BELOW THE WATER LINE
I always thought female teachers to be ineffectual.
What I had to go by, of course, were Schools 4 and 5,
which presented us mostly with women teachers,
or almost girls sometimes - fresh out of school
and training themselves, thus unsure. I remember,
say, Miss Artym in 5th grade - I'd figure she was
young and just beginning a career. My later high school,
pesky, English teacher, Mrs. Oettle (written of earlier),
was very good friends with her - this was ten years
later, of course. She called her, or referred to her as,
Ceil. So I guess her name was Ceil Artym. They were
both very Jewish, that I knew - nothing wrong about
that, my piano teacher had been Jewish and lived with
her mother, so I'd gotten a lot of exposure to the habits
and peculiarities. Especially there, in that piano house
on Claire Avenue, Woodbridge. That was Miss Frank,
by the way, and Claire Avenue, back then was a white,
concrete road. Now it's just black macadam, like all else.
It was the last road we were on, leaving lessons, to turn
onto Rahway Avenue back to Avenel, when I got
creamed by the train. It was a really fussy house, very
pin-point neat and structured, not a thing out of place.
The mother was apparently some neatness-nut; she'd
walk around rearranging the chair-doilies, they're like
oil-collectors for the backs of peoples heads and hair as
they sit, so the chairs didn't stain, or something. That
always annoyed me. I just couldn't take a liking to that
old, short, chunky European lady always meddling about.
It was like those crazy people who used to get new furniture
and somehow think it was right to keep it in plastic forever,
all the time, to show newness and preserve it too. Nutso?
I'd think to myself, how the heck could Miss Frank live
here, like that, and no wonder she didn't have a husband.
Of course, I didn't know anything about her love life and
all. It was all conjecture based on what I saw. Mopey,
morose, overly-strict people. Real bores. The last time I
saw her was when she came to say goodbye. It was a
really sad occasion, and I felt the doom that rode heavy
over every minute of Life. I'd been home from the hospital
a little while, but was all injured up, crutches and all that,
and I'd not had a lesson since the crash, nor had I seen her.
I don't think, anyway, unless she'd come to the hospital
during that long coma and convalescence thing. She was
very sad, like to think I could still die or something,
and she began to cry. I hadn't seen her in a long time.
I always wondered if she'd snuck a look at my fingers
or something, just like a piano-teacher would do, to see
if I still had them, maybe. She was really sorrowful and
acted, still, as if my life was over. Then she sadly made the
announcement that I'd not ever see her again - she was
leaving, moving to Atlantic City, where she was to open a
music studio and teach kids, like in a conservatory. Atlantic
City was still a little fancy back then. It wasn't yet all
slummed up and rundown, and certainly not the kind of
dung-heap it is today - gambling and whores and
show-girls and all that crud. For all I know, Miss Frank's
still around, running some crazy music harem. She was
crying good, and hugging me. I don't remember any real
reaction on my part, just the sort of distanced, eerie view
of seeing this scene from afar, from above. It was weird.
Something was passing. Have you ever had a moment like
that, when you're like out-of-body, watching something
happen that involves you but somehow isn't really you? Hard
to explain, but - I'd just eked back from real Death anyway,
so my grim reaper antennae were all up. Maybe her neatnik
mother had died in the interim. There was something spiritual,
but without reason or merit, happening. Weird. Eventually, all
I do remember is being sad too, and just watching her walk away.
In my memory, she's seen walking away a real distance, like
all the way down the block and all, all sad and broken. But that
couldn't have been. I'd guess she drove herself in a car, but I
don't know. Maybe she really was just walking away, to the
train station and back to Woodbridge, one stop off. Funny
confusion, all this stuff. Also, no one ever mentioned
anything about this to me, never, ever again. And I really
don't even remember my mother being around. Certainly
not my father - he'd probably have blamed her for all this.
Thank God he wasn't anywhere around. End of that scenario.
Back to Miss Artym - like I said she was learning on the job,
You may remember that whole Louie Carew episode I wrote
about, where she punished the whole class for one guy's
infraction (money theft) and the fact that even though we
knew, no one would squeal on him or finger him to the office.
So, she pulled us out of that 5th grade Philadelphia trip. Way
over-played that one. A rookie error, maybe, but not cool.
In that same 5th grade, my friend Kenny Lackowitz, maybe
it's Lackowicz, I forget, was a classmate. He was goofing
around one day, about something, I don't recall what happened
exactly, but she called him out, shut him down, by saying, 'Mr.
Lackowitz, don't let your lack of wits get you in any further
trouble.' You had to 'hear' it, because it sounded perfect, even
better than it reads. At that age, it kind of took a minute to
realize what she'd just done - a cool play on words, with
wit herself. Either she got lucky, or was word-crafty like that,
or had learned on the job that maybe you could sometimes
better sooth things with pleasantry and laughter. Whatever.
I don't think anyone else even got the joke. But it has stayed
with me, lo all these years.
