Monday, July 28, 2014

Celestial time

Monday, July 28, 2014

The rain came in an overnight gush of sound and fury, stirring me with its rumble and its early morning moments of doubt – that celestial time when the world is laid bare to expose truth like raw bone, the ache of it making it impossible to sleep easy. So then, the voice of God thundered in my ears as the fingers to the storm pried at my windows and I shivered despite the heat, waiting it out, not so perfectly safe since a part of this storm also brewed inside of me, and could not be cured with closed eyes and pretending all was well with the world when so much had been left undone and must be done again when I am officially awake – Sunday into Monday always bringing with it the old feelings from school days when I had not finished what I was told I must, and thus would face of wrath of nuns who would make me feel forsaken. At moments like this, the real satisfaction comes from knowing that I had not missed the storm, and would have felt worse had it passed me by unawares. I am always of the mind to believe it is better to see the worst as it happens than to hear about it later, and walk through the wreckage of disaster without knowing its cause. And having concluded this, and the list of things needed to be done when wakefulness returned in actuality, I fell back to sleep.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Watching the leaves change

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

I walked to and from the Hoboken office in what forecasters said was a milder day that typical for this time of year.
I started making this walk shortly after 9/11 when someone broke into my car – a three month ordeal to get the right part and to solve other problems that the break in caused.
Once I shifted the beat to Bayonne, walking became only an option on Tuesdays, when I had to go to the Hoboken office anyway.
The big challenge has always been winter, the slick walk there and back, up and down hills. While I would say summer was no sweat, in fact, it is much more, but easier to make the climb – even with the leg I injured two years ago when I fell off a curb.
The walk feels right. Unlike the arrogant bike riders who shove people off the sidewalk, strolling there and back lets me examine the world close up in a way that cars and bicycles won’t allow – a slowed down view that I hadn’t really gotten since I stopped jogging. Even then, the world slid by too quickly to fully appreciate.
This stroll, however, also makes me more aware of how utterly the world is changing, how even over the time I’ve spent in this place, how different it is, and how much more I crave the town I grew up in, where lack of opportunity reduces the intensity for greed, and so things remain much as they were when I grew up there, although my uncle and others fled from it because they feared great change that never occurred.
I even miss my digs in Passaic, which from my brief visits there, hasn’t changed at all since I left, a time capsule of feelings I feel again each time I walk those streets.
I shall go back soon to make our the visits I need to all the people who have passed on beyond memory of any place, to Peggy’s new digs in the graveyard just over the Passaic border in Lodi, and to the family plots just down the hill from the house I grew up in.
I’m still close enough to visit them and should get as much in before I move on, not the way they have (at least not yet), but to where my daughter lives and another relatively unchanging life in that part of the world.

Meanwhile, I walk and think and listen to old tunes on an mp3 player (I used to have to carry a number of tapes) and ponder the world, watching the leaves get green and then go brown, watching the distant water flow, as the river like me, passes through a changing place is has no control over.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Everybody loved Dennis

July 10, 1980
(Recollection of an event from June, 1974)

I thought about it all day – that moment when my new boss threw me the keys and told me to drive.
I blamed my old boss for getting me the job.
This wasn’t like before; when high I drove my uncle’s GTO down the middle of Route 80 at maximum speed, unaware of anything but the thrill of speed, or the putt-putt-putt of the VW van up on side of the Rocky Mountains and then a rollercoaster-foot-on-failing-brakes-ride down the other side.
This was a job. I was supposed to be responsible, and I didn’t like the idea at all, knowing that I was ending one job I knew how to do to start a new job on Monday that I didn’t.
The warehouse stuff I could handle; the pickup and delivery stuff, the traveling through crowded streets in somebody else’s vehicle, I dreaded worse than dying.
“And don’t forget,” my new boss, Donald told me during my interview, “You’ll be carrying tens of thousands of dollars worth of cosmetics.”
 Lock the truck and be careful.
This, of course, made me shiver even in the intense June heat.
At which point I thought about Dennis, and I stopped thinking.
I was in my room on the third floor with a crowd of people around me, all of whom alternatively looked at me and the very stiff corpse on the floor.
I had seen dead people before, in the hospital in the army, on the streets of New York, and L.A., but not one that other people thought I had killed.
“I found him that way,” I told the collection of police and others.
My room was a mess as usually, filled with boxes of papers, scribbled on in my desperate attempt to write. The room dripped with three different shades of green from the three different cans of paint Meatball had stolen when he had lived here before me.
The job and the van slipped through my mind like a memory I hadn’t yet had a chance to live, while I relived one night – that night – over and over again, about how hungry I’d felt after playing with my new tape recorder and how I had trotted up the hill from the house on Valley Road to the White Castle at the edge of Verona for a snack between tapings, and found Dennis there in the dirty white interior as if he had already passed away and gone to a tarnished heaven.
Everybody loved Dennis – even though he tended to be a loner. Maybe that’s what made all the women want to run their long fingers through his curly brown hair while their stared into his cute brown eyes, admiring the innocent face that hid what he was really about, he always able to melt the world with just a smile.
The world loved him; but here was there alone.
His eyes, however, lit up when he saw me and he made his way through the crowd to reach me.
But he seemed nervous and kept looking around.
When he got close enough I noticed how red and strained his eyes looked, the look I remember from one of my neighbor’s kids who was regularly beaten by his parents.
Around us, the beast fed, mean, street-savvy, brutal men for the most part, who glared through the thick glass of the serving window at the clerks, who in turn tried to fill the orders quickly so as to make the beasts go away. In the midst of these, I saw a few dreamy junkies who floated around, probably more lost than hungry.
Dennis greeted me but his voice sounded wrong, and I asked him if he was all right. He lied and said yes and asked me about my new job, and I told him I was scared.
The large detective in my room later demanded to know what I had given Dennis, meaning what drug, and how much, and did I know it would kill him.
Mike, my immediate neighborhood and a kid from my old neighborhood growing up, shoved the cop out of the way and told him to leave me the fuck alone.
All I did was offer him a place to stay for the night, I told the cop. I didn’t even know Dennis would show up until he knocked on my door.
The Doors were playing on my tape deck. I thought he was drunk, but then noticed the pink dots on the inside crook of his elbow.
The big detective told Mike to butt out of he’d go to jail along with me.
That scared me. I was already on probation. I already had some drugs in my blood. I hated the sound of the closing jail doors and the snap of their locks.
All I did was give Dennis a place in the corner to sleep.
I didn’t know he would never wake up.
The photographer snapped some pictures. The EMTs came in, lifted the body onto a stretcher, a body already very stiff, with a face that no longer looked like Dennis anyway.
The detective told me to hold out my hands. They shook as he snapped the cuffs on.  Many hours later, I got back home more weary than when I’d left, knowing that I would be in no shape to start the new job. And wondered if my new boss would read about me in the newspaper and decide he couldn’t trust me to drive tens of thousands of dollars of his cosmetics around.
I kept thinking of Dennis, and wondered maybe he knew he was going to die, and didn’t want to do it alone, and wanted me to be there when the end came, and for some reason, this thought made me feel better. I don’t know why.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Pursuit of love?

