Wednesday, April 20, 2016


When I lived in Elmira, I've
already mentioned, it was
bisected by the Chemung
River. That was north and
south. At the same time, the
railroad, freight lines only,
bisected the town east to
west, but by the time I'd
arrived there the tracks had
all been elevated, up, over
the town. They just ran on
these oddball, concrete pillars,
mushroom-shaped and painted
blue and white  -  they just
stepped right through the
center of town, carrying
freight trains, mostly from
whatever going concerns
there were left in that
decaying, small city that
had long, long ago seen
far better days : the Hilliard
Company, Kennedy Valve,
American LaFrance, and others.
It was pretty unsightly, bearing
no connection to anything. The
town's business just went on
below and underneath it all  -
traffic, trade, walking. It threw
great shadows, and elongated
angles of sunlight shone through.
Like the old El, the elevated lines
in old New York City, these ran
on high, except that they showed
nothing, had no activity, were not
exciting or scenic  -  it was only
sometimes that a freight train
and a crew would be up there  -
making noise, shouting messages,
and the rest, with a slow moving
train rolling by. The components,
maybe, were all there, but there
was no activity, no one hustling or
boarding, no up-high platforms of
people, waiting, milling or coming
and going, and none of that 'trains
whizzing by apartment windows'
stuff we remember in old NYC.
Nothing was really adjacent to
these tracks along the middle
of town, because there was
really nothing there; they'd
just been implanted where the
ground-rails used to be, and
nothing had been built alongside
any of that anyway.
I guess wherever you go there are
always 'could have beens' and
'should have beens'. Elmira had
them galore  -   everyone had a
better idea of how the tracks
should have been handled, but
they all lived with it, mostly
because  -  to them  -  it all
represented their histories,
where fathers and grandfathers
had worked, all those
once-thriving companies and
their work-environments, now
down at the heels, that had
once carried everyone and
brought them along. Like in
the rest of America, that was
all gone. 1974 was pretty
much the nadir of anything
serious. After that point,
America had out-sourced
most everything it could,
or had really, corporately,
begun to seriously do so  -
global companies, cheap labor,
faraway foreigners making
junk for us. We took; anything
serious went by the boards,
everything began turning to
fluff and irony and fun and
goof. What, after all, was then
to be expected? Gold-inlaid
tracks? Hell, by August, '74,
even the President had fled.
Elmira had turned decrepit.
The old railroad buildings
and sidings, where once things
were humming, were now all
boarded up and painted over.
Some spots had become Chinese
restaurants, or pizza places.
Second-hand clothing stores,
thrift stores and junk shops. A
real backwater of the mind.
There was a huge, roaring flood,
in June '72, that had ripped the
town apart anyway, and it was
in essence moribund from that
point. They had tried  -  the banks
and the corporations (Marine
Midland Bank, back then, was a
big deal), but even they couldn't
really do the job. Bridges had to
be replaced  -  there were three
main bridges, over the Chemung
River, and two of them had been
washed away. The southside of
town was pretty isolated for a
while. A lot of the businesses
never returned. There were the
usual, loser, hang-outs  -  they're
always present. Low-ball chili-dog
places where you could sit for
two hours, if you wanted, over
4 dollars of hot dogs and soda or
coffee; the bus station, with its
chief bus-driver Vince Murphy,
who also doubled as the big-deal
main newscaster in town, on WENY
or whatever it was, TV. During the
flood aftermath, he achieved a
certain notoriety, from Elmira to
Scranton to Binghamton anyway,
for proclaiming on TV that,
during the flood and its
aftermath, he'd seem the figure
of Jesus in the clouds above town,
watching and guiding; good works
for everyone. After that, Vince
Murphy's news credibility factor
went down to about a below-zero
factor. Just no one  wanted to hear
from him again, anymore, ever.
In that same period of time, about
1974, I'd taken to moonlighting as a
handyman, installing screen doors and
storm doors and whatever else, in or
on people's houses. And in bathrooms,
where I hung one or two medicine
cabinets, that I recall. I'd go to Nichols,
or whatever it was back then, for the
doors and hardware and fixtures and
stuff, mark it up about 30 per cent,
and charge maybe 75 bucks for the
installation. It worked out OK, and
I never had any complaints. We
often got fed too, invited for dinner
or a meal. These were mostly lonely
women, late middle-aged, no husbands
for one reason or the other, oftentimes 
still with a brood of kids. I made a few
bucks this way, and a bunch of weird
friendships, where they weren't really
needed. This one lady, Berenice 
Martelli, I don't her entire story. Eight 
kids somehow, from like 25 or 8 or 9.
no husband to be found; running a
crowded, diverse, and poverty-struck
homelife, but one that went pretty 
well. She was one of the numerous
come-to-dinner invitees. Berenice 
was OK, but she was crazy  -  over 
the top born-again, 'Jesus is on your 
food-plate' kind of stuff. Super-sensitive
about everything, convinced of Revelation, 
marks of the beast everywhere, engrossed
with the takeover of humanity by the 
'new' credit-card, cashless, economy, 
with numbers and chips to be implanted 
soon and the Devil ruling it all. Like the
rest of these door and hardware jobs, she
paid up, that was never a problem, but 
like a Bowery-bum who has to first do all
the prayers and preaching before he can
get the free meal, I had to listen too all
this, over and over  -  C. S Lewis, 'Mere
Christianity', 'The Screwtape Letters',
prayers and clutches, the whole bunch.
Believe me, I fully expected to be told
'fornicate with me' for Jesus. Thankfully,
not. Berenice became a regular in the
little religious circuit around town. 
I'd not been warned  - though she then
began warning ME about my friend 
and neighbor Jane Roberts, whom she 
considered Devilish, Godless and Evil. 
I kept hoping Vince Murphy would call, 
to tell me Jesus was in the sky above 
my head, again.
There was another woman, same 
thing, Jeanne Truman, from West 
Virginia, no less. Her husband had 
died, she moved to Elmira somehow, 
had two big strong boys who seemed 
seldom at home. I did the door for her, 
and the bathroom medicine chest I 
mentioned. The opposite of Berenice, 
I never got as much as a cracker or 
cookie from her, though she paid the 
money part fine. She was tough as 
nails, foul, cursed all the time and
smoked a constant cigarette. She 
was a true pistol, about 5 feet and
an inch or two, maybe. She lived 
on the outskirts, by the Marathon
Oil tanks. One time, funny thing,
the guy I worked for had somehow
hired one of her kids to clean up
on Sundays, at the print shop I 
worked in. One Monday, I went
in, and he'd left a note, a big, 
scrawled, hand-written thing,
that read 'Clean up after yourselves,
I'm not your Niger.' Just like that.
Now, I knew there was a Niger River,
in Nigeria no less, but I was unclear if
he'd realized that he was actually
involved in a mis-spelling. It could
have become a touchy subject, 
but nothing came of it, ever.

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