Hashtag throwback Thursday. It has been 64 days since the presidential election of 2016. The transition from an inclusive, thoughtful and decent president to his opposite is difficult to watch, but I continue to hold onto hope. This is vital now. It is important to reach out to those who feel lost and are vulnerable, to say, in any way you can, I am here and I see you. It is hard sometimes to see you and so I want to say that, I want to say that for me it is hard sometimes to see you but I continue to try. I am with you and I am here for you. I want to throw it back to my youth on the east side of Buffalo, New York. I want to throw it back to the how little I saw while looking in my youth. The rust of the cars. The bald tires. The frayed flags. Here is my dog again in a photograph I had forgotten. Here is Sasha. And then here is Puddin looking for my mother to come home from work. Here they are waiting in love. I am conflating the dogs of my youth without trying. My wife quotes to me, “old men miss many dogs” and it nestles in my heart with its truthfulness. This is what old men do, and this is what old women do. They miss many dogs. The dogs themselves, each in their own way, stopping time like a photograph- sectioning off moments of our lives. How did I fail to see the struggle in my own home against the economic weight of life, of the car salesman’s adding and subtracting on scratch paper against the bills that would come and continue to come. Electric. Mortgage. Car. Clothes. And those unexpected bills, the hockey stick slash to the skin that colored the snow red and my subsequent need for stitches. I search through the photographs and look beyond the frames for a clue, but find none and realize the luck of a good childhood. That the without was never seen just the with, here is my home with my dog on the green of my grass. Here is my mother and here is my father. My brothers are building fires on the train tracks. My sister is underage drinking in a bar. Here is my dog bending in play then standing straight, tail wagging at her good fortune. Here is the car my brother is sanding the rust off of to prime so that he can make it new. I see it again in my old age, the way I saw it in my youth. The everything that there was and the everything there could be, never seeing the what there wasn't or couldn't be. My dog is waiting for me to come home from school, to put down the books that my father covered with brown grocery bags, and play, while my mother simmers in the red sauce on the stove, while my brother sands the rust, while my sister plays a record, while my brothers sneak cigarettes, while my father, at work waits to sell a car so everything that is imperfectly perfect can continue.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. It has been fifty-seven days since the presidential election of 2016, and there are pinpricks of light in the darkness. I see it in the way people are trying to notice one another. I see it in the daily actions on social media and hear it in the quiet talks at bars and coffee shops. It is in the slowing down to enjoy the ordinary moments with the people we love. It is the beginning of the new year. With it comes the hope of the future, the idea that we can be better, more loving, more accepting, calmer, more patient. Here is a photograph of my father. There is the onyx pinky ring that I put on as a child. He is wearing the Christmas sweater I bought him and wool pants against the Buffalo winter. He is holding the cup that has been in our family’s cupboard since I was a boy. My mother made me tea in it when I was sick. We colored eggs at Easter in it. He is eating a sweet pastry he should not be eating, but once in a while is okay he would say. The pastry is my grandfather. The ring is my father. The cup is my mother. The wool is the winter of the east side of Buffalo, New York. Here is the revolution. The revolution is remembering the past for its hardship and struggle and seeing the successes and failures of time. My father carries within him the history of my mother and his father and his mother. I remember I need to ask him if my grandfather wore a pinky ring. I remember I need to ask him how he and my mother moved through the difficult times. It is sometimes in the darkest times that the brightest lights can be seen if you know how to look. Here is my father against the cold of the long Buffalo winter with a hot drink and a sunshine of pastry. He will wash the cup out with a blended whiskey, like his father once did. He will savor the pastry, the sweetness of the sugar on the tongue that for a brief moment pushes everything that is dark away.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. Remember that Joni Mitchell song with its melancholy opening lines of “it’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees, they’re putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace” well we’re living it now. It’s funny isn’t it, how sometimes the melancholy creeps in to the most beautiful time of year. Winter with its peaceful cold, that makes you curl up beneath blankets or makes you stir soups in scratched pots. Christmas always seem to come to me with all of its ghosts. It is as though I am looking through a window heavy with condensation to see it again. I try to take the time in between the shopping, to praise those moments of the past and all of the loved ones who are no more but surround us. Yesterday, my niece posted a photograph on her Instagram of my mother’s old nut grinder. Clearly the praise runs in my family. She and my sister were making Christmas cookies and all at once, in the photograph of a vintage nut grinder was my mother again. All at once, there was the set table, the candles, the tree. There was the flour and walnuts. My mother let me turn the little handle to break them up just as she did my sister and brothers and just as she did with my niece and nephews. There is the plate of Italian snowball cookies. Here is the ornament she picked out on my tree. In the quiet of morning, there is my mother and grandmother. There are my aunts. There is the bottle of wine and the Lucky Strikes. I still have a set of Charles Dickens books she gave me one Christmas, and I still have a sweater she gave me, but the gifts are the least of it, it was the hand that picked up the books and thought I might like them and now is no more. In the quiet I praise her ordinary life which was to me extraordinary. There is the food on the table and here always surrounding me is my family.