Friday, March 30, 2007

206 W Mantua Avenue (as per Bob)

While I can't remember much of my academic life in second grade my house is rich in memory. I haven't spent enough time describing the house. Here is how it looked. The house sat on a corner lot, 1/4 acre. It had a basement, a first and second floor and an attic. There was a front yard, side yard and rear yard and garage and behind the garage a smaller yard. We called this smaller yard "the digging yard". You'll see why later. At the rear of the garage was a tall tree with a small tree fort in crumbling disarray.
The first floor had an entry hall, small powder room off the entry hall, a formal living room, a second living room, a dining room and a kitchen. The second floor had two large bedrooms, a bathroom with shower/bathtub, and a smaller bedroom and a smaller room that could function as a den or bedroom at the occupants discretion. The attic was finished but unpainted. The attic held a large exhaust fan that would cool the whole house in summer. A crude, early form of air conditioning. The basement was unfinished with three distinct areas. At the base of the steps (arrived at through the kitchen) was a laundry area with sink. Immediately following that to the left was the furnace, oil tank, and my father's workbench. The larger area, beneath the formal living room and entry hall was an unfinished space that served as our play area. It was lined on the sides with huge waste lines. These were cast iron pipes, roughly six inches, that wrapped the whole basement at a height of three feet. We'd play on these like a jungle gym.
We'd also venture into the front crawl space, which was beneath the wrap around front porch. The crawl was fecund with a pungent aroma that I now know to be chlordane. The home must have been treated for termites either just before or shortly after my parents purchased it to eliminate a termite infestation. Chlordane has a strong odor that I came to know years later when I became a pest control operator. We crawled happily through the sandy soil of the crawl. In the furnace area, just behind the furnace there was a break in the foundation that led to a second crawl space. This was beneath the kitchen. The kitchen was a recent (20's or so) add on and this too was fecund with insecticides. We'd make this a clubhouse in fifth, sixth, and seventh grades. Hung on the sides of this area we found leg hold traps for muskrat.
We loved this basement. We played here on rainy days. We were banished here covered in swamp mud later in life. We'd strip our clothes and run up to bath and change. We had huge wars and games of hide and seek and once we got a ping pong table beat the crap out of each other with tiny white balls.
The attic was scary as shit. It was finished with unpainted white plaster. There was graffiti on the walls scrawled in black charcoal. One piece read "Peggy Sacca says her mom smokes cigarettes". The Saccas were the previous owners. Peggy was the leggy girl that walked me to first grade. She was and, as my friend Suzy said, is, stunning in a classic Italian manner.
The house was ringed in Black Maples. Easy to climb with limbs just four or five feet from the base they were hideouts in games, bases for wars with little men, and filled with carpenter and pavement ants. Moss sprawled out from their base which we'd cut out and toss at each other or marvel that it would retain it's shape.
The space by the kitchen on the side had a small, ivy covered, garden. In one corner were several lilac bushes. My parents had a cement St Francis statue placed there and irises grew there as well. Around the yard were various ornamental bushes, including lilacs. On either side of the home were two evergreens that grew eventually to a great height. The wrap around porch was encircled with bushes that left you able to see out in the summer but no one could see in. Our life was lived completely on that porch in late summer.
The garage eventually crumbled into dust, destroyed by carpenter bees and dense wisteria. At the rear of the garage was our tree. We climbed it relentlessly. I climbed higher than anyone but Charlie Flitcraft's sister Susan, nearly to the top. The limbs swaying under my tiny frame. Probably close to fifty feet.
We'd use the tree to gain access to the garage roof and then leap to our near deaths in the digging yard (eight feet or so). My father hung his rowing oar from his sculling days at the University of Pennsylvania in the garage and besides a variety of cars over the years it held our bicycles, Flexible Flyers (including my father's from his childhood), and shovels and rakes.
The rear yard for many years had a hole with a garbage can in it to hold organic garbage which the town emptied once a week. The milk man delivered milk to the back porch until I was in fifth or sixth grade. We received several bottles of milk, half and half, and one of chocolate each morning.
It sounds like some magical place. In the morning in the spring the air was rich with the scent of a thousand blossoms, most notably a flowering ornamental peach by the garage. When I was older and returned to Wenonah to get better Johanna came to stay with me shortly before Easter. One day in late April she walked out onto my porch, a swirl of blossoms filled the air and she screamed for me to come out. Popi she said, I've never smelled air like this before! I had. Every year for many years. Each spring in late March the ground would erupt in crocus blossoms. I imagine that right now Wenonah is bright with forsythia and daffodils. As it has been for years.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Thank you's etc

