Thursday, November 24, 2016

Alice's Restaurant, revisited (from Visions of Garleyville)

My uncles hated Hank from the moment he appeared at the front door, an aberration from some ghostly world beyond their limited imagination.
Gasoline and a struck match made a better mix than they did with him.
Born and raised in the desperate times of The Great Depression and World War II, my uncles perpetually saw themselves under siege, if not always by the threat of poverty, then by unsubstantial enemies such as the communists or the blacks.
M-1 World War II vintage carbines lined the attic wall for that time when the race riots started, and they would take up position in every window to fight back against the hordes the way patriots had the British back in that time when the hill upon which our house rested served as high ground for Washington’s troops.
Yet as prepared as they were for any invasion, Hank, with his shoulder length hair, scraggly beard, purple Nehru shirt and worn bell bottom jeans was like an invasion from Mars against which my uncles had absolutely no defense.
With the death of his own mother and the inheritance she’d left, my grandfather had bought the biggest house in that part of town, a Victorian tribute to his youthful perceptions of what wealth was. With the exception of converting the servants stairs to closets (on account of his youngest son falling down them one day in 1946 in the dark), my grandfather had left the house largely unmolested and so the front doors became a gateway to a fantasy long out of fashion, and a way of life even my uncles had ceased to believe possible complete with front porch, double doors with beveled glass, a mud room between them and the inner door, and a front hall over which a small chandelier hung.
Few actually used the front door except on particularly pompous occasions such as weddings and funerals. When the front door rang, it usually meant bad news, such as the arrival of a representative of the IRS – a notorious public entity my uncles feared even more than the communists and their reaction was similar in that fear to the moonshine back country hillbillies who feared “revenuers.”
Hank’s hanging on the doorbell set off alarms in my family that gave their reception an artic chill.
My grandfather, who had died slightly less than two years earlier, would have perished from the shock,
A black man’s appearance at the front door would have raised less dander since in my uncle’s vivid imagination, such a visit was inevitable: but nothing could have prepared them for Hank. So intend of reaching for their weapons, they stared at this aberration, and when this aberration mentioned me, my uncle’s then screamed my name.
Well in touch with the real world through their working class livelihoods, my uncles had some sense of what went on beyond the doors of the house or the boat business they ran out of the garage next door – the anti-war generation with painted faces and clothing that seemed more suited for circus clowns than wear on the street. My uncles simply did not believe massive revolution taking place elsewhere had anything to do with them or would ever come in contact with their lives – except for the occasional joke as I heard sometimes when we drove to the shore and my uncles spotted boy and girl hippies walking the sandy roadside, my uncles mumbling to themselves as to which was the boy and which was the girl.
They might have said the same thing about Hank and his hair, but for the scraggly beard, Hank’s crooked teeth, and eye glasses so thick they might have served as space goggles. Hank was simply too ugly even as a hippie to ever be mistaken for a girl.
Of the four of five uncles that still resided at the old house, none fumed as much as Uncle Harry, a hard core Bircher who would have worn a KKK hood had that fashion not gone out of fashion in the north, so instead focused on rooting out communists, real or imaginary, most of whom to his mind just happened to be black. For him, our home town and our house in particular always stood at risk of a Soviet invasion and so he -- like so many musket-bearing patriots of two centuries earlier – saw himself as the sole resistance, clinging to some outdated mythology changes to the constitution had long discredited, except for the most fundamental under the most questionable interpretation of the Second Amendment. He was Daniel Boone with a M-1 carbine (who died too early three decades later to ever fully take advantage of legalized assault weapons) that might have put a hole in between Hank’s frowning eyebrows had he seen the invasion coming in time. Harry, however, could only shout, repeating my name over and over like an air raid siren, helpless to take shelter against the nuclear holocaust he went on and on about over daily supper.
And I, isolated in the attic bedroom my family had assigned me as punishment for my last vain effort to flee the house, heard my name through the floor boards, and echoing up the narrow stairs, knowing from the tone and the constant repetition of such a chorus that bad news awaited me at the bottom. So as pervasive a call as my uncle made, I took my time, fingers brushing against the dusty banister from the attic to the tiled top of the second floor, my feet making the wooden stairs moan under me even though I weighed little then, and carefully kept my footsteps close to the sides as I had done hundreds of other times when sneaking out.
Uncle Harry and my other uncles surrounded the stair bottom like a net with me, and the already out of date Beatles-like mop top hair cut they hated and waited for some infraction of their rules to allow them to shave off into the crew cut they so admired – haircuts I routinely earned with every failed subject on my quarterly report card.
Seeing Hank in the front hall beyond the gauntlet of my uncles shocked me as much as them, raising a vague memory of his promise to “drop in” and play records at my house sometime, a promise or threat I never quite took too seriously, partly because he lived completely on the other side of Paterson and needed to change buses twice to reach me.
I had met Hank in the theater the previous fall where we both worked at ushers until he got fired and I quit, and then had not seen him again until the spring when I bumped into him downtown near Woolworths (which turned out to be a regular stop for him where he waited for the New York bus over a glass of Coke and a well-done hamburger). He was in a hurry to get to Manhattan, while I was in a rush to get home before curfew so we exchanged few words – only this vague promise to meet me in the future. How he found me remained one of the great mysteries of the universe since I never gave him the address, he apparently putting together my living arrangements from the collection of clues I left like breadcrumbs during those long nights as ushers while standing through endless reels of bad movies.
In the midst of those long conversations, Hank had left clues of his own to a future he envisioned for himself, a vision that utterly and permanently altered my world view, filling me with the seeds of a discontent that would take years to blossom into real rebellion – he singing Bob Dylan and other songs not commonly played on the radio, filled with ideas and images that haunted me later when I tried to close my eyes to sleep.
Always a troublemaker, my life until then tended to revolve around pranks and petty crime, fist fights with neighborhood thugs and such. The local police painted my future on the inside of a jail cell where I sometimes wound up after this prank or that. Uncle Harry’s rage at me came largely because he saw me as following in some of his more misguided footsteps, but leaning farther over the edge than he allowed himself to go, and since I had no father, he made up his mind to make sure he kept me from falling off the way he almost had.
Hank’s taught of Greenwich Village and a life as an artist (his tenor voice often filled the theater after closing much to the chagrin of the theater manager who screamed for him to shut up) made me wonder if there might be a place in that pantheon for someone lacking any obvious talent such as me.
But in the months after our departure from the theater, I had reverted to my old ways, wandering the local streets in search of trouble, not inspiration, finding more than enough to allow the local police bring me how as regularly as a taxi service, my uncle receiving me with due diligence and the deep sigh of a man who clearly had not yet succeeded in steering me right.
Seeing Hank downtown and again in the front hall of my house rekindled the coals from the previous winter, and while not setting anything openly ablaze, the altered state registered an startling alarm in Uncle Harry’s dark eyes as he realized that the turn I had taken thanks to this strange man standing in the hall was one well-beyond anything he could have anticipated, and something that was far more dangerous than any communist conspiracy his books by John Birch could have prepared him for.
More than anything else, Uncle Harry looked betrayed. From the day he had greeted me and my mad mother at the door when I was three, Harry had assumed I would take my place, a younger version the parade of uncles my grandfather had sired. His gaze understood for the first time, this might not happen.
He glared at me, then at Hank, as if trying to determine which of us bore the most blame, and whether or not, he might end it somehow with some act of violence he justify in court, and from his increasing look of frustration, I could tell he could find no way to undo this thing unfolding before him, and was forced to let it transpire.
A decade earlier, Harry and others could simply have tossed Hank out and ended this thing, though even he did not yet understand just how out of control this thing was about to get, or how impossible it would be for any of us to revert to what we were before this moment happened, and that no matter what he did or said, life was forever changed.
Although my taste in music tended to be less deep than Hank’s – he knew more about folk and hard rock from listening to long playing albums where as I liked pop tunes I could hear on the radio – we tended to like many of the same bands such as the Beatles and the Stones, music that in the view of my uncles was not so much music as noise when compared to Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and performers of their generation.
I mistakenly assumed that my invitation to Hank – if I ever actually invited him at all – would generally mean our listening to those agreed upon tunes, and so I paid very little mind to the LP that Hank had clutched under his arm as he waited for me to get passed my uncles and lead him out of the hall, through the living room and into the dinning room where the family record player sat.