May 3, 1980
(Recollection from an event in 1976)

The Pieta sits on the table in front of the black and white TV. A coffee table book on sports sits open in the middle, long out of date with the image of Mickey Mantel, page edges worn from constant turning. I sit on the uncomfortable couch, crinkling its plastic cover – the only sound other than the voices coming from the kitchen.
“I know why you’re here,” the deep voice of the woman said. “You want more money.”
“I need it to live; to buy food; to get clothing.”
“Don’t be dramatic; I’m your mother, not your wife.”
“I’m not married; you know I’m not married, even though you want me married.”
“Getting a job might be a good first step.”
“I’m looking,” he said. “But I need money first.”
“I’m not harping on you getting married. I’m sure you’ll commit yourself when you find the right girl.”
“Which is another reason I need the money.”
“You mean to go out on this date?” she said. “Why don’t you ask your friend?”
“I’m not going to sponge off him all night. How would that look, him paying for his date and mine?”
“But it’s all right to sponge off your mother?”
“Nobody has to know about that but you and me?” he said. “You want me married, but you don’t do anything that’ll help me meet anybody.”
“I’m not sure the kind of girl you’ll meet tonight is the kind that would want to marry.”
“You’re just being mean. Either give me the money or say you won’t, my friend is waiting and we have to go.”
“All right,” she said and after a pause. “Here you go. Have fun.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said and appeared at the door of the room I’m in. “Come on. The girls are waiting.”
I stood and nodded, and moved towards the front door behind him, aware of his mother’s glaring at us both as we left, and again, her stare through the front window as we got into my car parked out front.
“What the fuck is bothering you?” he barked at me when I still hadn’t started the car.
“Nothing,” I said, and turned the key, thinking that this wasn’t going to be a good night, regardless of what we did with the girls.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The morning song

July 26, 1980

Birds chirp over the brown river with the rising of the sun, a strange music accompanied by the rumble of trucks over the Wall Street Bridge – a kind of rock and roll that makes me roll over in my sleep if not Beethoven.
It is far from harmonious, the steel and concrete moaning and groaning under the relentless lovemaking of rubber wheels, and I wake into the midst of it, adding to its confusion.
This is a morning when nothing said or done can make any of it seem real, and each breath I take comes with the assault of sound.
I roll out from the sleeping bag, leaving her warm body in its protected cocoon, sleep and dreams protecting her from the cacophony I endure.
It has been a rough night with only two hours of actual sleep. At age 29, I feel 69, and feel on the verge of dying, but it is living I suffer from, though in the back of my head I think that each day is one more baby step towards death – a chilling and depressing thought I put out of my head, letting my mind wander through the noise, putting off also the thought that soon she will have to make up her mind about what she will do and where she will go, and how the psychological distance we feel growing between us will soon grow into geographical distance, and our lives won’t be the same.
I have no place in her world and I know it, having already set my feet on a particular path she can’t or won’t step onto, her dreams are bigger dreams than my dreams our, her ambitions like unfolding wings that will soon soar to places I can’t go.
I need to learn to appreciate the moment we are in while we are in it, and not look too far ahead into the hazy heights of some future neither of us can predict. I need to savor these weekend mornings the way I do that first sip of brew, letting it shake me awake with gentler fingers than the racket the trucks make rumbling outside.
I crave coffee and the consciousness it brings, and the curtain it draws over these early morning fears, as sleep clings to me and I drag myself out of that world into the waking world, trying desperately to break free.
I am far less ambitious than she is. While I love to soar, it is more like a hawk soar than the rising of an eagle, a flight than lingers over the lip of the world, allowing me to gaze at what goes on, not a blind furious flight desperately seeking to reach heights beyond anything anyone else has achieve. I do not wish to be flying so high over the world that I forget there is a world or that I belong to it, and can’t see where it is I took off from or a place in the ordinary world where I can land again.

Sometimes I soar like she does in my dreams, seeing myself in some remote place, on some remote rock, a grand and powerful figure, but one that is quite alone, having soared so high as to leave everyone else behind, such heights scare me more than the approach of death. I never want to get so far up that I can’t hear the morning song, the rush of traffic, the gush of water, the other more ordinary birds chirping in my ears.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

That one night

Thursday, July 17, 2014

This is not my birthday; it is the anniversary of the day I was conceived.
We celebrate birthdays because in many cases, we do not know the exact day when our parents came together to create us.
This is not true for me.
Although I do not know the exact time of day, I know it was at night on July 17, after all the wedding vows were undertaken, and all the rituals of cake cutting and first kiss done.
At some point on this day all those years ago, my parents found themselves alone, and brought me into existence.
Until a few months prior to my mother’s death slightly more than a decade ago, I did not know any of this. She kept this a close kept secret partly because my father abandoned her the next morning, taking off to Washington DC with $400 in wedding gifts to straighten out his dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Navy.
He came back broke and with VD, so except for that first night after the wedding, they never made love.
While I knew a lot about my father from my uncles, how much of a scoundrel he was, a drunkard, a womanizer, a flirt and such, I learned much more over the last few years that gave credence to my mother’s secret tale, and evidence to how hurt she’d felt by it all, and why I was so special to her since I was the best thing that came out of a bad situation, and why she dedicated her life to keeping me safe and whole, and perhaps as much unlike my father as possible – although I think in this last she failed, since it is difficult to know what goes on in the mind of another person, even someone as close as a son.

