Saturday, October 24, 2015

7339. BELOW THE WATER LINE (pt. 54)

(pt. 54)
We hung around roadways a lot  -  down towards
the end of the street there was a bridge that
ran underneath Route One  -  still does, but
it's all different now, and we'd always be doing
something down that way  -  there was a small,
shallow field quite near, but below, the highway
which basically had become our favorite killing
field, by which I mean when we'd gotten tired
of 'touch' football on the macadam street in
front of our houses, and when we had enough
players and the stamina to really go at it  -  like
Saturday mornings  -  we'd gather there to play
the most God-awful, slaughter-house violent
football, boys could ever imagine to play. Carnage.
There were two brothers, twins, or half-twins, or
whatever that is when they don't look at all alike
but are, Richie and Ronnie Squillace, who made
a career out of, like, ripping people's arms off and
going home with them for trophies, and then to
top it all off something would inevitably happen
to set them off on each other, and another fiery,
rip-roaring interruption would ensue, usually with
these two brothers tearing into each other good.
We'd be, yes, oblivious to the highway up above
our heads and over by our shoulders, but God
only knows what crazed scene our neighborhood
'play' must have looked like to a passing motorist.
'Organized' football stuff, on the other hand, probably
having gotten wind of our vile antics running under
the name of 'football' came up with the most-lame
version of all  -  'flag' football. Which of course we
immediately scoffed at and referred ever-after to as
'fag-football'. The team-league play, at the same 
fields as the Spring and Summer baseball league
fields, and others, and with pretty often the same 
coaches, figured this 'no-bodily-contact' version of
football would somehow satiate raging monsters like
us. Good luck, there. They'd supply some stupid plastic
belt, you'd have to put it around your waste and snap
it into place and it had, left and right, a plastic strip,
or 'flag' on either side. It was a simple snap-away flag,
and instead of tackle or sandblasting the kid with the
ball, or any other kid, you go for the flag and pull it off.
Just a gentle tug, and it would come off in your hand.
No blood-letting, no grim tackle, no twisting and 
forcefully bending anyone's knee or neck. Flag 
football never quite made it to Avenel. It somehow 
got stopped at the border.
One good indication of the how the world 
has changed, in these parts anyway, is the 
odd fact  -  now mostly long done away with 
 -  that there used to be places where gasoline 
stations actually had signs out that said things 
like 'Last Gas before Parkway', or 'Last Gas before 
 interstate' or whatever -  in order to goad people 
into gassing up before that (imaginary long) 
stretch of untended highway came upon them. 
That's all been done away with and most every 
large convenience-store or discount house now 
also sells its own cheap version of named gasoline  
-  everywhere and most anywhere, and no one 
really goes anywhere anymore anyway. Nothing's 
uncharted, to be sure. The twist and glimmer of 
older days' travel has long since disappeared and 
been subsumed into a funny mass of miscellany  -  
fast-foods, kid-kingdoms, playgrounds and clowns 
and buffoons and the obese (and all the wondering 
why obese), bargain-shopper membership clubs 
and the endless array of the punk-cheap and the 
tawdry. Walmarts and the rest belittering the 
Walgreens and the rest which belitter the Burger 
Kings and the rest  -  all somehow interconnected 
by a wiry rope of corporate poisoning which goes 
into each item to make it more sale-able, cheaper 
and with better return. Fat is the fat of the land 
now, and we live off that fat of that land. Robinson 
Crusoe where are you?  (I remember once greeting 
some people with the words 'Now I get to be with the 
hoi polloi'  -  thinking hoi polloi meant high people. 
(See how Avenel people shouldn't mess with big or
fancy-sounding names)? It doesn't. I was corrected, 
but found a way to quickly elide off the problem of 
grammar and make good amends. It actually 
means the rabble, the regulars, the mob. (Could'a 
got myself killed!). I always liked to think that's
where a lot of people were, those adventure- seekers,
gunning around in their cars, cruising through the 
mid-Jersey dumps but thinking he was experiencing 
the real Jersey shore  -  which even I never experienced. 
