BELOW THE WATER LINE
You can learn a lot from dirt. When we first moved
to Inman Avenue, I can still recall perfectly my
mother's constant complaint about the soil - 'nothing
but clay, how's anything supposed to grow here.
Anything I plant just dies...' etc. She was always
upset that the hard red soil - and she was right -
was not amenable to something growing in it. It
dried hard, dried out by July and - when we
dug it or anything - was solid, like a red mass
of concrete or stone. It was funny stuff, I guess.
My father used to try to instruct me about the soil
being that way because 'once, long ago, this was the
ocean, everything here was under water, for miles
around.' What a kingdom! Ante-diluvial, post-diluvial.
I always loved that stuff - ante meaning before, and
not 'anti', like against. The same went with the Civil
War, what they referred to as 'ante-bellum' was the
slave period before the Civil War, when people were
trying, maybe to work it out and the plantation culture
supposedly was underway with its high, golden age -
happy slaves, family life and all that. Ante-bellum.
Post-bellum. Nice distinction. For the red-clay dirt here,
I guess it was all post-flood stuff, ('diluvial' meaning
flood waters). The biblical flood stuff doesn't exactly
cover the dirt in my back yard, but, whatever. The
funny thing, as I saw it, was in my mother's idea that
this was all final - yet, the soil was a fixable problem,
if you had a mind and a will to do something about it.
People everywhere were buying or having delivered
these 50-lb bags of rich, black topsoil, mulch, potting
soils, you name it. It even had a name! It was called
'amending' the soil - what gardeners do - adding the
needed nutrients, peat, decayed matter, all that. So,
the soil was only as much of a problem as you made it.
I learned that early - and it went for everything else
too. Most everything can be fixed, all those petty
unnecessaries that keep people bitching and moaning
about something all the time - that's behavioral stuff, not
a real-issue-problem. I found that some people smoothly
went about solving problems, and others - in this case
like my mother - just vented about it; bile, ill-will. I
think it was all that Italian stuff. It always seemed like
a crazed, Mediterranean-style over-emoting, and no
'solutioning', was always present. My mother would
rant and rave over things, like - literally - the spilling
of milk. I used to think - it was already spilled, you can't
unspill it, to go nutso over something that had just now
entered the very-immediate-action-past is about solving
nothing at all. I used to swear to myself that I'd never
react to anything in that fashion. Not that I was Mr. Cool
about things; don't get me wrong. My friend Joe - he's
dead now - used to say 'don't lose your cool'. I never
knew what he meant, or what that meant, for a long time.
Once I learned it, it made sense and fit my form perfectly.
Oddly enough, there was a goodly number of Italian lineage
people on and around Inman Avenue - others too, but there
were enough Italian families so that I'd get to see the various
levels of tension and emotion. It was funny; just sometimes it's
like that, I guess. Yes, not everyone was the same - there
seemed to be some fairly mellow Italian men, as fathers, around.
Or what I could see anyway - a lot of life was behind closed
doors back then, so how many abusive, angry wife-beaters
there were around, I never knew. I never saw any black-eyes,
limps, or broken arms anyway. It was, I'd have to say, my father
who kept all that ethnic stuff to the front-burner all the time.
He was always going on about this person or that person -
every stereotype you can think of, they all passed his lips once.
I just used to chuck it all - never giving a rat's ass about who
was what. I just didn't care, it seemed useless and a huge waste
of psychic energy - most especially when mostly you were
just implicating yourself as stupid by doing it. Who cared?
Also, a lot of my friends had parents who were each of a
different nationality from each other - so who could split
hairs over some Hitlerian genetics stuff when everybody was
on their way to being a mish-mash anyway? My father just
never got it, I think sometimes to this day. Too bad. I never
knew what a 'son' was supposed to do - I have to say, there
were times I'd have liked to sit my father down, get his attention,
and swat him on the side of the head with a plank, and then
slowly begin explaining to him the problems about him as I
saw them - since they basically affected my entire area and
the people around me. He would have probably killed me,
but - you never know. By the end of his life he was an
absolute wreck, a psychological basket case in some deep
trouble, and if I could have maybe gotten through to him
(maybe there were even signs he was asking me for help, and
I never saw them) I'd bet just as much, we might have broken
through with each other and had a good and happy cry together.
Who knows, just another bent and broken twig on my tree.
Maybe other kids were closer to their parents, or fathers. I
didn't know for sure, but - yeah - I saw a lot of different
situations than mine. I was just 'around.' I remember one of
first things I watched my father do - this was still back, 1955,
when he was a strong, brawn of a man, able to lift a car and
walk with it. Body- built by deluxe - long before all that
muscle-bound fitness of today's world had been started. His
was, he'd say, the punch and power of a sparring-partner boxer,
which he had been, and a steel-mill worker, which too ha had
been. Bayonne had like Ryerson Steel, and Bayonne Barrel
Works, to name but two places which fabricated and worked
with heavy steel. He'd worked in both, plus National Steel
Company, at the Skyway, and he said they were all 105 degrees
constantly and required heavy, constant, and hot lifting. Anyway,
the first thing I remember is he dug out, by hand, with a shovel,
completely something like maybe a 10'X'10'X 8' square ditch
in the rear of the house, and then sledge-hammered through the
rear foundation, then poured and formed his own concrete,
then lined it with the enclosed steel walls and angled gate AND
wooden stairway, for an outside, rear cellar entrance. For the
furniture that he'd later be carting in and out all the time for his
basement upholstery side-job business doing over people's chairs
and couches. (I've written about that here in an early chapter).
I stood around as he did all this digging, helped when needed,
whatever little junk I could do as a 7-year old, and basically
just stayed out to watch this crazy-man Dad at work, in a sort
of stupefied wonder. I think there's a point when everyone, or
every boy anyway, maybe idolizes his father, for whatever
reason. I guess that was mine : power, strength, force, brawn,
intent, task, completion, all that stuff and all on one's own. The
problem was, mainly though, that the reason he did it all on his
own - for good or bad - was that he never got along with
anyone else for any length of time, or project. Just strange
and somewhat legendary stuff, it always seemed to me
I can remember being six years old and, when my father would
come home from work (he wore the same daily-issue workman's
clothes outfits, like some East-European downtrodden serf, each
day), after he took off his jacket and stuff, hat, shoes, after supper
I'd step into them - his gigando shoes for my little feet, and his
short-enough light jacket, which was like twenty sizes too big for
me. My arms would be lost in it. I'd plod around the house like that
for some ten minutes or so. Too everyone's pleasure. Never knew
(now) why I did that, it was just some dumb-ass kid's thing I got
started with. Probably some Dr. Freud type somewhere would
a ground-breaking field day with me now if I ever sat down and
started explaining all this stuff to him. It's weird; remember the
word 'analysis' has its roots in 'anal' - when witch doctors and
such would root through people's shit, literally, to read the omens
and indications. How we got from there to here is - most
certainly - beyond anything I know. Reading tea leaves was
bad enough, I always thought.
I never knew how many of my friends were nuts. If they were.
or if they were anyway half as crazy as me, in my ways. We
never talked about the cool stuff - too much comic-book,
power-packed dynamic stuff had been put in front of us, to
become boys, and then to become men - which basically
meant getting a job, slaving, having a house and a family,
and sitting tight, until death does you part. So to speak.
When I studied psychology, in the early 70's, R. D. Laing
used to propound theories, and write books, about how
everyone is crazy - we just all accept the accepted craziness
and assumptions of same together, and think nothing of it, and
then we ostracize those who veer off from the craziness path
that we've turned into our acceptable societal modes. It was a
pretty good theory back then - crazy-men in the White House,
Nixon and Kissinger gone nuts, insane on their Christmas
bombing campaign and incursions into and over Laos and
Cambodia, let alone decimating every tree, river and
wetland in Vietnam, napalm and the rest making Monsanto
and all the rest of those 'defense' guys ('defense?') rich. Plus
wiping out 58,000 of my streetside good-buddies and fucking
the lives of ten times that amount who came home dazed and
bewildered and disillusioned, and with a cigarette habit and more
to begin with. Yeah, old R. D. might'a been onto something.
Well so be it - back in grade school they never told us any of that
stuff. They just played the hand they were told to play, give us the
rights and the wrongs of the ABC's and the XYZ's and keep us all
moving along. 'Sometimes a great notion', as Ken Kesey put it in
1954, and as Paul Newman (directed by), Henry Fonda, and Lee
Remick, as a movie in 1970. And that was all before 'One Flew
Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Which was also a movie. Goddamn me!
What am I doing, I hate movies!