I'd like to send out thanks to several folks who contributed to the names on the first grade picture. First, Suzy Parker, a great writer from the Bay Area (read her book "Tumbling After"), second, Bob Thomas, a man with a great memory who lives in the middle of nowhere New York, and finally Ralph Leeds and his sainted mother who actually put together the final pieces of the puzzle.
You guys id'd everyone, especially the women (girls) and Harry Howie who to be honest I can't recollect for the life of me. Terry Fleming reports he doesn't know who the fuck Harry Howie is either. Harry if you're alive and read this tell us what's the what.
I'd also like to mention that one of the beauties of this blog is that you can get alternate views of my life, town, and memories. Bob has contributed some lovely comments about Wenonah, in particular the 4th of July Parade, and I encourage anyone from Wenonah who reads this to weigh in with their own reality. My writing is highly subjective, radically skewed to my assignment, and since it is based on my disease addled memory, faulty at best.
Please post your memories here and let's build an elephants graveyard of Wenonah memorabilia, flotsam, and jetsam. Some of it will be true, some lies, some bragging. Who cares! Let's build a Wenonah of the soul! That lives and breathes in a way that the real Wenonah we lived in can never live and breath again. It being long past...dead...historical.
My apologies again for rushing through first and second grades. Carolyn in my office is peeved but to be honest based on my assignment to myself I'm screwed. I don't remember shit about 2nd grade. I might as well have been in Antarctica.
I'll try to fill you in on what I do remember, my friends, my tribulations but the whole gig kicks into high gear with the lovely Irene Ferrera in 3rd grade. And oh what happens with Mr. McIntyre! Ask Ruthie Hammel about her stay in the closet. In Wenonah school they still remember that legendary day.
So please, buckle up, raise a glass, and let's have some fun.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A New Poem

Just for your consideration here's a new poem:
Happy first day of real spring:

Praises for the Insect and Mammalian Dead

I had a nice day today.
No one cursed me.
No one asked me odd questions.
I went to work a bit late.
I checked my mail and answered some of my correspondents
and then settled back to see what else might happen.

It was cold today.
Not as cold as yesterday but
I have the feeling it will be colder tomorrow.
My friend Jane’s boyfriend died suddenly from liver disease.
This should not have been a shock but it was.
To her.
To his children
Everyone is angry at everyone else at a man who lived life
on his terms and died on his terms and not the way you’re expected
to die.

It will be cold thank God for several more months.
Men will stumble up to me on 9th avenue and ask for money.
They will say it is for food.
Perhaps it is.
People will call me to solve difficult problems involving
mice and rats and other pests.
They will be arrogant and they will be willing but they will be

They will be asking me for answers that aren’t simple.
I will fail in my explanations.
I will offer biological and social explanations but in their fear,
in their worry, they will dismiss them.
To the people that I talk to everything I say is stupid.

Like everything we say to a lover we think is leaving.
Don’t go.
Don’t I do this or don’t I do that.
Didn’t I buy you this or didn’t I comfort you then.

It’s all stupid.
My consolation and explanations are all hollow.
But hollow.
You have mice. You have them because you’re a human in a densely
populated region of the world populated by a rich mess of other humans.
Not everyone gives a shit about mice like you do.
Not everyone lies awake worrying about the bedbugs biting.
Some of them come from places where the bedbugs are like flies.
Some of them come from places where if you raise up your head
someone else will lop it off.

