Wednesday, December 30, 2015

7643. BELOW THE WATER LINE (pt. 121)

(pt. 121) (part A)
I never, at first, as a kid, knew anyone who
died or was dying one of those long, slow,
painful deaths. I don't know how it was back
then, but, all be told, I don't remember anyone
having cancer or dementia or any of that  -
walking around in outer space like a lot of
old people do now and having endless industries
made up just to take care of all those addled, old
people still hanging on. Wagon-loads of service
people, home-care professionals, all that silly
commercial stuff going on. Medicine was what
it existed when you needed just something more
than an aspirin. Penicillin was the big deal. The
doctor would come, give you a shot, give a
prescription. The pharmacy kid would deliver
at the front door two hours later, lap up his
twenty-five cent tip and be done. Now they have
entire operations who'll hire themselves out to
you, as long as your money lasts anyway, and
set up your house like a hospital for someone to
die in. Die at home. Yeah, talk about sacred space.
More like 'scared space' sometimes. I know; I've
been through it. Parents dying off, etc. It's always
a tough, hard world. We maybe move things around
thinking we can find some better conveyance, but
it's all the same in the end. When you're a kid, none
of that matters  -  you're gonna' live forever, and
Summer lasts forever to.
One funny thing about Avenel was the way that people
seemed to lean, one way one way or the other  -  in the
days before shopping centers and malls and all  -  to
either Perth Amboy or Rahway, for their essential needs.
I don't know how it went, what the predilection was for
the one way or the other. It just seemed to happen.
Those were both other, larger, places, almost cities,
with full downtowns and parking areas and eateries
and movie houses and all. They'd get all done over
for the holidays, they'd have sidewalk carolers, contests
and banners and lights. Rahway was closer  -  in fact,
right where I'd gotten that dog, Super Bill, that kennels
may have been the dividing line  -  at the tracks  -  of
Rahway and Avenel and Colonia. It was a weird spot,
kind of scrunched and angled. I remember when it all
was taken down  -  out of the blue, to me. One day they
just had bulldozers and everything there, for acres and
acres.  -  the empty kennels came down, the woods,
the grasslands and swamp, and they put up a Bradlee's
and a Buxton's. One was an early version of WalMart,
sort of, and the other (Buxton's) was akin to a
coffee shop/pancake house combo trying to be a
Howard Johnson's but without any hotel/motel stuff
attached. Pretty impossible to make it go. My own
family always went to Perth Amboy  -  probably, I
always figured, because that's where all the constant
medical and hospital stuff my family was always dealing
with all was. Dr. Sobodien. Dr. Fine. Dr. Nemtsov. Blah,
blah. Ten hundred names if there was ten. Plus the hospital
itself  -  where I'd spent a ton of time all balled up. It came
down to, for a while, every Friday night  -  some little
dinner joint with a 2 bucks kid special fish thing, and then
groceries there somewhere, I forget, and then just walking
around, I won't say endlessly, or aimlessly  -  looking at
things. Maybe my mother got this or that. I never much
really looked, because I knew whatever I'd want I couldn't
have anyway  -  budget stuff, money being the problem.
So I caught on, and would just move along taking in all
the things I saw  -  the parking meters, their sounds and
clang, the passing people, the storefronts and offices,
eyeglass medical offices, garages and appliance places.
There was some cool tavern, it's still there but the name
escapes me (taverns, by the way, like that  -  the little,
workingmen's, corner bars, are all in an eclipse now,
disappearing fast. They used to be everywhere, for the
workmen, when people made stuff), where I'd watch
the people in and out  -  the way they held themselves,
staggered and lingered. Everyone smoked, most
everywhere. You could walk the aisles of J. C. Penny's
for pity's sake back then, fingering all the shoes and
dresses and fabrics, with ten feet of ash hanging off the
end of your indoor cigarette. No one cared or ever said
a word. Blue-gray smoke was everywhere  -  like some
Civil War color-recollection memorial air. Funny. Even
in the doctor's offices, people smoked. Even the doctors!
