Sunday, October 4, 2015

7249. BELOW THE WATER LINE, pt. 32

(pt. 32)
One time my friend Billy Zellner, his house
was broken into overnight. Strange crime, out
of the ordinary occurrence for our block  -  even
with the prison in our very back yards and all the
occasional talk about prison breaks and all that
'what-would-we-do-if', etc. I always it figured
it couldn't be any worse than Barry Wynn's UFO
landing right about there too. Anyway, story was
that Billy's father  - who was a driver for whatever
bus company back then was running all those buses
now as NJTransit does  -  arrived home later at night,
as usually with his shift, and  -  again as usual  -
emptied his pockets of change and money and wallet
and stuff, and put it all on the upstairs stairway for the
next day  -  when he'd re-stuff all his pockets again in
whichever pants he was wearing. Well late that night
someone broke in, and was about to go for that stash
on the steps. Billy's father somehow ambushed the guy,
clocked him good, and foiled the robbery. That was that.
Nowadays he'd probably be sued and implicated for
aggression towards a black man, but whatever  -  that's
today's world, this was yesterday's. I always thought it
was a cool happening. I myself, after that, always
fantasized in like fashion, about catching a burglar,
beating him, pounding him but good, and then (to take
it one step further) chaining him up in my basement and
further pounding and punishing him at will. That was
either my own personal version of 'Avenel' justice, or
some really early Kafka influence. Either way, it was
my fun.
I've lived, already, after Avenel, in different places. I've
been in Metuchen near 37 years, 'til last year, and 10
years in Princeton too. I can tell you a lot about the
differences between places  -  their pretensions, and
their portrayals and self-images. I can honestly say,
from growing up here and returning here now twice
in one lifetime (I don't know, is that an achievement?
Thomas Wolfe wrote 'you can't go home again'. Am I
proving him wrong?)....that Avenel has none of that.
Certainly no pretension. Certainly no false self-image
of itself. it is what it is. You don't like it, get the fuck
out, OK. 'Give 'em Hell from Avenel' isn't just a rhyme,
it's a real fact. And we don't even have a cemetery  -  just
a swampland down in the bottoms. Check for Jimmy
Hoffa there, maybe. I can separate what I'm saying by
pointing this out: In Avenel, in the driveways and out at
the curbs, you're going to find work trucks. You know
it's gritty and tough and sound when guys bring their
work-trucks home with them, and park them : Eastern
Oil Service, Fred's Plumbing Supply, Axion Steel Works,
Otorio's Fuel-Station Repair, Amol's Heating and Cooling  -
things like that. When you see people coming home with
their work trucks, parking them, and stepping into their house
for supper and a beer, you gotta' know all's right with the
world. Here you'll find none of that sick-gazing, 'my Lexus
beats your Infiniti' stuff, the double-fronted two-Cadillac
oval wraparound drive way.  It's a freaking Chevy van, and
it's 12 years old. What of it? Westfield may have its
catacombs and Trader Joe's, and Metuchen could try
and find it's own Striver's Row, trying to be something
it never will be, Princeton doesn't have to try, it's got its
own high-class and the University, but Avenel, I'd say, hosts
Reality. Take it or leave it, at that.
Out front of the Clifford's house, on Inman Avenue, used
to be one of those red fire-call boxes, with the blue light
always on. I'd pass it every day coming from grade school,
and later from Junior High, which is all somehow now called,
instead, Middle School. That box and always-on light totally
fascinated me. I never got its meaning, but it had this little
flap-door and a white thing in it for your finger, once you
got the door opened. The idea was to, with your finger
fitting right into that little looped thing, pull on this lever,
and that would register your fire-call. Box number, location,
time, all that stuff. It always seemed  -  to me  -  so final, so
scary. Anyone even thinking of a false alarm, I always thought,
had better think twice. This was a really deliberate decision, to
be made with aforethought, and NOT malice. The doer here 
better be sure of what he was doing.
Back then, too, it seemed that when the snows came, they
really came, an they stayed pretty nearly all Winter. I
remember all the Dads and those clunky, noisy chains
they'd put on their cars, at least on the rear wheels  -  the
strange clackety-clack sound of all that is always with me.
That metallic combination of clamp and metal, and the
bands of woven burlap or whatever it was that held the
clamped chains onto the tire. The one year, I guess it was
1961, come about two weeks before Christmas, until late
January, our street was frozen up and the two or three
inches of dense-pack snow on the very street itself, after
thaw and freeze, thaw and freeze over and over, had gotten
hard like ice  - a slick and shiny surface. No salt or anything
like that ever came to break it up. Cars just chomped along  -
but for us it was an entire near-month of amazing sledding
and skating and sliding. Outdoors the entire time, we made
ice-cut igloos, we channeled the curbsides with a river-flow
of whatever thaw happened, and we tended to it, all up and
down the block. To make sure it stayed open. To be sure
the flow continued. We had massive block against block
snowball fights  -  leaving our own territory, Inman
Avenue, to go uphill and challenge the Clark Place 
and Madison Avenue maniacs. Probably Monica Court
too, but I forget. Speaking of Monica Court, and maniacs,
they had the Squillace Brothers. Believe me, any side
which had Ronnie and Richie on it were sure winners.
One or the other of them would rip anybody's head clear
off, on a dare. Just that brutal, and forceful, and direct.
At the top of Clark Place was a hill, part of the street, but
a hill nonetheless -   it used to seem huge, a real incline. 
Now, really nothing at all. But that was our high-point, 
always the pinnacle for these grand and beastly snowball
fights, which would eventually, at some offshot, develop
downward into fist-fights and scrambles to kill someone.
It never failed, and I got used to what red blood on white 
snow looks like. Damn it all, it looks like Avenel. Years
later, doing some reading, I realized that this extended
ice-month I just mentioned was the same January days that
Bob Dylan had landed in New York City, his first steps into
what he called the worst cold and snow he'd ever faced. It
was certainly an extended freeze-over. Dead batteries and
neighborhood cars, every-morning, needing that constant, 
hood-up tinkering, battery jump, and coaching to get started.
Something akin to Marcel Proust and his madeleines (look 
it up) and memory, this cold-morning imagry had always 
stayed with me. The sound was different, the air and the  
stillness of the smell. Everything was muffled  - and to a 
ten-year-old like me  -  that muffled meant mystery 
everywhere, and a sweet feeling in a growing heart. As I 
said previous, I love the swaddled and the muffled  -  the
 faces of the people I'd see: the mystery of the girls and their coats, 
the adult men with their Winter hats and the ice on their eyebrows 
and faces  -  the few with moustaches, like grouchy
Mr. Granada and his Ford Victoria, 1956, black beauty (there
were a lot of just plain old Fords and Chevies around Inman), and -  
of course  -  their cigarettes. Cigarettes were everywhere, all these 
people smoked. For one thing, the Army and the military service 
made you smoke. They handed out free cigarettes to the enlisted 
 men, I was told, like they were licorice strips  -  pack after pack.  
They were supposed to break the tedium, and the fear, and the 
big resounding dread. I guess that's where they all first got the
extended habit. These guys, and most of their wives too, were
hooked. Kenny Kaisen's parents smoked Raleigh cigarettes.
On each Raleigh pack there be a little Raleigh coupon. You get
enough of them, and you could cash them in for things ; toasters, 
coolers, picnic sets, lamps, throw rugs. Weird stuff like that  -  for 
smoking! Their house had lots of things from there. I suppose, if 
you really turned in a pile of coupons, they'd even give you a 
heart and lung machine. Well, maybe not  -  bad for 
public relations, you know. 

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