Outside of those two episodes, I actually remember nothing
else about 5th grade, or Miss Artym. It's a haze. I remember
one of the men teachers always seemingly had the hots for her,
teasing and fooling around in the hall whenever she was
around. Or, maybe that was for Miss Boop, who was another
new-fresh-teacher face back then. I can't remember what
either of them looked like - or if they were 'buxom', let's say,
or virginal even. Just don't know. Anyway, my point was the
apparent ineffectualism of female teachers. They seemed either
weak novices or burned-out old hags stuck in another world.
In the same school, however, there was a raging triumvirate
of men - distinct, well-defined, precise to their own specific
definitions, and each represented, perfectly, to me, one aspect
of the idea of 'Man' each. Mr. Raisley, Mr. Ziccardi, and Mr.
Roloff. The only one who's first name comes to mind readily
is Mr. Ziccardi, as Joe. The other one may have been 'Ray'
Raisley. I don't know. But that's not important. These were
three completely different people; distinct physically from
each other as well as by comportment and approach. Over
time, in my 'kid-head' they almost worked themselves out
to be prototypes of my silly-boy view of the world. Mr
Ziccardi was the 'Catholic' one, all sunny and agreeable
about everything - extending mannerisms of warmth and
hope talking about his Korean War stuff all the time,
blabbing about Mesopotamia and the fertile crescent
(that always sounded very sexual to me anyway), going
on about the Babylonians and King Tut. It was like almost
all there, but not. Almost correct but mostly incorrect. He'd
gotten the gist of most things, and was just passing on a
happy version of a story-line. Like the Catholics and all their
deliverance stuff and saints and martyrs. He had a wife, lived
locally, had adopted two boys, who he brought in to school,
really, his workplace. He played drums for us there too.
Mr. Raisley, on the other hand seemed more like the grumpy,
Barney Rubble type (Fred Flintstone's friend and neighbor, we
all knew). Short, rounded, talked funny. Lived in Staten Island
or somewhere. He always seemed annoyed or almost-mean, on
the edge of being upset about something. Blunt and direct. Like
Presbyterians and all their do-it-yourself religion stuff. Witness
the Lord directly, work your way into Heaven with grit and
determination. Maybe even sweat. Justification by faith alone,
as Martin Luther put it in the 1500's. Mr. Raisley would sweat;
he'd walk around school with the sleeves of his dress-shirt and
tie rolled up. Tough old determinist dude. And then we had Mr.
Roloff. Pretty sure he was the bastardized one of the three - the
gay, Jewboy outcast, always pouting and steaming, all flamboyant
and gay as they come. He lived in Greenwich Village NYC! And
came to work each day, get this, driving a blazing blue 1959
Lincoln Continental convertible. I don't, or didn't much, know
what all that meant. He was the arty one, the grumbly flirt, the
one the stagelights had to always be focused on. The Peacock.
I don't rightly remember him as but handsome, tall, well-dressed,
snarly, moody. Problem was, much like Sister Josephus, of St.
Andrew's Church fame, everyone hated him, no one wanted to
be in his class, and he became known as a petty tyrant. People
still speak of him in some form of Stalinesque awe - the things
they all wound up having to do (same stuff, year after year), his
manner of brusquely scolding or dismissing people. Not so much
a confidence builder as a raging maniac. All that stuff stays with
you, at least apparently to Avenel kids. So, for me, the three
poles of aptitude were roundly represented by these three, very
triangulated, men. Apparently, they all got along with each other,
even if, each in their ways, not so much with us. One time, a
few of us kids were in the courtyard of School 4, on the
library-building side, where we always played stick-ball
off the brick wall. Mr. Roloff's 'portables' classroom was
right there. It was late August, and we'd all gotten our class
and teacher assignments, for two weeks off when school began,
in the mail already. One of the kids began bemoaning the fact
that he was going to have spend 6th grade in Mr. Roloff's
class. Oh God, Roloff!. We were all screeching and moaning
about him - while unbeknownst to us he was in the classroom,
right there, with the windows open, setting up for school, and had
heard everything. He came to the doorway and yelled out at us,
'Oh yes, Roloff! Your worst nightmare, and he's right here now,
with you!' Yikes, we were flabbergasted! Nobody had cussed
him out, but we'd come pretty close. I never found out how
diligent Roloff's note-taking was that day, nor do I know how
that friend fared in his year there. His baby-blue Lincoln, with
white convertible top, after that we were always on the lookout
to see if it was there before we started anything.
So, anyway, these three guys each represented three different
character types, and world views to me, from day one. I took
the lessons from it I needed and went on. But it was interesting,
and it was also a good dose of psychological thinking on my
part too. There's a joke I stumbled on somewhere that sums it
up pretty well, how different types would think and react to
things. You know, harsh realist, the rational, engineering type,
versus the bleeding-heart, sentimental type, and the orderly
proceduralist. It goes like this, but it sums them up perfectly :
Three guys are out playing golf - an optometrist, a doctor,
and an engineer. Their golf game is continually held up by
the slowness of the group playing ahead of them. The group
consists of blind men. The optometrist says, 'I must investigate
my case books, to see if there's anything I can do to help them
regain their vision.' The doctor says, 'I too will see what my
medical group can perhaps do for them.' The engineer, he
pipes up, a bit annoyed, and says 'why don't they just
play at night?'
play at night?'