Marching Back to The Twilight Age

Across these shadow-filled decades you probably wouldn’t remember how we’d sit there on our beds and submit our lives and times to all the oh-so-mature, badass examination that only eighteen-year-olds possessing a 2-S or 4-F Selective Service deferment or a Draft Lottery number higher than 200 could muster. Through the tawny, fuzzy-framed lens of five beers each or the gray-white haze of ultra-clarity that you’d acquire from that illicit psychoactive agent you harbored in your sock drawer, artistic, philosophic and geopolitical certainty would hang in the air like soon-to-incinerate paper lanterns strung from one side of the room to the other. Occasionally, the rocket’s red glare of your proselytizing the work of Salinger would send me scooting for safety behind the cover of my Shakespeare, Twain and Chekhov. Do you remember falling to sleep to Zeppelin, Dylan and The Dead? How about the phony bomb threat someone tried to pin on the Black Panthers that emptied the dorms on our first night on campus? Can you recall how we wandered around the quads and stared at easily a hundred of the first girls we’d ever seen wearing clothing — actually or, most likely, in our dreams — more easily removed than high school uniform jumpers, wide-belted low-hipped bell bottoms or even a tight-ass mini? Do you recollect any of those deliciously salacious silhouettes of their Promised Land projected through each of the nightgowns by the fire trucks’ lights? I only just thought of them, sitting here with this faded old photo of her. I wonder whatever happened, since we never did. Those will never be the good old days, though, since so much bad since then blocked the light of the good. But the faintly outlined memories I saw today through something like those old chemically induced dorm goggles make me happy. I guess I could call them memories of the Twilight Ages, since at this age I’m living in now sure as hell feels like a Dark one.

I don’t wish you could have been there, but you probably had to be to fully understand this. It was a time of great social and political upheaval faced by kids who had lived through a just-averted nuclear war touched off a relatively few nautical miles from Key West, by burning racial divisions and flaming American cities, and by many an American boy about to turn 18 who sweated out if his next birthday recognition would include a card that read: “Greetings.” Guys my age tend to talk about their youth as “the Dark Ages.” But they really should be called the Twilight Ages. Today scares me in a whole different way.

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Keep the Change ~ 3rd Street, Albany, 1968

“Oh, it’s’a Friday already? Come in, come in,” Mrs Dargenti would say most weeks. The old Italian lady would invite me across her threshold and fish a buck and a half out of a gold-clasped change purse each week for her daily newspaper.

I can still smell the pungent bouquet of garlic, oregano, basil and olive oil, with a hint of what I’d someday learn was anise. From the living room walls, four generations of strangers, captured in First Communion piety or Wedding Day solemnity, intimately stared across the entry at me.

The living room furniture glistened under plastic coverings, preserved like Wednesday’s leftover lasagna, protected from time and tipped wine. I imagined everything inside was like it always had been, except now the sounds of Papa and the kids were replaced by the voices of Jerry Vale, Dominico Medugno and lonely sighs in italia.

Across the street in the three-story walk-up, six families lived (twelve, if you wanted to be accurate as a census), the hallways cloaked me in darkness while the air choked me in its closeness, redolent of boiled cabbage, piss, weed and something more felt than seen or smelled.

If anyone opened the doors to you, it’d usually be as far as the chain lock would allow. If that lock was off, you weren’t invited past the threshold.

“Whachoo want?” any resident younger than fifty would say if anyone even answered the door. I’d tell them I was collecting for the newspaper delivery. Inevitably, they’d say to come back later, tomorrow, next week, when no one would answer my knock.

But if Mrs. Symonds, the matriarch of the family answered, sometimes she’d open the door enough for me to see inside, where a dingy sheet covered the sagging sofa. A pair of mismatched sheets hung from curtain rods on the two front windows, providing a modicum of privacy from without.
Within, however, there was no such thing. Four rooms and a bathroom left little space to fit the grandmother, her son, her daughters and her daughters’ children.

If Mrs. Symonds paid, it would be apologetically for two of the four weeks she owed, and it would be with three crumpled singles she’d pull from her stained housecoat. I’d eat the balance of the other two weeks, cutting another three bucks into my earnings for the month.

I really didn’t want to go back into the building. The soundtrack from the other three flats, sometimes say James Brown and others maybe Marvin Gaye, never drowned out the backbeat of the looped percussive bang of my heart when I climbed to the second floor. Not after a guy I’d never seen before stepped out of the shadows by the stairs and cut a memory into my chest.

