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Sunday, October 27, 2013

That last Christmas with father

Dec. 12, 1980

It might be the gray sky laden heavy with the promise of snow that puts old Ben in the Christmas mood.
He has no use, he says, for the silly stuff he sees sprawled across some of the houses along River Drive.
His gaze studies the ducks on the nearby shore, whose swish their wet butts as they stagger from water to the muddy bank, as silly as circus clowns, he says, and they are silly – even if what they do is not.
They plop in and out of the water in pursuit of a fading livelihood we can’t see until they gobble one of the silver slivers.
Most of the trees are close to bar so the sky above seems cracked, shattered into a thousand crazy pieces like shards of ice.
Ben’s memory of Christmas is different from the one we celebrate, less full of “useless stuff” he sees while walking along the road, stuff sticking out the back of cars on their way home from the malls. His Christmas is full of little things. The river, he recalls, had many more trees along it, when as a boy, his father brought the family down to find a small pine tree they could bring home each year – not the oversized ones people kill in order to stick them up in their living room for a few weeks, but a seedling they could put in a corner so they could sit around it on Christmas Eve.
But Ben says he knew times were changing that one year when he went out and could not find one right away. Ben’s younger brother, Jim, was just old enough then to take the long walk around the river, but complained the whole time about the cold.
Ben’s dad, a wiry man, had grown ill over the previous year and Ben’s mother did not want him to make the trip. But the man insisted and went anyway.
Ben says he knew the older man would die soon. So did the man, and would not deviate from the ritual hew knew might well be his last.
Ben remember them leaving a train of footprints in the snow, and how smooth the frozen surface of the river looked, and how the sky looked then just as it looks today, and how hard he prayed for them to find a tree – and they did, the old man letting the boys cut it down and carry it home.
Ben remembers, too, the relieved look on his mother’s face when they three of them got home safe – and how she, Jim, Ben and little sister, Susan and the old man decorated the tree with a few strands of glittering tinsel and a few small white candles, and how for the last time, he shared Christmas with his father, who passed away the following spring.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Two Bridges Road

November 30, 1980

I don’t often job along this part of the river.
To get to Lincoln Park, the river twists so many times from where I usually run in Garfield, it almost seems like a different river, more gentile on the surface, but much more dangerous underneath.
This part of the river lives above all the principle falls, Little Falls, The Great Falls, and the Dundee Falls behind the Service Diner, and is hidden behind trees so dense people forget the river exists except to cross it on the various bridges or when the rains come and it rises above its banks to put them out of their homes.
This part of the river has great mood swings, swelling and then shrinking again, often for reasons few of us can comprehend in an endless string of contradictions.
Today, it is low and muddy, wearing an almost reddish-brown face that defies anybody to call it a body of water.
I barely see any of it as I jog along Two Bridges Road from the first bridge near Willowbrook Mall to the highway bridge in Pinebrook under which old black men fish, a scene so surreal with its droopy willows and summer batches of mosquitoes I might have jogged back through time to a post Civil War Savannah, Georgia.
Like in Rutherford, where I also sometimes job, this place has a park-like quality where trees line the road, but in a less rigid arrangement than Rutherford where concrete defines the boundaries of the river and civilization thrives high above the high water marks as to take a 100 year storm to cause serious flooding.
Here river and residents live side by side almost on an equal plain, struggling with each rain to define their right to exist.
The trees differ, too.  Rutherford is so prim and proper, spaces filled with trimmed hedges and lawns, while here, everything feels wild, like unkempt hair, spread out like an nature preserve the more conservative Rutherford would not tolerate.
Boulders left by the glaziers rise out of the water here like balding heads, weeds clustered around them and out of the cracks, and upon which seagulls roost.
These make this part of the river special to me since such boulders do not exist downstream along the Clifton or Garfield sections, and I often simply gawk at them like a tourist, and imagine the fun Dave and I would have had here during a river adventures as kids.
The air is cleaner here, too, lacking the all night spewing of factories or even the deceitful perfumed scent of the chemical factories which tries to hide the stench of the poisons they dump into the water when they think no one sees.
This place has plenty of traffic along the narrow two lane road that many use as a short cut around the often clogged Route 46 or Route 80. But walls of trees protect the river on the highway side while trees on this side seem to suck up the bad air with their canopy, and muffles the sounds so that this road is far quieter than River Drive in Garfield.
I jog in a dream here, and in some ways, it is distracting. In some ways, this isn’t the river I know and love, but some spruced up imposter who claims to be a distant relation and to me is not.