So ironically, this day becomes not just my parents anniversary, but the anniversary of single shinning, hopeful moment in my mother’s life, perhaps the soul moment of her existence, when everything seemed to come together for her, lasting one night she would carry with her forever.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Getting there from here

July 24, 1980

I wake up to the concept that I have to start all over again, struggling to repeat whatever successes I’ve had yesterday while avoiding the pitfalls.
Even writing these words is a chore, a retuning of this engine I had almost purring.
It’s a never ending battle to prove I can do as well today as I have in the past, if not better.
At college, some kids cling to one or two pieces of work they consider masterpieces, fearful that someone else might steal their ideas.
They keep asking about copyrights and other protections, and wonder why I do not care too much about someone stealing what I do, and I tell them because whoever steals from me obviously doesn’t have an original idea in the first place and knows quality when they see it.
But doesn’t scare you to think they’re taking credit for what you do, they ask?
Yes, it would hurt, if anyone actually did it.
But what pride is there in what they do as compared to what I do?
They are not me. My job is to make sure I can keep doing what I do, and repeat or do better, and in the end, if someone steals one thing, I will have hundreds of other pieces to replace what they took, and that poor fool has nothing.
The big fear is not being able to repeat it, and get stuck the way some artist are, with having only one thing to say in their lives, and once said, they have nothing to look ahead to.
I struggle with it all for a number of reasons. I never write anything that I don’t think is good or can be if I work on it hard enough. Sometimes I just put one word after another with the hopes that some future self (who has achieved what I have not yet achieved) can convert it into something worth reading.
I am a better writer today than I was a year ago, and if I’m not better a year from now or ten years, then it is my fault.
Another problem, of course, is the fact that I’m more interested in writing than publishing, and this leads to the inevitable frustration of not being able to make a living at what I love most.
Like everybody, I ache for recognition, to see what I do appreciated, and to perhaps earn a little fame – you know that guy campuses invite to come speak to their students, or gets on some radio talk show to explain what they meant when they wrote this or that, or to hobnob in some literary or even jet set social elite (only I would likely get myself thrown out for saying the wrong thing or telling one of those snobs what I really think of them).
But in the end, I ache to do something so well, to have some piece so well written, that it will out live me, fame or no fame, something that some future life soul I might come back as will gravitate towards, somehow knowing that the person in this life time is that person in a new life. I believe in reincarnation, and that we come back and are drawn to those in the past we have known or were us – I would like to think that I was Mark Twain in a prior life, rather than Shakespeare or James Joyce.
So I place word after word with the hope that it adds up to something, and that just by doing it, I get better at it, and like bicycle riding, I can pick up where I left off (or at least without too much loss) the next day so as to travel a little farther, making progress across this landscape we call art, and to arrive somewhere I want to reach, even if I’m not quite clear as to how to get there from here.

Monday, July 14, 2014


Monday, July 14, 2014

July has always meant something more than just mid-summer.
For some reason, it is stuffed full of anniversaries that later seem to have significance I am not privy to at the time, or perhaps hadn’t even been born when they transpire.
Some of this may be attributed to Dr. Freud’s anniversary syndrome, which claims that we attach meaning to particular dates in order to fit our own vision of the world, and/or cause events to take place that fit what we want or think.
Some dates, however, are etched in stone: the date of my mother’s marriage, July 17, 1950, the date of my mother’s birth, July 28, 1928, the date of death of several key family members, and the day I got to see my kid again after thinking I would never get to see her again, July 3, 1982.
Other events are more vague, events that occurred this month that are significant, but cannot be pinned down to some mysterious force related to the Roman Emperor Caesar after whom the month was named.
I remember being in a hospital ward at Fort Dix when the first men landed on the moon, and seeing the faces of wounded Vietnam vets staring in awe at the tiny black and white television the Captain had allowed set up on the ward.
I remember the trips to New York State to find land to build a commune during several summers in the early 1970s, and struggle for Hank to find a job in 1972, making him decide not to take the trip with Pauly to the West Coast he so much ached to make, a moment that changed a lot of our lives, since the trip marked that point when we all had to choose between being the boys we were and the men we had become.
Most of my anniversary events come at other times of the year. July almost always means larger change that is beyond me or my control, some cosmic shift to which I later have to adjust with my life during such periods dedicated to keeping my nose to the grind stone without wearing it out (I mean the nose, not the grind stone although with my nose, one never knows.)
This month has always been one of belabored change, the aftermath of my May anniversary syndrome, the gradual recovering from some personal crisis that for the most part was self-inflicted in spring and must play itself out.
So in this post Fourth of July time period, just as we moved into the All Star break (something that always pissed me off because I never saw it as real baseball, just a lot of fluff), I work through the details of some self-inflicted wound I’m not even yet aware I have inflicted, having done so many foolish thing in my life that I could be recovering from any one of them at any time, and still run out of days in July in which to recover from them.

But this time of year is when I miss lost things most, the people who have passed on, the people who I will never see again, the people whose lives have touched mine and left their mark – adding to a calendar of anniversaries that reverberates in me forever.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Woman on a foggy beach

July 4, 1980

I’ve seen her sitting here every evening we’ve been here, not near where I am, but closer to the water’s edge where she can see glow of lights on the lips of the incoming waves, the pushing and pulling we all feel this hear the sea – foam hissing over the still warm sand that bore the heavy breath of sun all day.
A hiss and pop, and a long sigh as each wave eases back out, a whisper of a kiss, before the returning plunge.
I see her hair glowing in the same reflected light from the boardwalk as illuminates the froth of incoming waves, as if she and the waves are made from the same luxurious star light.
Nearby, the candle-maker closes up his shop with a cough and a snap of lock, and the slow thud of his heavy step over the boarded walk behind me.
The heat of the day eases up with a rising mist so that the lamps that illuminate his way glow in a fog-like haze, and he is soon lost in an earlier than usual twilight, leaving me and this woman near the sea like islands alone, though the muffled sound of other feet and voices sound from out of the fog.
If not for the warm breath of the summer air licking my cheek, I would think this was winter, so remote and alone are we, though in changing of day into night, I feel the urgency of change, and just a hint of chill the deeper night will bring.
But I know long after I have sought out the depths of sleep, she will be here, feeling the caress of cold on her face, breathing in the chill air with sighs as deep as the see, her mind’s eye perhaps repainting pale sand into frigid snow, feeling as we both feel now the tug of the sea, its in and out, its up and down, its every throbbing, unsatisfied lusts.
And I wonder what tapestry her thoughts weave, and who it is she is waiting for, and will she need to undo the stitches she weaves each night to buy him more time for his return.
And I wonder, if when he comes he will be as special as she expects, this sea captain drawing up with the blessing of gods, a man full of manners and might, as furious as the sea itself, and as hungry for her as she is for him, with both easing in and out with tides of their own making, leaving sighs of whispering foam over the sand they have imprinted with the shape of their bodies.

More fog roles in and she is lost it, but not the sighs.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Better than being lost alone

July 21, 1980

The hot air clung to me last night as if had stepped into my shower stall with all my clothes on, making it difficult for me to move, and even more difficult for me to sleep.
Ten cups of coffee at Kalico Kitchen didn’t help my restlessness either, and between being wired and fighting off mosquitoes I tossed one way, while scratching the other, trying to find a position where I might drift off – but could not.
Pauly was in a particularly good mood – as if the world and its troubles didn’t exist. He laughed and split the illegally cool air of that over conditioned restaurant with his heated humor, making us for get the wall of hot air that hovered over the world outside.
He brought back the past Hank and I had ached for for years, if not in reality then in spirit, as we recounted our stumbling paths from a past when we had the whole future fingered out, to the confusing present when past and future seemed so muddled, with markers of our lives standing out like giant stones from the mist, times we were chased by dogs, women and angry husbands (fresh from the grill with their stained aprons still on, brandishing pointed folks and faces red with rage.)
Pauly talked about the old dreams with nostalgia, unable to quite release them when in reality our grip on them was wrenched loose by day to day life, his words rekindling for a moment in that sacred hangout place of our youth, replanted seeds of hope we all knew would whither the moment we once more stepped out the door into the far too strong sunlight of the present. He weaved the old tales, killing off Hank (that joke of Hank not surviving until 25) only to resurrect him again, and kill him again, and leave us in doubt as to whether he was alive or dead or if we had all simply passed on to some other plain of existence with this place, Kalico Kitchen, our heaven or hell, in which we were to spend eternity.
In moments like this, I once more remembered why we had taken up with Pauly, and like apostles, had followed him through so many weaving paths, tolerating the stinging thorns and the broken dreams, always with the expectation that he would lead us out from the quagmire again. But I also realized that he was not what we thought he was, and what he sold us was an illusion, his dream manifest before us, a quivering image of what might be, but which could not survive too close a scrutiny.

And yet, I also realized that without him or Hank or the number of other that followed Pauly over the last decade or so, I would have lost myself in my own quagmire, and that in the end, it was better to be lost with somebody like him, than to be lost alone, and as he and I sipped coffee, and Hank sipped Coke, we were grateful for having taken the journey and would be willing to do it all over again – if we ever got the chance.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Going Mad (August 20, 1980)


 I'm beginning to think we're all mad.
 Some drunk stopped me on the street this morning to show me the numbers he intended to play in next week's lottery, infuriated at the world for his not having won already. I had to yank myself free of his grip when he started whispering in my ear for me to not trust women.
 I had troubles of my own. Lack of money, student loan applications and a summer job that treated me like a slave. I didn't want to think about other people's misery.
 And yet Pauly’s sister stopped me on the street a few blocks later. She had just come from the hospital and she looked a wreck, caven cheeks and hollowed eyes. I almost didn't recognize her at first. She kept mumbling things at me I didn't understand, like Roland Perez' Hobart Manor Ghost, or my mad mother's talking to the wall when I was a kid.
 I lied to escape, telling her I had to get to school, when school didn't start for another two weeks.
 Then, later, when I was sitting downtown, another man approached me, telling me about his being hunted by the FBI and CIA.
 "I was a radical law student," he told me when I failed to escape his attention. "They wanted me to stop defending poor people."
 His story started me thinking. What if it is all true? What if people are out to get him, and because he's dirty and mad, no one believes him?
 I recalled when I was in the army and the FBI used to bring back soldiers who'd gone AWOL, broken arms and bloody noses, lessons taught in the back of their car on the way back to the stockade.
 And then, still later, at Frank & Dawns, I hear from them stories of secret plots and satellites that can snap a picture of your book from space and read the same page you're reading.
 "What if they replace those cameras with laser beams?" Frank asked. "I'll tell you what. Then they could do whatever they liked with us."
 I wanted to laugh. But how could I when the whole world seemed to be going mad?

 Am I next?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Empty Shells (Aug. 2, 1980)


 There no answer in the sand, or in the waves that rushes up at my feet as I walk. But I've come here to breathe salty air and seek the comfort of the ocean. In the early morning hours Ocean City is a tomb, with only we few souls wandering its empty boardwalk, the face of its concessions covered over and their prizes hid.
 I nearly quit my job yesterday, just another slave among slaves, punching in and out, sweating my brains away for an hourly wage. We grumble in the lunch room about the boss, blaming him for all of our ills: he keeps us down, we say with all the heartened vigor of budding communists, though I have seen my bosses face at the end of day, and his sore eyes searching out our faces as we leave. It can't be easy for him. He knows we plot against him, and yet he struggles to keep his face unmoved. He knows we have nothing to lose. We can't be ruined by rumor. We haven't staked our lives out in this place. Even when its permanent, it is only a temporary job, one from which we plan to move the moment a better opportunity comes along.
 This is a ladder to him. He climbs us and this place like rungs, gambling that we will hold him until he can reach the next and the next, each step requiring his total concentration. I imagine him as I walk here, at home curled up on his coach, stomach aching with worry over what Monday will bring, and Tuesday, and whether he can weather us to get himself promoted, his resume full of blank lines waiting to be filled, each representing faces like ours, an ocean of workers waiting to mock him and plot against him. How can that be fun?
 I bend, pick up a piece of sea shell and toss it back to the sea, half wishing I had asked him to come south with us to enjoy the sun and water, the other half of me glad I hadn't. Let him suffer. Maybe the next boss will be better or less hungry to move on.

Towards the empty horizon (8/2/80)

            The fumes from the fuel invade my nostrils as we push off, pressing through the sand bars and reeds, water splashing up around the stern, a gushing V that catches the glint of sunlight.
            I’m nervous, senses growing confused with the motion, my queasy stomach like a fragile egg ready to crack.
            Egrets stand like white sentinels among the tan islands among the stiff spouts of fresh spartina.
            The boat bucks at each turn, the swish of water sounding against its side, a small white fiber glass steed bouncing against the rising tide.
            The wind whips at us from our motion, filled with the scent of sea salt, motor oil and brine.
            We pass under low bridges, arches whose legs take on the greenish tint of algae near the water, and pock-marked with the array of barnacles and rust, competing with the blue paint.
            The depth meter informs us the hull skates over two feet of water, though we squint not at the meter, but at the egg cup ahead of us, where man stirs up an atomic broth, a gruesome concrete beast leaning over the water and outlined by the milk-blue sky. Not until the meter beeps telling us we race at inches instead of feet do we turn our attention there, the more realistic danger of becoming a victim common ground rather than atoms.
            We slow, with the vague hope slower will keep us from sinking into the mud, inching our way ahead until the meter’s numbers increase: one foot, two feet, and then more than we need to drown, the mysterious invisible channels yawning beneath us, allowing us to pick up speed. Higher bridges stretching their broad arms over our heads, until the sea beyond greets us and more powerful waves beat at us, sending their terrible spray over the windshield and our heads as we steer out away from land and towards the empty horizon,.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

One who couldn’t fly the coo coo’s nest (August 7, 1980)


Richi looked scared, slinking along the hallway wall to the locked door beyond which freedom waited. He pretended to be a visitor, though the big nurse wasn't fooled, shooing him back as she might a fly.
 ``He's already tried that four times today,'' she said after stopping us as we started to leave. ``But it's all right. We understand how lonely people get. He's luckier than most. He gets visitors like you.''
 She stared straight at me and licked her lips, smearing the bright lipstick a little with her tongue. Her eyes studied me like a butcher studying a cow before slaughter, debating which part would sell best ground, and which part she'd like to take home for an evening meal of her own.
 I was scared, too. Ever since I was a kid I'd been coming to places like this, nut houses where one or another of my relations wound up. It ran in the family. Grandma's father had died in a place like this. I was also nervous about leaving Pete outside in the hall, our one rich relation who was growing rapidly impatient with this side of the family. We've always been a pain to him, an embarrassing element which he endured for his wife's sake. Alice was least like the rest of us. She was the sane soul in a house of crazies. He loved her and would put up with us to prove that love. But since the day she'd died, that patience faded. Now he came out of a sense of duty, a visitor on the doorstep who would -- if these things kept occurring -- ceased to come at all.
 ``I'm glad you think we're helping him,'' I said and tried to move away, but the nurse's sharp red nails dug into my arm, holding me back.
 ``Are you his so?'' she asked.
 ``His nephew,'' I said with a shake of my head.
 The nurse did not enquire after Susan's relationship to Richi. I think she presumed Susan to be my sister. We looked enough alike for that and her eyes said something to me that increased my anxiety, her eyes asking that I come back, soon and often.
 ``You're a real good nephew,'' the nurse said, and squeezed my arm, and then, very reluctantly, let loose my arm, signaling for the guard to let us out.
 Richi stood back a few steps, his head down, his eyes closes, his hands shaking at his sides. His brother had called and said we'd find the man here at Bergen Pines.
 ``I couldn't put up with him anymore,'' Albie had said on the telephone. ``All he kept talking about was killing himself.''
 ``Good bye, Richi,'' I said.
 Richi did not move, except to shake his head, the salt and pepper hair like that of an old man's.
 ``Say good bye, Richi,'' the nurse said, nudging him with her nail.
 ``Good bye, Richi,'' Richi said.
 It was an old joke. One not funny even when Richi used to deliver it in a humorous way, part of his overall less than funny sense of humor he carried around on his back with his carpenter tools.
 Only the nurse laughed, and was still laughing even after the guard had opened and closed the door. I heard her cackle even as we hurried away, that cackle dying with the echoes of our step, and we charged out into the empty lobby where Pete should have been.

Where old men go to die

December 2, 1981

Where to the old men go to die? The bag ladies? The scared hobos?
Where do they go, the shiftless people, unshaven, unbathed, unwanted?
Where did Richi go? To join them? To find some invisible spot in the darkness, in the cold, in the trash by the river where the rats rummage through the garbage, where cats cry?
Where are you?
The Passaic River is an ugly stew which boils now at my feet, shaking the bridge with its rain sweepings.
Did that drown you?
Where do all the old men go when they’re not wanted?
Paterson hides them sometimes, taking them in its arms, crushing them with cold fits and broken brows.
A lady screams near here at city hall. An irate citizen? No.
They call her the screaming because she’s here every day yelling at some god, not Mayor Kramer, but not anyone anyone can see. She stands there in rags and screams, the clothing rotting with her frame.
Where are they?
No one knows.
Richi disappeared Saturday night. He tried to leave sooner, but couldn’t.
So he waited until I went to work, pretending to be asleep, walked out with only his jacket and twenty bucks.
A sad man already looking like a bum, his chin sprouting the rough beginnings of a beard, his clothing stained with some rushed cup of coffee.
The police say there are too many bums for them to shake them all down.
”If he gets arrested we’ll know,” the cop said, then the phone went dead – along with the person. All missing people are dead people until they rise from the grave when found.
I sit in Paterson watching the missing people walk, all wearing the same vacant look in their eyes, vacated for some new tenant who never arrivers.
Where do they come from?
Do they come from families like mine?
Crazy worlds of mixed feelings and bad tempers.
Out on Long Island, two hundred of these souls showed up to lay claim to a park.
“We can’t bust all the bums,” a police sergeant from Clifton told me. That phone went dead, too.
The hospitals tell me they have no beds for those kind of people as if they were bred wrong, as if they were some new kind of escaping slave, and the streets and starvation was really freedom.
“You know they call the Great Depression a depression,” the radio says, and that thought sticks in my head as rain pours down and I feel cold settling into my chest.
Where do these people go when it snows? Everyone points in different directions.
No one knows.
It’s like looking for a needle by sitting in a wheat field. You don’t even have the stack of hay to search, just rows and rows of buildings, each wearing the same unsympathetic face.
“Not here,” the Lodi police say, the click of the phone answering my next question.
The Passaic River flows quickly when it rains, shifting tires and old metal drums. They could be bodies. Maybe they never come back; they just get replaced by new generations of bums and bag ladies, and lost sheep crying without voices or people who’ll listen.
Somewhere out there my uncle Richi roams, with madness driving him on and on.

