BELOW THE WATER LINE
When I was growing up we had, in succession, I
think, two dogs. It's shameful that I remember so
little about them. The first was 'Jet' - all black,
sweet, shaggy, and the second was 'Rinny' - as
I recall named after a TV dog named Rin Tin Tin,
or something of that nature. This is all a bit foggy
to me, here, in retrospect - and I only bring it up
now for a few salient reasons. It would have been
1954, 1955, and I would have been 4 and 5. We'd
just moved in. Shortly thereafter, my father built
a crude shed-structure of sorts - double doors,
roofed, shingled, but way too low - you had to,
anyone over maybe five feet anyway - crouch
down to get inside, and the roof sloped downward
too, towards the back, making it even lower. A
few years later, it was gone, and he'd built a much
nicer, taller, double level one on a slab, deeper in
the yard, by 1970 anyway. Behind this small shed
was kept an old jumbled pile of cast-off, cut wood,
junk boards, 2x4's whatever. Adjacent to the
shed, on the left side, he'd also built a doghouse.
Chain attached, maybe a twelve or fifteen foot
circumference of chained movement for the dog.
What makes me miserable and sad again here, is
how little I remember about how those dogs were
kept. People all used to do this - not just us.
Doghouses and chains in the yard were everywhere.
Neither Jet nor Rinny ever came into the house, I
do not recall watering or feeding them. It's all
confusing to me, why, whether, and how come
anyone would have a dog like that - outdoors
at all times, in a doghouse setting, all weathers,
chained and kept. It's absolutely horrifying to me
now, and - frankly - I shudder still. I remember,
vaguely, when Gravy Train came out - about
1957 I'm betting - being amazed at how, with the
addition of water, a 'dry' dog food suddenly had its
own gravy. So, I guess we fed them that. Perhaps
my father, Or my mother (though I doubt that, for
her) watered, fed, and tended these dogs. I know
neither me or my sister did, to my recollection,
and I cannot understand this hazy remembrance.
Never a car ride, never a dog walk. I can't go
on about this any longer.
I remember, one time, my friend Alex and me,
eyes closed, rolling around on the rooftop of
this shed, and him suddenly just rolling off the
edge. By accident. We were shocked - but it
was low enough to be a harmless fall.
We kept it filled with junk - endless bicycles,
some of my father's tools and lawnmower things.
There was never enough room inside it to really
get to anything. Yet, it was great. Double-doors,
painted dark green, with a door hasp and latch.
I used to think about odd things; really. Even as
a young kid, my mind always seemed to jump
ahead and begin asking questions - of me, no
less. Shows what a kid's mind will do, both 'asking'
the questions of something unknown, and expecting
at the same time the answers to come from self as
well. But in a way it was - the entire concept -
just in line with what we were taught to profess.
Like Santa Claus - laughing with you on his
knee, and asking what you want for Christmas,
when he's already the one who's supposed to
know and produce the goods. Or God and Jesus,
the same thing : they'd tell us that all-knowing and
all-powerful stuff and then say that - while deep
in prayer - we should ask God, or Jesus, or even
Mary, I guess they all had the can-do - what we
sought, and pray for it to come to us. But if they
were what they were supposed to be they'd already
know what was up, or so it was said, and produce,
again, the goods (so we could then say prayers of
Thanksgiving?). Why then bother? For me, it
was ancestors. It was hard to conjure ancestors
in Avenel. Who had any here? Or, maybe, really,
on the other hand, that was all anyone really did
have. The old wood of the shed pile, twisted and
aged, pretty much, could have represented
ancestors - whatever the generations that were
behind myself and my parents, that was all they
really were. Cast-offs, old and weathered and
mis-shapen, forms stacked up somewhere now
and forgotten, or seldom thought about, or
thought of on holidays or when looking at
old pictures. Each one of those boards had a
storyline that went with it : this was part of,
once, someone's doorway; this was a closet
board; this one is from an old chest of drawers.
All and whatever - like any Great Uncle Aldo,
or George, or Jacob or Michael could be. We
ourselves here were stranded - now in place,
with nothing really to fall back on. Newly cut
and cleared yards and streets, houses and lanes.
No more neighborhood rows of old brownstones
and a few generations of meager old-folk all
hanging on to one place - Sunday dinners where
everyone would meet. It was all over, gone. People
had stories, but they could be embellished, made-up,
conjured from smoke and memory. My friend Alex,
related to Enrico Caruso, friends with Hollywood
stars, dining with the hob-nobs. My friend Edward,
related to the big Senator of New Jersey, taking the
Summer vacations in Spring Lake with his two rich
uncles at the country club. Whoever knew what?
