BELOW THE WATER LINE
I was always afraid to sit down IN Mike's and
eat there - he had a few tables, and people
stayed about. It was too scary for me - these
were insiders, so to speak, regular people who
meant their Mike's business to be 'business.'
Not for me. I always skedaddled, got that
stuff to go. It's still like that for me anyway.
When I go into any of those Avenel
establishments - pizza, sandwich, coffee,
candy - not that there's that much - I get
to urge to not be there. Don't know to say why,
just a feeling. People look at me, yeah, but that's
OK. I realize I don't exactly look normal anymore,
but there's something more than that too. It's like they
know I know them from the inside out. And that's not
always fun, or good. Self-consciousness rears up.
It's hard to explain my position - as a writer-always-
outside, as some effete artistic bullshit soul that no one
really understands about - I always KNOW I'm not
at full-present, and it seems people can read that.
Sometimes it's like a great satisfaction passes between
us, but it can't go past that. I'm their 'moment', and that's
all. It's the same feeling from 40 years ago at Mike's,
but now there's an adult satisfaction that comes from
sharing an essence with people, even in passing,
even in an instant. It keeps me calm, satisifed too,
but nervoous as all get-out just the same.
If that don't sound like some windbag sack of fly-shit,
I don't know what does; but it's meant to be true. And
rugged too. It's not easy stuff. The easy stuff is
preaching on Sunday, preaching at weddings and
funerals, going to special events and saying what
people expect you to say. That's just riding the wave,
that's all. That's the storybook school-teacher or
the old town parson. That's the big, fat, happy,
cigar-chomping Mayor Old Boy routine. That's easy.
This is, by contrast, a 'Stranger In a Strange Land' thing,
that sort of Robert Heinlein routine. I don't know who
here may ever have read that book, but it's worth a look-see.
So, go ahead. You can even come back later if you'd
like. Do something first for yourself. Start the process.
I go far back into my memory, and I know a few things: the
Avenel Post Office is one. I know, historically, before the
underpass was dug out and all that, the postal office for the
small town was at the quaintly handsome home that tripled
as the train station, the lending library, and the postal office.
Somewhere right where Abbe Lumber is today. Then when
the underpass was dug, all that was lost. The underpass
essentially killed and cut off that entire other side of business-
fronts which once had been along the old straight line of
Avenel Street, where now there's only that really lame, cold
and dank (used to be) all pissed-up underground stairway passage
beneath the tracks. All those stores are dead for a reason. The
town killed itself, killed them, when they by-passed the street
and dug the re-directed underpass. My 1954 memory says that
whenI first arrived here, the postal office was in the location
where, later, Gallo's Barber Shop was. Then it moved into that
building that later, again, became Mike's Sub Shop. Then, into
a new and larger brick quarters - actually quite nice, and I
remember it well from about age 14, which would be 1964,
when my mother took me there to get started with a Social
Security card and the beginning of working papers' processes.
just down the street and next to Metro's - the whole mess of
which is, today, some wild form of infant and child day-care,
as is the old Stanziola Coat Factory, next to Mike's, which also,
through the 1980's was Sanford Werfel Studios, an artist, called
Sandy, who was a really nice Jewish guy with an old and long
life history of biblical art on the lower east Side, NYC, and his
wife. This guy knew some arcane shit. We became friends.
Anyway, then it was, by 1968, that the present Post Office,
that usual government-looking structure, was built and still is
in place, funtioning. So that's five post office's for Avenel, by
my reckoning. In one lifetime, that's a lot. Even if it's really
like a lifetime and a half; you get the picture.
So, you see here, the gist is that this place has gone through
some changing, and I was afraid to sit in Mike's. Those are
the two most relevant points. The other is that, if Avenel had
a river running through it, even in place of the train tracks,
it would have really been cool. The train tracks did the
same purpose, but they weren't half as interesting as if it
were, or had been, a river. Tracks are all about efficiency.
You can't drift or amble, they have to run on clock-time.
Rivers can be a sleepy and lazy as a turtle on the dirt, if they
want to be, or they can rear up and become a rip-roaring
final terror. There's a real game for you. Anybody can run
a railroad. Hell, the rails do most of the work for you. After
that, it's all tickets and gravy. Rivers take time and bluster,
and they challenge and twist. A river will rip an oar, for
instance, right out of your hands, and break your wrist while
it's at it. It'll change its course, on a wet whim, where and
whenever - and never take into consideration your clock
or your schedule or your boudaries or wishes either. Ain't
none of that in River-World. Ownership's for railroads.
Later on in life, after I left Avenel, and after some years,
when I ended up in Elmira, New York, the house I wound up
buying there was from a lady named Jeannie Bollen. She
was about 40, I'm guessing. Interior decorator, nice little
business. She'd just re-hab'd the old house, made it up all
nice and spiffy and design-oriented. Nothing we'd ever
consider to do, but here it was, already all-done up for us.
It had all been meant for her, but she was forced into selling,
and we grabbed it. Really fancy stuff, for us. She'd been
forced to sell - and here's where this all ties in - because
of the Chemung River. That's the river that cuts Elmira in
two, literally. You have the North Side, where real stuff
happens, and the South Side, which carried a far-lesser
clientele, seedier businesses, crummier houses and poorer
people. Not that it all mattered much in a place like that -
the better class would buy Three Musketeers and Hostess
Cakes. The other class would get Snickers and Ho-Ho's
by comparison. Not even Ring-Dings. As it went, she had
two, pretty wild sons - one about 17, and one about 14. The
17 year-old one and his friend had gotton very drunk one day,
rowed out into the Chemung, to one of the little islands out
in the middle of it, and continued drinking. The friend passed
out, stone-cold drunk. Jeannie's 17-year old son panicked.
Thinking him dead, he walked over to the little shelter they
kept on the island, for themselves, just like some wooden
lean-to, a boy's thing - got the shovel, and went back and,
in that panic, buried his passed-out friend. Alive. And left;
got back in the boat, rowed back to shore, and went home.
When it all came to light, later - the friend was dead, the
kid admitted what had gone on, and was in jail, on trial for
manslaughter, involuntary or whatever. She needed all sorts
of money for bail and lawyers and fees and things - the
house was being sold (her pride) to begin the process of
re-paying some of the money she'd arranged for in her
troubles. Just goes to show what a river can do to little
people, and big people too, I guess. If Avenel had had
a river-spine of that nature, it would have been - truly,
truly, Paradise for boys, and maybe girls too.