BELOW THE WATER LINE
As a youngster - born to run, yeah, all that crap
too - I sort of just stayed in place, to learn from,
observe, and catch what ran by me. Had me and my
friends too, for that matter, been raised anywhere
else, everything for each one of us could have, would
have been different. Who knows how? Look at it this
way : we first-generation arrivers here, we'd all been
born somewhere else, and raised there too, until 4 or 5,
under whatever general influence that other place maybe
had cast. None of us was like the kids later, the brothers
and sisters who began being born, hatched, right there.
Not us; we were marked, for life, and we were going to
stay different too, because of it. I never knew what the
old 'planted' America was like - I'd hear about it, it
was taught in Civics and History, again all that older,
Americana stuff; the big multi-generational house, with
the layers of family and groupings within. That wasn't
us, we were mixed, all, into something no one knew of
and into something 'new'. Gone away. Cast-outs. We
were - without even knowing it - each our own
Huck Finn - riding some slaggard river raft somewhere,
and each with our own raft-pal, our own 'Jim', and
trying always to elude, as well, that mean and
smothering hand of Pap and Aunt Polly. Whatever.
I never really knew what to make of what I held - Avenel
Street, once you got there, was nothing at all really - unless
you wanted a Tootsie Roll or a Cherry Coke from old wooden-
leg, gimp-hipped Murray, over at Murray and Martha's, with
that metal Breyer's Ice Cream up above the corner, and
perpendicular to the street. I think it was Breyer's anyway.
There was a mess of them - everybody flew a different flag,
so to speak, at the various sweet shops and confectionery stores.
Breyer's, Sealtest, Dolly Madison : some vein-blood flow of
fake American commerce trying to entice and suck in yet
another raggy bunch of snotty sixth-graders to plunk down
their measly twenty cents and get lost - buying something
at least, some crap with which to stay afloat on that raft.
What did we know anyway? What kind of old word was
'confectionery' anyway? Nobody uses that now. It was a
candy store, and who cared? Go in there all grimey and
sweaty from playing two hours of stickball across the street,
get done with the gawking girls, plunk down 12 cents or
whatever it was - some odd number like that - and drink a
cold, syrupy, sweet-ripe flavored soda until you burst. Watch
one of two of the local Dads come in for a 5-cent Daily News,
as they flipped over to the back-page banner headline to see
who the Yankees had beat up on the afternoon before - no
night games yet, then - flip back over, read some Castro or
Kruschev shit about Cuba, look at pictures of the Kennedys,
and pretend, just for a moment, it was about them. Watch
Murray and Martha - or at least hear - Murray and Martha
go into yet another steaming family battle and screaming
match about something, until a door slammed and one of
them would hunker off - the back door to the stairway which
took them up to their living quarters. One down, for this
half-hour at least; and then they'd fire it all up again, re-enter
the zone, and set to firworks again. All the same. it was great.
Living upstairs of the store like that - everyone thought that
must be great. I just stayed back, watched, and walked away.
I'd just move on. Looking back now, the ancient
word 'Maya' describes it all best for me. 'Illusion'.
That's the given - the real impetus is to find
whether or not it's an illusion or a 'veil of illusion'
of any consequence. If it's not, just live through it
and go on; you may as well remain invisible. If it is
- or if you think or decide, anyway, that it is - that's
when the heady problems come up. You then have
to do something about yourself and about everything
else, and get it started quickly and steadily. There's
no slacking. That's what makes it all so crazy. That's
what makes the things and the places - even those
like 'Avenel' arise - someone's personal push for
glory, for the scrutiny of others : wrecking woods
and fields, planting small-scale, all-the-same
houses, built cheaply and quickly and sold that
way too. Streets named after children - Lisa Lane,
Mark Place, Monica Court, Clark Place, again come
to mind - things dumbed down so as to be pleasant
and cute and, if made quaint, only in the most
ersatz and imitative fashion. I basically have
always worked blindly, just pushing on. These
others, however, I've noted, work by plan, one
deliberate and crafty step at a time. Everything
is orchestrated. Their end-idea is to make money,
whatever the cost. Nothing else matters - the
quest for gain and profit and lucre takes
precedence, takes over in fact, and carries with
it, in lockstep, everything else. Everything can
be sacrificed for that end. The larger the effort,
the more corporate the effort, the fewer and
fewer chances exist to convince someone of
the errors of their ways - they're all starry
eyed and dumb and stupid, looking at figures,
returns, amortizing this or that, cutting deals,
figuring ways in and ways out, quickly and
stealthily, so as to bring for themselves the
most return for their own least effort - as
if they'll live forever, take it with them, and
have something that matters. Then - and
only then - will they worship their God,
while proclaiming that, all along, it had
been their first concern anyway. It's all
and everything a lie. There is no reality.
