BELOW THE WATER LINE
There wasn't anything 'stately' about Avenel - I
wouldn't be actually sure if they even knew the
word 'stately' anyway. It was always a funny thing.
I'd sit around trying to figure what people learned
from what they did or saw. Like television. I had to
figure that if your 'first' exposure to something came
from TV, then that was a fairly good barometer to
gauge the fact that the person getting that exposure
didn't have much to go on to begin with - no level
of 'back-learning' or school-smarts, let's say, for want
of a better way to put it. When I was a kid, just getting
out of high school was the achievement - let alone
all that college stuff. There were creepy little schools
that called themselves 'colleges' and 'teacher's colleges'
and 'community' or 'county' colleges (those were both
new things about 1965). LBJ, who - when he wasn't
getting kids killed - stared an entire raft of government-
enterprised things such as Head Start Programs and the
local and community college stuff. It was a pretty crummy
project. Everyone with nothing would absolutely start
getting a big head about going to 'college', even if it
wasn't nothing much past a 'vocational training' thing.
Forget Literature and Criticism and all those courses
about comparative stuff, cultural reference things. It was
like on TV, when everyone's big brother or boyfriend
was always going to 'State', as they called it, after high
school - to further their football or their romantic
interests. It was a stupid catch-all phrase ('State')
used just to get the idea across that the dumb kid in
the show really was trying to further himself - it
certainly wasn't Harvard or Yale, but it was 'State'. I
always used to laugh when Wally Cleaver, or even
Doby Gillis or someone would put on their 'State'
jacket, and TV 'Dad' would get so concerned, knowing
that something 'serious' was afoot. Big deal, for nothing.
The basis of most Avenel intellect was always TV. In
other places it may have been 'commerce' or 'the deal',
I don't know - but the people of Westfield or Fort Lee
had it all different. I had an aunt who lived in Fort Lee
right by the George Washington Bridge, which was a
short walk away - all those rocky jags and the great
cables anchoring the bridge, into ground, into rock, the
river rolling by, if you went way down anyway - there
were walkways and marinas and water-frontings at the
bottom of the scenic roadway thing that went down past
tumbling water, little falls over the rocks, and paths and a
few old stone ruins too. Pretty marvelous stuff. Up high, and
adjacent to the bridge on their rocky heights, was the actual
'Fort Lee' - the place where Washington and the troops
and all these fleeing guys from Brooklyn and the other
heights of Manhattan were retreated to and bivouacked
while they were entering their scrambled retreat into the
deeper parts of what is now New Jersey. The eventual
Battle of Princeton, the marches towards Morristown and
all that - I didn't care, the incidentals of it all never meant
much. That stuff just hangs you up on 'pride'; the pride
of knowledge and fact which then just becomes personal
vanity and bombast. What was always more important was
the feel and the flow - life and time have juices, and unless
you put all the facts and figures away and forget about that
schoolroom crap - which anybody can learn - you lose
out on everything. If you don't drink the juice, you'll never
get the nutrition. That's my 'health' message here.
When we were kids, most of that time, the 8 years of the
50's anyway, the President was 'Dwight David Eisenhower'.
It was probably the first time I'd heard of anyone, really, with
three names like that. I guess there was 'Franklin Delano
Roosevelt' too, but no one much mentioned him. Now it's
as common as salt - all that hyphenated name stuff, but
back then it was just a middle name. People have changed so
much. I always figured the 'less' name the better, but it seemed
that the more 'fancy' you were about yourself, or the more money
you had, or came from, the more names' you'd parade around.
Like, you know, all that 'Chauncey Whitworth Dianamide Park
Lever Decibus' - stuff like that. Forbes. Dupont. All those people.
Now any bum on the street is apt to call his or her self 'Henry Morris
Darger Trent III', or whatever a girl's version of that would be.
Eisenhower was 'President' for what seemed an eternity - you
know how eight years used to feel (when a school-free Summer
too felt like a full year), even though now all that's over in a
fore-shortened minute. He had a big, shint head, or a large
forehead, or something - and his portrait was on the walls
at School 5 everywhere - I know for sure in Mrs. Melanson's
third-grade classroom that there his big, framed, awkward half-
smile was, up on the wall, right by the end of the alphabet on the
green cards that ran across the blackboard top showing the caps
and the lower cases of the 'cursive' alphabet. It was all too
freaky, like a hospital room. And that clock : the weird thing
about school also was that everywhere else it seemed 'Time'
flowed smoothly in the slow and graceful arc of the always
running second hand. But in schools and other places - I never
knew what they were up to with this - the minute hands,
instead of sweeping leisurely and with comfort, always jumped,
it seemed anyway, a few minutes at at time; like some neurotic,
overly nervous psycho case who just couldn't sit still. What
was it they were trying to get across with that. And if, in the
silence, you could listen real good, it also made noise - a little
bumpy chirp for each jump of the clock-hand. Little clumps of
time, to prove to us that we were wasting it? That it accumulated
and got lost as it faded-clicked away? That it was an intrusive
bother? There could be a million meanings, but why didn't
anyone just come out and tell us what the hell was on their
minds with that? The stupid teacher up there, whoever it was,
they always one-by-one remained completely oblivious to this
compound-fracture, it seemed to me, of 'Reality's' fabric.
We were kids, and - with those Stalin-like portraits
everywhere, we were also like captive nations.
So, anyway, as kids in school, or anywhere, we just kept
scrambling, always looking for escape, or at least trying to
make it. No one, it seemed, wanted to 'stay' there - it was
just get in, get it done, and get out - wash that junk off your
face like dirt. Kindergarten itself was a rude revelation, one
I could never figure out. They'd put us in 'school' so we could
learn how to fold our hands on the desk and then put our heads
down for a ten-minute rest period? In the desk, sitting? Were they
freaking crazy? And if you fidgeted or moved around too much
Mrs. Mudrack (where the hell did they get these names from?)
would poke you with the blackboard pointer? The coolest thing
in Kindergarten was the back wall, which was actually a wall of
interconnected doors that all rolled open together from a lever
or something, and they called it the 'cloak room'. Cloak room?
Coats and jackets, hats, and then - they'd say - 'galoshes'?
Galoshes? You mean like those nasty rubber boots with weird
metal snaps that were always just too much trouble and made
too much noise to walk around in? Galoshes? Why bother? no
one ever talked - which they really should have because that's
where the interesting stuff was - about those interconnected
opening-as-one doorways and the lever and hinge system by
which they worked. Instead we got pictures of cows and kites
and old men in Model T's driving across stupid farm lanes
with chickens. What the hell was going on?