Later, when my connection to newspapers was to fill them with words instead of delivering them, I drove along my old paper route. There, the home that once preserved its past still stood. It now sported an out of character, unpainted front step of cast concrete, it’s aluminum railing canted to the left. Lengths of stained green vinyl siding sagged or flapped from its sides.

Across the street, a vacant lot stretched like a glass-strewn grave where the other house stood. If it was a fire or some stillborn plan for a new building that brought it down, I’ll never know.

The truth is, despite an effort to preserve some hazy, idealized past or merely survive the present, the future can be as cold as that thin blade, as hot as the desperation and anger crouched behind locked doors and beneath staircases and as inevitable as the fact you may be able to go home again, but home may not be there to greet you. Especially not with a buck and a half. Forget any ten-cent tip.

In retrospect, you can keep your change.

Don’t know why or from where I wrote this. Just started scribbling in pencil on a notebook page. Maybe Inspiration has run its course in my life. These days, it feels like that housecoat pocket of Mrs. Symonods.

Creating the First Creation

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This weekend I finally started getting rid of some of my late Mom’s stuff. I found a few things in what my mom kept of my past. My LOOOOOONG ago past. It appears I did not write my first poem in 2008 or so. My first swing at creating what might be verse was in 2nd or 3rd Grade.

And, true to your present-day poet guy, this piece plays with rhyme the way a cat does a mouse, batting it around before knocking it off altogether. Plus has an abrupt, though so-Joe Hesch ending

Apparently I had to write about Creation:

First light was made.
Second sky and sea.
Third dry land and plant life all.
Fourth sun and moon and stars of light.
Fifth fishes and birds oh so bright.
Sixth beasts of earth and creeping things.
Seventh ….

I guess both creators rested on #7

Roofies

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On the Colonie Central School roofs, if the heat didn’t get you, the hilariously volatile combination of a barely post-pubescent prefrontal cortex, gushing teenage testosterone and vacuous flexion of maturing muscles might.

I worked a flat-roof replacement gig there one summer. Under the August sun, the viscous-but-no-longer-vicious erstwhile dinosaur I toted in that 40-pound bucket, could cost you dime-sized drops of epidermis if you got sloppy in your work. But to pour the new, you had to remove the old, scraping off post-fossilized roofing of solid tar-encased gravel.

I’d lug its strata to the eaves, where I lobbed it into a rollaway thirty feet below. I always made it a point to remind myself, “let go before you throw,” lest my proximity to summer sun above and all that empty air between me and terra firm below turn me into an 18-year-old Icarus, tarred, feathered, fallen and run out of the Town of Colonie on a gurney, not a rail.

The remuneration for this summer job sucked, but you couldn’t beat the shirt-off-all-day tans we boys carried back to school in September, along with a deeper appreciation of our language’s Anglo-Saxon roots.

I looked like burnished leather, save for those pink polka-dot reminders of why there are professionals who do that work and I’m the soft-handed dude from the literary profession relating my tar black on gravel white impressions of melting away one of my summers as an apprentice roofie.

And today, upon my middle-aged parchment of summer tan, I have the faded periods punctuating this tale to prove it.

Some hot sunny yard work Saturday unearthed the old hydrocarbon-induced erasures on my skin, like someone rubbed lead pencil upon my all-too-mature prefrontal lobe. I decided to write it down and share it before age washes these memories away, like so many others, through the holes in my brain’s now-leaky roof.

Dad Had the Corner Office, the One with the View

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In Dad’s office the air conditioning
only worked when the winds blew cold
and the dust he’d raise, cutting slabs of it
thick as a Buick or thin as a slice of bologna,
would choke the laborers. Heating wasn’t much
of a problem, except in the coldest of winters.
Those 385 horses galloping in front of him
threw back a blast furnace’s face-searing worth
from March to November. He didn’t work
so much in the other months, but that was
the business, piece work that built a city
and connected it to others he helped build,
as well as tear down.

We didn’t have Take Your Child to Work Day
in the 1960s, but the old man brought me
along on lonely Saturdays and let me sit
with him at his workstation, where you
felt the earth shake and move at the touch
of your filthy hands and feet and you’d wonder
how something so big could ever tip over
(which it had, many times)
or blow up in your face
(like it did, a few).

