BELOW THE WATER LINE
The first kid I ever knew who was Jewish - not
that it mattered, believe me, at all; I'd probably not
even have known. It was my father's doing - was
Jeffrey Lubin. We were both in 1st or 2nd grade.
He was a tiny little kid, and I really hit it off
somehow with him. He intrigued me in that all
his features were small and he had an apparent
outlook of a certain elfish or even pixie-like
quality that caught me. Past that, I don't know.
He lived down by Avenel Park, on the street
that ended up in the woods which fronted the
street across from the park. I'd go down there
and we'd pass the day - I don't remember what
we did - park stuff, the woods, maybe bicycles.
Then he moved away - just disappeared, and I
lost all track of him. In like fashion, the first
black kid I ever knew was, oddly enough, named
Donald Brown. He lived in Iselin, off Route One,
where there was a deep canyon-pit or something
below all the rest of the town. Now it's condos and
a pallet-company and truck yard. There was a small
group of black people, in small houses, that lived
there - pretty isolated and away from the rest. For
me, he came late in the game; 7th grade. So, just
imagine, never knowing a black kid until 7th grade.
That's kind of how stratified 1950's Avenel and Iselin
areas were. I never made distinctions actually - was
unable to care about any of that. I'd known already
various Europeans - there were Czechoslovakian
kids, a French girl, Roberto Cogai, who came here
from Italy in about our 5th grade, Italians galore, an
English kid or two, and all the rest. On New York
City talk all you ever heard about was the Puerto
Ricans, but I didn't know any of them either. My
world was pretty closed and circumspect in regard
to 'ethnic'. Except again for my father - he was
always ranting about something : how I'd better
always 'protect' my sister and do battle for her - if
I ever saw anyone mistreating or anything else to
her, I pretty much much had to swear I'd be willing
to die defending her and going to battle for her; how
I should only have Italian girlfriends and never get
hooked up to any other group (my wife, alas, is
Welsh, German, Alsatian and French, all somehow
combined); how blacks and Jews ruined everything,
how Irish were drunks and Scots were cheap - I don't
know the rest, he just endlessly went on. If I do know,
I don't want to. It was pretty bizarre. In full fact, I
figured him to be crazy and I never cared a wit about
whatever the hell he was meaning to say when he got
going. It was annoying, and sometimes it was harsh,
a real burden to have to bear. My biggest interest, point
of fact, was with this Italian kid, Roberto Cogai, who
somehow was tall, thin, reddish complexioned and hair,
and had blue eyes! How could be possibly be Italian?
Turned out he was from the far north of Italy, where
the people were almost Alpine, and he cut a totally
different figure from the run-of-the-mill, and cliched,
swarthy Southern Italian slob of everyone's knowledge.
It turned out, for me, there was an entire geography and
history lesson there to be learned. About how certain
nations - Italy among them - were simply 'composed
nations', congealed from warring sections and divided
groups who sometimes hated their own unifications. The
artificial and great-power constructions of borders.
Of course, my father never had told me any of that.
Jeffrey Lubin, and later the entire Belfor family, were
your basic representatives of the Jewish religion. Race?
Tribe? I had no clue. Murray and Martha, in their store,
counted and hoarded every penny - nothing wrong with
that, such is small-business. I liked them. One of my -
once again - saddest moments was during the time I
was in a Saturday morning bowling league and the bus
would pick about 15 or so of us up to take us to the
nearby bowling alley in Hopelawn. We'd wait at the
Shop-Rite corner - each Saturday as we got on the
bus, the Belfor boys would be walking by, on their way
to Temple - a local congregation 'B'nai Israel' I think
it was, was by the highway. They'd walk by, pretty
much head down, quiet, and the kids on the bus -
never failed - would start hooting and hollering out
the windows, abusively catcalling at 'the Jews, who
couldn't go bowling because they had to be in Temple
on Saturday mornings with their stupid little hats', and
more - really abusive crap. I was always completely
deflated, angered, embarrassed for myself and for Howie.
I wanted to stand up and pounce one of these idiot kids -
the same assholes who themselves would be trundled off
to church the very next morning, in their own ways, but
couldn't see any similarity in that to what they were just
foully screaming at someone else about. I realized I truly
hated the world - all its stupidities, its idiot pronouncements,
and its people who screamed and ranted about things and
this stupid bowling program my parents had arranged
for me. My frustration was internalized to a fire within me.
Kids being kids, we did stupid stuff. I mean stupid. I will
in this part, stop using names of people, because it's too
embarrassing, and just list occurrences. One kid would
bring us into his parents' bedroom and open his mother's
underwear drawer to show us the stuff she wore; another
kid (truly) would get his slightly younger sister to take
her clothes off for us, as we had a look-see; a few times
the group of us would huddle together with some dad's
Playboy magazines, and worse. Well, so much for that.
In school, with those large photos of George Washington
AND Dwight D. Eisenhower - the then current President,
for what seemed like forever (8 years), we'd recite the Pledge
of Allegiance each day. It was harmless, yet in those Cold
War times we'd be told equally (Mr. Ziccardi was good
for this) that in the Communist countries things were so
bad that kids went to school and had to recite loyalty
pledges, promise to squeal on their parents if they heard
anti-government talk at home, and stuff like that. With the
black-listed people, the McCarthy hearings and all the loyalty
stuff, AND with us having to pledge allegiance each morning,
I could never understand why that wasn't seen as pretty much
the same thing. Didn't Mr. Ziccardi have a nose on his face?
Wasn't all this as plain to him as the nose on his face? I didn't
get it. All he'd ever do anyway was talk on and on about his
own war experiences on the cold fields of Korea in that
1952 war - yet another one. His stories never much made
sense. A Christmas ceasefire where they suddenly stopped
shooting at each other and walked across the fields and
hugged and shook hands for the day while - I guess-
'war' stopped for Christmas? What the hell was that? I
did later learn there was such a Christmas cease-fire in
WWI, for a day, in sort of like manner - though not the
handshakes and hugs and sharing. But it didn't work out
except for allowing both sides to go out from the trenches
and pick up all the dead guys rotting in between sides.
So, maybe he stole the story. That's in a book I read a
few years ago actually ABOUT that failed cease-fire day.
And anyway guys were still getting blown to smithereens
then by stepping on land mines. Merry fucking Christmas.
The most impressive thing I learned from Mr. Ziccardi's
war tales was in his telling us that he'd learned, from long,
cold experience in Korea, that when you're really cold, the
warmest thing you can do is to put your hands between
your legs, up by your crotch, because that's where the
best body-warmth was generated and stayed. Sounded
already to me like early sex-manual pick-up talk. Try it
on girls when you're 11 years old. It works.
Once or twice, early on, I found myself enamored of a girl
or two, over time. A few times - innocent, little kid's stuff
really, there'd be this really funny feeling, the warmth of
holding a hand, a stolen kiss. Little crazy things of childhood.
I never walked away with guilt or foreboding, just that fine
sense of mystery, and of Life's dense confusion and treachery.
All the pitfalls that awaited - growing up, finding love, seeing
people, meeting those you really liked, when you had no
control and your body-emotions and heart just took over. It
came and went, like waves of red heat. I never fretted. To
me, anyway, it was all about the eyes; eyes got me every time.