Friday, October 11, 2013

German potato salad

November 27, 1980

The water rides high between brown banks. Sea gulls cruise the gray sky, a sky pregnant with the promise of oncoming snow. The crisp wind rips at my face and snatches each plume of smoke Ben’s pipe produces as we sit along the riverside waiting for the snow to arrive.
A few ducks float on the oily water as brown as chunks of wood, and strangely silent – except for their cousins across the river who yap as they root through the reeds in search of food, flapping their wings when they find it to discourage others from taking it away.
Holidays make me nostalgic, and surprisingly, Ben, too.
He talks about how he used to visit his family in Pennsylvania this time of year, traveling by train through the Delaware Water Gap and up through the Pocono Mountains to some point near Scranton, and how much food waited for him when he arrive, mounts heaped as high as the mountains he had to pass through to get there, he says.
His family, like my grandmother’s, came from Germany, and more than a few of the dishes he recalls were German, although he says he missed German potato salad most.
“Quick Chek has German potato salad but it’s not the same,” he says.
He also says he misses the mountains as he stares out across the river at the distant cliffs that overhang Clifton, cracked rock laid bare by the coming of the cold and the waiting for snow to pain the brown rock white.
I ask Ben why he never went back, why he spends his days clinging to the side of this river when he misses other places so much.
“This is all I got,” he says, puffing hard on his pipe so that even the wind can’t steal all the smoke that gathers around his face. “All the rest faded away long ago.”
“Not the mountains,” I said.

“No,” he admits in a low voice. “Not the mountains.”

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Escaping disaster to find salvation

October 24, 1981

This is one of those mornings of one of those days when the world just doesn’t sit right with you and you need something, but don’t know what, a day, week, maybe a life time vacation.
But I can’t stand Florida and I can’t afford to retire back to California without breaking into somebody else’s safe – and the last time the mob nearly got me, so that kind of thing is out. But I miss palm trees, and I would love to make the trip just to glimpse them again
But I’ve settled in a little too heavily into my place in Passaic, too many possessions to carry on my back, and too many to leave behind.
So I’m stuck.
Of course, I could take time off and make the trip the way ordinary people do, go back to Hollywood to see what has changed there, and if I’ll still cringe over some of the more painful memories I have of wandering those streets, those days when I thought I could deal drugs or that other stuff under the heavy heat of a movie camera for movies that no legitimate theater would ever show.
I’m not ashamed – but maybe embarrassed.
Although all in all the place was an incubator for a new me, someone who had gone there a naïve kid with a bundle of cash and came out broke, but rich in experience.
These days, I come here to find myself – collecting new memories or perhaps recalling earlier memories when this river was my life and my salvation, when I ran here not from mobsters with guns, or even the more serious pursuit of police. I came here to duck the impact of some prank gone wrong, and from the lawmen who wanted to drag me back to my uncles where they knew I would get heavier punishment than any court could administer.
What I got here surprised even me, less hide out than revelation, some sense of world beyond me.
While this place has changed greatly from when I wandered here as a boy, these changes are less severe than the changes to other place, somehow managing to heal itself in ways more civilized places cannot, restoring much of what once was after a fire when nothing is the same up the hill, or more the more intention destruction disguised as redevelopment.
I like this place because time has less impact here, and that the footprints of forefathers might well still be found somewhere in the muddy banks, or merely imitated by my own sneakers as I come to close to the brink.
The gulls that spread their wings as they soar over head are not the same gulls as my grandfather might have known, but they cry with the same hunger and needs, and I feel it in my bones because I cry inside for the same things they do, for comfort and satisfaction.
Sometimes I sit here and pretend I am Wordsworth, or some other natural poet seeking to preserve all that I see each day when I come here as if it is as important as the stuffy stuff that gets recorded in history books, the changing of leaves, the color of water, the dribble of rain or fleck of snow, on me, on the leaves, or the fallen leaves, on the surface that sometimes glittered with light and sometimes is so dark I could feel it suck me into its depths.
I come to water like this for rebirth, to shed not possessions that I fear to carry elsewhere, but the internal possession I have collected and cannot simply dump in the trash, not memories, but a parcel of feelings that have weighed me down more firmly than years living in one place, filled with guilt of mistakes I’ve made or things I have not done or will never do, and that other stuff such as words I should have said, but missed my opportunity, words like love or adoration that have such a short life span that unless you cast them into the wind they evaporate and leave only ashes in your hand and this weight like a stone inside you that you can’t just cast away – except in places like this where the world welcomes you, and draws these things out, and leaves to wander off with much less heaviness so that you can return to your life as if you have just come back from a place full of palm trees and have washed your feet in distant exotic oceans you cannot reach for economic or other reasons.
It is all here, lapping at the shore with lazy brown waves that are stirred up by the rise of a flock of geese or some kid throwing stones into the middle from the top of the bridge – kids like I used to be, escaping disaster to find salvation here.