Cherish your mice, your rats, your roaches, your bedbugs!
Love them as you love your sons and daughters.
They are your children!
They live with you as much as you with them.
They huddle in little clutches terrified of destruction and they don’t even
know about terrorists or nuclear devastation or satellites.
The little bugs and mice are the meek.
They wait patient under your stove for your castoff crumbs.
For your drops of water.
For the condensate on your pipes.
They are your poorest children.
They have no other home but yours.
You wretched misers of capital.
You own your apartments!
You own your lawns!
You own your skin and your hair and your sons and daughters!
But all of you muddle under the same dull January sky.
Each of you struggles for a bit of food, a spot of conversation,
the day your boss says, oh, what a nice idea.

This is the time to consider what will come.
Spring and rebirth and a thousand mice and cockroaches.
Ants and termites and love.
You’ll strut down the avenue and duck into little cafes and they’ll
feed off your leavings happy as pets.
They are your children.

They will grow strong and happy and democratic.
They will feed at the common table.
They will join with the bacteria and the viruses and the multitude of plagues
to usher us into the world of paradise.
Say all power and all praises to our Children!
Grant them health and joy!

2nd Grade 1959

Sorry it's been so long. Normally I wouldn't comment but I've been busy with personal issues. Let's move right into my second year of grade school. It was the last uneventful year. I had friends. I played. I walked to school. I was still largely a child. The failures and successes of growing up were yet to come. I went to church each Sunday. My friends and I were excused from school for a few hours to attend Mass on Holy Days. All Saints for instance. This was the first year I went trick or treating. My brother and I dressed in costumes and in the company of our parents went door to door seeking candy.
In Wenonah a great deal was made of who was behind the mask. Everyone knew everyone else so everyone offered opinions as to your identity. We collected a bag of candy and devoured it in our room.
Our room. My room and Mick's room.
Two small beds. Red, wooden beds. Small.
Three windows, no, maybe two.
One on the side yard, one on the rear.
Mick and I fought fiercely. Mick was now in First Grade and our lifelong rivalry was now entering it's richest phase. My brother Mick could enrage me with the most foolish acts. He'd sit at the table in the morning and look at me and say yah, yah, yah over and over till I could kill him. My mother said, "Ignore him, he's looking for attention" and attention he got. We'd spill into roiling fights across the linoleum floor. We'd fight over anything. I detested him.
Now he's a beloved brother who saved my life. Then he was a monster from hell. A fat, squat monster, that belched evil curses that demanded recourse.
Plus, everyone liked him. My friends. His friends. My parents. Other parents. He was likeable, amiable, and cute. Evil, little spawn of hell, I hated him.
My brother Ted at this time was just becoming more than a pawn in our games. He was truly mobile and alive. Five years younger than me he was found one afternoon perched on the kitchen table with a stick of butter wedged in his mouth. A boy of prodigious appetite and imagination he dreamed of tools and trucks. As he grew older he loved Tonka trucks but even at this age or perhaps just beyond his favorite toy as a hand propelled, professional grade, Sears push lawn mower. Not motorized. The older variety. A deeply deranged young boy with his own mark on the world.
Together the three of us over the next two years would bumble through the world.
I'll post a photo of Miss Quigley's second grade class tomorrow as well as the photo of Mrs Kaufman's class with names and identities for all the world to see.
You might ask where are the public events in Wenonah? For a second grader during the school year there were none. There were lighted displays in the park for the Christmas Holidays but beyond that we had no role in the life of the town. Happily. We were content to play our games, roam our blocks, fight our foolish battles and dream of the day we could enter Cub Scouts or play Minor League baseball.
It was in 2nd Grade thought that Mario Contarino joined us. His family emigrated from Italy and Mario spoke barely a word in English. But by the end of the year he was as fluent as any of us. What a tiny world. What a small place.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


When we were growing up disease was still a real presence. On the way home from my grandparents outside Philadelphia, as we passed through Camden, my mother would make us hold handkerchiefs over our faces to protect against Polio. Smallpox was a real disease. Later in life one of my high school teachers bore the marks all over his face.
The janitor of our school was found to have tuberculosis. This prompted a mad scare. We were herded en masse to the nurses office and tested. He was sent to a Sanitarium.
It's odd. I can remember the disease, the fear, the sanitarium but the poor man's name is lost to me. Just as the names of the children in first grade were lost to me. Or the name of our crossing guard. You'd think names would be the thing we cling to, like a lifeline but instead I cling to something else. Second grade was pleasant enough but unchallenging. We moved past Dick and Jane, I guess we had arithmetic but I can't recall any of it. I was by now socialized and spent a good deal of time playing with my friends. This was probably the last year of my life that was centered in my home.
The center of my family year, after the trip to Ocean City, was Christmas. Christmas was our special time. My father bought the tree two weeks before, roughly around the time of his and my birthdays and put it by the side of the house in a bucket of water. The same day he'd put the lights up around the porch.
Of course Christmas began for us in October. That was when the Sears and Roebuck catalog came to the house. My brother Mick and I would spend hours looking at the toys, the sets of army men, the plastic guns, the bikes, all the promises of Santa Claus' visit. And of course we were watching tv now so we'd badger our parents about toys we saw on the tv. This process became more intense as we grew older and now in 2nd grade it was somehow still innocent and filled with joy.
On Christmas Eve my father would bring the tree into the house in the morning and put it up. Wires were strung to keep it from falling and then we'd settle in to wait.
After dinner the ornaments came down from the attic. Old european glass balls, thick glass lights, tinsel. My father was a stickler for proper Christmas tree protocol and taught us well how to put the balls and decorations on the tree. Lights first a few hours before the rest, then smaller balls at the top, medium in the middle, and largest at the bottom. Variation was key. You couldn't have too many red balls or green balls in one place.
After the tree was decorated my mother would sit down on the couch with me and my brothers, and later my sister, and read. First an abridged version of the story of the birth of Christ and then "Twas the Night Before Christmas". She did this every year until the year before she died. It's my sister's fondest memory of her and I must admit it was a wonderful moment in our lives. In my Senior year in HS my friends, Suzy and Gary, came over to hear as well. It was worth it.
Then it was time to bed although first my father would tune the radio for the reports of the movements of an unknown flying object originating over the North Pole.
I don't think I ever slept more than an hour on Christmas Eve. My brother Mick and I shared a bedroom till I was in 7th grade and we'd lay awake and talk and speculate as to what would be under the tree and when Santa would come.
Then at around 7 in the morning when we could take no more my father would allow us to leave our rooms and sit at the top of the stairs while he went downstairs to make sure everything was ok. It always was and we'd race down to find our toys, Santa's cookies and milk devoured, and a tree rich with light.
This was the last Christmas I believed in Santa Claus though I knew in my heart it was a fantasy. I'd find the truth the following year along with multiplication and To Kill a Mockingbird. No Santa. Just my mother and father frantically assembling toys into the night.
Just as they'd assembled us and the tree. Without much of a guide or instruction. Just memories of how their parents had done it and conversations with friends and co-workers. No wonder the tree needed wire to keep it up.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Ruth Felch and the forgotten

