Friday, January 29, 2016

7750. BELOW THE WATER LINE (pt. 147)

(pt. 147)
Theatricality and ovation. Emotionalism and
vulnerability. Those sorts of things, and their
being opposites of a sort, always projected
themselves into my field of viewing. Sometimes
I didn't stop to explain myself. Sometimes I was
pretty madly vile. There was a guy I knew, from
working at NJ Appellate Printing, Harry Halpern.
He was one of the richest landowners in Woodbridge
and held lots of properties and holdings, collecting
rents from everyone. He looked like a bum and walked
the town as if lost in space and without a care. He had a
large, estate-type house, set back and hidden by hedges,
on upper Main Street, Woodbridge. It's been long ago
cleared and the house 'erased', just gone. Nothing left
but a big empty, gravelly lot with sometimes a few
trucks on it; right near to it there's an abortion clinic
and each day there are two or three protestors, with
placards and large photos of babies and things, with
crosses and rosaries, standing out front to challenge
or otherwise harass in their own way anyone who is
arriving or departing. The protestors are kept, in a steady
stream, supplied by the Knights of Columbus Hall just
down the street, across from St. James Church. I always
have to laugh because that's about the very spot I'd
always be seeing Harry starting or stopping one of
his jaunts, in the late1960's anyway. He was a short,
strongly-built guy, always in gray khakis, like a
workman's uniform. He never spoke much, or well.
I was always intrigued when I heard of his wealth
and riches, told to me by others, and watched carefully
to see how he acted or what his routines were. They
never appeared any different from anyone, though I
could never really figure him out. I always wanted to get
inside of his head, ask a million questions, find out what
he knew and felt about the Woodbridge he was transforming.
This was the beginning of the 'garden apartment' era, and
those hideous and dumb-looking brick outlays were cropping
up everywhere in what used to be fields and meadows. I
always wanted to know where Harry's education was from,
whether or not he had come up through the Woodbridge
system, with an engrained sense of place and feel for the
town itself, or if it was just another business opportunity
for him. Nothing important, just rather the sorts of thing
I used to think about. I myself had somehow grown an
attachment, whether emotional or intellectual, to that sort
of information. We were, after all, living 'somewhere', and
that somewhere had to have a story and a history to it.
I had another friend, in New Brunswick; she was a graphic
artist, about ten years, maybe, older than me. Her name
was Joanne Mannion and she came from old-line New
Brunswick stock, somehow, and would always tell me
stories and histories, through her family, of old 'port'
New Brunswick, when the waterfront was vivid and active,
stevedores and river pilots and boiler men stalked around,
piles of freight and cargo, boat traffic and drayage people
everywhere. She was way down on that which had befallen
New Brunswick, cursing the town and its people, and by
extension all of current 'America' and its standards and
practices. She had a heart for all that had gone away,
and she somehow sensed I did too. It was one of the
few times I felt that someone was on the track to
understanding a little bit of the way I thought about
things. The funny thing, too  -  let me go back a moment  -
was to see how this Harry Halpern guy gave no care to
being starched or stiff, like any of the rich or historic
characters a place like Woodbridge would puff itself
up about. Here was a regular kingpin of the town, an
invisible real-estate mogul, raking it in, and I could
somehow never envision him getting puffy or important
about himself  - suits and ties and all those dinners and
club-talks those sorts of town guy bigwigs were always
involved with. He really knew how to pull it off. An
interesting and funny corollary to all this, in my own life,
which pretty much exemplifies what I'm saying, was when
I was at St. George Press, just about the year 1990, and
ready to leave, just feeling cramped and constrained too
much  -  all over again  -  by the business world and all the
crap that went with it. I'd begun skimping on haircuts, getting
seedy-looking again, not much caring, and the owner, Bob
took me aside, finally, one day, and told me to straighten up,
look right, 'because the town fathers come in here often. You
know that.' (We did a lot of municipal printing and we'd get
the Mayor and Council people and big business types and
Kiwanis Club sorts, and all the rest). His point was that they
were important enough that I should appear reserved and
proper to them. Oh boy, did I have to laugh at that. (I was
gone about a month later). He actually called them 'town
fathers', like some landed colonial gentry or something. These
were guys whose idea of a grand time was a scrambled-eggs
breakfast meeting, a golf-outing, and maybe a local Colonia
Country Club soiree and dance with their wives or brooding
other. Being a 'Town Father' was the last thing on their minds
and they wouldn't really have had a clue as to what that meant
anyway. All they really cared about was making a buck, and
from what I saw all that meant to them was 'expansion'; growing
the business base of Woodbridge Township  -  more business,
roads, factories, warehouses, housing units, shopping centers
and parking lots. The complete opposite of a town 'father, for
sure. More like 'Town Despoilers.' The whole thing had
become a bad joke. Yet I had to 'look good.'
Places seem to, eventually, just become either ghosts of
themselves or parodies of themselves. Cities begin to
deteriorate and crumble, the 'right' people move out
(meaning the 'money') and the crumbs are left to the
next strand of arrivals, always lesser in standing and
money than the previous, and they let things slide a
little more, and then they leave as they grow out. That's
how suburbs begin, spread and fan themselves out. All
the big-time writers who write about the places they lived
or grew up through, and which are no more, they all write
about things like that. The dilution of place and value.
It's like an old-time American saga wherever you go.
The rise and the fall of the places that were; and it's a kind
of a gift for the writer too, because he can mine that raw
material and spin it in any manner he or she then chooses.
That's called interpretation. I don't really know that Avenel,
using my own for instance, has ever had such a treatment, but
here I am, trying at giving it one  -  it's a sort of structural
abyss around and into which I've woven the DNA strands of
the place I called 'home' in the way that I lived it, or thought
it anyhow. But it's more difficult and awkward here, because
in reality 'Avenel' had only the most rudimentary previous
history. It was really nothing ever more than an out-reach
settlement along a highway that kept expanding, and it sort
of wound up being providentially placed near to where at
least six of these big-time, commercial roadways, met and
crossed. A 'hub' as it were -  not so much for people at all,
which is where the legacy and history would have come from,
but for business and commercial interests. The complete
opposite of any sense of goodness and place; just instead the
'locus' of a rapacious, steady, and greedy growth where
'good' things were steadily eroded and taken away, and
only the most mediocre, fouled, congested and transient
things somehow always remained. 'Town fathers' indeed.

No comments: