Friday, January 15, 2016

7681. BELOW THE WATER LINE (pt. 132)

(pt. 132) - section 6
'seminary days'
Two sort of miraculous things occurred to me
while I was in Blackwood  -  moments outside
of time, the sorts of things that become exceptional
immediately and forever. I'll break in here now with
it, even though time jumps a bit as I do it. It became
apparent that we, the seminary, rented parts of the
grounds out to Campbell Soup Co., based in Camden.
Everyone knew Campbell Soup --  the famous cans,
red design labels, even the Andy Warhol junk not soon
after. In certain areas there were fields of green peppers,
tomatoes, peas, the kind of farm-crop stuff that made
you wonder, with the abundance there, 'who takes care
of all this stuff, who plants it and harvests it, and what
happens to it all.' Leo Benjamin, again, was the one
guy who really pointed it out. On one side of the area
where we ate, there was a good-sized pepper-field
one year, right outside the windows. When we'd be
out, walking around and stuff, he'd pick a pepper and
begin eating it, as if it was an apple or something. I'd
never seen that before. They were crisp and moist and
good, not in excess, but in little doses. I was never a
pepper fiend  -  my mother used to make stuffed peppers,
and they were OK, but like everything else she cooked,
certainly all the vegetables, they were over-cooked and
soggy to death, like old wet paper or something. Most
of the people in that generation, my mother's group, the
parents of my friends, they all had a tendency to way-
overcook things. Beans and peas and all the vegetables
always soggy and wan. They weren't really supposed to
be heavy-cooked like that, to a soggy mess, so that most
of the nutrients are all in the juice then  -  which used to
just get thrown out. Better to drink the juice and chuck
the soggy vegetables. I don't know what it was with that,
maybe sanitary fears, germs and fears of bacteria and
things, from their old days. But, anyway, it's not
necessary and the stuff is a lot better tasting when crisp.
At least it tastes alive. So, thanks to Leo Benjamin, I
began to eat some raw vegetables here and there, right
off the plants. (Later years on, when I lived in NYC,
Judy Tannenbaum and myself, out all night mostly,
on bicycles, in the nice, warm weather, she'd stop
quickly and steal a cauliflower or whatever she could
grab, from the open vegetable stands, and we'd eat that
too  -  raw cauliflower, in chunks  -  like apples).
But, back to the fields, Campbell Soup would send
migrant workers in, on flatbed trucks  -  you'd see
them just slowly riding along, 10 or 12 Negroes, just
like slave days  -  South Jersey's version of plantation
workers. They get off the truck with their sacks and
slowly shuffle their ways along to the rows of crops,
picking and filling their slow bags, humming or talking
aloud to someone, or singing. It was miraculous and,
how can I put it, took my breath away, drew me in,
captivated me and ran me off. I was flabbergasted by
what I saw. Itinerant farm-workers, following the crops
for probably the cheapest pittance of money you could find.
This was 1962, mind you. The South of Jersey was still
white, and I'd bet these people would have had trouble
sitting down at any Woolworth's soda fountain even there
as well. Gap-mouthed, I was mesmerized : the women and
girls, breathtaking specimens of young-girl beauty to me  -
just an idiot young male, but mesmerized by the sight  - they'd
wear kerchiefs or bandannas, sun-hats, or cover their heads
in some flopped hat or rag, their bodies seemingly worthy
of a gymnast's use. That, my dear readers, was religion. The
Virgin Mary Mother of God could not have portrayed to
me better what grace and pose and dignity was. The
downtrodden, at work, under pressure but maintaining their
hold on their Beings, self and soul. The Meek shall inherit
the earth, I'd hear. And then some crud would say  -  'and
they can have it. That's all they get because of their being
meek, and not striking out, not striving or reaching back
and grabbing.' I'd hear that stuff  -  others would talk. Yet,
I could disprove everything with one look at this
Human-Love I felt. I even gave Campbell Soup a pass
on using slave-labor because of the grace of Christ it
showed me back. No one else seemed to care  -  least alone
Leo; he'd laugh or scoff, or say something unnecessary.
It was like watching a squirrel die, on the road, after 
getting nicked by a car. You'd wish it had just gotten
squished and instantly killed, rather than have to be
seen writhing and flailing in its sad death throes. It was
just a great, big, down feeling, dropping all around me
when I realized that others just weren't seeing what 
I was seeing. This was but maybe 200 yards from the 
place where, twice daily, we'd have to sit, in that 
chapel, and partake of liturgy, Christian teaching, 
prayer and sermon. I just didn't know what to make
of the long afternoons and early evenings when, just
outside those windows, truckloads of weary blacks
were trudging along with baskets full of tomatoes, or
canvas sacks of green peppers. Was it not ALL of 
mankind who should, be free and equal? Was it 
really okay to disdainfully put the onus of work and 
toil on the downtrodden others and pretend you just 
didn't notice, or see? Young lives with so little. 
I was crying in my stupid prayers. Lost in space
once more. I never wanted a tomato again.
This led right into another massive and fascinating 
aspect of my new life. I can't remember how I got 
hooked up with this, or what it was called, but somehow 
I was involved with these details of work or things that 
took me, often at night (early Wintry night anyway) 
off the seminary grounds. There were two ostensible, 
quite separate operations. One of the priests, I remember 
it being a black guy, the only Negro priest we
had. I always thought he was pretty non-manly, but 
whatever. He drove a black, 196o or '61  Ford -   it was 
either new or late model used, and he was usually the 
only person I'd ever see, driving. The car was kept over 
at the other side of that round barn I mentioned before -  
at the manor-house where all the priests and brothers 
lived. Really, that too was a pretty mysterious place. 
Whenever a kid had an emergency  -   most usually a 