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. It has been thirty-six days since the election and every day the news brings despair. The cold fronts are sweeping down from the arctic and pushing us inside to the warmth of our homes where we flip the light switches on against winter’s darkness. I have become late period painter Mark Rothko, abandoning the yellows, bright reds, and oranges of my youth on the east side of Buffalo, New York, in favor of blacks, burgundies, grays, and deep greens. This is what happens in old age, but this is also what happens at any age when despair is heavy and sits on your chest and makes it difficult to breathe. It is important to remember this. It is important to be aware of the burgundies and grays and it is vital to remember the yellows and oranges. This is what I want to share with you, here in the middle of the night, squinting through the darkness to write this, I want to share with you that I have not forgotten the yellows and oranges though they have become fuzzy. On the east side of the Buffalo, New York, in my youth, a patch of land was scraped and leveled. I cannot remember what stood in its place before the scraping and leveling, but I remember what they put in its place. Though I didn’t know it then, the scraping and leveling was the beginning of a long decline of my neighborhood. In place of the thing that I cannot remember that occupied that corner, they built a Burger King. The corporation had come into the neighborhood with its cheap shiny construction. In the opening week they gave away New York Yankees cards with cheeseburgers and I built a collection of Bucky Dents and Thurman Munson’s. My grandmother loved the french fries and we would walk the block from her house past the Baptist church that always seemed closed, to order fries and if I was lucky, a drink and sit on the curved orange plywood benches. She ate them one by one and the cars outside passed and we watched them pass. Sometimes we talked, sometimes we just say in silence. She watched me eat french fries and I watched her eat french fries and then we walked back to her house, maybe stopping to say hello to someone on a porch, me kicking at weeds, or looking at a stack of newspapers tied with twine and set out on the curb, a dog barking in the distance. This is what I remember, in the darkness, there is light and we carry it within ourselves and it moves us forward. It is the middle of the night, and it is cold, and winter dark, but my Nonnie is eating a french fry and the light is streaming in, bathing her in something true and golden. We are walking down the street again, before the corporation, before the weight and despair, when the light was in the hand you held and in the eyes of all the people you loved and loved you back.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. It has been thirty days since the election and I am as angry, full of despair and despondent as ever. And it is the beginning of winter and it is coming on Christmas which has its own challenges with the melancholy of remembrance. I am throwing it back to the winters of my youth to help myself put the despair into perspective, to narrow the focus to the moment we are in while carrying with us the moments that have made us who we are. In the very early morning, it comes back to me, the white of winter, the biting wind, the raw smell of cold when entering a heated house. The house itself, a furnace kicking on, the coveted spot before the metal register, a telephone cord, a basket of yarn. I am sitting on the radiator at my grandmother’s house again, the white of winter obscuring the houses across the street. I am in the blowing snow again, where the wind stops your breath until you have to turn and walk backwards for a moment to catch your breath from the battering, then turning again head bent into it and following the bootpack on the sidewalks. I don’t remember anyone in my family ever complaining about the cold, about winter. It was homemade soups and pots of red sauce. It was gnocchi and polenta and a bottle of red wine against the winter. It was the way my mother would tie a scarf around my neck when I was little. It was that Christmas when all I wanted was a pair of moon boots and got them. I was an astronaut every time they made a new track in fresh snow. it was this and more, it was the way winter made time slow and the way it made the sounds of rushing life quiet or muffled for a moment and left you with yourself again. On the east side of Buffalo, New York, the winter storms came in over the lake, picked up the moisture and dumped it on the city. The neighborhood was a fresh sheet of paper. It was endless and open and expansive. For a moment everything from before was erased. It’s important to remember this. The feeling of first snow when everything is new and can be redrawn. When more is lost than found, it is important to remember that in the middle of winter there is quiet and hope and through the darkness you find yourself walking toward the light of spring.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. It has been twenty-three days and I’m still trying to make sense of the election. I’m not sure I will. I wake up in the middle of the night and think the thoughts that come and come and come. I’m thinking about reading and comprehension. I’m thinking about news and propaganda. I’m thinking about the libraries of my youth on the east side of Buffalo, New York and how each book I read opened a door to an entirely different world and allowed me to see through and read between the lines of the moments and people in my life. I’m thinking about the city bus that I took to high school. It was the #19 and I waited for it at the end of my street. It took me through and out of the neighborhood, past the University, to my school. Every morning I waited with an elderly black woman who I let get on first. She sat in the first seat at the front. I liked to sit in the very back so that I could get a good view of everyone, and then make up little stories about them in my mind. Here is the thing about the #19 I want to share with you. Lying awake at night and remembering the #19 as an old man it occurred to me how democratic that bus was and how much it shaped how I came to approach people. A year or two into school, a teacher of mine who was also my running coach got onto the #19, which was unusual considering he almost always ran home, I’d see him sometimes from the window. It was a blustery winter day, he got on, saw me and sat down next to me. He pulled out a folded New Yorker story he had ripped out of the magazine and gave it to me. Thought I might like it. He told me about where he grew up in the neighborhood, his family and then his stop came and he got off. I watched him walk through the snow in the center of the street as we pulled away. We passed Anacone’s Inn, a bar I would underage drink in, and then back into my neighborhood which sagged with the weight of the economy. Thinking about it again in the middle of the night, it struck me that my teacher took the same bus I took and it was no big deal. I took the bus with the elderly black woman who sat in the front. We said hello to each other, I let her on first, or she demurred and let me go ahead, and we sat. I made up stories about the greasy mechanic and the woman with the bags who arranged them and rearranged them. I made up stories about the University students, and the office workers, and the elementary school kids with powdered donuts around their mouths. I looked, and with the light from the window streaming in, they all became me. The stunned, tired old grandmother with her granddaughter on her lap was me, and I was the granddaughter too. I was the elderly black woman in the front, and I was the bus driver too. I was the teacher and the mechanic and the University student before I was a University student. I saw in them the struggle of life, of too little money, problems, and old clothes, but I saw their smiles too and the courtesy they extended by moving a bag or wiping melted snow off of a seat so someone could sit. That is what I remember most, the way an old handkerchief was unfolded and used to wipe away the wet to make room for someone who had been standing for too long and just needed a seat with a view of their world in a big plate glass bus window.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. It’s been eight days and I’m still trying to make sense of the election. I’m not sure I ever will. It keeps me awake, and as old men do in the middle of the night they look backwards to the past and then inwards towards themselves. I’m thinking deeply about the origins of my own thinking on race in America. I grew up in a predominately, but not overwhelmingly, white lower middle class, working poor, catholic neighborhood on the east side of Buffalo, New York. The Buffalo of my youth was in a major upheaval. The economy of the city, and the jobs from the heavy industry of the steel plants, had collapsed. High unemployment, crime, and despair were prevalent. It was not uncommon to hear stories of white neighborhoods not far from mine making it uncomfortable for people of color to even walk through them, let alone live. The older grades in my elementary school were almost entirely white, but my grade and the grades below me, had more diversity. I like to think my thinking on race began then. That the otherness I experienced was more of a curiosity and not an animosity. It was as though I was going into someone’s house for the first time and looking at their pictures on their walls, then noticing the pots and pans, chairs, and hardwood floors, the mystery revealed. We were the same. I remembered Chandra, the way she smiled, and how she snuggled with me one night when some of the girls had crashed a sleepover at my friend’s house before they were found out and had to leave. Chandra, if you had to describe her in terms of color, was a light skinned brown girl. Chandra, if you truly described her, was a sunlight of smile and a fierce intelligence that was seeking. When she smiled, dimples appeared and I was smitten. I don’t even remember how we became innocently entwined that night, but it was a powerful connection for me. It was a brief moment of one night before we went back to the usual schoolyard separation of boys and girls, but here it is again all these many years later. Two people enjoying each others company. Here is what I do remember: her smile, and the way she talked to me quietly and the way we laughed together while the party went on around us. It was what boys and girls did and color played no part in it. They played at love. They held hands, and squeezed together. They saw each other, listened to each other, and looked at each other and accepted each other for who they were. My heart fluttered. Around this same time, a Vietnamese refugee family was sponsored by our church and, like that, three Vietnamese children were in our school. The Tranh’s had three children, two boys and a girl, and the youngest two, the boy and girl were for a period in our class. They were quiet and delicate. I can only imagine, as I think back now, that they were afraid and unsure. I am not making sense. I am trying to understand where my own view on race in America began. It is not perfect, but I am trying to see where the thinking began, and how I diverged from a group in the country who elected a man who campaigned on bigotry, misogyny and racism. In the middle of the night, I have come to these early instances. Chandra and the Tranh’s. There are two things I distinctly recall about the Tranh’s. The oldest was in my brother’s class and though the Tranh’s spoke English, it was clearly a second language, and someone in my brother’s class had taught the oldest the middle finger as a greeting. At recess, I remember one of my brother’s friends calling out to him from across the yard and saying hey Tinh, and giving him the finger and Tinh raising his hand and giving the finger back. I remember it clearly. It made me feel like something was very wrong. There was a grotesqueness that the gesture, of which I was no stranger to, had taken on that was more deeply troubling than I had noticed before. It was wrong. That is one recollection. The other is that the brother and sister in my class, though quiet, reserved, bent to learning could take a scrap piece of paper and fold it into a crane, or frog, or star. I want to say it was my first experience with origami. As an old man awake in the middle of the night, making sense of a senseless election, I saw Chandra again, that little girl making sense of the world and in so doing reshaping me in a brief moment of tenderness. I see the Tranh’s again and how they took a scrap of discarded garbage paper and made it something beautiful.
