Monday, February 29, 2016

7868. BELOW THE WATER LINE (pt. 178)

(pt. 178)
Sometimes I get to think that we all
are nothing more than the sum totals
of our experiences, on an almost
'automatic-like' scale. It may very
well be that I'm wrong, but the feeling
I get is that there's a certain 'vaster'
preponderance of our make-ups that
comes up from those moments. All
the learning and reasoning we later
acquire doesn't change it much. When
I was young, my aunt and uncle lived
in Union City. It's a really small, grubby
and crowded hub  -  not a city at all  -  
now mostly Cuban and Hispanic, but 
that's what it calls itself, and whatever. 
It sits up on the ridge of rock ending NJ
eastward. Over the Hudson River, which
runs below. Behind it, to the west, and far
below, is Route One, (Tonnelle Avenue),
usually pronounced Tonnally Ave). That
part of things is a horrible mishmash of old,
wrecked places, car-yards  old foundries
and factories, but all now nothing but
cheap motels (a lot of the 42nd street
whoring business moved out here in the
90's  -  now  they just walk along Route
One showing their wares. Sure makes
traffic jams a little easier to take). Lincoln
Tunnel. Holland Tunnel. There's even
some light-rail stuff now. Anyway, up
above all that, on really steep streets
and twisty curves, is Union City, and
North Bergen, and places like that. My
aunt and uncle, as I said, lived in Union
City. I was probably 4. We'd go visit them
and I remember to this day being stunned
and awed by the view between houses. Thin
openings (the housing was close together and
tight, people living 'cheek by jowl', as I now
say), heralded the eye towards a grand view of
New York City  -  wonderful 1954 Manhattan  -
and all I ever did was find spots but to stare
and gaze out at the equivalent, to me, of Oz
itself. A concrete, steel and glass emporium
of wonder, dreams, light, angles, creativity,
excitement, danger, trouble, possibilities,
movement, highs and lows, heights and
chasms, luck and missed chances, all. And
that was only inside my tiny head at the time!
It spoke to me, I was able to understand and
read the message, feel it in my slimeball bones.
We had not yet moved to Avenel, I'd probably
never even heard of the place and would have
had no concept of where I'd soon be headed.
Swamps, fens, trailers and shacks? Who ever
had heard of that? This, on the other hand, out
before me stretched, was living, was life, was
all the source of my golden waters. I could not
wait. It sometimes seems, in retrospect, that
the experienced 'past', before it was 'present'
simply must have been imagined as 'future' in
order for it to have occurred. Time flips around
audaciously like that, and we miss things at
our peril. As it went, I felt every second of
all this in my bones, before it occurred; like a
dream state, from which you only seldom
awaken. I can't put into words exactly what
I mean. However. The terms of this agreement
are that I will continue speaking, regardless.
Once I arrived in Avenel, it wasn't as if a
rooster was crowing, or that this was farmland.
No, it wasn't at all.  It was just that, admittedly,
there were fields and open spaces around me,
getting quickly sacrificed for the 'good of all'.
Probably mostly for the good of banks, but the
entire process did bring a lot of people out from
their strange situations in paltry surrounding
towns. Summer Street in Elizabeth. Any of
the numbered Newark Streets, slowly being
turned over to 'others.' My aunt, a different,
aunt, used to say (she lived her entire live in
Bayonne, seldom ever leaving its confines,
in a small, old-style tenement/apartment
set-up), that the good thing about Bayonne
was that they had never let the 'element' in.
Never making it clear what the 'element' was,
I only later surmised she meant the blacks or
the Spanish, who now are there anyway. She's
the one who's not any longer there. Death,
then, recovers time, and always wins. Her
coveted town, by those standards, has been
long lost.
I don't know what any of that's supposed to
mean, but Avenel never had any 'element'
either. It was basically one, homogeneous
community made of white American people,
from wherever and however they got there.
Yet, at the same time, no one was ever overly
pronounced over this - maybe a few cracks
now and then, about the usual black people or
Hispanic people, using their slang names. My
father used to call blacks (baffling to me)
'moulinyans' or something I never got, which
I later found out meant eggplants (?) and
referred to the color. However, I also found
out that it was a sometime-slang for Italians as
well, coloring too. Baffling, so I never did get
to the bottom of that one. I had heard of the
Moulin Rouge yes, but that was different. I'd
also heard of the Rue Morgue. In fact, I never
liked name-calling, by whatever means and for
whatever purpose. It was annoying, picking
people out people for something and then
needling them with some crack name. Just
tedious. And anyway, my father could most
probably, by those terms, have been called
a Guinea Papist. He'd have killed on that one.
I was just plopped down into the middle of
this : felled trees, run-down sheds, a dog house,
a driveway, some bicycles. It all bore no real
relation to Bayonne, or the waterfront, but  -
being a kid  -  it didn't matter to me and I was
always ready to pick up from some imaginary 
point zero and just start anew. Which I had to 
do, and did. None of the lines really connected.
