Sunday, October 11, 2015

7281. BELOW THE WATER LINE, pt. 40

(pt. 40)
Life is often nothing more than a recap  -  the same
things, summarized some, over and over, each time
pushing the envelope a little more  -  seeking to see,
farther on, what you've learned, or at least what you've
noticed from previous forays and experiences. It's a
good deal. Mostly. Have you ever been in a room
where no one believes you? It's uncomfortable for
you, the others get eventually pushy about it, start
sounding all righteous and official, and soon enough
it just turns vile : police-state-ish and rude. Well,
my whole life's been like that. I get uncomfortable,
find that I can't really speak truthfully because of
both my own belief systems  -  in which I totally
belief  -  and because of the code of social niceties
which essentially excuses only silly-talk, fluff, and
agreed-upon general pleasantries. 'Going along' with
the assumptions and prescribed program of things is
of primary concern. 'He's so nice.' etc. So, it's always
been tough. Did I just say it's a good deal. Mostly?
Living on Inman Avenue  -  and that's what it was,
what I did  -  for the most formative parts of my life
has become the central point, the pivot, of the wheel
that turns to make up all the rest of me. I'd have never
thought that I myself would be sourced from such a
 place. In my later teen years, I'd begrudge my parents
for having dumped me here : why couldn't I have grown
up in a city environment, more on the edge, a chancier
existence? Why did they have to cop out and leave the
city for these crummy suburbs? And make a geek out
of me by comparison to those brash city kids? My
problem, it always seemed, was that I really was  -
cliched as it may sound  -  too loving and gentle
and with sympathy for every other situation I'd see.
The other side of that, a compensation perhaps, was
to disappear, just leave it. Delve within, turn to the
pen, study about art. All that, which I did. I had
grown too big for my space  -  it was troublesome.
In reality, I didn't know what to do. Sometimes I totally
rebelled, slunk away. Other times, I was like the happiest,
most popular little kid around. I couldn't know why.
As I said previous, the move to Avenel couldn't have 
gone easier. I took it all in stride, with little discomfort
and even less caring. I couldn't tell the difference. The
yard was big, lined with trees, and rolling all the way 
down to the railroad tracks out back, where (I now know)
the Bayshore Local, or Jersey Coast Line, or whatever
it's called now on the schedule board, runs each day back 
and forth to New York's Penn Station and all points before
(about six stops, unless you get an express). Coming up 
from south, after first passing the Perth Amboy and 
Woodbridge stations, it then joins the mainline at
Rahway, two or three miles up the tracks. Those tracks
were my lifeline  -  the prison farm, the crossing and
rail-car yards, the little streams and rivers all about. The
prison farm, working fields, farm animals, tractors,
prisoners, guards, rows of high corn stalks blowing and
bending in the breezes. I could have been anywhere. As
boys we partook of all the new neighborhood's bounties :
the rail sidings, the boxcars, the supplies, the car/truck
junkyards down the end of Inman, towards Randolph 
Street, the trailer court, with the odd people who lived
there, the itinerant, the strange, the wrestlers, the dancers,
all sorts of enticing types. I got used, along with my
friends, to this entire routine of place and time, all 
through those years of the 1950's and well into the 
1960's. Change, came gradual, though I can't say it
'snuck up' on us  -  we sensed, and saw, it coming. Each
week the mailman would deliver those over-sized, catch-
all magazines, Life and Look, and they'd each cover, in
their own manner, the nascent cultural changes : spreads
on Beatniks, Hippies, new musics, foreign things, the
changes in towns and cities, new ideas of school and
learning, glamour and fashion, style and pose. As kids,
we all knew something was churning -   we may not
have known what it was, but it was there. Kennedy.
Kennedy kids and babies. The Kennedy wife, and
life story, all that religion stuff now mixing into
politics, skirmish-like little wars over canals (Suez) 
and breakaway nations (Algeria), the United Nations,
the Congo, The UN leader, Hammerskjold or someone,
getting blasted down in a plane crash everyone was 
denying having anything to do with  -  Mobutu, Congolese
rebels, torture, death, floods, famines, folk musics, the
funny people, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, all that, the US
South, cross-burnings and 'nigger-hatings,' school 
integration, Little Rock, sit-ins, marches and the rest
I won't list  -  it was all there. I, for one, knew that soon
the fun would be over. High up in the sky, about 1957,
I'd start seeing the new jets  -  no more propeller planes
taking people places. Now they were 'Caravelles', the 
first 'jets' -   turbine-engined, slanted wings, a different 
type of noise and a white trail in the sky. Interesting.
One day, in the back of my house, we began noticing
another massive change, again about 1957 or '58. Up