It's all gibberish. In their endless hold and
confinement to a cosmic Timelessness,
they end up, surprisingly and oddly,
worshipping only the moment - which
is constantly slipping away and never
stops and thus is never really 'here' at all.
It's all illusion, once again. Dumb bastards.
I always figured that's where the Devil was,
and that was where Evil lived too.
I used to like cars - even way back, when I was
young, I'd look at them, learn the names, the
forms, the engines, the way they worked, etc.,
and I'd watch too - who owned what, which
person bought this or that, and try to find out
why, or wonder why. Styling clues, sculptural
clues, color clues, the push and the prod of
design, the thrust of a fin or a rear-swoop,
the barreling of headlamps, the bump of a
grill. Everything, it seemed, was trying to say
something : even with toasters and TV's,
lamps and roller skates, bicycles and radios;
everything portrayed something, was trying
to get a point across, a point just slightly
different and off-site from the 'use' of the
same object - as if two voices were coming
through everything. Had I been present, I
figured, in the 1860's or whatever, I'd have
had the same point of interest towards yoke
collars, oxen plows, gate latches and
lanterns and wagons and pails and shovels.
Who knows? I certainly didn't. Other things
had come along and completely taken people's
minds off the essentials - sound had come in,
emitting itself, or being emitted anyway, from
those boxes and cabinets I was looking at; light
and pictures came, same thing - from television
sets. Planes and helicopters; bombs and bullets
came from them. No one really 'made' anything
anymore - which was immediately one
distinction from the older days. I guess anyway.
I don't really know who made shoes back in the
1400's, I guess people made them themselves?
Or was a shoe-maker's guild already in control
of that? No matter, the design concept is what
I'm writing of, not the means of making it.
I loved all that, and I questioned it all. And
still do - for it seems to me basic and cosmic
that we live with the shapes and forms that
we do. It all has to come together and go
right so as to unify the thinking by which
we live. We have the concept 'streamlined'
- no other reason except that we have it.
By same, we then define the curve and the
arc of anything made for motion, or in
motion, or simulating motions, as 'streamlined'
(which, in point of fact, once meant a lot more
than it does now - streamlined is passe now,
but once it was a cutting-edge parallel to the
way mankind was about to be living. But, then
again, nothing was more streamlined than
those two A-bombs we sent off, even though,
for their peculiar trajectory downward and
in free-fall, it really wouldn't have mattered.
That was just 'Avenel stuff' again, talking).
That idea, that 'concept' took precedence,
defining itself and all other things by its
meaning. A bullet, piercing the air, had
to be streamlined. But, was a cannonball?
Was that round, globular shape defining the
same thing - without mankind's knowing it?
How important was any of this? Where did 'art'
enter - a Brancusi form, a gentle, un-gilded
curve? What did that signify? I'd guess this
form of thinking made me a bit more solitary
than others. I'd sometimes find myself standing
on a ball field somewhere, smelling the leather
of the baseball glove on my hand, thinking
about the cutting of those fingers and the
webbing and the leather strap intertwined
and closing on each of the four fingers off from
the thumb - the feel, the passing, the lining,
the label - lost in some crazy space between
here and there, until the crack of a bat anyway
would call me back in. What did others think
about? I never knew, but I just went on,
adequately covering my bases, and keeping
my own counsel. It was all a charade anyway -
all that stupid banter and boyhood small-talk
between bases and innings. I knew I really
cared little for it. But I went along. Maybe,
but what else can one do at 10 years old or
whatever? Cops and detectives, they pick up
on clues and tics and evidences of things.
They do that after training and after the
cop-school progress and education. I had
that same observational context, early on,
in everything I did, without being a cop or
having a training. It was just how I lived,
and how I learned to pick up on things,
on the signals and things being sent my
way by the world around me. I may have
more than this wished to 'BE' on Mars or
someplace else, but here I was - here, and
stuck here, and thereby forced to continue
my own experimentations and works.
All day long, even to this day, my head
splits with quickly-passing ideas, phrases,
words and concepts. If I don't just cease
what I'm doing and jot them down - and
I don't always - the gruesome truth is,
ten minutes later, they're gone and most
never recoverable. I try to associate the
thought with something, as a memory aid,
or recite it in some form of parody or rhyme,
but I lose a lot, and it pains me. It's a bummer.
I try and I try getting the idea back, re-creating
the path of thought I was on, trying to reclaim
the field, but cannot. I don't know what the
word for this is, if there is one, but the very
continuity of this page hinges on it, as early
today I had some grand notions of how to
extend this concept here, the episodes of
this chapter, but they're gone. That can
only show what a vast Whimper this entire
idea of Life itself is - a thought, a passing
puff of something, and then it too is gone.
There's a certain flow that has to be
maintained in order to make something
like this work, and I have to stay hard at
it doing its bidding, or lose it. When I was
a kid I wasn't really aware, in these terms,
of what loomed ahead of me - just instead
I stayed watching. What's it called, I wonder
too, when a person lives a life but stays out
of it enough so that it both fails him later on
and at the same time it allows him to hone
and sharpen an incredible outsider status
into a vast, long period of creative energy?
And, between the two, which is worth more?
I'll take the latter, thanks. And, anyway,
I already did.
Even as I was growing up and seeing the
other 'Dads' and 'Fathers' around me (that
in itself was an important distinction), I
never used the term Dad, always said 'Father'
when relating to my own - as in 'my father
says' or 'I have to call my father to pick me up.'
Others in those sentences would have used 'dad'.
I never did. There were distinctions between
families, and I saw it much more in the fathers
than in the mothers - the mothers always
seemed more or less the same : clotheslines,
washing, cleaning, dusting, having afternoon
coffee so as to babble on with another other or
whatever. Let's just say, on Inman Avenue,
Gloria Steinem and Betty Freidan were yet
afar off. Some of the mothers were, obviously,
vastly better-sexed than others; in fact, even
as a young boy I sensed one or two of the
local mothers putting great, enormous, crazy
streams of sexual energy everywhere, and
probably having sex with a string of men
and keeping it all steady and concealed,
or just maybe dumping all of it on their
own husbands, but I somehow doubted
that. The Fathers were different - there
seemed to be the 'Executive' sort of Father,
and the 'Sporting' type - two different sorts.
One was distant, removed, superior,
pre-occupied. The other (sporting) were
good old boys, throwing snowballs, playing
ball, sitting on front stoops, monkeying around
with the kids, remarking on things, getting wise
and sassy. Loose. One type was seen everywhere -
Little League fields to backyard barbecues. The
other type (Executive) never seen. Silly of me
to make only two distinction like that, but that's
it. I soon enough got out of all that anyway,
since it didn't matter to me and none of those
ideas stayed long with me. The seminary to
which I was going had men being both Fathers
and Mothers to teen-age boys - if you can
imagine that, or a need or a reasoning for
something like that. It was medieval right from
the start, as if I'd gone from 1961 right back
to 1451 in one fell swoop. All I needed was those
yoked oxen and grape fields on a hill somewhere.
The weird thing about the seminary too - in
light of the aforementioned guardianship and
medieval atmospherics of it all - was that
after all was said and done - all the rigor
and routine and recitation and practice -
a seminary kid could still steal off to the
athletic section, where there was a gym
and basketball courts, play fields, tennis,
etc., and select from a bevy of vending machines
any of the very normal candy and junk one
could want : M&M's, soda, pretzels, Mars
bars, ice cream sandwiches, mints, gum, etc.
