BELOW THE WATER LINE
What is it you do that you live by? That you would
wish to remain after you? Something people would
say or remember about you once you're gone? A
sort of too-heavy, cosmic question, the sort that
should never dog anyone while still young. But
that's the type of question that gets planted in
one's head when you hang around too many
over-the-top bloviators. The quick-reads who
have all the questions but only make up the
answers to a few. I don't know about families
who have big learners in their midst - all those
Harvard and Princeton types. It sure must make it
difficult at home when you know 'Uncle Brains'
is to be coming for dinner and a visit. We never
had any of that. The closest we came was this guy
named George Malmberg. Nice guy, tall, regal,
and he had a kid also named George, my age -
a pharmacist now, somewhere. This George
Malmberg was as close as my mother had ever
gotten to the 'someone else' she almost married
in place of my father. Which would have meant
no 'me' I guess. He was a 'Personnel Manager'
at some big company - what they now call 'Human
Resources' I guess. College educated guy, all the
right phrases and things. I don't know, really, the
how or why he'd had ever looked twice at my mother,
or her him for that matter. Sure didn't seem like a match,
and the chemistry didn't seem there either. Whatever.
They lived in Bayonne somewhere, and I think they
stayed there always. Later they had a house built in
one of those country-type North Jersey towns. Nice
place too. His wife was a little lady, maybe five
tall feet at best. Mary Malmberg (same name as my
mother anyway). Nice lady too, enough - but all I
remember about her is she was always sucking in the
cigarette smoke while she talked that should have been
going out, not in - you know, it kind of sticks around
the mouth, in a thick whitish cloud, and then when
the person breaths some more gets drawn in. Certainly
wasn't anything I fancied, and was distasteful to watch.
But, no matter; smokers never care about that stuff. They
just go on, at one with their odd habit. She talked a lot,
was pretty toothy as she talked, and always seemed to
be smiling. Odd. He was, on the other hand, tall,
deep-voiced, serious, and a smoker too. But not as
extreme, I'd guess. Except that he too bore the evidences
- grayish complexion, lined face, all that smoker's
battering of the capillaries or whatever it is that really
wrecks a smoker's face. He'd always start telling
me about my own 'hiring' faults - how things stand
out to an interviewer, immediately. What not to hire.
That was me, and though I was young yet, he'd give
me tips on what to work on. Crazy ideas, man; like
I cared about that. Then he'd start talking to me about
money and investments. Another completely foreign
field to me - he'd say the best way to invest ahead of
the market was to read the Wall Street Journal - back
then, like 1965 - before all the glitz and glamor of
today's version. They'd run these little, small-print boxes
of company announcements : who was expanding,
pulling back, splitting, acquiring, selling, all that stuff.
He said to watch them very carefully, and read it
each day. Invest small sums based on those bits of
news, quietly and silently, a thousand here, a thousand
there. (Yeah, right). That way you could be 'ahead of
the market' and ride the 'upward crest' that would hit
about a week later when the investment columns and
brokerage houses would break the same news, and all
the other investors would pile on and float up that stock's
price. Then he said the toughest decision was to decide
what and when to sell, or hang on. For years. He'd say
just to make sure, after the big hit upward, to pull out
your initial money - say a thousand. If it went to the
level where you then had seventeen hundred bucks,
leave the seven hundred, and sell back for the thousand
original. That way you always had your original money
back, and the rest was a growing, free gravy. Over and
over, he said, that's the way you make money. I just
listened, actually never even figuring why he'd even
start telling me this. What was I to do?
And with what?
So, like I was saying, it must have been pretty
crazy for people to get those houseloads of
college-educated, especially in an Inman Avenue
house. I don't know if it ever happened. Most
guys were low-level laborers or techs; only one or
two paper-pusher types. People who worked with
things, left tools around, had thick hands and arms.
They never really knew any 'refined' stuff to talk
about. Lawns, maybe, hoses and sprinklers. Not
even sports - that wasn't a big deal then. The one
time I can remember, that sports stood out, pretty
cool, was during one October. It was still hot out,
and Patty Malone's father - about 5 houses away -
he had the week off. Maybe vacation, maybe out-of-work,
I don't know. Each day as we walked home from school
he'd be on the house, in a different spot, on a ladder,
with a paint can hanging, and he'd be painting his
house with a radio blaring. It had the World Series
on. I don't know what year, I'd guess '59, maybe '60.