I did not own a record player of my own, and so had to borrow one that Uncle Frank had brought. He was the only one of my uncles who actually invested in music, buying records he liked and listening to songs not readily available on the radio – most of these fell into the general category of Country and Western. My Uncle Frank, a mountain of a man with hands too large for any form of art, loved to draw, but also made a valiant effort to learn guitar – this sat in the corner across the room used less frequently than the record player, which saw less and less use mostly due to the complaints of his brothers, who dedicated their non-working hours to watching TV in the living room and did not want to hear “the racket” Frank’s music made.
Settling in front of the record player – even with the pocket doors closed between living and dining rooms – I knew that if Frank’s music was unacceptable to my other uncles, then Hank’s would be worse. I didn’t not realize until Hank actually unveiled the album just how much worse this would be.
Until that point, I hadn’t even heard of Arlo Guthrie (nor heard any song he’d sung) and could not have imagined how this travesty of music that Hank got ready on the turn table would become our anthem for the next few months and for the rest of our lives, but I knew from seeing the naked man on the album sleeve that this music wouldn’t be of the variety Hank and I had shared before, and would become even more outrageously unacceptable to the blue collar sensibilities of the four men seated in the room beyond the pocket doors watching Bonanza on the TV.
I should have stopped Hank, but like Uncle Harry, I remained helpless to halt the inevitable, and so sat there before the speaker struggling to anticipate what would come out, and how it might alter the course of the rest of my life.
Since the portrait on the cover roughly resembled Bob Dylan, I assumed the record would produce some similar variety in music. Pat Boone was too much to hope for.
I got neither.
Later, thanks to Hank and other knowledgeable people, I would come to make the connections between Arlo and Dylan, building in my head an image of the pantheon of musical saints we would pay homage to and come to envision as the real leaders in our lives, how Arlo’s father – a patriot of the downtrodden from the Great Depression – would influence that struggling Zimmerman in a reinvented Greenwich Village, one of many of those who would emerge on the radio airwaves and more remotely us in suburbia,
Over time, I would even come to love Arlo for his songs, and those songs of his father’s he performed, but at that moment, when Hank’s cigarette-stained fingers lowered the needle onto the record, all I heard was a scratchy, almost whinny voice recounting some adventure that had happened to him in some remote place I could barely envision. More disturbing, however, was how Hank mouthed each word having already memorized the diatribe to every nuance – something that would over the rest of the summer and in subsequent years haunt me, his need to relive a memory that was not his memory, by being able to recite each word.
This came to disturb me the way my uncle’s country and western songs did, the lyrics – if you dared to call them lyrics – oozing down into me by repetition so I knew them nearly as well as Hank did, and so suffered through each repeated rendition on street or subway platform with the impatient martyrdom of churchgoer long bored with the litany. Not until decades later, after Hank’s voice had long gone silent did my faith in the song and its message return, and each repetition became a memory of him.
The story was about Alice moving into the upstairs portion of an old church, and because of the all the room downstairs, did not need to take the trash out for a long, long time.
The metaphor for religious dogma didn’t occur to me until many years later, as did the symbolism that surrounded their decision to take out the trash finally, and dumping over a cliff which put them at odds with the law. Even the trial, the police officer, and the blind judge who could not look at the photographic evidence made me laugh. But when Arlo came to the point in the song when he had to report to the draft board for his physical, and was confronted by a host of social degenerates with whom he got along quite well after he said he’d been convicted of disturbing the peace, I began to squirm.
If I had never heard anything like this before, my uncles hadn’t either. But they had listened, dragged into the tale by its sheer absurdity, and confronted by Arlo’s violation of all they as blue collar European-descended Americans believe – the song mocking law and order, the Vietnam war and the justice system in one single diatribe, blind justice leading up to Arlo’s chant that he wanted to “kill! kill! kill!” as a true patriot.
My shock was nothing compared to the disturbance the “music” had beyond the pocket doors where my uncles stirred, beasts taunted by sound beyond their immediate reach, their movements echoing in my ears from countless other times when they grunted and groaned, though this paled all previous experiences, as to make me jump when Uncle Harry yanked open the door to glare in at us.
Although only in my imagination did I see my uncle’s expression altering during the playing of the record, his yanking open the door to the last uttered “kill” concluded what must have been a stunning transformation.