I'm back from New Hampshire and Maine. I should have prepared a proper posting for today but alas the real world has intruded. I did spend several days with my friend Baron Wormser and his wife Janet Wormser. Two wonderful artists but more important two real people. We talked of many things from the troubles of being a parent to the vagaries of poetry to the photos of William Eggleston.
It was a nice idyll and for several days I saw no television, drank wonderful beer, and lived the life of the itinerant poet. Oh joy.
My friend Bob Thomas has discovered my Wenonah postings and weighed in with numerous bits of help. Most important he and his sister have given names to some of my first grade class mates. For the moment I won't put the name with the face but only give you their names. Nancy Allen (Bunny to all of us), Margie Loving, Ruth Ann (Ruthie) Felch, Jack Wesh, and Jane (Jabby) Bowker. Beautiful children, great women and men, lost people.
Let us take a moment, bow our heads and remember all those we've lost to the swamp of time. All people with lives of complexity and struggle and joy. Who had friends we've forgotten, married men and women we never knew and grew rich or died according to their inclination. My classmates. My lost friends. My beloved confederates.
May I take a moment now to suggest you take the time to read the poetry of Michael Casey, Dave Moreau, and my friend Baron Wormser. Please also raise a glass to all who didn't make it out of childhood. One of those in the photo was Johnny Budd. In the early 1970's for reasons all his own Johnny took his life. However each of us might feel about suicide and loss we can at least bow our heads in prayer for Johnny at least in sympathy with him and others who find this world more then they can bear. This place is rich with many blessings but equally so with many difficulties and for the young especially it can be a heavy burden. I spent two days in Littleton NH talking with young men and women who lost a friend to a tragic car accident. The loss felt more than they could carry. We older men and women know this isn't so. We know you can and will pick up and go on but we also know that leaving a fallen friend by the way hurts like the pain of losing a limb.
Please then, say a prayer for the young men and women who leave us every day. In war, in accident, by disease, by whatever terrible means and more importantly pray for the boys and girls left behind.
Yo, this is a tough world we live in. But we can make it a haven for those in pain and give them grace and respite.
Then we can ask them to join us in a game of dodgeball. But that's another story.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

A Life in Hell

Well, this is the last blog post for one week. No Wenonah posts until I return from New England and the second leg of the Fun Being Me tour. It's been a hellacious week for me and I'm glad it's over. Just a reminder to anyone from New England reading this: I'll be in Portland on the 15th and Hallowell on the 16th and on the road back to Jersey on the 17th.
It's all good in poetry land.
See you all in eight days or so!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Socialist Revisionism and Wenonah Public Schools

The Wenonah Public School had a small library. But it was very interesting. It was only when I was older that I realize how interesting it was. The books in the library were filled with biographies of famous Americans. Steinmetz, Darrow, Lincoln. They were all about the struggle of the working man against the interests of big business. Steinmetz vs Edison, Darrow working to save the lives of union men.
This was odd because no one in Wenonah could give a fuck about this shit. These were books the school purchased in the thirties and forties, probably as part of some weird government program that gave them the books on the cheap. We’re talking Socialism. We’re talking neo-Communist lit. I remember one book about the heroic struggles of a young Soviet worker and his tractor.
All in middle class Wenonah. Darrow fighting for Leopold and Loeb, fighting against the ignorant in the Scopes Trial, fighting for big Bill Haywood and the IWW. The IWW! In Wenonah. A town of insurance agents and commercial interests and moms and dads. What could be stranger. I read these books like a hungry man. Charles Steinmetz was a God! Clarence Darrow a God! I wanted to be an attorney representing the rights of the little man. I saw in his battles my own. I was downtrodden. I was the rough tough cream puff. I was a thin little fool. I was inconsequential. These books gave me hope and it still amazes me they were in my library.
Thank God for the WPA because as far as I can figure that’s why these books existed. A bunch of reds in the WPA wrote school books that were distributed on the cheap and our school bought them cuz they were cheap and being parochial nitwits no one ever read them.
Today a town like Wenonah might be battling about evolution and creationism. Then, Clarence Darrow was a god who brought enlightment to ignorant communities in Tennesee.
In the years to come we would debate endlessly how black people and white people could co exist. We would sit on our porches and talk about what our parents would do if a nigger family moved onto our block but in the basement of the Wenonah School I read about heroes of social injustice.
It’s like someone accidentally planted the seeds of social change.
It sort of worked.
For me it did work.
Clarence Darrow was my God and rational examination of the world became my goal. In second grade. In third grade things got even more out of hand.
Meantime, there was dodge ball.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Architecture of Wenonah Public School and Its Effect on the Young

Second Grade had a lot more challenges than First Grade. But before I talk about what we actually learned let’s talk a bit about how the school was laid out. Wenonah Public School looked a little like a barbell. At either end were the older parts of the school. I wish I knew which was oldest but honestly I don’t. I do know that the end closest to the Water Tower on the north end of the barbell held the Nurses office, the Janitors office, and the Library. When I first began school this was where the 7th and 8th graders had their classes. I was in the last group of children to go through a school that went from K to 8.
Because of population pressures a regional High School was built when I was in 6th grade. It would take the students from 5 sending districts and relieve overcrowding in Woodbury HS. We’ll get there eventually but for right now I’m jammed in a school with kids that are near toddlers and others that are teenagers. All of us dress the same.
The other end of the barbell held the 4th, 5th and 6th graders. In the middle were us schmoos. The kindergartners, the 1st graders, the 2nd graders, the 3rd graders. Because of the same population pressures we were often jammed into combined classes.
The baby boom was too much for Wenonah and too much for large swatches of America. Loads of us were jammed together with older or younger students just as in later generations they’d be jammed into trailers. It’s all the same.
You might be asking why they just didn’t build a bigger school. That’s a larger political question. New Jersey has this fucked up tax structure that basically funds a town’s school system with the taxes of home owners. What that means on a practical basis is that in a town like Wenonah with a number of older residents whose children were grown, coupled with a number of families with young children was that you create class warfare. Every year some knucklehead young parent would lobby hard for an addition or whatever and every year the old people would come out in droves to the polls to defeat it.
This continues even today. When I was living in Wenonah in 2003 there was a school improvement initiative on the ballot. My landlady Rachel asked me how I was going to vote and being a progressive, thoughtful man I said I was going to vote yes. She said I can’t afford to have my taxes go up and if they do so will your rent. Thank God in America your vote is your secret.
At any rate there I am in 2nd grade with a group of 15 3rd graders. This is the dawning of hierarchy. I start to understand I know nothing. The 3rd graders make it clear I know nothing. They can read and write and spell and multiply. I can print and read Dick and Jane and maybe add. I think I could count to 100. I was fucked.
Plus I’m tiny, skinny, and smart. A bad combo. Egghead. Even in 2nd grade I’m a marked man. I might as well have been wearing a target. The only nice thing was I discovered the school library. Next post: Revisionist, socialist literature in a tiny white Republican community and it’s effect on 2nd and 3rd graders or how I learned to love Clarence Darrow.

Monday, March 05, 2007

One foot in One foot out

Here's the thing about Wenonah in 1959. I have one foot in the future and one foot in the past. Look at Mrs. Kaufman's clothes. It could be 1899. Take a closer look at our scuffed shoes in the picture. We could be in a Walker Evans picture. Shoes scuffed and timeless. They could be the shoes of a newsboy in 1912.
They're not.
We don't know anything about our history. We're little kids in a world about to erupt in change. We play games children have played for fifty years or more. We walk streets children have walked since 1888. We're obedient. We don't know about anything beyond our town.
My father's family did what they had been doing for nearly fifty years, if not longer. Men went to work. Women stayed home. Further south of Wenonah there were farms that were farmed the same way for hundreds of years. The connection to the past was long and hard. Our values, our perspectives, our beliefs were all formed fifty or more years ago. Yes, our father's fought in World War II as their father's had fought in World War I. Yes, we hated negroes. Yes, we went to church on Sundays. Yes, we learned reading and writing and prepared for a life just like our fathers.
That was all to end.
If you could see my brother Ted's photos or my sister Mary's they'd be different. My parents changed, everything changed. There were riots. There was a war. There was rock and roll. There were drugs and sex and loud arguments. But for now we are suspended in a strange time warp.
A time warp that had to end.
Over the next 11 years the world would change in ways we didn't yet understand. For better or worse.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