In the Midst of Life
by Tadeusz Rozewicz
After the end of the world
I found myself in the midst of life
people animals landscapes
this is a table I said
this is a table
there is bread and a knife on the table
knife serves to cut bread
people are nourished by bread
man must be loved
I learnt by night by day
what must one love
I would reply man
this is a window I said
this is a window
there is a garden beyond the window
I see an apple-tree in the garden
the apple-tree blossoms
the blossom falls
fruit is formed
my father picks the apple
the man who picks the apple
is my father
I sat on the threshold
that old woman who
leads a goat on a string
is needed more
is worth more
than the seven wonders of the world
anyone who thinks or feels
she is not needed
is a mass murderer
this is a man
this is a tree this is bread
people eat to live
I kept saying to myself
human life is important
human life has great importance
the value of life
is greater than the value of all things
which man has created
man is a great treasure
I repeated stubbornly
this is water I said
I stroked the waves with my hand
and talked to the river
water I would say
this is me
man talked to water
talked to the moon
to the flowers and to rain
talked to the earth
to the birds
to the sky
the sky was silent
the earth was silent
and if a voice was heard
from earth water and sky
it was a voice of another man
Hashtag throwback Thursday. Last night the Chicago Cubs won the World Series ending a 108-year drought. That is generations of time. I watched it, old man that I am, and was brought back again and again as the game got late. This is what old men do while watching baseball. They go back into their memory and remember the past. They remember their own dirt lot pickup games. The shuffling around in the dust waiting to get picked, and then picked punching their glove, spitting into it to make the leather supple and shine. They remember the lot itself. The scrubby parcel of unused land transformed by the possibilities of youth into a World Series stadium. Always game seven, bottom of the ninth, two out. Then to the glove itself, the one that sits in my father’s closet and has a story all its own, and then to my father who I imagined already asleep on his chair in the bottom of the sixth. Himself, I’m sure having thought about games of catch with his son on a black tar driveway. But back again, to the lineups. To the bartender’s son and mechanics sons and postal worker’s son. To the girls who watched at a distance, knowing the sides to be uneven because they could count and who waited to be called, and then when called mimicked the kick and spit and scratch of us before the seriousness of the game began. The loudest one, the most beautiful one, is the girl I secretly liked. All at once then, in the rain delay, there she is again on the field before the game hitting grounders to us. Calling to us and hitting pop-flies that we caught and caught and caught. The loudest and funniest. The unafraid. She slid into second in shorts and scraped her knee and threw dirt on it, clapping the dust off of her. When I watch the World Series, I go back to when I was in it, on a patch of garbage lot on the east side of Buffalo, New York. I see my mother and father. My brothers and my sister. My red-haired friend and our associates. I see my secret crush. I see them all. I imagine them not as they are now, in the midst of divorce, or checking their bank accounts, or eating dinner with their aged parents, I see them as they were. I feel the leather and spit. The choking of the dust. The yelling and jeering. I see them in the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two outs. We are down by two. The count is full and our team’s girl is up. My not so secret crush. We all cheer her on, and that cheer echoes over time from Buffalo to Dallas to North Carolina and Cleveland and Chicago. It’s the cheer that whispers you got this, and you can do it, and we all believe in you. This is what comes to the old men watching the World Series and it doesn’t matter if their team wins or loses, it’s the moment of reflection on time and its connection to all of the most beautiful things in your life that counts.
Hashtag Throwback Thursday. You wouldn’t know it from this photograph of my brothers and sister on the east side of Buffalo, New York, but my mother loved Halloween. I’m not sure what it was exactly. Maybe it was the scores of kids that ran along the lawns and hopped bushes to get to the next house to yell trick or treat. It could have been the jostling kids standing before her in their handmade or cheaply bought costumes with their plastic masks on the top of their sweaty heads so they could breathe again, bags outstretched and eyes looking. The community of it. The way the neighborhood transformed itself and forgot its problems for a moment. Maybe it was our own excitement at the prospect of candy and freedom of the night that she saw in us. Maybe it was the way she saw us concentrate on cutting up our masks, helping us with the details. Or maybe it was the idea that for one night you could become someone else. You could be unhurried, less tired, financially secure, and young again. Innocent again. Seven years ago today, my mother passed away. The Halloween decorations were in all the windows and on the 31st on a grey morning, we said our last goodbye to her. Here is something to remember, no matter how much you want the world to pause when someone you love leaves, it doesn’t. Halloween doesn’t stop when your mother dies, and so that night, my brothers and I, took our children out trick or treating. We told them to walk, but they ran. They joined the throngs of Batman’s and Spiderman’s, the Harry Potters, chefs, Princesses, and the skeletons. My daughter was a bedsheet ghost with eyes cut out that got turned the wrong way and she stumbled along behind the group until we righted her again and restored her vision. Her eyes were huge and longing and she ran to the next house and we stood on the sidewalk in the distance watching. The monster’s and robots and superhero’s racing from house to house or comparing the weight of their bags. For a moment I forgot my grief. Everything went away as a white ghost skipped down the sidewalk and I saw what I knew my mother must have seen on Halloween.
Hashtag Throwback Thursday. Here is a photograph I took of my friends in the late 1970s on the east side of Buffalo, New York. I would walk to my best friend’s house and yell his name and he would come out. This would continue until all of our closest confidants were accounted for, then we would walk the beaten streets to the empty school and secure our spot in a doorway, or on a red railing, or on the concrete and do what we did. Joke and josh and taunt and scoff at one another. We would trade hockey cards or baseball cards or star wars cards or football cards. If we had scraped enough change together, we bought brand new packs. We opened them and over each other’s shoulders looked to see what we got. Guy Lafleur, Reggie Leach, Gilbert Perreault, Larry Robinson. We organized them by team, put a rubber band around them and put them in our pockets. We ate the stale gum. We played a game called foot hockey with a tennis ball. We ran and laughed and pushed and shoved. We were the heroes in our pockets for those moments, and then we weren’t again. We were ourselves. We were the sons of the machinist and the sons of the car salesman and the sons of the bartender and the sons of the mechanic. I think about it sometimes now. The hockey cards and Star Wars figures. The money we made shoveling or with odd jobs that children do to earn candy money. It all seemed so free and easy at the time. The yelling at the houses for our friends to come out and play. How little we knew about how hard America was at the time. The gas shortages and plant closings, the precariousness of the lower middle class. It was more than this though, it was how little we knew about the strength and fortitude of the adults in our lives. The scrap papers of additions and subtractions after we went to bed. The mustard jar of loose change. The quiet thoughts and prayers they said. The anything is possible, and these things will turn out okay philosophy of them. We often even failed to see the hard work. The love, the love, the love. The lessons in the weekly trip to the library, where they said hello to the librarian and whispered in small talk. The austerity of the bank for my first savings book. The diversity of the bus. My mother’s smile. The way she liked to hold you like she would never let go. We should have had our parents on those cards wrapped in a rubber band in our hand-me-down coats. We could have hunkered down in the empty doorway of the closed school with the I’ll trade you a steel worker for the car salesman, the bartender for the machinist, the baker for the mechanic.
Hashtag Throwback Thursday. Here is a photograph of me with my brothers and sister on the east side of Buffalo, New York, sometime in the late 1970s. I am a milk belly with a mop of yellow hair in hand-me-down clothes. I am new with wonder. My life is being taught to me in drips and drops by my brothers and by my sister, though they don’t know they are teachers. Everything they do is hilarious, and everything they do is serious, even the hilarious. Everything they do is confident. They take the path and see where it goes and I follow. This is the song. It is a ring of a big bodied guitar and a bass groove. This is the song I want to sing. I sing a song for them, for the them of this photograph that were the cops and robbers. The army men and nurse. The Jim Craig tending the goal in the Gold medal game. To the them that were the skateboard freaks, carousel eyes, and cassette tapes. The them that were leather jackets, stolen cigarettes and sucker punches. The boot steps in deep snow that I stepped into. I sing a song for them and for the freedom of childhood. For the treed streets that became sets in the movie that was our lives. This throwback Thursday is for the comfort of laughter. The hardness of rocks. The cuts, and bruises and scratches of play. The drenched wetness of rain. The elasticity of time. For the impossibly long days of bicycle rides to fields with snakes. The glass dishes of penny candy in the corner store. The anything is possible possibility of the day.
Hashtag Throwback Thursday. Here is a photograph of my childhood friend, Kelly Shea, circa 1979. Kelly Shea lived down the block from me. She was my constant companion and daily playmate until someone at school cruelly chanted that we were sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-Ging. After which, we proceeded to politely nod to each other as we passed each other in the street. Kelly Shea came from a large Irish family. Her father was a teacher. He was white-haired and wore button downs and khakis. She was blue eyes and milk white skin. Kelly Shea, aged 8, was a good reader but not the best pupil. By this I simply mean that she tended to daydream in class, routinely getting called on and fumbling out of her reverie to flip pages or stare at the ceiling hoping for an answer. She had assiduously begun going to the movies and seemed to be lost in the moving pictures even after they stopped. She was a great fan of the French New Wave, and sacrificed milk at lunch and gum at the corner store to save her allowance for tickets. She smoked at 9 and I would see her sitting on a guardrail after school, lazily puffing away while reading the French Magazine Les Cahiers du Cinema. I had no idea she could read French. She told me about Antoine Doinel, the fictional character created by French film director Francois Truffaut. It was cold and the smoke from her cigarette hung heavily around us as she spoke. It was autumn and the ground was a sponge. She pressed her maryjane’s into the soggy ground, concentrated on the telling. The 14-year-old Doinel, she told me, was a troubled Parisian boy who skips school, eventually turning to street life and petty crime in response to neglect at home by his parents. Towards the end of the film, he is sent to a reform school, from which he escapes for places unknown. Then she looked away from me for a moment. She turned her head into the direction of that unknown, going there herself. This was before I knew how language worked. Before I knew the phrase, is everything okay? Instead, I photographed her with an old Kodak Brownie that I had unearthed in the mountains of detritus in my basement which consisted of the physical memories of the lives my parents lived before having children and also of the pieces of our own childhood that we had surpassed. I snapped her picture looking down into the viewfinder. She moved three weeks later and I never saw my first true friend and daily companion again.