A crack down the faces on Mount Rushmore would have seemed less stunning with Harry unable even to utter is usual string of four-letter words, just my name in a manner even I had never heard before, as if what emerged from the cocoon of the dinning room did not at all resemble the caterpillar that had crawled in earlier, and he had no way to clip the wings I suddenly had grown.
When finally, Uncle Harry spoke, it came as a single four-letter word which summed up his rage and his bewilderment, his gaze moving from my face to the stereo, to Hank’s and finally to the album cover with the mostly naked Arlo on it.
Then, he did what he should have and could have done from the start, an afterthought that stirred out of some deeper part of him even he did not know existed, from a place beyond his paranoia over communists and blacks, beyond the flag-waving and his staunch support for a war in Vietnam, beyond even the roots of family that had endowed this house and our lives with a meaning we had lacked for all the years of wandering prior to our arrival here.
This invasion, this perversion of me, and the fact that it had come straight into our house through doors meant for something more significant so enraged Harry that the word exploded out of him, “OUT!”
He didn’t even have to mutter anything about hippie or beatnik crap, since this was so beyond such labels.
His mood so shocked me I thought Harry might kill Hank and so I snatched the record off the turntable, stuffed it into its sleeve, and then the sleeve under Hank’s arm, and dragged the speechless Hank back through the living room to the hall, and through the doors in through which he had come, as if this ritual might reverse what had transpired, though as deep in me as was Harry’s outrage, I knew what was done could not be undone, and that life in the old house would take a course none of us could have ever predicted, and still could not predict, only in that it would surprise us when it came.
Once gone, Hank’s spirit remained, a stain in the air and on the carpet where he had sat, a stain in the gazes of my uncles who glared at me, and then went through the litany of warnings that I should never see, let alone invite, him or his kind to the house again. My protests over not having invited Hank in the first place went unheard, since I was no confident in my defense, and even less confident that I could avoid future contact since something in me continued to invite that change.
So overcome with shock, my uncles never thought to punish me and so I avoided being dragged down the block to the barber shop on Vernon Avenue for the crew cut they saw as their answer to the altered world.
I received no lecture, no grounding, not even a dark look of warning that accompanied nearly every other act of rebellion I committed.
Even the prohibition to not see Hank again seemed weak and ill thought out, a policy that for all Hank’s preparations for invasion could not enforce. They must have somewhere deep in their sub-consciousness must have understood by saying I could not see Hank again meant that I ultimately would, and did, even sooner than I ever expected, and more often than even I desired.
Once safely back in my room, I turned on the radio, hearing the pop songs Hank and I had sung in and outside the theater, and yet, wishing to hear what the disc jockey would not play, perhaps because of the subtle drug references Arlo sprinkled throughout the song, or the more overt call for a social revolution, or more likely because I had changed so much in such a short time the tunes the radio accepted I could not.
Perhaps I sensed some deeper meaning no song was meant to convey, about the unfairness of life, about how despite all Alice and Arlo did to live a simple life, things intruded them, and I could not get it out of my head how Hank seemed determined to walk that same walk, and to drag me along with him.
And the song would become the sound track from our experience together with Hank memorizing every nuance so that we needed no record player, only his memory, and his voice duplicating Arlo’s so thoroughly, I later was disappointed when I again heard the original, though protesting over Hank’s constant repetitions the whole time.
Hank sang other songs, of course, many of which I sang along with him, harmonize Simon & Garfunkel tunes or Beatles or Stones, but in the mix Hank always included the 20-minute rendition of Arlo’s, and often as not, he sang it more than once – and in public places where others had to endure.
Alone in my room that night, I could not predict how fast friends we would become or how he would finally lure me to New York, singing the song on the bus because the trip took roughly the same time as the song took to sing.
Those drivers who regularly transported us cringed when they saw us waiting in front of the pizza parlor on Market Street in Paterson, their faces filled with silent rage as they glared back at us in the back of the bus during the whole trip, often telling us to “tone it down” or else.
But then when snow storm hit in early spring our bus, navigating one of the last turns before making the helix down to the Lincoln Tunnel, got stuck.
We were part of what must have appeared like a caravan of deviated buses forced up along a slanted rise of a former plank road out of the Meadowlands, and then up this twisted narrow one block-long side street that led up to an alternate approach to the tunnel.
