Thursday, November 26, 2015

My grandfather’s Thanksgiving

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Although he has been dead now for fifty years, Thanksgiving will always been my Grandpa’s day.
More than Christmas or Easter, my grandfather seemed to relish this day most, partly I think because it was the day when the once vast extended family made its rounds from around the state, stopping in at our old house in Clifton to celebrate, not merely the foundation of our nation, but our arrival in this part of the planet.
That side of the family began to arrive in the United States just after the conclusion of the American Civil War, though the patriarch of the family – a soldier of fortune – apparently came here early to earn his keep in the war, and went back to take part of the Italian revolution, returning finally with the eldest of his kids to start a new family here with a new wife.
My grandfather’s father was born in Italy, but by the turn of the century had already started his own family, producing four songs and two daughters, who all became icons in my life, since I was my grandfather’s first grandchild, and was touted as such in a regular tour among their households.
My grandfather’s generation came into its own after the death of his mother just at the end of World War II. The inheritance allowed poor housing contractors to pursue their dreams. My grandfather and his brother expanded their construction business until a series of heart attacks caused both of them to slow down. My grandfather took up boat building instead. One sister started a business in Rochelle Park and then later moved it to the Jersey Shore where we all traveled to each summer.
My grandfather bought the biggest house in he could find, a Victorian place at the top of a hill that overlooked the Passaic River and much of the neighborhood where he raised his family when poor.
This was my house growing up, and it became the center of attention particularly on Thanksgiving when the extended family flocked to it, pausing on their tour of other family members to help us celebrate.
This was a very typical Victorian home, but already out of date by the time my grandfather furnished it, reflecting what was considered wealthy back when he was a kid. So living there for me was like living at the end of the Victorian age, a particular confusion when my grandfather bought our first black and white TV in the 1950s, and later when my uncles upgraded to color after my grandfather’s death.
We had a classic dinning room with icons more suited to Queen Victoria than President Eisenhower, and on this holiday, we spread open the pocket doors that separated the dining room from the living room, carrying in the kitchen table so we could all sit at the same long table when it finally came to the point when we sat down for the meal.
The women – my grandmother, her daughters and the wives on her sons, did most of the work naturally, spreading out the feast – although every table was filled with some snack, nuts or candy, that allowed us, especially the kids, to eat from dawn to dusk, leaving room for the real meal and the various pies as desert.
I remember how vacant the kitchen look without the table, and how busy all the women were when I came in to help, they giving me some dish or another to carefully carry into the dinning room where I would place it on the main table.
I remember my grandfather finally seated at the end of the table, the lord of his manor, the icons of the Victorian age around him along with the paint by number paintings he so proudly displayed on the walls – his hobby when he was resting from working on the boats in the yard outside.
I remember his face beaming with pride, his eyes glowing as he looked around at the assembled faces of a massive family he was proud to be apart of. I remember his gaze lingering on me, as if I was the thing he most accomplished, the grandchild who was to begin the next generation just as he had begun his, and his father had begun his before that, carrying on something special, and grand, something he was forever thankful for.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Brown sunlight

