Wednesday, December 23, 2015

7626. BELOW THE WATER LINE (pt. 112)

(pt. 112)
You know, it's not so easy sometimes putting
all this together. I've got memories here like
eye-teeth but it's not always the sort of materials
I can just wrap around and put as story. Like life
itself, they have to be woven right, to beat back
being trite or boring, or meaningless to others. Most
of my own life, I've been reading a lot of those high-
flying philosophers and stuff, and I know that  -  very 
quickly  -  if you can't find the tune to that stuff the 
music just sounds dreadful. So to speak. Or, rather  -
So, to speak both sensibly and easily, I need to address
things to an almost imagined reader, who will or will
not grasp what I say by intention, based mostly on any
inherent quality the information may have. People seem
to love it when I can ferret out some local specific, in
Avenel, and tell about it  -  the storm-door squeak on
the church-rectory door, the even Dr. Chrobot's breath,
which some one or other has told me was always foul.
I gotta' say, I never noticed. One thing I did notice, 
always and, once again, have just recently broached 
with someone near to me in the broaching, was what
I called 'authenticity.' It's a factor of just being real,
with oneself, and not stretching the mark or over-reaching 
to be what you're not. Now, in my own life, I've spent lots 
of time, say, at Princeton  -  where the people there, they
don't 'over-reach', mostly because they don't have to : a
good percentage of them were rich kids, or legacy kids,
parents or family having already attended, thus easing the
opening for the next generation of the same family. They 
all stood around with some aplomb, high on themselves,
chattering their monied ways, while  -  around them  -  the
people such as me, in their opinion, which was nothing, 
were useful, perhaps, for mopping the floor they'd puked on, 
or maybe, and just perhaps if I could, being there to pull 
myself sort of nearer to their 'level' by my own bootstraps. 
But it never worked. Mainly because that boot was either
already stuck up their ass in a fit of pique, just ruining 
everything, or that pull-strap at the back of the boot had
just broken off in my hand. That's, I guess, one kind of a
rather blind 'authenticity.' The kind you just keep marrying
into to keep the moneyline and the bloodline going. You
know, all those Chauncey and Mortimer and Jane and
Estelle types. The other kind, and the kind I'm meaning, 
the false kind, the fake authenticity I can't abide. It's
the regular, ordinary person who pretends to be greater
then the zero-sum of his own humilities.  Grandiosity, 
babbling on about things that aren't really his or her 
concern, name-dropping or, again, over-reaching just by
an obvious bit. It only sometimes happened in Avenel. I
can, right off, think of a few. Authenticity is really all that
ever mattered to me  -  and I was a weird one, yeah, but
authentically weird. It all just came right through my soul.
I never fought or skewed it to fit anything. I was what I was,
and you took it, or you left. Sorta'. It was all about humble,
to me. There's a grand kind of humility that comes with the
accepted knowledge that you just ain't much. And anyway,
I'd always have rather to write like Mark Twain and talk like
Huck Finn, or even write like Jack Kerouac and talk like
Sal Paradiso and Dean Moriarity, than like any of those 
starched-shirt, chalk-faced Bertrand Russell wannabees
up in the front of some room pretending. It's like, 'I didn't 
fall for your heart, necessarily, sweetheart, at first it was just
your sweet authenticity, and even if it's not like mine.' So, 
please, everybody, don't go running off if I sometimes 
lose the thread.