Death plunge (July 25, 1980)


 Word came from Uncle Albie. Richi, his brother-- my uncle-- had tried to kill himself. None of the details were clear at first. Just a call south to Uncle Ted. Part of the circuit of brothers which spread such news. The last thing had been the death of Aunt Florence.
 No one had seen Richi much over the last few years. Since Alice kicked off, he turned hermit, living in one place or another in the old neighborhood. While Grandma and my mother still lived on Trenton Ave, he came to visit. But I've not seen him in Passaic, and the trip south is just too much trouble for a gypsy like him.
 Albie said Richi aimed his truck for the river and stepped on the gas. People saw his green truck plunge into the water and called the police. The cops went in after him. He fought them off. He just wanted to die.
 I'm not sure if he knew about Florence-- maybe news filtered down to him somehow, through the ether maybe. Or maybe things have a habit of happening all at once. One death following at the heals of another.
 I know grandma sent me looking for him awhile ago and his landlady wanted to know details about him, like his age. "He's mentally ill, isn't he?" she asked.
 "No," I said. "He's just a drunk."
 Though then and now I recall the nights in grandpa's house when he came home drunk and tried to preach to me about the art of living. Now he wanted to die-- maybe figuring life in the next world better than this, or hoping to meet all those who had already kicked off from this coil.
 He was Grandpa's son. The one who took up Grandpa's profession when the other boys wandered off on their own. And perhaps part of Richi died when the old man died. And another part when Alice, his favorite sister, died.
 I remember seeing him cry when they laid her to rest, someone leaning on his shoulder saying at least she was buried near Grandpa, as if such reminders actually made him feel better about life.
 And maybe the IRS had finally caught onto his book keeping tricks, bundles of cash hidden in the houses of all his favorite relations, money of which the government knew nothing. His landlady mumbled about his fear of them.
 Albie said the state had collected Richi and put him in a padded cell up at Bergen Pines.

 "He's half dead already," Albie said-- though very little water got into his lungs. It's what's in his head that killed him. And Richi isn't saying what.

I am what I am

July 18, 1980

She is her father’s daughter, caught between the struggle to become a successful person as a woman and the love of a man.
She fears to become her mother, part of a previous generation when women lost themselves in their marriage and never found a way back out of the maze of mis-identification.
She’s also scared about losing her father and he losing her as life advances and she must take the next terrifying steps towards her own future.
Last night, her father wondered why she had not been with the family, perhaps sensing the inevitable break that her graduation from college brings, something that many undergo much earlier after high school when they go away to college, and not commute.
She’s never really been away from home, a terrifying concept for all of them.
And as much as she wants to be different, and not follow in mother’s footsteps, the two are very much a like, sometimes mirroring each other, something she denies when I suggest the similarities.
I think she envies me and my ability to live my own life, to do what I want or need to do when I want or need to do it.
This came with a price, a forced separation, my revolution from family more turbulent, and filled with wrought. I had no safety net to fall back into if I failed.
I guess she just wants to be seen for herself, who she is, separate and apart from her upbringing, a legitimate need, but nothing she can expect from her family, who will always see her as a member of that clan.
So she must clearly leave her world in order to find herself, and our conversations struggle with all the contradictions, and her taking refuge in her intellectualism as a barrier against falling back into the one role everyone here sees her as.
This is her first summer out of college, which is part of the problem. She spent four years reshaping her identity at school, collecting new friends, forging new relationships with professors and higher concepts, only to graduate and return to the mundane world of family where those things mean less than the old order of her being a daughter.
She also has a dire need to be perfect, and this intimidates me since I know I can’t be, and I struggle just to keep up in her heavy footsteps as she advances towards some possibly unattainable dream.
This is my own flaw. I am intensely competitive. I refuse to allow anything in this world to be “better” than me, and when confronted with things that I do not know or cannot do, I struggle to do better, often falling on my face, often embracing myself, often making myself better because of it.
But it is impossible to compete with a dream.
She wouldn’t even settle for a “B” at school, which makes me wonder what she is doing with a high school drop out like me, and where I will end up if she actually achieves perfection since I know perfectly well, I never will.
But I have no need to be perfect. As Popeye once pointed out, “I am what I am.”