There were no night-game World Series things yet -
it wasn't such a big hoo-hah. Baseball was pretty
simple. Bill Mazerowski, Whitey Ford, all those
low-level guys. Calm, secure. Or if they weren't,
we didn't really know about it. It wasn't until Jim
Bouton wrote his book - 'Ball Four' - about maybe
1966, with its expose of what went on after games.
on the road, the booze and the girls, all that stuff.
Before that it was like every ball player was just a
puppy-dog. He changed all that - they became gruff
men with dicks and needs and appetites. But, no
matter, Mr. Malone, well before that book, would
serenely paint his house with the World Series blaring.
Pretty cool American vision. You were able to tell the
kind of town Avenel was - a lot of men brought their
work trucks home with then - all those vans and
plumbing trucks and things sitting in front of the
houses overnight. That doesn't occur in a high-branch
town. Avenel was a 'service' town, for sure.
As the town slowly grew, and I mean slowly, it was
only over time that you'd notice things. For me, the
few big things, when they hit, were real transformations
- the State School as it replaced the glories of the prison
farm fields; all those insipid, oddball buildings, and
the mobs of bizarre creature kids let loose on the
grounds from each 'cottage'. I loved how they called
each of the 'satellite' buildings 'cottages', with big
numbers on them for identification. They were in no
way cottages, but the governmental intrusion of
euphemism to conceal real things took care of that.
Cottages, indeed. Cottage 23 was for the Mongoloid
cretins, Cottage 26, for the screamers, Cottage 12
for the heavily sedated. They never really kidded
anyone - it was a horrid, horrid shambles, and a
really sad situation that did have no solution. This
was a ground zero for disastrous sadness : parents
with no more resources, shattered and wrecked,
turning their seriously and unmanageably retarded
or damaged kid over to the State as the ward of a
hospital that would try and house them unto Death.
It was truly sad. Believe me. I saw it, and heard the
screams, daily. For a while, my girlfriend worked
there; and - yes - for a while I did their printing.
Thank God for St. George Press, right?
Got me in most anywhere.
I always enjoyed what I did, by dint of my own
doing it - never much caring of what people said.
I'm still like that a lot. And I never much care -
although I'm quite sensitive about things - what
apple cart I dump while doing it. I just like to go
full-frontal, and make sure the deal or the project
gets done, even if some heads have to bang. I'd
suppose again, that's Avenel speaking through me.
It's hard to divulge real information when you're
holding all the cards - even the dirty ones - to your
chest to conceal them from others. I worked a lot with
my own secret mandates - ways of going, sure to get
things done. Traits like that, they stem from a sort of
fire within - I never knew if regular people had that.
I'd go down and start talking with Mr. Metro - he ran
a little green-grocer, supply shop on the other side of
the underpass, the side that ran down to Rahway Ave.
The fens, the dark side, the low (where I live now,
actually). Cold cuts, chicken cutlets, paper supplies,
towels, noodles, soups, all that stuff - the perfect
kind of little corner store that the supermarkets killed
off. He knew all about Avenel. But I never detected
any of the usual snide brashness from him, and it
was always a mystery to me. He was the nicest,
almost happy and gentle to a fault kind of little
round guy you'd ever meet. Everything was always
happy and pleasant. He'd talk about the old Avenel,
the hunting in the fields which were now all houses,
the best deer lands - which I never even knew had
existed in this little dump of a town. He meant the
1940's, before DDT and all that - there were still
deer and possum and woodchucks and things. It's
hard to realize but during the 1950's and 1960's there
was pretty much nothing left of the natural world
around us. Just birds maybe. Now, again, there
are deer a'plenty, eating things in people's yards,
racoons, red foxes, possums - all sorts of ground
creatures which have come back, 50 years on. No
more spraying, no more death, except by the usual
auto-carnage along the roadways. Always sad, that too.