Sometime about 1978, or whenever it was, Richard Nixon
wrote his autobiography. The opening line was, 'I was born
in the house my father built.' No matter the rest of the context, 
and no matter the wretchedness sometimes of him, I always
thought that to be a massively great opening line. I know I
couldn't use it. I wondered how many people in Avenel, still
around then, could. There were any number of homes around
that seemed they could have been built by hand, put together by 
a family leader, a Dad with a hammer. I know my uncle did that,
way up in Butler NJ  -  way up in  the woods, just off Macopin 
Road, he had this wonderful little house he'd built. I know 
because I watched it go up as a young boy  -  my father and
uncles would sometimes take a weekend up there to help erect
various things, spackling, wallboard, insulation and the rest. It
took my uncle a good long time, maybe two seasons of good 
weather, to get it all done. I found out only way later, from my
aunt, that he'd ordered it all as a kit house from Sears  -  they
delivered the 'house' by dumping everything you needed right
there on your property  -  lumber, beams, arches, braces, the 
whole thing. Of course, you had to excavate and grade, and 
dig your cellar and set the foundation and all, but every bit 
of lumber in these 'kits', and there were many styles available,
was numbered and stamped for sequence, etc., with a full and 
complete construction manual. It was pretty neat. And it wasn't
that unique  -  there were tons of these homes everywhere. Either
by Sears, or by another, very big and successful company at 
this, called 'Honor-Bilt Homes.' They all came from pattern-
books, and each style had a name : The Patrician, The Excelsior,
The Tudor, The Beechwood. You can look it up, you'll be amazed
at how many of the house-styles will be quite familiar to you; 
all homes of a certain era and feel and look, perhaps through 
the 1920's, right out to the 60's. Even contractors would buy 
bunches of these and put up alternating styles and things in the
developments which were sprouting up. They can all still be seen.
Avenel too, from my visual reckoning, has any number of them.
Not, of course, Inman Avenue or any of the all-like, subdivision,
cookie-cutter homes-in-a-row we were accustomed to. Those were
post-war homes that the government went crazy promoting builders
to throw up. They were beside themselves in trying to accommodate 
the hundreds of thousands of newly-returned, family-starting, 
war vets. They drastically needed hundreds of thousands of homes,
and quickly. The mortgage tap and the GI Bill funds were flowing.
That's when any real care and quality and distinction went by the
boards  -  no one ever cared for that any more. I know, in my own
house at 116 Inman, I was always amazed that, inside the house,
all the doorframes and doorsills and moldings along the tops and
bottoms of the walls, were all white-painted metal. I know because
they were good for tapping on and drumming. And I did it. There
was no wood to be found in those little interior halls and doors.
In my house, even funnier, this little central core half-hallway
with the bathroom and bedroom doors in it, was referred to as
'the foyer'. A freaking joke, I hope that was. More like 'the alley.'
But, I'm not complaining, nor making fun. My parents did what
they could do  - with the best of love and good intentions, and I
give it right back. I'm a soft touch, really. I can understand, through
their eyes, what they were experiencing. And I wish I could see 
them today, one more time maybe, just to be able to hold, and
say, 'I get it. I understand. It was all cool.' Too late for glory.
My getting to Avenel was a fluke of a story of a quandary. Maybe 
that 1958 train waiting to get me was at the ready back even in 1954,
just a'knowing I was soon to be coming through the rye. All things 
lie in wait for those who come, or however that would go. All things
come to those who lie in wait? Lay in wait? Beats me. You can't
escape fate, 'less it ain't yours. When I got to Avenel, I swear there
was a certain skin still on my eyes. You see, I was born beneath the
Bayonne Bridge, in 1949, in Bayonne Hospital, and we lived there
until I was almost five. I was reared in the Veteran's Projects on the
Kill Van Kull. In a little four-room apartment on the third floor. The
Kill van Kull ('Kill' is a Dutch word, used in early Manhattan 
geography, denoting a rushing or a flushing body of water, one that
turned with the tides, and flowed in or out accordingly  -  thus, harsh
currents, and changeable too. Deep shipping channels at the center,
large ships under the bridge, and tugs and work boats along the
channel edges, in shallower water. The harbors of New York City
are filled with these working 'Kills'. Right across the water from us
was Staten Island.  There was a constant flow of harbor traffic  -  tugs,
tankers, haulers, cargo ships, dredgers, boats, garbage scows. My
grandmother used to say she could remember the President, whoever
it was back then, in his tophat, riding in an open car on the inaugural
day of the Bayonne Bridge  -  all ceremonies and speeches. Of course,
she was wrong. It wasn't the President, and it wasn't even the
Governor or Woodrow Wilson. I checked. I forget now, but it was
like Grover Cleveland or somebody, and he did later become
Governor and then President too. But I'm not sure  -  though he 
was big and fat and used tophats. My mother had been reared in
Bayonne, as had my father, through foster parents. Both my 
grandfathers, neither of whom I ever met, died in prisons. 