And who cared? The seven o'clock Security Steel
factory whistle would blow each night, clockwork
and perfect. That was 'reality' - all me and my
friends ever really knew. The Bertini family had
all gotten in their car, with a trailer one day, and
taken off for a still newer life, in California. They
were to drive clear across the country and start all
over. No more nothing. Six or eight months later,
they were all back; nothing had worked out, they
no longer had their old house, but they found
another one somewhere, and started all over. Same
with the Consorti family - I do forget, actually, if
they all came back, or just a kid or two when they
got older. Nothing matters. It's all made up crap
anyway. My father was a sparring partner, at the
boxing gym in Bayonne or Jersey City right next
door. As a young adult, he'd get the crap beat out
of him for practice, for some paltry shitload of
nothing money. I never bragged and said he
fought Rocky Marciano. As a 12 -year old, for
quarters, he was a pin-boy in the bowling lanes.
Before they had automated pin-resetting and all
that stuff, he'd scurry around, with other kids,
assigned to varied lanes, and have to reset the
pins, and the formation, for new frames. Send
the ball back to the idiots at the other end
prancing around in their bowling shoes. He'd
walk up and down the Bayonne business streets
to shine people's shoes, accumulate some money,
and meet one of his sisters on a corner (they were
all spread around in foster homes) so he could give
it to her and she could dole it out in bits to the
other four kids. I never bragged. My father, he
made sheds and doghouses too. He could fix
an engine like a match can start a fire. I never
bragged; nothing to pretend at bragging about.
When I got to Avenel, all that 'past' was gone -
I had no 'antecedent's or 'ancestors' to fall back
on. I didn't even know who they were, and
never met anybody. My life was an open book,
a slate waiting to be written upon - 'cept the
chalk was broken, the slate was marred, it was
hard to hold, and five other people were trying
to write on the same piece as I was. No sense.
I had to go it alone. There wasn't even any
real senselessness in the senselessness of
it all. Just a void.
So I'd take my void to the woods, and make a
world. I'd walk the tracks, to Woodbridge or
Rahway, either direction, and watch the
trainmen: switching cars, moving boxcars
and freight, checking out the signal lights
and - always, all the time - watching
for trains, in front of me or behind me.
While walking these routes, I could see.
most often, the backyards of the other people's
houses. How they lived and what they did.
Private picnic areas, tables, patios; all that
stuff we now are so used to. Back then, it
was all new stuff - like living large, from
Hollywood or some jiggered TV version
of life. Halfway along Inman Ave, going to
the Woodbridge end, the yards turned over
from cut and cleared fully, to the other
'option' available when they were sold. All
down that end, if you chose one of those
homes you did it because you wanted a heavily
tree'd yard. The big, old, dark and shade of
those trees covered the yards, and it made a
big difference. The five boys in the Walker
house, next to Patty Malone and her little
brother, they had hulks of hot rods and
automobiles at the center of their thickly
tree'd yard. Like it was out in some far-off
hillbilly woods. It was great. Plus, at the rear
of their house, outside, no less, they had a
telephone! They'd had a phone jack put in
place on the back of the house, and a phone
would be brought outside whenever they were.
At the picnic table - conversation as needed,
even while tinkering on your car! The Walker
family for me was pretty impressive. The kid
my age, Larry, he's dead now. Died while giving
scuba lessons to people in North or South
Carolina. Came up from a dive, one day about
6 years ago, and keeled over dead, right on the
dock from some heart thing. They had the first
house I ever went in that had air conditioning.
They were always yelling about closing the door
behind yourself. The father worked at Merck, and
he also was a liquor-clerk at Two Guys from
Harrison - an early cheapo-volume store in
nearby Hopelawn. We all loved it there. I'd get
little seven-cent pies, for my Saturday morning
bowling league snacks, whenever we got groceries
there on Friday nights. Mrs. Dudak, a neighbor lady
across the street, next to the Florio's, in a house now
owned by the Fritz's, she got fired from Two Guys
Grocery section. She would glom things for others -
it was no wonder then that my parents shopped
there. Any neighbor people that she knew, she'd
just push stuff along the register for them without
it being charged for. That could really add up,
week after week. They'd wind up paying like 4
dollars on a twenty-five dollar order. I don't know
what happened, but she got caught and was fired.
It wouldn't exactly have taken a criminologist though.
No so long after that anyway, they were gone from
the neighborhood - the two boys, Eddie and Bobby,
with them. The Walker's they had a story too. Five
kids, all wild boys, they drove the mother nuts. She
was nice, and I always liked her. But one day - it
had to have been building drama a long time - no
shit, she just upped and left. Said good-bye, I'm done,
and walked out - took her car, it was said, and drove
to California, and was never heard from again. Five
boys and that liquor-store Merck father. That was a
story to behold. Last sequel to this: In 1967 the
hot-rod of the bunch, Jack, who also drank too
much, ran a schoolkid down at the hedges along
Avenel Street at Security Steel. The kid was killed.
He'd only been here, from Poland, like three months
when that happened. He was about 8 or 9 years old.
Poor kid died, and his Polish parents were shattered.
The Walker kid did some time over that one. (There
are guard rails there now, in place ever since).