It was pretty crazy, like light seeping in from
somewhere else (or maybe it was darkness).
And, in the most Portnoyish of behaviors,
jerk off to any of the mid-1960's Sunday
NYTimes Magazine underwear ads or models.
At the same time, you have to figure, we all
have our own beginnings and our own
references. I never even knew what hit me -
was almost just reacting hard to stay atop
the twirling barrel I was standing on. It was
all around me, and it was swirling - the
overlaps of seventy-five years of wartime
atrocities, twisted reasonings and basically
just dirty and bizarre politics. Anything of
the 'old' ways had long ago been moved off
point-center, and a vast, new, noxious
autocratism was stepping in to fill the
void of that which it had already destroyed.
And no one knew a thing, or cared.
On balance, as I look back, I can now realize
a sort of fine equilibrium for the things which
had affected me : a sort of parallel equilibrium
between New York City and Avenel. It was often
said that New York was like a small town, or a
series of small towns, and everyone took care
of everyone, etc., as in a small town. It was
never, of course, like that, except maybe for
the wealthy. It was dog eat dog, and it was,
if anything, everyone else in your business
just to snoop and to see what they could steal.
A nasty mercantilism was rife. Speculative
frenzies came and went, with everyone
wishing for quick and easy money while
doing nothing to earn it - except making
profits off of what others produced and/or
labored over. Like Avenel, it was speculative,
fast-growth, and it had decimated the
geography and naturalism of the 'place'
of the place. Just longer, or out of reach of,
people's memories, no one really knew or
cared about what gone before. Like the old
cities which, once their 'modernism' had
arrived, tore out from their cores and centers
anything which once made them livable - trolleys,
surface rails, stables, wagons and horses - and
replaced them with roadways, broad avenues
for cars, systems of lighting and traffic, etc. and
then 75 years later found themselves in a mess
and tried returning to grace and livability by
re-introducing all those things - retro-fitting so
to speak, to bring back the trolley and the surface
rail - but admitting no mistake, so too Avenel
made a complete mishmash of everything. But -
instead of retro-fitting or admitting of mistake -
it remained at a complete and utter loss as to
what had occurred, never admitting anything,
and instead, kept expanding, inviting newcomers,
wiping out woods to build still more homes and
apartments, and taking a subservient role to
roadways, highways, exchanges, gasoline stations,
auto-marts, and auto-oriented sleaze-bag hot-sheet
motels, one after another after another
all up and down the highway. Progress.
As I drive back to places I knew then today - Avenel,
yes, of course, but just as well my parts of NYC and
Newark and environs, I realize how little is left,
how little outside of memory I have left, and how
truly I most rather inhabit a ghostly past that
yet lingers. All it does is bring forth silence and
awe. There's really nothing to say, because
these places are now not what they once
were; the old is now an alternate universe, a
reality and place that - yes - still exists and
which I can still inhabit though it has no
'place' to enforce itself through any longer.
Like a dead body, a cemetery remnant. All
those people who once lived there, those
whom I knew, and the others who just were
there, Mr. Metro, Mrs. Kuzmiak, Mr.
Cermyan and others, they may all be
gone, dead and forgotten, yet, as in a
cemetery, theirs is still a place, a
scrolled marker of some sort that
keeps them present for those who
can imbibe that less-sweet and
more-bitter juice. Places, like
people perhaps, have ghosts that linger.
My upbringing diluted things, in fact
everything after WWII diluted things,
homogenized things. People who, in
older pictures, look distinctly European
and factional, ethnic, and showing their
locales (Hungarians and Swedes, Jews
and Italians) by 1960 had somehow shifted
certainly their own looks and most certainly
the looks of the generation they'd produced -
which generation in turn again diluted the
looks of its own children - so that, by now,
nothing any longer looks like anything.
Tribe breeds with tribe, ethnic group and
nationalities mix and mingle in that great
swamp of sperm which produces today's
human. We warred, killed, decimated and
fought to preserve nations and places, only
to somehow have it all taken away when it
comes to 'here'. Ideology has made
everything the same.