Enough about that for now. Dannemora and Ossining, often
called Sing Sing, that one. As in, 'up the river' that old phrase
about going up the Hudson to serve time. On the waterfront, 
there was Uncle Milty's Amusement Park  -  it was right out front,
on the opposite sidewalk, along the water front. It ran for blocks 
and blocks. It was one of those cheap, old, wooden arcade places,
with skeet-shoot booths and ski-ball and wheels of fortune, and 
all that, and with kiddie rides, and food booths everywhere. Plenty
of lights and noise, all through the night hours. Pretty exciting for 
a runt-toddler-kid, like me. I can barely remember. It was like
living on a Coney Island street or something, smaller scale, yeah,
but the same. Cars, and people walking, lovers and broken heart
stories, balloons and tears. Post-war Fords and Plymouths, old
square cars, crooked and sagging heaps, everything running by
or parked at curbside  -  people, with doors open, half in and
half out of their shadowy cars, sometimes hugging or kissing,
or just smoking or hanging about. People and soldiers and 
sailors were all about  -  all that postwar stuff and de-mobilization
and uniforms and military meanings were still all around. 
Probably, just to think, old Europe was still smoldering.
The projects we lived in  were basically put up housing for
all those returning soldiers, their first stop on the way to
something  -  trade schools, cheesy colleges, GI Bill grants 
and tuitions and service/labor jobs. People with few real
'learned' or book skills, just the stuff you learned while 
serving, or on the job in warfare. No white-collar people 
around. I lived, by presentation, a dark and close early
life. My sister and me. We had to be careful not to jump
around or make noise, because then the lady in the apartment
below us would start banging on her ceiling with a broomstick
to let us know that she was annoyed, that our romping noises
were bothering her. We called her 'the witch'. No dealings 
with her, other than that. It happened all the time.
Then we moved to Avenel. I don't remember anyone telling
me, or, if they did, how they did it and what it meant to me.
In my hindsight now, of course, it seems like a terrible thing
that had been done to me, but, really, it turned out fine. 
Avenel was, in its contrast to this stretch of Bayonne, all 
daylight and sun and frogs. Besides, it's not for a little kid 
of four to be in on that stuff anyway, and they just roll with
it no matter. So, I guess one day we just ditched the place
and moved. I just don't recall  -  no packing, no boxes, no
moving. Probably, as time moved on, there was a wholesale
exodus out of that place anyway, as veterans finally began 
making their progresses  -  yes, to places just like Avenel,
everywhere. Garwood. Fanwood. Colonia. Keyport. When 
all these guys and their families lived there, they were just 
called the 'veterans projects'. After they emptied out, they 
were fixed over once or twice that I know off, probably more, 
and lots of blacks and Hispanics took over, and they got 
fancy signage and a new name  -  now called 'Isla Vista 
Apartments.' The only 'Isla' you could see there was Staten Isla, 
and at that its ass-end, but, whatever to that. So, as a result, I 
mean to say, the exodus-destination list was endless. My parents 
had no qualms about leaving the urban architecture of life. Same
 for my in-laws, they had wanted to move back up to Bergen 
County, from their apartment on High Street, in Newark, 
(it's now called Martin Luther King Blvd.) but they said
it all was just too expensive to do. So they ended up 
in Avenel as well, but in '47, not '54. It's sure a strange,
winding world we paint, with one crooked brush. Back
in Bayonne, along the Kill Van Kull, alongside the water, 
all things seem now as if they were in some other era, 
some grainy black black and white or a sepia tone, seen
without sound. Dark sad people, ladies with greatcoats
and hats and dark eyes. Men, severe and serious and
hunched, sucking down cigarettes like they were vital
adjuncts to a wider living : anxieties, urges, sex, the push
and the pull of having to make it. The weird sound and 
blow of boat horns, whistles, klaxons,, the whine of engines,
and  -  most important, over everything  -  the oily stench of 
work and the bizarre and seemingly impenetrable surface
of the water, running on, with all the reflected lights and
ripples and angles and eddies, the wakes of gliding boats
lapping the shore, the slap of small waves on the stones
and boulders along the waterfront. A dog is barking, it 
would seem, always. It was all mystery to me  -  taken for
a walk, or placed in the back of that big Plymouth, the
fabric made of gray felt, with that big looped grab rope
which went over the rear of the fronts seats for passengers 
in the back to grab. I used to love the texture and the feel
of that rope and those seats. Sitting for hours, just to watch.

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