Hashtag Throwback Thursday. Here is a photograph of the east side of Buffalo, New York, sometime in the mid 1980’s. Buffalo was undergoing a historic transformation from a vital industrial and manufacturing city to a service oriented one. Steel plants closed. The population drastically declined with nearly one in four moving out of the city to find work. Skilled laborers were left reeling, neighborhoods seemingly lay in ruins. It was against this backdrop that I grew up. But the crumbling wasn’t crumbling to me. What I mean is that within it, the crumbling was something else, something distinguished. It carried a patina of the hard work of generations. We climbed, and bicycled, and ran through this landscape of rocks and soggy lawns and brick buildings with brass door knobs. Of steel railings, canvas awnings, and concrete. It was translucent glass, old wires, engines, and flowers. It was foreign accents, incense, and Franciscan nuns. It was the bent chain link fence that demarcated yards which separated but somehow also brought neighbors together. I am not sure what I am saying, the chain link fence allowed you to look through; it gave you a line but one you could cross visually. It is this openness of the chain link fence that stays with me. When I was little I would put my eye to look through one of the diamonds that the chain link fence made. I would look through that diamond to the space it contained and move to another, piecing the neighborhood together like that bit by bit. In the best of the backyards, the chain link fence was a tool, it carried the trailing vines of peas, and cucumbers. It carried the vines of wisteria and rose and grape. The fences became living things in those yards, like hedgerows you see in the countryside and this too is important. The east side of the Buffalo, New York of my youth was a dying industrial city but it carried within it the old homelands of rural Europe, of Poland, Italy, Germany, and Ireland. At dusk, neighbors pulled weeds or smoked and stopped, elbows on the top pipe of the fence, to share a moment, laugh or memory with their neighbor who did the same while their children tumbled nearby seeing without looking, learning without the lesson.
Hashtag Throwback Thursday. This is not a photograph of me. This is a photograph of the mother of the father of my father. My great grandmother. I never knew my father’s mother, my grandmother (she having died before I was born), and have two or three vague memories of my grandfather, who died when I was little, so you can intuit that I never knew the mother of my father’s father. There is nothing to write. This is the only known photograph of her in my immediate family. There may have been others. Perhaps my father’s sister had some, but she too is only a photograph now. I shouldn’t say only, she is also the stories of her children and she is the stories of my brothers and sisters, and she is the stories of her husband and she is the stories of her brother, my father. Her stories will live on for a generation or two. They will live on for three or more if she is lucky. She will be carried on. Leafing through some old photographs from a box that had been moved from our childhood home on the east side of Buffalo, New York to my parents new house, which is one hundred years old, I found this stuck to another and slowly peeled it away. I showed the photograph to my father and said, “who’s this?” and he brought it close to his face because he has a lazy eye and he said “my grandmother.” That was the extent of the information that I could glean from him as he proceeded to watch the boxing match which emanated from the television set on full volume because his hearing has declined in recent years. I studied the photograph carefully to see myself in it, but I follow the Polish line of my family which comes from my mother and so saw none, but I see her in the nose of my father, and in the nose of my nephew. I can see her in the eyes of my nieces and in the strength of my sister and brothers. You’d think her story seems to end with my father saying “my grandmother” and leaving it at that, no more color commentary about how she carried a bushel of hay on her head in the mountains, or perhaps some recipe for sauce that has been handed down and down and sits folded in a cookbook on a shelf in Buffalo, New York which is only able to be deciphered through the help of Google translator, but it’s not. Her story continues in my father who sits watching men throw right hooks beneath an afghan my mother crocheted. Looking at this photograph again, I do see myself, carrying on my head the bushel of all the things that have passed and will continue to pass. I write these things down imperfectly into a little white text box so that I might not forget them and post them to a website. You will be going about your day checking your device, reading text messages and Googling words whose definition you are unsure of on a Gorilla Glass screen that is made by the manufacturer Corning, by luck you will come across my great grandmother and read the words I have written and you too will become part of the story, you will see it stretch back and stop and then elongate out to the broken back of my grandfather, to his passage to Ellis Island where you can search the databases to see his name which is the name of my great grandmother and my father and my sister and brothers and me.
