BELOW THE WATER LINE
The thing about this Metro guy and his little
store was that he represented the old parts of
Avenel. He'd survived the twenty years or so
of his being there as this little merchant man
while around him everything changed. Of
course, on one hand it could have been only
to his benefit - more customers, more business
- but aside from that, the way he used to talk
about the changes you'd have figured he'd have
some animosity, some of the festering 'Avenel'
attitude about things. But, never. They lived right
there, behind the store - you'd see them
scurrying around behind a white-fenced barricade
thing they kept. The busy wife, the quiet daughter,
like they were embarrassed to be seen having a home
life, another way of going at things, out of the store.
By the end of the 60's, I think it was, they moved
from there, I think it was after he died, maybe,
actually. They had a house, a nice, little ranch house
on the corner of Avenel Street and Butler, I think
it is, at the corner where Introcaso Cleaners was.
Different place, whole different kind of life. I
always remember how the wife - who was like
the main 'cashier' in that little one-person store -
would write up your tally, in pencil, in a vertical
row, doing addition. It was always on a piece of
white butcher paper she'd tear off for the order -
not a cash register, not any other sort of receipt.
And she always kept a sort of nervous banter
going on. If anyone's ever seen a show from the
1970's - The Waltons - the character Ike Godsey
and his wife, storekeepers in the same vein,
resemble what I'm talking about quite a lot.
It was, then, as I say it, the lack of seething that
always impressed me about Metro. He just took
what was coming at him, and kept walking along.
There was another such store, down a ways, on
Rahway Avenue, near the bakery and the post office.
It was called 'Joe's All-American Market'. Pretty
much the same thing, except for the weirdness of
the people. These folks were different. They'd sit
out front, on little chairs, just staring. The store,
by that time, 1966, was pretty much fading way
to nothing anyway, and it never seemed that any
real, thriving business was underway. They were
unpleasant people, if you didn't know them, sort of
dark and bleak. Both were also pretty overweight.
Everything combined to give it all a strange and a
lackluster feel. It was hard to ever say you 'wanted'
to be there. Soon enough they just all faded away;
the place is built over and painted now, turned
into just a residence, but if you know about it,
you can tell what it once was. The place where
Metro's was is now a child-care or infant-care or
something place. In between those two places was
a 'sweet-shop' named 'Cameo's.' There wasn't
anything sweet about it - it was where all the
low-side Avenel guys hung out, with their cars
and wisecracks and attitudes. The place used to
give me the creeps, frankly, and I always avoided
it. These guys were tough, hoods, fighters, it seemed.
They'd all gather, maybe 8 or 10 of them at a time
anyway, on the little cinder-block and concrete
side-porch thing. They's stare down a bear if
it showed up. I was always afraid of taking a
beating, and there was never anything there I
wanted anyway. It was another crowd's turf,
not mine. There was a definite cultural divide
as you'd head down into the Avenel lowlands -
the fens - as if there were bodies still to be found
buried down there. Yeah, it seemed that bad. In
school, we'd all get mixed together, Kish, Kenney,
Eidson, all those last names that were connected
to tough-guy older kids. Or so it seemed anyway.
Distance makes the heart grown scary, or however
that doesn't go. But in school all you got was the
school side of people, that whole gelatinous glob
of perfunctory presence and school-time performance.
Anyone even half-slick could fake their behavior for
the school day, and then do the pounding and catching
up on the way home or whenever. Catch the creep
that's got it coming. The one who eyed us wrongly.
Yep, that's what it was like. Sometimes you'd be
glad for the underpass being there because it
acted as a great divide. If you don't come here,
I won't go there. Deal?
I'd guess a lot of this was just kid-stuff. But, you're
not a kid forever. Things begin happening. And then
there was the ever-present ambiance of girls; that
little scent around them that just never leaves your
nose. It was pretty tough, and it became probably the
most awkward part about growing up. Avoidance?
Notice them? How to play this great new role? They
are no longer what you thought you knew, and of
them too all things were changing. Tough sledding.
The other funny aspect was that, in my daily walking
to the library down at the bottom of Rahway Avenue, if
I stayed on Avenel Street it would bring me right past
Cameo's. And all those guys. The really cold-weather
days were OK, they simply weren't there. But any
regular, temperate days, would always have some
there. I always felt like a sitting duck,on the way
to his sissy book-chair in the library; surefire way
to get singled out. So I'd easily found other ways of
walking, and they were numerous, without having to
stay along Avenel Street and pass Cameo's. If, at the
top of the underpass, I simply made a quick right,
and walked straight, I'd get to the meadow-field
that opened to the railroad tracks, where I'd gotten
hit, and it was then a really simple, unafflicted walk,
to Rahway Ave and the library. Safety first.
Later on, when I got to New York City and started
doing things, beginning pretty much with just living
on the hot, August streets, I realized that all that stuff
I'd once feared or thought about was probably the
funniest stuff in the world. An entire false edifice of
things I'd erected and which NYC living so swiftly
erased from my mind as to be laughable. A bunch of
creepy guys on the back wall of some stupid candy
store in a little scrunchable highway town in the
parched middle of endless industrial slums? Who the
heck had I been kidding? It bore no relationship
whatsoever to the endless matters of the ageless
real world I had just begun to inhabit. Much better.
Much more grace and bearing for me, even at the
very bottom rings of whatever heap I was entering
into. 'Yo, please, banish Avenel from your lexicon,
OK?' Each time I'd take that simple train or bus
ride back, I'd see the difference, the gap, the endless
void between the two places, much more clearly.