Keansburg, NJ, let me add as example, is Nowhere Man 
personified. But even knowing that, you miss a lot if you
blow through it, with your 'I'm better' attitude. That 
wasn't ever, we were taught in the portables, wasn't 
ever the idea behind which old George Washington and 
his gang fought. Keansburg has a 'history' of sorts, but
you have to know where to look, and then get off your
high-horse too. The same kind of dead, once-upon-a-
time-way-back-when history that a lot of these places 
have. When there were small fishermen cooperatives, 
little rows of clammers' huts, fish factories, boat 
launches and docking, shacks and waterfront sheds. 
All that stuff was a century plus ago and it's all gone 
now; even the Raritan Bay, which Keansburg faces  -  
not even the ocean  -  is a ghost of itself, a pale relic 
of a waterway long ago useful and well-used. Now 
it's more just a gas-pod of either indecency or tanning 
oils and debris. There was a time  -  and oddly 
enough now you can still walk the varied municipal
bay-front beaches thereabouts and see the markers 
in place, as if put there by municipal officials with 
a guilty conscience  -  when this was a coastal 
beehive of high energy. Before the nation had 
really spread its vainglorious industrial tentacles 
everywhere, this very busy coastal area, both 
sides of NYHarbor, here and points south and 
north, were covered with operational maritime 
enterprises  -  clamming, oysters, shellfish, 
lumber, agricultural items, cartage, brick-making, 
ship-building, iron and steel, and well as a 
huge fishing and vacation industry. It's all 
gone now. All the junk they tried teaching
us in school there, and none of this really
cool stuff was ever even mentioned. How's a
boy supposed to learn? Here and there, by 
surprise, one occasionally can yet see pieces 
of old piers and pilings jutting out of the 
water, or, in the case of the  section of Staten 
Island across from Perth Amboy and Sewaren, 
an old boat graveyard, where the old wooden 
ships and boats were towed to languish, list, 
rot and fall away. It's all mostly gone now  -  
waterfront development, expensive homes, 
parkland walkways and all that have replaced 
it all, and wanted to, by design, obliterate even 
the memory. Yet, as a young boy I can well 
remember, with my father in his 6 horsepower 
motor on the rear of a rowboat, boating the few 
slow miles out to there, looking at the pilings 
and ruined things, sloshing up on the Staten Island 
beachfronts, just to explore and traipse around. 
Pieces of boat, things sticking up out of water, 
skeletal remains of hulks and keels and all of that, 
at rakish angles and dangerously hidden submersions. 
I never really wanted it to, but somehow that stuff 
got into my head, and stayed there  -  memories 
and fixations of maritime stuff, sad and silly and 
dead, stayed in place to this day. When we first 
moved to Inman Ave., and I try well to remember 
this, my father's head was still in the mode of a 
seafaring kid, a young turk who'd run off, set out 
to lie about his age, quit from school,  and join the 
Navy, during wartime. He did so, took his training, 
went to California and was shipped out to the South 
Pacific for the years it took for that part of the war. 
He was a gunnery guy on a battleship tenderm as I
mentioned  -  which meant supply ship for the larger 
battleships  -  bringing them food, provisions, 
 clothing, medicine, tools, books, toys, whatever 
was needed to keep a ship at sea going. His ship, 
in addition, would take flak in the doing of its job  - 
 it was well-equipped with guns and battlements. 