Saturday, November 21, 2015

I strode down the waterfront from West New York to Hoboken yesterday, just to take in the air before the weather turned.
This is already very late in the season and yet sunshine kept me too warm after only a few steps.
I had left my car home thinking I would need to walk only to and from work, only to find out the paper needed me to cover a ground breaking a few miles north.
I got a ride to the event, and thought about taking the light rail back, but the light rail stop was nearly a third of the way to where I had to go, so I just kept walking, snapping pictures of the changing leaves and the vastly altered environment.
The West New York mayor mentioned the fact that this all used to be railroad tracks where many of the long time residents from the upland side of the Palisades used to play as kids.
Now it is all buildings and riverfront walkway, joggers and bicycles in a perpetual play land of the super rich.
I certainly didn’t fit, except perhaps among the few other stragglers I saw walking to and from what in another time might have been called servants’ entrances to the luxury buildings, these stragglers serving to keep up the illusion that life is always pleasant along this side of the tracks.
The water glistened with the odd sunlight that always haunts the world after Day Light Savings ends, a tainted dark light that turns everything slightly brown, as if the whole planet was one large leaf turning with the turning of seasons.
My boss kept calling me on the cell phone to remind me that I needed to be back at the office by 3 p.m., and I kept thinking it was later than it was because of the light.
This was a walk through time as well as distance, especially when I finally crossed over into Weehawken and saw the houses on the hill and the ramps to the helix leading to the Lincoln Tunnel.
Seeing this from below as a new vision, and yet, seemed to carry me back to those days when I used to take the bus from Paterson to New York City. One bus took me along Boulevard East so I could see the skyline. The other bus came down Route 3 through Secaucus. But both buses eventually came to the tunnel.
For a moment, I was 16 again, and thinking of the adventure ahead on the other side.
Last winter, I came here to shoot pictures. The temperature was so slow the electronics in my camera froze and so I wound up with a lot of distorted colors, negative images of everything I saw.
This sense of reversal, of fall stumbling into winter, of me walking through time as well as space is always unnerving, because I lose myself for a moment and struggle to find myself when I finally put my feet back onto a path I’m more familiar with – the icons of my life spread out before me, but in an altered state.
This was a week from hell for a number of reasons, violent stalkers pursuing me, corrupt officials seeking to silence me, illness that I thought might be more serious than it was, all boiling up into one mess of an inner state only a walk like this could dispel.
This came in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, and so personal fate seemed to intermingle with the fate of the world, and strolling along this walkway towards an office I have worked in for a third of my life, in a town where I no longer feel welcome, I felt more than a little scared – not of dying, but of being forgotten or overrun by things over which I have no control, change, corruption, personal greed.
I’m a stubborn person. I tend to fight the good fight even when I know I can’t win, forcing those who dislike me to use up their resources, even when those resources seem imposing.
Justice is always about holding powerful people accountable, and sometimes, you have to get run over by change in order to make a difference, and sometimes, you have defy the all powerful to prove they aren’t quite as powerful as they think.
Things like changing seasons, brown sunlight, and an endless waterfront, are the only things that mean anything in the end.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

We’ll always have Paris

Saturday, November 14, 2015

I keep thinking of the flash back scene from the movie Casablanca, and the moment when the Nazi armies rolled into Paris – this slow motion sense of doom that we no longer can depend upon.
We had a lot of warning then about the rise of evil in Europe, and those who had the ability to  flee, did so or stayed at their own peril.
As with contemporary times, plenty of factors contributed to the final Blitzkrieg that eventually turned a whole continent to ash: Chamberlain, the unfair reparation payments from World War I, the mean spirited victors in the West, greedy corporations American and European who saw profit in a well-run Fascistic system, and others.
But once the guns started and doom approached, Paris needed more than just people and things to blame as to why they were about to be consumed.
Last night, Paris burned again.
There are plenty of guilty parties as to why, some wearing suits and ties or bearing diplomatic pouches, some simply press credentials (refusing to challenge the stupid foreign policies in the middle east), but once the guns started and the bombs exploded, and innocent people started to perish, blame meant nothing.
We live in a world where the conflict rarely reaches the real culprits, the oil company executives or the food companies whose infant formulas kill kids in third world countries, the violence reaches those who do not have private armies to protect them; the violence strikes those who go to work on a sunny Tuesday in September or to a rock concert on a cool Friday, and its leaves carnage that makes headlines, but never makes people understand just who exactly is to blame.
Blame does not stop the bleeding or make up for the loss of life.
Once the violence starts, it starts on both side, and one act leads to another as survivors call for vengeance, not justice, and we create a police state to finally protect those who should never had been the subject of an attack in the first place.
I keep thinking of another more recent Harrison Ford movie in which an Arab kid is hounded out of the country by ICE (our version of ISIS) for daring to write an honest essay about 9/11 and the perspective of the Arabs might have had in striking out at the United States.
No one actually listened to essay, they simply painted the girl as a terrorist sympathizer because she was saying something no body wanted to hear or will ever want to hear, painting the terrorists in a light that is no simply to make them look evil. Evil is such a subjective word. Beheading people is evil. Blowing up people is evil. But so is torturing suspects, and selectively killing people by remote control.
The same day Paris happened, American drones incinerated two people we suspect as terrorists. While I doubt there is a direct connection, it is part of the pattern of misperception. When we bomb innocents, it always an accident, we always say we’re sorry, we always want the other side to forget the loved one we incinerate.