Monday, July 7, 2014

Bad news travels ( July 23, 1980)

 How do you tell people bad news?
 I'm certainly no master at it. Harold called this morning-- at his usual time of 4 a.m. I woke, spoke, then listened as the phone fell out of his hands. Maybe I should have waited for him to sober up, but who knew when that was or if I could get a hold of him again in time. We couldn't find Richi to tell him about Aunt Florence-- his drinking took him from one street corner to another, a regular wino whose route through the local ghetto I didn't know.
 But Harold called often enough in the early morning for me to deliver my news, and all I could hear through the fallen receiver was the repeated word "Christ!"
 Harold and Richi were both close to the woman, going there often in the years before and after Grandpa's death, fishing from her dock on the bay, or helping to fix her store. Richi's name had been one of the last words on her lips.
 "When did this happen?" Harold asked later, after he had managed to regain the phone, then changed the "when" to "why" and I had no answer.
 "I don't know, but the wake's today."
 I remember Alice saying she had dreamed of Grandpa calling her the night before she died. Had Florence dreamed that, too?
 Billy took the phone and told me Harold didn't need to hear such news just then. "He's got problems of his own."
 "But how's he going to feel if he misses her being buried?" I asked.
 Billy said nothing. Harold took back the phone, telling me they had to go now, wishing me a gentle "Good night" with a softer "Thank you" hidden behind the words, as he was glad I'd been the one to tell him.
 I wasn't. I hated being the messenger of death.

A mystic heart

July 10, 1980

Wicca George was so good a liar, he made you ache to believe him even when you knew nothing he said was true.
He affected everyone he knew that way, and latched onto anybody who stopped long enough for him to sink his teeth into.
I met him for the first time on the corner of Madison Avenue and 21 St Street in Paterson when I was a wild 14-year-old street kid.
Dave knew him and introduced me, and George looked up at the sky and pointed at a red star.
“You see that?” he asked.
I nodded; Dave – wise to him laughed and asked, “Don’t tell me you own it?”
“No,” George said so earnestly I felt embarrassed by Dave’s skepticism. “That’s where I come from.”
With that as a backdrop, I didn’t think George’s stories could get any more exaggerated, but they did.
He later told me while walking across the Route 46 Bridge from the foot of Cedar Lawn Cemetery and into Garfield how he’d become the witch of witches, similar to what a bishop is to priests.
He claimed to be the seventh son of the seventh son and the last witch to be burned in Salem. I learned later that he was of Dutch decent, and related to some of the founding families of Paterson.
“And this is my ring of power,” he said, holding up his hand upon which he bore a large ring that had seven small black stones.
He even took it off and handed it to me so I could have a better look, and for some reason, touching it chilled me even through it was still warm from his hand.
“My mother gave it to me,” he said. “She said a great witch in France once wore it and now it’s mine.”
I don’t know why I did what I did next, impulse perhaps, or maybe just fear or my Catholic upbringing.
I tossed the ring into the river and watched it plop in the water in the middle near where the stream ran the fastest.
Then, laughing – cruelly no doubt – I ran back towards my house on the Paterson side as George stood indignant with his hands on his hips – but silent, glaring at me as if I had committed a mortal sin.
But the next time I saw him on Main Street in Paterson, he seemed friendly again, waving to me, that same ring (or one just like it) once more on the forefinger of his left hand.
Over the years, George became a fixture in Paterson, someone who did just about everything.
In 1968, I saw him for a while where he worked at “Stop the World,” headshop near the corner of Broadway and Main Street, selling black light posters (and possibly something else) to all us weird hippie-like people who gravitated to this bit of Greenwich Village in our own back yard.
It was our haven against the ravages of the world, the right wing old school whites from South Paterson, and Irish, Latino and black street gangs everywhere else, and George took on the role of guru – his dark black light world seeming to emphasize his strangeness, revealing some powerful inner being the way the light brought out the translucence of color in the posters around him.
When the place closed, George haunted Paterson like the spirit he claimed to be, a regular at the public library on Broadway or in front of City Hall on Market Street, or even floating around Garret Mountain Park where his presence near the castle and tower there seemed most apt.
Recently, I heard a bit more about George from a kid on the college newspaper, who had a loft on Main Street and had taken in George for a while.
Despite ambitious dreams, George never left Paterson – and did not move out of his 21st Street house until his paranoid mother died. She had lived her life glaring out over the white picket fence at the changing nature and color of the city, not quite able to come to terms with what she saw. That house was the last house on block that had been taken over by factories and discount stores.
She had hated me and Dave and the rest of us who knocked around the streets and the then still under construction section of Route 80. She called us “hopeless bums.”
We laughed each time we saw her peering out from behind her perfect lace curtains, the only pure thing left on a block that became loaded down with prostitutes and street gangs at night. We ran through her back yard just for spite, our sneakers leaving their mark across her perfectly tailored plants and lawn.
She screamed at us through the back screen door calling us “little devils,” and we responded in language much more colorful and which turned her pale cheeks white.
George tried to rein us in, coming around the house or into the front, only to have his mother shout for him to come back. But he came with us anyway during those early years, up to the mountain or down to the river. Eventually, Dave and I grew apart and the old gang broke up, and I saw George infrequently when I passed through Paterson on my way elsewhere. In some ways, he was to me the spiritual heart of Paterson, the mystic who gave us all a vision we could never had gotten on our own.

(UPDATE  July 7, 2014 – Just prior to my writing this piece in July 1980, George got work as a tour guide for the Great Falls Historic District in Paterson, part of a plan to draw tourists into the city. His salary was funded by federal CETA money that Republicans poured into Paterson in order to bolster the efforts of a Republican mayor. When Ronald Reagan became president in January, 1981, he systematically cut CETA funding to Eastern Cities, and George among many others lost his job. What happened after that, I can’t say. I never saw him again.”

A death in the family (July 22, 1980)

 Aunt Florence is dead.
 The shock of it more as the death of institution, part of that which connected us to earlier ages of the family, her face floating among the more important events. We knew it would happen soon. She'd been suffering for years with her tiny husband, Benny, struggling to keep her comfortable.
 Dead. The last of my grandfather's clan, the youngest of seven.
 It amazes me how things end, how the memories vanish over night with the pronouncement of death. Whole histories of whole peoples lost in a matter of moments. No formal history for anyone to examine, and the accent of their time and place, lost forever-- a stretch of personal experience that actually paints how a time was lived.
 Grandpa loved the family tradition and nearly destroyed his sons to continue it, trying to mold them into twins of the men who had come before: John-the-Baptist Sarti, Uncle Robbie, etc.  I think largely he broke their spirit and prevented them from being themselves.
 Florence, however, was a flower, hardly typical of a complacent, traditional Italian woman, and my few memories of her involved her bay-side store to which some summers I went crabbing. She rented boats and crab traps, and fed hungry fisherman hamburgers and fries.
 They lived a block up from the store in old time Bayshore houses, built like their northern companions with transformed summer houses in the back. One summer she woke in the middle of the night to catch me with the light on, asking what I was doing up so late, her voice like a ghosts rising from the main house, amused at my answer: "Reading".
 After Grandpa's death, I saw little of her. Once I think at Teddy's wedding, once more at Alice's death. But her death came a whole generation later than any suspected, as if she had stepped out of time, lasting beyond her time-- though others of that generation still linger on. Like my Grandmother now 72, or her sister, Katherine, at 70.
 But they all say something tragic about living and the passing of time, and how whole segments of experience come and go, how I will come and go, taking with me memories of my friends, relations, and the world as I have known it.
 I'll miss her. But I miss what was inside her more.