In addition, they'd pick up dead bodies from the 
other ships, and one of his jobs was to sew the 
bodies into canvas bags for burial at sea. That's a 
joyful task I'm sure, especially in the midst of 
wartime, but at any time as well. He was, by 
1954, not that far removed from all that in his 
head, and  -  as I well recall  -  he carried around 
with him the envisioning overall of being a seafaring 
guy. Avenel was at the coast, Sewaren, Perth Amboy, 
Raritan Bay, not that distant from the Kill Van Kull, 
the Atlantic Ocean and the real first-class maritime 
stuff. We spent half our time going back and forth 
to the Jersey Shore  -  all those rabid sea-coast towns, 
 small time fisheries, fishing boats, boat rentals, day t
rips to the offshore bluffs and islands, days at the beach, 
etc. It was always boat this or boat that. After a while, 
even I got tired of the crap, but it went on. Fishing and 
crabbing, fishing and crabbing. It was all engrained 
into him, and he never shook it. I could sense, always, 
that to him being at home or being idle was like being 
land-locked, stuck on dirt, far from the ocean. He 
hated, just as well, back then anyway, the mountains 
and any idea of the lakes or freshwater stuff.That was 
then anyway  -  later in life he got over all that, began 
visiting the Catskills, mountains and lakes, even 
places like Colorado and the Rockies. I guess time 
and money mellowed him out, on that count anyway.
That old part of Staten Island was curious. I'm 
talking 1958 now  -  right across from Perth Amboy, 
which had a waterfront of its own, of sorts, and an 
active ferry service back and forth to Tottenville 
(a town, across, at Staten Island). We took it 
often enough, as I recall. But, adjacent to that, 
and over a little from it was this boat graveyard 
I've just written of. Like the Kill Van Kull at 
Bayonne (my father's other, more original 
haunt) where the waterway faced tugboat 
repair yards and tugboat junkyards  -  also 
with submerged hulks and odd-looking wrecks 
in and out of the water  -  this area was a quieter 
sluice of old activity, and everything was old, 
wooden boats and ships. It was very curious. 
These watercraft, of whatever vintage, must 
have been sitting in the water since the 1920's
(this was in 1961, say) and 30's. Old boats, put 
out of service, waterlogged and listing, just left 
there to finish their rot. At shallow tide you'd 
see the stuff and be able to walk among the 
 hulks  -  careful not to get pinched or splintered 
or cut by any of the pieces of this or that now 
exposed by the wood-rot. I used to just sit there  -  
not much interested in anything else  -  and just 
stare into the wrecks. The water, the island behind 
me and the expanse of Perth Amboy and all those 
oil tanks and refinery things around me little 
mattered. The boats still carried some of their 
own arsenal of other days' sense and sight and 
sound. Smell. Scents. Of this and of that  -  I knew 
I was part alive in another realm, another place, 
doctoring somehow to an in-between land that 
owned me more than the land I was on had claim
to. Wood is fanciful in its own way as it gets 
darkened and moss-covered or seaweed-covered 
or whatever. It takes on another appearance -  
startling, deep-sea stuff, back from the depths 
of some watery subconscious which is somehow 
still alive in each of us. You know how they say 
the body is this or that percent water, a big number, 
I forget  -  well whatever that watery current is 
which yet flows within each of us can still resound 
a telling bell  -  like a lighthouse keeper pinging 
his gong for the passing, lonesome ships outside. 
 That's what it felt like to me.
I get the feel, from life, now, after all these years, 
that it's but a half-measure to our consciousness, 
and that all we are placed here to do is get through 
the necessities of the everyday  -  all that shit we 
make up about Society and the way it works and 
getting along and getting ahead and thinking 
forward and riches and achievement and fame 
and all that crud, yes, get through all that WHILE 
at the very same time progressing and putting 
together the ancient formulas of our inner Beings  
-  the ghosts of all other previous lives and histories,
 the manners and the ways of thought by which we 
each ourselves now have patterned THIS existence
 - to which we really are meant to have little 
allegiance; fast, fleeting, and spurious as it is.
I want to be sure not to get stuck on this point,
but 'Leisure' is the key. It's a killer, an ease and a 
dreaded dead-end which we seem all to want to 
careen into. But. Not. Evil lurks, and it lurks in 
Leisure. That's why there's so much emphasis, on 
this stupid, flat society, put on it. It's how people 
make money, and lots of it  -  if individuals can 
be suckered into the web of distraction and 
addiction by which entertainment, play, 
acceptance and accumulation, fantasy, 
distraction and all the rest, and in turn be 
coaxed out of some money, each, for doing so, 
there's a golden money-rainbow waiting for 
whichever schmuck wishes to throw his or 
her Life away chasing it and piling it up  -  
the stock market (a true, illusionary 
gambling-whore's paradise, just using 
larger words and concepts). It's how we 
are slowly killed, and there are 
many murderers.