They be telling you you were going to die from some
problem or the other, and they'd be sucking on cigarettes
while breaking the news. Bunches of poor wheezers sitting
around at curbside all up and down Fayette and State Streets,
chaining down on their cigarettes. It was a great world, all
there for the taking. I remember one fairly chilly evening,
after we'd eaten and walked some, etc.,  -  I was about 7 or
8 - I got ill; my father walked me by the arm, out to the curb,
and  -  just like that  -  I puked into the gutter while he held
onto me. As simple as all that. No one looked up, nor even
seemed to care. Now, by contrast, you have to curb your
dog, pick up its dogshit, and, for crying out loud, spray
air-freshener around when it farts. I guess all the smokers
are dead, and the kids who puke into the gutter get arrested.
Perth Amboy, I also remember, used to have this really great
outdoor vegetable market  -  under wooden awnings and stalls.
Now, it's long gone and is two senior-living towers, with a lobby
and a walkway and an atrium and all that junk at the front. There
were bare light bulbs, strung on wires everywhere  - bushels and
sacks of things  -  bananas, potatoes and the rest. Just piles of
food as at a huge outdoor market. We'd walk around there for
what seemed forever  -  cold, warm, raining or not. It always
smelled great, and all different aromas mixed, straw and ice and
hay and whatever else. Trucks with the truck-backs opened, they
backed right up to act as display and sales areas. Loud, uncouth
people, throwing things, catching slabs of food, baker-guys with
all the great smelling bread. I'm sure Perth Amboy wasn't alone
in this, probably every good town had something just like it, on
different scales. But this was the one I grew to know, week after
week. When it came down, sometime around 1961 or so, I was
sad. Man oh man, so much is lost. The people there now are all
mostly just immigrant-zombies: little, short, fat and stumpy
people, Hondurans, Mexicans, Dominicans, and the place has
a totally different feel : slummy, run-down, cheap, beat, raucous
and ugly. Like the people there, sad to say. Never yet has Perth
Amboy been caught in a renaissance of any sort. I always
wanted an artist-loft there, figuring it would be cheap and catch
the crest of the gentrification to come. No way, Jose. And I
don't even speak Spanish much well.
Anyway, that was probably good for half of Avenel, while the
other half frequented Rahway for all their stuff. We never did,
at all. Maybe my father, once or twice, went to Rahway Lumber,
or the junkyards  -  which were technically borderline Avenel
and Rahway places anyway  -  who knew where you were
except some silly political person. I remember, at the church,
this Father Genecki guy, the only thing he'd ever do, ever, was
get in his car and go to Rahway to mail a letter. At the Rahway
Post Office boxes. He'd never use Avenel  -  he swore things
took an extra week from Avenel or Woodbridge, and that
Rahway was a direct mail-link to efficient delivery, connected
daily to everywhere. had it all figured out, and only used the
Rahway Post Offfice. Right by the post office, as well, was
a place called The Fulton, a restaurant  -  sort of fancy, with
cloth napkins and all (that's mostly what I go by). That's where
all the Avenel St. Andrew's church folk dined. At least once a
week, Father Egan would have his big Saturday dinner there,
my friend's parents often acting as his transportation. I guess
he didn't drive. I don't know what he did much of anyway.
All I knew was that everyone liked his Masses because he'd
zing though the liturgy, rattling everything off at top
hyper-speed, just a quick blaze of words, and get the
hour Mass done in about 25 minutes. That quick. Real blase,
just streaming through those words like...'Our Holy redeem
emmemrhthhtyuut kokokthty, yeah, yeah. Amen.' Boom .
Over. (Or, actually, it was 'Introibe ad altare Dei', which
meant, in Latin, 'I will go up to the altar of God...' That
was the opening line of words to the old Latinate mass).
It was funny. He was probably so sick and bored of
doing that Mass thing, over 50 years probably like ten
billion times, that it had lost all meaning and just needed
getting down and done quick. Nobody ever complained.
The only thing I remember, towards the end, when he
couldn't see very well, and it would get to the time for
the pulpit readings and all that  -  was how he'd pull out
a magnifying glass to read through, and that would be
a real dead spot and slow everything up. I was often
one of his 'altar boys', to assist, and I can remember how
his one eye, behind the magnifying glass, would itself
get magnified and he'd look like some crazy Cyclops
from where I was sitting alongside him.