Hashtag Throwback Thursday. I am throwing it back in honor of the beginning of the school year. Here I am on the east side of Buffalo, New York. It is the first day of school. I have not yet mastered the art of tying my shoes or buttoning my coat, but that is no matter. The day is monumental in my mind. Up to this point in my life, I was relegated to watching my brothers and sister from the front window as they walked to school. I observed them closely as they ate their breakfast in their little uniforms. When the door closed, I hurried to the couch that ran along the front windows, bent over the back, and pulled the curtain. There they went, beneath the red maple tree to school. School. It was a mystery. In my mind I imagined it a place of properness. Of books and learning. Of transformation. I wanted to know the names of the things in my life to give them definition and bring them into focus and make them clear. I was a serious child. I studied the words in the books my brothers and my sister brought back trying to make sense of them and my brothers saw this and used it to their advantage. Taunting me with words I didn’t know until I cried, which buoyed them and allowed them to continue their torment. Here is a photograph of the beginning of the end of the torment. Here is a photograph of the beginning of the definitions to the words I didn’t know. My mother is in my buttons and hat. She tells me to look at the camera and in that instant summer is washed away on an autumn wind, and with it, the mystery of school, the mystery of the world. I have taken flight. I walk on my stick legs two blocks to the mayhem of the schoolyard. I follow my sister who walks with purpose while my brothers lag behind, kicking at stones. At the corner I hear the shouts and yells from the yard and it becomes an orchestra warming up. We turn to the red brick of the building that seems to hold the blood of generations. I stand in awe and my brother pushes me forward into the undulating mass of school children who stop at a bell and get into line yammering until that too is silenced by a nun and we are ushered in quietly to the learning and becoming.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. It is back to school so I want to throw it back twenty-two years ago. 1994. The end of college. I was twenty-two. Everyone who I had been close to had departed for points unknown or home after commencement. they had gone to Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Boston. they had gone to New Jersey, Albany, and Waterbury. They had gone to California and Portland. I stayed in the Bronx working as an abstractor which meant that I prepared a condensed history of the ownership of a particular parcel of real estate. I researched this history which consisted of a summary of the original grant and all of the subsequent conveyances and encumbrances affecting the property on microfiche. Glamorous. I know. In some instances, I had to go back to the original hand-written books to find deeds that had not been microfiched. These were great big dusty books which were lorded over by an ancient woman who wore flowery housedresses and who did not like me immediately, she was distrusting of anyone who might not understand the magnanimity of these books. The histories of pieces of old New York written in hands long since gone. But I did. I opened them gently and ran my hands along their pages. I spent many hours admiring the penmanship they contained. She must have seen this and eventually smiled a toothless smile at me. We became co-conspirators. There was something important about this work to me, this idea of going back to find where we come from. It appealed to the amateur librarian in me. In any case, in those weeks following commencement I had never heard the city so quiet as when I sat in my tiny Bronx apartment with its view of backyard laundry reading Look Homeward, Angel, which only added to my post graduation blues. A crushing sense of loss surrounded me. It wasn't just college that was gone, an enduring moment of my youth, the east side of Buffalo, New York, was slipping away from me and I didn't know it then. Just weeks before I was on a rooftop clinking aluminum beer cans with my best friends. Then Kurt Cobain was dead. Just weeks before I was at a dance with a girl who could have been a movie star. We would etch our names in wet concrete in the east village in the hopes that moment would last. Then Brazil mourned the loss of Ayrton Senna. In one moment I was studying beneath perfect trees as a friend in leather boots and a skirt came yelling my name across the lawn and the next I was alone in the city, my future expansively terrifying ahead of me. Here is a photograph of me on the D train with what would become my confidant and companion in those moments post graduation. You can see the worry in my eyes, but so too the hope. I have my goldfish who I would wish good morning every day before leaving to the microfiche and books, to the going back to the past and seeing the beauty in beginnings. This is a photograph of me in that end which looking back was always a beginning.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. Here is a photograph of me circa 1984. The milk-fat of my baby years has disappeared in games of street hockey, bicycle riding, and general mischievousness. I am lengthening into awkwardness but haven’t noticed that about myself yet. Instead, I am sure of myself. Confident in the newfound freedom that library books secretly impart. Certain with the insights gleaned from careful observations of both the successes and failures of my brothers and my sister. I am a summer tan and beat sneakers and when I come to this photograph again and see myself, it is as though I am seeing myself for the first time. Joyce wrote "we walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves." This is what this photograph does for me. I see myself both stretching backwards and forwards in time. What is there to say about this photograph? There is nothing to say about this photograph. I am my mother and my father. I am my grandmother. I am my brothers and my sister. I am borrowed library books. I am my best friends. I am the backyard parties of my parents. The cigarette smoke and stories. I am the past and the future without knowing it. I am the precious moment between. Between youth and adult. Between then and now. Between confidence and doubt. Between new and rust. Between here and gone. In a click of a Kodak camera and the advance advance of the film I am stopped. This is what there is to say about this photograph. I am with my friend Doug. We have borrowed his mother’s car. We are parked near the Niagara River. I take a short path to a rock that I can jump off of and into a current that will pull me swiftly towards the falls. I am the cold water and the pulling of the current. I am summer and sunshine. I am the fish and the seagulls. I am the rocks that have traveled from Lake Superior to here which tumble on the river bed below and then drop from the height on their way to Lake Ontario. I am the river bank and the cool air. I am all of this and have no understanding that in some distant place I will forget this sometimes. You do. You forget that it is all here for you sometimes. You forget that the ordinary is extraordinary and you forget that it all disappears, or maybe you try not to remember that it does. It comes back to you though, in bits and pieces. In the way a song starts. In the way a river runs. In the way the light rises and then slips away. In a letter, or text. or post. In a jog of memory that the laugh of the person you love most brings back to you, and in a photograph of the you you were and the you you are and continue to be.
