal ceremony he wished he could get back to, yet somehow had been diverted from by his ambition to become someone important.
I remember him describing the girl (who was not his current wife) and how attracted he was to her, not in the same way he was to the few Vegas call girls that wandered into our shop late at night, but in some way he tried to describe as “pure” yet still full of the lust of life he seemed to have lost somewhere between back then and where we were at that point.
He never gave this girl a name or even described her, as if these details were too precious for him to divulge, holding these things inside himself to ponder over when all else was lost.
For a man, who introduced me to the Manson Family during that time, such treasurers were rare.
But on that May Day I remember we both had to work, and how sad he looked, as if he knew just how far down the wrong road he had come, and though he was only a year or two older than I was (I was 19 a little more than a week later), he seemed very old and growing older fast. He didn’t even take his usual dose of LSD or perhaps not even the assorted other drugs he used to “balance his head,” as he called it, though smoked a little dope while we cooked so as not to “totally lose it,” as he generally did when he ran out of the harder drugs.
This only seemed to make him more nostalgic, and made him offer me advice as not to make the same mistake he made.
“You got a good girl,” he told me, “don’t lose her,” and volunteered to work a double shift the next day if I wanted to celebrate May Day with my girl, the way he once did with that girl long ago.
I asked him why he didn’t celebrate with his wife, and he only made a face, and told me, “It wouldn’t be the same.”
He and I parted ways on my birthday after we both – high on high doses of LSD – tried to kidnap Howard Hughes (we got as far as the lobby of the casino before the dope kicked in and we forgot why we had come, or decided it wasn’t important any more, or might even have been discouraged by the wall of a man Hughes had as a body guard). I remember sitting in the middle of the desert to watch sunrise, and how a few hours later, the Manson Family told us to get out, and me and my girl with our dog Midnight, hit the road back to LA.
I never saw Gil again. But every May Day I think about him, and how May Day isn’t ever the same as it once was, that one time when he actually got to be with the girl he loved.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Grove Street on a rainy night

Thursday, May 01, 2014

The rain slashes at the night time street of downtown as I walk back the three blocks to my car, up Newark Avenue, across the wet pavement on fire with the last of the lights – this not a weekend so that this part of the planet resembles a closed carnival illuminated but not populated, somewhat sad, mostly glad for the lack of rush that this place usually displays, after the old working families had been displaced by socially ambitious who launch themselves from this side of the Hudson River to the other side each morning, only to make reentry by night fall. Even the PATH station looks like an old stage coach stop, with newspaper and fast food wrappers blowing across it rather than sagebrush.

This place has even changed from when I first got here, a 20-something year span in which the economic engines went crazy drawing back the children of those who fled this part of the world when I was younger, children aching to rebuild their lives as urban entities after being humiliated by suburbia. We live again in the age when growing up means coming to the city, where social media can’t quite create the illusion of sophistication when accessed from afar, and though many of those who come here still feel as isolated as they did out there in the wasteland, and perhaps more so, they feel more connected when they pass strangers on the street to and from those places that allow them to pay their way in the world. But on nights like this, when the streets are slick with the spilled colors of lights that no one needs illuminated, we all come to realize that they have bought into another wasteland, one that puts them shoulder to shoulder in a comic versions of Charlie Chaplin movie, all going through the motions until they are all contained again in their small boxes, leaving the street strewn with their waste and the shimmer of ghosts like me who still make our way in the real world.