Compensation (July 19, 1980)


I could have taken off, letting my broken toes lead me to disability. But I hobbled into work the day after the accident, like some Revolutionary War hero, lacking only the flute, flag and bandage across my head. Management was so delighted they promised me a job, even after school started again in September. A small reward for living up to my own ideals. Most workers would have taken compensation-- something for which they might even maim themselves.
 It is the thing the bosses expect-- part of the myth such people have been manufacturing for years to downgrade unions and other so-called high-priced workers. "See how American workers are these days," management says. "Is it any wonder why Japan's beating us?"
 But more importantly is my freedom to rebel. I've defied the bosses since I came here over fundamental issues, unreasonable searches by security, fascistic rules concerning breaks. I have to live up to a higher ideal-- even when it means hobbling into work in pain, to glare at them, to thumb my nose at them.

 I'm not buying their phony dreams of working towards retirement. I don't see life after sixty-five nearly as valuable as it is now. It is a management ploy to keep people's noses into the grind stone. Forget the idea of enjoying life. And now that people are actually living longer, Management suggests raising the age to seventy. People aren't meant to retire. Just die. So you can see why someone might take compensation now, getting their taste of happiness before they're too old to enjoy it.

Another Kind of Justice (July 15, 1980)


 It's what I get for stealing, I guess-- though a few hours in a hospital seems stretching justice a bit. For what? A lens filter? Somehow when I was unpacking boxes at work it wound up in my pocket. The boss looked suspicious, pushing through the packing material as if he might find it there. I wondered how to get rid of it. Getting caught would mean my job. And though he moved back to the corner near his desk, I knew he was checking the purchase order to see again how many came in. The camera turned its untrusting eye towards me, winking its red light almost in jest.
 I excused myself and went to the men's room where I stuffed the thing in my sock. Not that they wouldn't find it, but it made me feel better without its lump in my pocket.
 "Mr. Sullivan," the boss said later. "Pick up your things and come with me."
 Defeated, I followed, my head bent, knowing my job was lost. But he passed right by the security office and led me down to the other end of the building, where he informed me of his plans.
 "I need someone I can trust," he said. "You're a good worker and can unload this truck without the usual bull I get from my people."
 Two hours later, as I pulled on a pallet jack, removing pallets load with cases of motor oil, disaster struck. The first pallet came down the warped mental plate from the truck, but with the second my foot slipped and two tons rolled over it, trapping my toes in the bed.
 "Get it off!" I yelled. The pain wasn't terribly great. But I heard the crack of toes breaking and the shattering of the lens filter in my sock.
 "Where did you get these scratches frokm?" the doctor asked at the hospital, after taping up my broken toes.

 "I scraped it on the dock," I said, though by his frown I could see he didn't believe me.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Sometimes the good guys win (July 21, 1980)

The pattern never changes.
Corruption more than misery needs company, and can’t stand anyone who isn’t corrupt.
Innocent people generally don’t realize they are in a corrupt situation until it is too late and they have somehow stepped over the line, and made themselves vulnerable.
And then they are doomed.
Corrupt people recognize other corrupt people right away, almost by instinct or smell, and are drawn to it because the way drunks are drawn to each other.
Only other corrupt people can stand the stench of other corrupt, and hide their own stench in their company.
Whole social groups form around this concept. So if a boss is corrupt, then so are many of his following, some tying themselves to the bootstraps of the boss in order to lick bits of gravy that might fall off his plate and onto his boots.
Each institution changes the map of corruption, but essentially, it all gravitates to one or two powerful people. In jobs like mine -- such as at the hospital back in 1972, the shipping and receiving manager operated his own little network within the overall structure. I’m sure there was a larger, even more corrupt network in the main administration.
Here, the corruption operates from the central office where Proudy and his white collar henchmen rule over the rest of the store through a network of stooges, who do their bidding or inform on people not part of the inner circle.
Security answers directly to Proudy, and they are as corrupt as he is.
The minions outside this network live in fear, some are dishonest as well, and usually become fodder for the security. Most are honest, but are constantly watched.
Those who get too wise to the game become targets. Management starts to find things they do wrong, and starts to build a case against them – so as to justify firing them when they become too much a thorn in management’s side.
Management likes having scapegoats, people they can fire as examples to others not to get too far out of line.
The problem comes when they deal with people like me with a rich history for defying authority and hatred of corruption on any level.
Breaking my toe put them in a bad position because Proudy and his bunch are not the top of the heap, but only a small pyramid of power, and they live in fear of Vornado and the really powerful people there.
Proudy is scared to death that I might hobble over and talk to someone or file a complaint.
The worst thing for corrupt people is when someone like me has some legal leverage he can use.
One guy on the loading dock kept his job because someone screwed with his paycheck, and he talked to an attorney.
Proudy knows damned well I will take the long walk to upper management if I have a mind. I’ve done similar things before.
In the wine company, when the union rep got paid off by the owner to violate the contract, I took the trip of Union City to talk to the president of the union.
Nobody actually knows what happened to the union rep.
So it is a kind of Mexican stand off, a waiting game for when I leave on my own, an inevitable fact since I am going back to college next month.
Meanwhile, Proudy’s fears the worst – and I really get a kick out of that. Sometimes, the good guys win. Not often, but sometimes.