Hashtag Throwback Thursday. Here is a photograph of me in the St. Gerard’s parking lot circa 1983. It is springtime on the east side of Buffalo, New York. There is not much to say about this photograph. I am wearing the hand-me-down sweater of my older brother, Michael. I cannot recall who the older boy is who has stolen our ball and poses triumphantly. Heather is little red riding hood. Monica is a wet-plastered smile. The excesses of summer are hinted at in the soaking rain that washes winter away. The scribblings of the darkness of youth are on the walls. There is nothing more than this square of pavement of the now with its lure of sweaty hands and smiles. In an instant this will disappear though we will have no inkling of the disappearance or even what has disappeared until it is too late. Instead, the moment is an interminable lull between now and the great future of hope and success and impossible dreams. Then minute succumbs to minute to month to years and you find yourself standing in an impossibly long line at the Department of Vital Statistics to get a certified copy of your birth certificate. It having been lost in some minor life destruction. The green-haired girl two up ahead checks her phone, then checks her phone again for a message that will never come. The young mother with sad eyes soothes her son who has grown impatient with the waiting. The government has been so kind as to spell out in big block letters the directives on the wall:
Form A for Birth.
Form B for Death.
Below these signs are the wire baskets with the photocopied sheets that we are all holding. Through the plate glass window, the unknowable sky can’t seem to decide between rain or more rain and that view brings you back to those disappeared moments in the parking lot of your youth as the line does not move. The woman with the walker drops her dull pencil for everyone’s interest until the man with the tear tattoo on his face bends in kindness for her, like a smile after rain. The man with the thinning hair towards the front with the cat-haired shirt is muttering because he thinks he has been here the longest. Shifting from foot to foot, each of us waiting in turn for the proof of our existence or the thin slip that says we once were here - in the sigh and sigh and sigh of lines. In the way we inch forward and wait with all of the grace the moment calls for.
Hashtag Throwback Thursday. Here is a photograph of the interior of Bob’s Galley circa 1981. Bob’s Galley was a little restaurant that made submarine sandwiches, hot dogs, and hamburgers. It was two blocks from our house. It was a little building with a big sloping carport like roof that jutted out over the pavement away from the building and towards the sidewalk. It had a foosball table and some arcade games, so naturally it was the main hangout for the children of the neighborhood, and naturally the older children of the neighborhood brought their menace to the younger children there because the younger children inevitably ruined their “cool” with members of the opposite sex. What I am trying to say is that it was just as normal for an older girl to mock and threaten a younger kid with her words and fists as it was for an older boy to do the same. Also there were cigarettes. They were stolen from the pocketbooks of mothers and the plastic cigarette holders of grandmothers. There was a perpetual cloud around the place, and that, coupled with threatening remarks from jean jacketed older kids was enough to imbue the place with the sort of dangerous hipness that we all wanted to belong in. I don’t have much to say about the place. It was a sort of free zone where the kids could hang out for hours nursing pop in paper cups and telling lies. It was a space outside of the eyes of the peering adults, where we tried at imitating them, in their angers, and sorrows, but also, and most importantly in their loves, in their big, big loves. Hands were placed in the back pockets of Levi’s. Cigarettes shared. Foosball games became competitions of masculine skill, both athletic and verbal. The girls dared and flirted. The high score of the Donkey Kong game lent itself to cryptic messages of love spelled out in three letters and displayed over and over again in between games. I watched it all, careful not to get beat up, or ridiculed. I was taking it all in, but Bob’s Galley had closed before I got to older kid status. I heard that the Italian guy who owned it, closed it to start a light bulb business supplying bulbs and electric supplies to retail business. He went into the light business. I remember Bob’s was replaced by a short-lived bicycle shop where I rebuilt a BMX bicycle. After that, it was nothing. I recently Google street viewed the building, because that it was what we do when we are old. We look back to make sense of the past and to bring it into the present so that it may live in the future. I clicked through the street view to the block on Bailey and Delavan where Bob’s stood. It sits abandoned in a cracked parking lot with grass sticking out in tufts. It is whitewashed and boarded up tight against the weather. I stopped and looked at it there on the screen. I could see the long hair and denim. I could hear the clack and rap of the foosball on the boards. I could feel the setting sun on my face and hear the swears and slurs and slaps. I could see the young loves loving to love that big love. The Orange Crush in a paper cup like a sun. It occurs to me, staring at the abandoned, dilapidated building, that Bob’s wasn’t so different from the light bulb place the old Italian guy started after it closed. That little place with the greasy burgers and submarine sandwiches and Donkey Kong and Foosball table that was populated by the bold and brash and beautiful kids trying at adulthood was pure golden light. I could feel it shining still, a bright, bright light against the currency of darkness.