This, of course, reminds me of yet another movie, some of the Terminator series were remote control craft seek and destroy freedom fighters, and though I know those who we actually target are vicious killers, they do not see themselves that way, and until we come to grips with the real causes of this conflict, and stop people like Kerry and Clinton from choosing which country ought to have leaders acceptable to us, these people will keep attacking us, because they think we are evil, and that our corporations that steal their resources and sell bad food to their kids, ought to be stopped by any means necessary. They, of course, are misguided, thinking they have god on their side. But then, our money also professes a similar slogan, as we make weapons dealers wealthy in our perpetual wars.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Good news

June 17, 1969

Laurie, who goes by the name of Peggy because she’s runaway from home, had her baby last night.
Someone called my uncle’s house to inform me since nobody can actually get a hold of me here in Fort Dix because I’m still going through basic training.
It was most likely my mother who called the base commander to tell him about the birth and that I should know. So I had one of the sergeants shaking me away an hour before reveille to tell me my DI wants to see me.
My DI is a huge black sergeant, who spent three tours in Vietnam. He already doesn’t like me because he thinks I’m a wise ass (and he may not be wrong).
“What the fuck are you up to now?” he asked me the moment I got through the door to his office at the end of the barracks – we’re on the second floor of a four story brick building, one of a few hundred buildings that remind me somewhat of the housing projects in Paterson.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said, and honestly didn’t.
He leaned over his desk to glare at me. He hadn’t shaved. So his deep black face looked even meaner than usual.
“Nobody in my fucking unit has his fucking mother calling here,” he growled. “This ain’t the boy scouts. And this ain’t fucking summer camp.”
“My mother called?” I said, still trying to wring the sleep out of my brain.
“Are you fucking deaf?” my DI shouted. “What did I just tell you?”
“I’m just surprised,” I said.
“You were surprised?” the DI said, mocking me as he glanced at one of two other sergeants in the room. “He was surprised!”
The other sergeant shrugged.
Then the DI glared at me again.
“Let me make this clear, boot!” he shouted. “Don’t ever let it happen again.”
“Ever?” I said, starting down the same path of endless questions with which I had driven countless teachers crazy in high school. “What if…?”
My DI had half turned away; his turning back halted me.
“You are testing me, boot,” he said, in a gravely voice. “You do not want to test me.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”
“Will you fucking shut up already,” the DI shouted. Both of the other sergeants looked at me in amazement. Clearly they saw the train wreck coming, and could not believe I still stood in the center of the tracks, not only not moving, but taunting the train.
Wisely, I fell silent, and after a few minutes, the DI dismissed me.
The news of Laurie’s giving birth is a big deal.
Laurie is Hank’s girl, but the baby isn’t his – but rather some biker from one of the biker gangs who got her pregnant then dumped her, only for Hank to come along.
I can’t wait to see his face, and find out all the details, although I remember her telling me that she planned to “go natural” at one of the other more progressive hospitals near Union Square.
I’ll just have to wait until I get my weekend pass after basic to see how it all comes out.

Let’s hope my mother doesn’t call again with any more good news.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