until that point, each train which went by had great
plumes of smoke billowing out  -  they were steam
trains, coal-fueled, with the engine and then a tender,
meaning (a 'tender-car') a coal-car right behind the 
engine, which the crew would have to take from to
keep replenishing the fire for the boiler which produced
the power to turn the wheels, to tend it  -  that great, 
old chug-chug sound. ("Choo-Choo Charlie was an 
engineer, Choo-Charlie had a train, we hear. He had
an engine and he sure had fun. He used Good N' Plenty
Candy to make his train run...." - an old ad-jingle from
late 1950's, early 1960's Good N' Plenty commercials).
The trains would push out huge plumes of smoke which
would drift and cover the neighborhood  -  we'd chase, 
as best we could, the moving edge of that cloud. Parents 
were always complaining about particulates and cinders
coating their cars and ruining the paint jobs. Always
carping, as if they'd not known they were moving next
to a railroad. Very tiresome stuff to have to hear. 'Don't
these people have anything to do?' I'd ask myself. My
own relatives would come to visit, and they'd go one
about the trains  -  'How do you live with that? The noise,
the smoke, all those trains in your yard?' How did we
live with it? We usually didn't even notice it, you moron.
That would be Aunt Moron, and Uncle Jerk, more
properly. Then  -  as I was saying  -  one day the trains
were just different. Other people may have known, but
to me, and us, it was a complete shocker. Somehow the
railroad had gone electric  -  I guess they put up the poles 
and the wires and all without us noticing; oblivious in our
fun. Don't know. But  -  no more smoke, way less noise and
clutter, the trains were lit up, at night you could see right
in as they passed  -  all those little heads, reading magazines,
smoking, looking out. It was astounding, amazing. We just
stared, knowing there'd be no more smoke clouds to chase, 
and no more pitted cars. We always said, the boys of us,
hanging around, - 'How'd they do this? They must have 
had test-runs and trial-trains to be sure all this worked.
How'd we miss all that? What went on?'
Along these track-ways, there were all sorts of weeds 
and things - sumac, oak trees, poison ivy, and all the 
rest. We one day found some sort of branches and limbs,
and we pulled a few out of the ground. For whatever
reason  -  maybe to carve into spears.  My friend
Frank Strohlein's father, or step-father, I didn't know,
named Ed Bauer  - worked at the airport  -  he saw them
and asked where we got them, could we get more, etc.
We went back and got a bunch. He said these were -
I really forget  -  sassafras roots or something, and that
when he was a kid they used to make their own root beer
out of these. Huh? He showed us  -  a great big pot,
filled with water, with these roots in it. Boiling away,
for a long time. After a while there was a sort of 
thicker-than-water liquid left, into which he added
sugar and stirred, with a ladle, for a long time. He
then let it cool, refrigerated it, and  -  later  -  let us
taste. Tasted like a root-beer syrup, yeah. Then he
got seltzer water or something, mixed his proportions
to his liking, and gave it to us. It was a mildly good
version of a root-beer, I'd have to agree. 
We thought, how cool!
By 1966, we were doomed. The State shut down the
prison farm  -  everyone imprisoned was just kept indoors.
Everything was cut and pillaged, paved over and some sort
of 'retard' village, as we called it, started going up. It
became an even more bizarre State School  -  acres and 
acres of cottages filled with the most retarded or demented 
people one could find  -  people whose parents had given
up on them, couldn't tend to, and who turned them over to
the State -  which, in its caring for them, simply piled
them up in places like this. People so bad they'd been given
up by their parents and lived under the auspices of the
state, with nurses, doctors, attendants and the rest. 
Mongoloids, spitters, yellers, droolers, humpbacks,
distorted and bent people, vegetative states, you
name it. It was the saddest, scariest and the most
bizarre protocol I'd ever seen. They would sit around,
or be wheeled around, by the negro nurse attendants.
The nearby, pretty-much black, town of Rahway, had
become an employment resource, from which the new
school drew many of its base-wage attendants, janitors,
food-service people and orderlies. With them, all
around, would be these strange, unique people  -  
inmates within their fence areas, and we'd see the 
bizarre, big-headed people staring back at us, and their
noises and grunts, seeking our attentions and company
through the fences as they were just let to stumble around.
They'd be fed like animals in disorganized clumps, kept
in little fenced, caged areas while they stared out, sputtered 
or screamed, grunted or raged. We'd see them if we walked
along the fence-lines. Where once our bows and arrows
had pierced the cornstalk rows, now, equally, these bizarre
people pierced my heart. Whatever was this, and what 
had happened to my, and our, free lands? 

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