My New Suit/First Holy Communion

Summer 1959

First Grade came winding down. I received my first Holy Communion. My parent’s bought me my first suit of clothes, from Robert Hall, and I trudged with a couple dozen boys and girls to the altar to taste the Body and Blood of Christ. Then it was summer. And just like school changed the world into weekdays and weekends, so school gave us summer vacation. Three long months that had a rhythm and structure all their own.
My family took a two week vacation at the end of June each year. We would rent an apartment in Ocean City, NJ and spend two weeks at the shore. The day consisted of waking up, going for a long walk on the beach, to the point perhaps, and then going home to get our towels and toys and going back to the beach. We spent the day on the beach except for lunch. Lunch was a rushed sandwich, tuna or cold cuts or PB & J, and then back to the beach.
We’d body surf and try to float. We’d make great sandcastles. Most of the time we stayed near 59th Street in Ocean City. Until 1962 it had a long fishing pier that stretched well out into the ocean. It also had a row of great Granite blocks dumped along the shore to hold the beach in place. We’d play inside the spaces between the blocks. We found sand sharks in gullies and learned how to find shells in the morning.
Sometimes my father would play box ball with us or handball. It was my father who taught us how to body surf. How to catch a wave just right. In the evening we’d eat seafood from Campbell’s and then if we were lucky go to the boardwalk and ride the rides.
My father had been going to Ocean City his whole life. Ocean City had long ties to the Philly Irish community. The Kelly’s of Philadelphia had a big house that my father never failed to point out to us. Our Uncle John had a home on 42nd Street right on the beach and we’d walk up and visit Uncle John and Aunt Ellie and my fathers cousins, including Aunt Alice who I thought was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.
On the boardwalk our father taught us how to grab the brass ring on the merry go round and took us up high on the ferris wheel. We’d watch the great summer moon sink into the sea and then get up and do it all again.
By the time we returned to Wenonah it too was different. Wenonah in summer was hot and humid beyond belief. Nothing moved except the children. That first year we joined the Wenonah Lake and went there to take rudimentary swimming lessons. We played in the kiddie part of the lake and cooked hot dogs and ate snow cones.
We began to expand our world that summer. Mick had gone to Kindergarten that year and now had friends of his own. Some of my classmates were members of the Lake as well as his so we all joined together in games. Hierarchies had not yet been established and we knew nothing of cool. We were just having fun.
In the evenings we could play outside till 8pm when it was time for bed. There was really nothing of consequence on television so we began our long games of Kick the Can. Our friends played it for hours after we’d gone to bed and we could hear the can rattling along the sidewalk from our beds.
Thunderstorms would come rolling through and I’d lie at the end of my bed with my cat Surprise and watch the terrible skies light up. Great trees would fall and crush a house or lie across the road.
Each summer the town would put new macadam down on several of the streets. The smell of hot tar would fill the afternoon and the stones were new and fresh. We had yet to really explore the woods but that was soon to come.
Finally the summer wound down in a long, long slide that took us inexorably back to school. A few days before the first day of school we could walk up to the school and they would have our class listings posted.
Second grade for me would put me in a class with Third graders. Miss Quigley was our teacher. She was blond and pretty and looked a bit like Donna Reed. I was as glad for summer to end as I’d been for it to begin. I was bored with play and wanted something new. Something new I would get. Each September.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Writing this thing

This post has nothing to do with the Wenonah posts. Please ignore it and pay attention to the others. But keep in mind that as I write about my past things come up that I haven't thought of in years. I asked my Aunt Gert, my mother's sister, the one who dated Ramesh, when her father died. She told me 1956. She took me to the zoo that day. I loved my Poppy Glading. He was as distant and removed as my father's father. He died of emphysema, the same disease that killed my father's father.
I dreamed last night that my mother sent me emails congratulating me on my birthday. In the dream I was elated but sad because she sent them to my gmail account which I rarely check.
What the fuck does that mean? What does it mean to spend time looking at your past? In the present I'm under enormous stress. The NYC Health Dept is under pressure cuz they fucked up and now they're fucking all my clients and they're fucking me. I am the man who has to solve their problems. Calm their nerves. Make certain they are in compliance. In the meantime my mother is sending me emails.
This is a hard row to hoe.
It was a warm day today after a nasty rain. I took the day off because I was exhausted and afraid.
My dogs didn't care. They just wanted me near them.
Outside over all of us is the world; and outside over all of that is God. We act and we bend and we fail and care but it is with his grace that we are at our best. I thank God that I am alive. Once I was nearly dead. Now I just get emails from the dead.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The One Black Girl in Mrs. Kaufman's Class