It was all unconnected wires, everywhere.
Maybe there were echoes, but that was about it.
Avenel had existed before my arrival, and it 
probably had stories. None of which I'd ever
heard. When you get to someplace where 
everyone is new, or newly arrived, there's 
not much to delve into. We never delved into
the life-stories or the pasts of the older Avenel
people, families who'd bee here a while. I can
remember my wife's family telling about the
people directly across the street from them, in
1947, when all the new houses were just built 
and my wife's family arrived, how those older
people rued all the new housing and activity. 
For twenty years or so, their house had been 
alone, nestled in a tree'd in section of woods,
and they'd been alone  - until one day, they 
said, they awoke and the woods were all 
coming down around them. And then
there was, suddenly, curbs and roadways, 
houses and people. Families and kids. That
had to hurt. They left soon after. Also, 
among the first residents, down some just 
a bit, on Dartmouth, were a group of Scots
people. The story I got anyway  -  they'd
bough 4 or 5 houses in  a row, whoever 
they were, and thereby made a small sort 
of Scotch Village or something right there. 
It did eventually all scatter, and they moved 
away, but the story and the circumstance 
lingered. I always liked to picture it. It's all
pretty funny, because no matter how any of it
looks now, to those living in it at the time, that 
was all the cutting edge of modernity. All those
car fins and TV antennas, and new driveways
and 'super' markets and all the rest; when it
just comes at you, you accept it. It only all
looks funny in retrospect, when people  -  
others, living then in their own onrush of 
'modernity', begin chuckling at and making 
fun of what went before them. As if they knew
any better. I guess that's what nostalgia, and
kitsch, and 'retro', are all about. So, by moving
to Avenel, in essence, my parents were simply
moving into the future  -  having made their 
own decision, whether consciously or through 
some weird unknown urges, to stake out some 
new land for a new continuation of time. Ah yes,
and then there's me : in Scripture, it's said that
'God calls people who are uniquely unsuited for
the task that he sets them to.' I never quite knew
what they meant, but they used it on us all the 
time at the seminary too  -  calling it, quaintly,
'vocation.' A calling, an interior urge, set to by
this quirky 'God' fellow, to which you had to
answer  -  deliberate a little, then, okay, but you
were sort of considered bound to say 'yes'. Or
get out of Dodge, and quickly. For me, it was 
more like fulfilling a duty to the world, whatever 
I may have seen it as, or seen the world as, for 
that matter. The vocation part of it, even here 
in faraway Avenel, pressed hard. I sensed I 
had been plunked there for a reason, and God 
forbid if it became a reason I never found.
Many are called, but few are frozen. That 
was probably more like it.
So I walked around, I played with friends, I
found ways of making things matter. At one 
point, about age 11, I sent to the F.B.I., in far-
off Washington D.C., where I'd actually been 
once. My letter asked for information, career
stuff  -  and I received back this crazy, entire
packet with a cover letter (supposedly) 
addressed to me and signed by J. Edgar Hoover
himself. I was pretty floored -   they actually
took me serious, gave me the time of day, all 
that stuff. It was, what, 1960? Everything was
precious, and filled with possibility and the
expectation of undertaking  -  as in doing, not
the funeral stuff.
That was that then. For a long time I just subsisted
on whatever dreams about place and time I could 
come up with. I'd go to bed at night having these
imaginary cowboy fights and shoot-outs, scenes 
where I somehow always wound up managing to
'best' some other force of bullies or scoundrels, 
thieves or crooks. Far too weird to retell or 
understand, I never knew what or how I'd 
gotten so absorbed in this sort of stuff : TV, 
shoot 'em up westerns, whatever. It was way too  
easy to be 'hero' in your own adventure, and behind  
all that I knew that somewhere in the experience of 
living, there really were punches in the face, failures, 
mistakes, and losses to come. It could never be only 
victorious triumph and rightness. No one could tell  
me different. So I retreated. What does a kid retreat 
too? Toys and trinkets in cereal boxes. That was a really 
big deal to me at about 9 or 10. It was a grand gimmick, 
and I don't think they do that stuff any more, but there 
was a time when you'd get a toy auto, or some sort of 
figurine, or a catapult, mini pull-toy, anything  -  some 
of it really pretty neat  -  at the bottom, or near the 
bottom, of your cereal. Presupposing that it would 
be the incentive to force kids to get their Moms and 
Dads to buy the product, I guess it worked. I ate a lot 
of cereal, and collected a lot of stuff  - usually, to make 
it even neater, the things were single-wrapped in their 
own little paper sleeves, or packets, or holders. I guess 
they were blown in during packaging, settling some, 
and then being found by the kids as they worked 
through the box. I used to love that stuff. I remember 
really loving the collectible little cars the best. That's 
the sum total of my experience on that count, I guess. 
And it's really some total!

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