Soome to be gone was the Polish and Hungarian nature
of old Perth Amboy  -  slowly of course changed over to
the influx of Hispanics of all sorts, with Coutros Brothers
Tropical Fruits soon becoming probably the major employer
(banana importing, green-banana ripening , distribution, etc) -
it all was changing, spinning crazily, with its blacks and 
Puerto Ricans too. There were pockets of old-line resistance 
everywhere, Steve Mizerak's Raritan Rec  - one of the
grandest, old-line pool halls, was in Perth Amboy, for the
longest time, right across from the famed law offices
of Wilentz, Goldman and Spitzer, an active NJ law firm
founded by Warren Wilentz, of the Lindbergh Trial. Those
two places hung on seemingly forever (both gone now), as, 
across the street from then, the movie palace as turned into
am Assembly Hall for some shrieking God group, two
cigar-rolling shops opened up  -  Panamas and Hondurans,
and Cubans too, hand rolled. Fishkin's closed up  -  an old,
Jewish, camera, toy and hobby shop of wonderful proportions.
There wasn't much to be done about any of that  -  there were
lots of immigration and cultural changes underway larger than
everything else. The beautiful, old Civil War relic of a City
Hall and Assembly Chambers fell into disrepair, sadly. All
the trees were cut, the waterfront went the way of all
waterfronts  -  parking, fences and tar. Certain things
maintained themselves over the years  -  the yacht club,
and a few other things, but not much. The whole place was 
lost to its babble of ethnicity. Now it's a jumble of Mexicans
to Dominicans to Hondurans, as I noted, the library and
the post offices are pigsties, business are vacant unless 
they're crappy dollar-stores and bargain-holes, and no one 
cares. Overweight, corn-fed, starched-out low-levels walk
everywhere. Even the Salvation Army Bucket person
gets mugged, in Spanish no less. 
Rahway had a different feel, always. Indolent, industrial, dark,
mysterious, slow, mystified even by itself. Black people owned
it, pretty much, just by possession. The civic running of it and
all may have still been white, but the core of the town had
turned over to the contingents of black people. Mindlessly, I'm
not saying there was a problem. It just was like that. There were
brick factory buildings, slowly dying. The train station was 
elevated, above the town sort of  -  lots of ramps and stairways.
It stayed busy. I never knew who lived there, or what they did,
but people came and went, there was still some cool things
around, and it was generally quiet and old-line. The downtown
strip had plenty of stores  -  dying off, yes, but still there in
1965. Schatzman's, a great toy store, at one end, and the usual
array of clothing stores, dress shops, accessories, and the rest.
A sort of leftover 1940's feel, and then, as it came that no one
wanted any of that stuff anymore, it fell apart and disappeared
as disarray and neglect set in. Old people. The perplexed. The
old coat factory downtown held on for a long time, then it was
transformed. Unlike Perth Amboy, this place had just the touch
of renaissance about it  -  one or two NY chefs came by and
opened nouvelle cuisine restaurants  -  nothing much lasted, 
though there's still one around. The biggest thing in the town,
for activity, was the Station Bar and The Waiting Room. Each 
of those were slobbering-nut bars and taverns where a specific
sort of young person went to get drunk enough to sit and watch
the old people still left around them die. With nose, and a jukebox,
and drunken, loose girls. What kept them in business was the
train station, not that there were great crowds, but that's where 
the people were as the rest of town crumbled. The center of town. 
The old Chevy dealership finally closed up (I knew an old-timer,
in fact, who while he was alive always called it  -  instead of
'Rahway Chevrolet'  -  'Railway Chevrolet'. That kind of tells you
all you need to know about the center of town. That Chevy 
dealership, later in the 19990's, became a still thriving 
Harley-Davidson motorcycle franchise, started up be a friend
of mine who came up from Millville, NJ to do it. That old guy, 
by the way, he often got things wrong but right : calling
landscapers 'landscrapers', meaning the say 'specific' but
saying 'pacific', things like that, little quirky twists of words;
so 'Railway' Chevrolet was perfect, it being right there.

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