My friend Carolyn in my office has asked me to talk more about Michelle Smith and her family. I've resisted because I thought we should wait for the full thrust of time and society to give her and her family weight. Maybe I'm wrong. Michelle's mother was Irene Smith. She was and I believe still is an strong and powerful advocate for the black community and African American's in South Jersey. Their lives in 1958 were severely circumscribed by the society of the day. I mentioned we drove home from my grandmothers through the pig farms. The pig farms were largely worked by the black people of Jericho. They lived next to them. When I was in high school we rode our buses through Jericho and we could see the outhouses in the backyards. This was a world ten steps away from ours. This was a caste system just like the one that separated Ramesh and his Indian bride. This was and is a great divide.
Irene Smith believed strongly in establishing a strong black presence in South Jersey. She bought a property in Wenonah. It must have been a great struggle. As it was it was just one the outside of everything nestled close against Jericho. She was outspoken. She was proud. She was what black people needed in a time when black people were nothing in South Jersey. When I was growing up South Jersey most closely resembled the deep south. There were long arguments among my friends about what their families would do if blacks moved into our neighborhood. My friend, Chris DeHart's mother, was a southern woman and he had deep antipathies to black people. Most of my friends believed black people didn't belong in Wenonah. When I moved back to get well in 2001 there was a house on Mantua Avenue flying the Confederate flag. It was not because of Southern sympathies. It was because the man who owned the home hated niggers.
In my family that word was forbidden. My mother's father, my grandfather, had deep seated hatreds against foreigners, Jews, Catholics, but most of all, niggers. He railed against them at the table each evening. Philadelphia was a deeply divided city and remains so. For all the good Quakers there were a thousand racists. Frank Rizzo was Philly's hero and Frank fought the Negro menace.
My mother hated racism and her father's bigotry. Nonetheless it was part of her. Wenonah was a white as white can be. Michelle and her brother Michael were of our town but until the late sixties never really part of it. I hate telling a story early but part of what this story is about is how my world changed. I had to leave a party when I was seventeen with two of my friends and my brother with our backs against the wall and fists up because we were "nigger lovers". Nigger lovers. What a sad phrase. I know all the words for black people. Spearchucker, porch monkey, spook. I knew boys that tried to run down black hitchhikers on Glassboro Road for kicks.
When I went to work at Cornell Steel in college my co-worker Jim Sterner said he went to Senior Year in HS with a shotgun in his bag to kill any nigger that got out of line.
Got out of line.
My mother had a series of housekeepers from Catholic Charities. They were all black women who worked for a few months or so helping an overworked woman cope with three overactive idiots. They were paid nearly nothing. That was the only reason my mother could afford them.
I know nothing of the internal life of Michelle Smith. I don't know who she loved, who she gave birth to or where she went to college. She and her brother were the only black people I came in contact with till I went to college in 1970. This is an America that we don't need to go back to. You can guess at her alienation from my own. It's just a guess. You can wonder why this country discounted so many people just because of the color their skin. But we all danced to nigger music.
So all I can offer for right now is this: Motown was the music we all loved. Philly was the heart of Soul. White kids loved nigger music. Something there is in this country that won't let us become a balkan state. I envied the black people I saw because they were comfortable with their bodies. Maybe they weren't. I envied their music. I loved it. With all my heart I wish I'd never heard the word nigger.
In my office people use that word cavalierly. People who don't know the hurt it carries. They don't know that if I use it I don't mean nigga; I mean nigger. It's not an expression of familiarity, it's an expression of derision and hatred and disgust. No, it's an expression of negation. Cuz niggers don't count. They're not even there. Like a lot of people. Like Ramesh. And really like me.