Our bus did not breakdown on the slick ice covered roadway, but the one in front of us apparently couldn’t find traction to get up the steep incline, and we might have backed down and taken the plank road the other way to the top of the hill to make an approach through Hoboken, but the bus behind us developed engine trouble.
So wedged betweens the two buses, our bus had to wait until a repair crew could arrive to fix the bus behind us -- we watching daylight fade and the lights on the York Motel glow.
The bored Hank having already annoyed the passengers with the 20 minute song on our way to that place decided to do it again, drawing not just moans from the others travelers, but warnings to shut up from the driver, who had given us dirty looks coming aboard, and had glared in the rear view mirror over the whole trip, especially at the part of the song where Hank got to scream “I want to kill, kill, kill.”
By the time the bus behind us was able to move, and our bus backed down the hill to take the alternative route, we were no longer on it; we were standing on the side of the road in the cold and ice, pondering alternative transport home or to New York.
I could not foresee all that lay ahead, my uncles still smoldering down stairs as I cowered in my room. Hank’s talk of the village I knew would translate into reality; I knew he would find a life as a hippie, though I could not predict how tainted it would become, how once established in the place he thought he loved he would find it was not the same place all, and he would spend days and night stumbling over the sprawled bodies of prone junkies or become the victim of street gangs – regurgitating memories of his younger days when coming down the hill to Paterson from Haledon, thugs waiting for him near the projects, making him empty his pockets, laying in wait even when he altered his route as if they knew what he would do next.
When the hippie life proved an empty promise, he would return to New Jersey, to Paterson, to his family home, and start over, if not seeking to become the next Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel, then some more modified suburban version that would allow him also to make a living in a warehouse job.
He didn’t stop singing the Alice’s Restaurant song, he just reserved it for Thanksgiving, the way singers reserved carols for Christmas. Yet it meant more than just a holiday remembrance – and the more we got bogged down in mundane jobs and strayed away from the dream he talked about at the Woolworths counter that day I met him in Paterson, the more he thought about finding his way back, joking about finding the place for real at first, and then pulling out maps to calculate how long it would take us to drive there and say hello.
Was it real? Or had the song come out of some twisted dream inspired by a few joints, drinks or tabs of LSD?
“I need to know,” he told me one day some years later. “And I don’t want to go alone.”
I dreaded the drive, not just for what we might or might not find at the other end, but for the time between, the time Hank might feel the need to fill with endless renditions of the song he sang so often on bus rides and on the streets of Greenwich Village.
Still, Hank swayed me and so I climbed into is old Pontiac, agreed to split the cost of gas and tolls, and kept him company for the long ride north.
He didn’t sing. We barely kept the radio tuned as familiar channels faded away and we lacked energy or will to find replacements. We barely even talked, Hank gripping the steering wheel with both hands and struggling to keep the car moderately above the speed limit.
I kept a wary eye out for Alro’s Officer Obie, and for the rail road tracks the song said we have to cross to get where Alice was.
Then, we arrived, and lacking any better way of navigating the unfamiliar turf, we actually asked a local cop directions to Alice’s Restaurant, shocked when the officer nodded and complied, and mumbled something about how good the food was.
We did not dare ask about the trash situation, following the instructions instead, and parked the car in a small lot nearby.
Hank’s boots kicked up gravel as he hurried across the lot to the restaurant, his gaze fixed, dreamlike, almost elated. His expression bore a little of that look I saw that first time when I saw him off on the bus to New York, both times, he anticipating the realization of a vision I didn’t completely share.
We could see people at tables inside through the windows, and the movement of waiters we did not expect. Where was Alice? How could she afford such an army and how could she accommodate so many guests?
A man wearing an expensive suit and tie greeted us the moment we came through the door, frowning a little at our attire which in my case had varied very little from when I was young, though Hank now wore a cloth coat, vest, jeans and boots, with a Clint Eastwood kind of cowboy hat.
“We’re looking for Alice,” Hank told the man.
The man’s frown deepened.
“You mean you want to dine?”
“Yes, that, too,” Hank said, still glancing around, expecting perhaps a glimpse of Alice and maybe Arlo.
“Very well,” the man said. “Do you have a reservation?”

No comments:

Post a Comment