In high school, the other guys’ old men
might tell ’em how a deal blew up or
a client’s case ended up sideways.
But when that happened, their dads didn’t
end up in the hospital or laid up for a month,
getting crankier and scarier to be back
in his office chair, the one atop the dirty
yellow D9 in which he moved mountains
(and not of paper). In his office he’d be whistling
some old Country song no one but he could hear over
the roar, as he saw how close he could cut
that hillside without tipping her over again.

This poem was inspired by Writers Digest’s Robert Lee Brewer’s prompt asking for an office poem. I worked in offices for 40 years, but not like Dad’s.

Regifted

On Christmas Day, Dad would always smilingly
watch us tear into the gifts Santa “left” us
(even as a kid, I figured—incorrectly—no one
“gave” you anything just because)
and then he would head to the kitchen
to begin making the Christmas feast.

But even after the ham assumed its place
in the oven beneath brown sugar, cloves,
pineapple and ginger ale, Dad didn’t
resurface much into the rest of the house’s
rampant, raucous, ripped-paper riot.

He kept to himself a lot, parked in the kitchen
as Dean Martin or Perry Como warbled
Christmas tunes and he sipped at little glasses
of Manischewitz wine or big ones of beer.
If I gave this any thought at the time, it was fleeting.

I sparked this moment of an old man’s out-of-focus
recall yesterday, as I wrestled with my own
emotional solitary confinement amid
the warm and spectacular sharing of familial joy
surrounding me at this blessed time.

It was both frighteningly revelatory
and a comfort to me. See, I considered myself broken,
a disappointment to my loved ones, who try so hard,
with great affection and understanding,
to buoy Dad-me amid my Christmas castaway ways.

But it turns out I’m just a man who loves
his family and loves Christmas, just not himself,
no matter how he’s wrapped. I’ve thought a lot
about this lately, now that rampant, raucous,
riotous life is fleeting, and I realize I
might just be a regifted version of my dad.

May 4, 1970 ~ Recollection

It doesn’t feel like that long ago, but it is the equivalent of more than the sum of two of the lives lost that day. Believers in peace faced Saturday soldiers over a shooting war a world away from Ohio. Four young people died on campus in Kent that day. So much innocence lost with them. So much anger and sadness and fear took its place. I can still hear it.

A week later, this high school senior and his parents visited the campus he would attend come September. As we arrived in the lecture hall, the head of the campus’ student government was doing what student government heads did those days. He shook his fist and warned that if it could happen in Ohio, it most certainly could happen in western New York.

This of course, put Mom on edge. She never said she worried about me getting shot. I think she was more concerned about me diving into the deep end of adulthood after 17 years in the wading pool. I of course, a worldly-dopey teenager suddenly gushing testosterone for the first time in my life, couldn’t wait to cannonball.

My first night on campus, all of us tucked away in our dorms, we were rousted by the fire alarms and hustled away from our buildings. As we guys meandered around campus on that warm September night, we scoped the girls in their nighties and all considered this extremely cool. No fire. Just cops and fire engines and campus security and girls in their nighties. No harm, no foul.

It was on our way back, after the all-clear, that I heard a cop talking to a fireman, saying that word had it the Black Panther Party in Rochester had called in a bomb threat on campus. That was my adulthood belly flop. It stung a little.

A week later, a day after my eighteenth birthday, I was required to wander (not yet march) into the local office of Selective Service and register for the Draft. A short while later, when the draft lottery numbers were pulled for this batch of eighteen-year-olds, I received number 46 out of 365. That was my belly flop from the high board. Peace with honor became a yearning just for peace.

I only bring this all up because of the date. This anniversary seems particularly poignant for me, maybe because I don’t know if I’ll even be around for Number 50. And because memory has become such a brittle, such a fragile, such a valuable thing to me. And maybe it’s because I’m sensing so many echoes of 1968-69-70 in widescreen high-def, surround-sound these days. Isn’t it terrible and wonderful what recollections of a boyhood crossroads can stir up?

I know now that if it could happen in my United States in 1970, like it happened in a nice midwestern college town like Kent, Ohio, it could just as easily happen for some reason important to different groups of people in 2015 somewhere near all of us.

Sorry, just an old man recalling and thinking out loud. Carry on.