We’re all right

Aug. 31, 1969

Alf calls me at the hospital to tell me everybody’s all right. This is about an hour before lights out, and the ward nurse, a bastard of captain eyes me like I just sold my country to the Vietcong.
We don’t generally get phone calls from off base. So three in a month, and two within a week, are just too much for the captain to handle.
The fact that Alf is on the other end puzzles me.
We don’t talk much. For the most part, we’re adversaries, rivals in some imaginary game I’ve yet to learn the rule of or what it is about.
“We had an accident,” Alf tells me, referring to him, Bob and Pauly.
The trio apparently decided to take a drive after Bob and Alf dropped acid. Bob refused to let Alf drive, and Pauly being Pauly, said he didn’t care what they did as long as he didn’t have to hear any of the BS.
Bob’s Volkswagen is legendary, and so is Pauly’s ability to cause damage to other people’s vehicles. So as Alf relates the story, I believe it, I see it unfolding in my head like a grain movie: Bob behind the wheel, Alf in the passenger seat, Pauly in the cramped back seat playing solitaire, pretending everything is normal when it clearly is not.
He’s always doing this, trying not to let any of us get to him, when I’m pretty sure, behind that unmoved expression, some voice inside him screams about our being nuts.
Anyway, Alf tells me Pauly suddenly laughs and says he sees a spider.
Alf says he doesn’t see any. Bob looks into the rear view mirror and wants to know what the fuck Pauly is talking about. Pauly leans between the seats and points at the front windshield.
Alf still doesn’t see anything. Neither does Bob.
Pauly smacks the windshield with the heal of his hand, causing it to crack.
“There,” he says, pointing at the cracks. “That’s its web.”
At this point, Bob, who is paying more attention to his cracked windshield than he is to the road, steers the car into a curb.
“It drove the steering box through the front fire wall,” Alf told me over the phone. “But we’re all right. But Bob wants to kill Pauly – not only because he caused the crash, but because he got out of the car and blamed Bob for everything. He even says Bob screwed up his game of solitaire. I think Bob really would have killed him, if Pauly hadn’t waved down a passing car and asked for a ride. He fucking left us there, the prick. But we’re all right.”
After he hangs up and the ward lights go out, I crawl into bed and ponder all this. Around me, I hear the heavy breathing of soldiers who have seen too much war, some of whom won’t be leaving this place alive, and I’m thinking: We’re all really all right, aren’t we?”

Sunday, November 1, 2015

All Soul’s Day

Sunday, November 01, 2015

It’s All Saint’s Day. Tomorrow is All Soul’s Day. These are the other two days in a trinity of celebration for the departed.
Growing up a Catholic and attending a Catholic school through my early grades, these days played a bigger role in my life than they do now, although with so many of my family now part of the departed, I feel their impact more.
Starting in the late 1980s and through the early 2000s, I watched most of those closest to be pass away – my mother dying at the end of 2001.
The last two hold outs in this were my uncles, Ted and Pete.
Ted was my mother’s brother. Pete married my mother’s sister, Alice (who died in late 1975).
I remember Ted pulling me aside at my mother’s funeral to say “We’re the last two,” meaning the last of the old Crooks Avenue household, where five brothers, two sisters lived clan-like with my grandparents in a large old Victorian era house.
When Ted passed away in 2010, I felt incredibly alone.
His home in Toms River during the 1980s and 1990s was nearly a weekly journey from wherever I happened to live. Even though he moved to North Carolina shortly before his death, his home in Toms River was as much mine as his, and I still can’t pass that exit on the Parkway without thinking of him.
When Pete died in early 2012 I was devastated. This was partly due to the fact that I was the last one standing from that generation, and from the fact that I was feeling my own morality. I had just undergone extensive eye surgery, and began to hear the whisper of the grim reaper in my ear.
Fortunately, during the last few years, I discovered that I am not alone, and found that a whole new family had sprung up on me.
Until recently, I had assumed that I was an only child. My father left my mother shortly after I was born, and I have no living memory except one of his holding me as an infant.
Caught up with the idea of finding out what happened to him, I eventually encountered cousins on my father’s side, who in turn, helped me find half sisters I never knew I had, and a step-mom who I actually got to talk to briefly about my father before she passed away earlier this year.
On this day of the year, it is good for me to remember those I love and have loved, but need not dwell on the idea that I am alone.
We are never as alone as we believe we are. Even if those we loved most have passed on, they still with us, imbedded in our genes, living out an extended life through us as we will in our children later.
And as sad as family history can sometimes be – my family has very sad stories – it is also remarkably rich, part of a living legacy each of us carries to the grave and beyond.
I miss my mother, my uncles, my aunt, my grandparents, but I also feel them stirring inside of me with each breath I take, and it is a remarkable feeling, a feeling of intense joy.