In my father's mind, and then in mine too, 
in those days, around 1960, these old waterways 
represented a presence and a reality of a world 
 that he sensed was passing, and a passing I 
was only witnessing. All things were gone, 
falling away. The old wooden hulks of those 
watercraft sunk beneath the Kill, left there 
to die and rot as piers and fish-attractants 
(but they forgot all about the pollution), 
they were still present as ghosts  - I knew 
my father was seeing things I couldn't see 
when he looked out over the water. We 
somehow inhabited two different realms  -  
overlapping, perhaps, in their ways  -  but 
different nonetheless. It was a deep and dense 
divide we needed to step over or fall into. 
Whichever way we went, it was there. My 
father and I, in those (early) years, never 
came to any real agreements  -  and all his
and my later lives, together or not, were 
pretty miserable with and towards each other  
-   but for us they were at last a period of shared 
golden years, of a shared glory in the knowing 
that the two of us were watching a film together 
on a completely different screen than was the 
rest of the world. In a sense, we both were 
watching an over-and-over replay of a 
figurative  'Titanic' going down. To our 
 satisfaction we were part of the script, and 
we were writing some of it too. There were 
never happier, yet lonelier, moments between 
two people, ever. If I ever had to say 'when' I 
knew my father best  -  it was then.
Going back to that section of Staten Island today, 
and even from the Perth Amboy side, everything 
has been changed. In the 1950's it was still possible 
to find shacks and cottages, small, ramshackle 
homes  -  of eccentrics and loners, but not solely  -  
facing the old waterways. Aging sea men, home 
on land and waiting out there time (not that far 
away, into Staten Island, around the coastal rim 
was Sailor's Snug Harbor (of which more later) a 
 vast and quirky rest home for retirement sailors). 
The coastline still was peppered with maritime 
atmosphere  -  ship berths and ship repair yards,
 tugboat yards, all sorts of tank repair and service
 facilities, oilmen, trucks, a sort of Fulton Street 
NYC in reverse  -  the tack and sail shops of Staten 
Island itself, instead of lower Manhattan. The 
houses they've built now  -  and the endless 
rows of condo units  -  have taken control of 
the area. It's as if the  developers wished for 
no trace of the old but instead only the idea 
of the sea and the water  -  no reality, just the 
plume of image. These are ultra-modern, 
sprawling and up-to-date places, on old, old 
ground. No one speaks any longer of what's 
underneath it all  -  myriad layers of coastal 
Indian lore, dead colonials, dead seafarers, 
dead boats and ships. Too bad; at least when 
he could, my father brought me there, reaching 
blindly for the idea or theme of whatever it was 
he couldn't articulate. I think he was trying, in 
his way, to share or impart to me the deep feelings 
that came through him for stuff like this, for his 
displacement, his awkwardness in the more modern 
world of 'things'. My father was an emoter, a fiery, 
impulsive person who didn't quite understand why 
that had to be given up  -  almost blunt and tribal 
in his ways, he still possessed many of the attributes 
of older 'Man' on the move, stumbling across plains 
and oceans, man on the move, pushing forward in
a blind energy  -  without words, or the craft of 
words. It all sounds strange, but to this day I 
understand his need. I understand, as well, what 
things he was trying to get across to me, in his 
wordless way. I listened, I nodded, accepted. 
That's why we'd return there, many more than 
once, in his ridiculous rowboat and 
small-displacement crazy-man's Evinrude 
outboard motor, precariously strapped onto 
the rowboat and madly dipping through ship 
lanes to get to these strange places. The 'open' 
sea these trips weren't (though we'd had them too), 
but riding the ship-lanes in a 6-horsepower 
rowboat was always a bit crazy.

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