toothache or a wound or a fever  -  we'd take trips, 
with the patient, to pre-arranged special dentist's offices
or doctor places, and we'd be there as the kid got treated 
or fixed. It didn't happen a lot, but when it did it was 
very cool, for me. I'd get to see places, lights at night, 
travel. The priest, name completely forgotten, would 
talk, the radio was on, all cool. It was an extra, added 
attraction to my living. The second aspect of this was 
that we had a mechanic-fixer guy, one of the maintenance 
'brothers', not a priest, just a career brother. That's a different 
set of vows, a slightly lower level  - called 'Brother Bob'
or whatever, not 'Father McNally'. First name stuff. He
was really nice, bearded also, like the farm guy  - little, quiet.
He had a 1952 pickup truck. Every so often it would be filled 
up with metal  -  scraps of things, broken stuff, car parts, etc.
When that happened, it was time for a junkyard trip. I'd go,
with him, to perhaps the strangest experiences of my days.
Ever. (Now, the writer's point here would be to not yet tell
you, let you dangle, introduce all sort of diversionary and 
ancillary thoughts and matters to keep you either at the edge
of your seat, with expectation, or just riveted to follow more 
of the story. I like discursive stuff -  as a writer  -  it allows
the word to grow, the subject to expand, new ideas to be
introduced, skipped over, and returned to. Fun. This fellow
may have smoked a pipe, I think. He drove the truck in a
very mannered fashion, a small guy, just humped to the wheel,
bouncing along  -  no radio in this one. It was like some old
farm scene in a weird old book, the jerry-built truck, all rigged
and contrived, jalopying along, over the trail, just settling
in and slowly disappearing down the road). Well, let me get
back. We'd ride over ruts and valleys, into the farthest, weird, 
dark back-ends of Camden. Once we even crossed the bridge
and went, especially, to some Philadelphia junkyard along the 
Delaware. But, mostly, these were dark-Camden trips. Some
Jewish guy was always around  -  Abe Golub's Junkyard, or
Sid Mablesky, Junk Dealer  -  anything like that. We'd pull in, 
the little penny-pincher guys would come out, look over the
stuff, mumble, point. Weigh things. They'd go off together  -  
he actually looked mostly just like them, my 'brother' guy.
It got to be funny. Then they'd dicker some more, decide 
on something, pay up, and we'd unload. It was always fun,
nothing at all to do with religion, though there probably was
like 'Saint Smattering, Patron Saint of Junkyards', or something.
But these were Jewish guys, so it couldn't much matter. They
played in a different league from us. Better umps, bigger bats.
The truck would get unloaded, and we'd leave. Always in
complete silence, for the next ten minutes, as if he was going
over, rehashing in his head, what he'd just taken in, if the
bargain was fair, if it had been worth the doing, etc. I could
never figure out how all these priests and brothers operated
anyway  -  all living together like that  -  did they have meetings
where they went over this stuff, approved or disapproved of
expenses and trips, reviewed the take, scolded or scoffed at
someone of something, make jokes, good or bad about what 
had been done? Did they even know about me, in on these
things? Bafflement and mystery, like some deep Vatican
secret committee paying off the Pope's bills or something.
 I just stayed quiet and went for the rides. BUT, back to the 
scene, and here's where it gets telling, deep, dark. Again, this
was the early sixties  -  much of the outskirts of Camden was
bleak, black junklands. Shacks and the remnants of large
homes, sagging and separate, out along what were, I guess,
remnants of older roadways. Houses with four or five steps
to get up to, and nothing else. Desolate, ruined, quiet. No
matter much the time of year, there'd always be people around,
just staring at this odd little truck bally-hooing its way along
their jutted roads. Broken trees, twisted things growing, torn
up old sidewalks and fences. Only a few lights, maybe
connected directly to a porch here or there. But always
the gaunt and silent people, staring. I mean slow, vacant
staring  -  like they'd just awakened from the dead and only
because something was passing by. There wasn't even a touch
of real malice, just a poor feeling of dread. A bleak and bleary
endlessness. Any of these roads could have just been a
dead-end that backed into Hell itself  -  instead of scrap yards
and caves and piles of junk. Dogs. Broken clusters of cars and
windows. Muggy people, staring with their odd eyes  -  big,
red-rimmed when close-up. It was truly the weirdest thing
I'd ever seen. Camden's a disaster today too  - a war-zone, 
streets just rows of rubble patrolled by State Police, not even
any longer local cops. But this was worse. This was before
any 'concern'. LBJ and all his 'Great Society' Presidential
Anti-Poverty stuff hadn't even started. All these people
were just the stiff-armed, desolate, destitute poor. Absolute
nothings. For us to come tweetering down their dirt 
roadways was seen as much as wonderment, from their 
end, as it was from mine, or maybe as an affront to all 
their lives and property. I never knew. But in those 
silences and travels I knew I had landed  -  most 
definitely  -  somewhere else for sure.
This was what it was like for me. I'd seen junkyards and
car-yards before, the trailer parks of Avenel, the greasy 
puddles beneath the trucks of Brandywine Salvage,
Inman Avenue's very own end  -  but that was nothing 
compared to this. Just miles of rutted, desolate, dead land.
I got back to the seminary after each of those trips, still
rattled by the greater reality. Amazed. No one ever asked
me a question, not a thing, about what I'd done or seen.
It was all invisible, the cloak of secrecy. Some days I just
wanted to stand up and spout  -  preach from that chapel
pulpit about the raw-cut portion of Life that I'd been given
to see : forget all this huddled and cloistered crap, get out
there where mankind Lives! Get up! Arise ye men of a
new generation!....but, nothing. Nothing came. 
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I guess.
Just pocket money from truckloads of scrap.

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