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. 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 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.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. Here is a photograph of me with my father. We are on the east side of Buffalo, New York. Based on my father’s shoes (which, if I remember correctly, were his work shoes, but which he also wore when he wasn’t at work to the great consternation of my mother) I want to say this was 1973. This was clearly during the time of gas shortages, anger, and fear in America. I was a wide-eyed child, constantly observing, though prone to seeing inaccurately, which would later be mostly corrected by a visit to an ophthalmologist who would fit with me the glasses that would bring everything into focus. It was the actual seeing that I continued to have trouble with though. But this is a photograph of my father and me. It is summer and it is a song. Winter is forever a month away. He is on his day off. My father was a car salesman, and the oil crisis with its gas shortages, wasn’t good for business, but still he went in day after and day and stayed until the evening and then came home. Maybe it was due to the fact that my vision was blurry, but looking back, I find it hard to remember a moment when the fear and anger that was so prevalent then found its way into his heart. He put on his shoes and suit and talked and talked and joked and joshed and sometimes he sold something and sometimes he didn’t. He never let the days he didn't differ from the days he did. They were all good. Each day. On this day, he has allowed me to help him replace the radiator in a Chevy Malibu he bought from an old woman who drove it two miles to the grocery store once a week for five years before she decided she could walk. The car was practically brand new but needed a radiator and so my father replaced it. It was a beautiful car and you knew it was beautiful by the way it shone in my father’s eyes. He had bought the car for my sister who drove it for one year before she decided she didn’t like old things and bought a new car and so the Malibu would be passed on to my brother. In my inaccurate seeing, I saw the car being passed on, in turn, from brother to brother to brother to me. It was a beautiful blue car. My help consisted of holding the flashlight and asking a million questions which he didn’t know the answers to and told me so. It was sunlight, sweat and the sweetness of swearing that little ears shouldn’t have heard but was made okay with his wink and conspiratorial smile. In my mind the car was mine. While he worked, he impressed on me the way the old woman had taken care of the car. It was a good car. Well built. Good things that were well built were meant to be taken care of, but so were other things. His shoes were cheap, but he shined them before work anyways. He replaced the radiator. He took a rag and wiped the grease away. We drove it around the block. We rolled the windows down and the air rushed in and rolled over him. The car had a big well-built engine. It was passed on to my brother who smashed that car to pieces. My brother was well built and good and my parents took care of him and the car that my father loved, that we had replaced the radiator in, was the footnote to the story. The real story is that in that summer of the gas shortages and anger and fear, my father never gave in. He took care of the things that were well built and he took care of the things that weren’t. His son, who could barely see and didn’t know it, was the apprentice mechanic he took under his wing. That summer was the sun. He was the waves that curled and fell on the shores of Lake Erie and then slipped into the vastness to come back again, over and over, cool and unrelenting.
Hashtag throwback Thursday to the backyard of my youth on the east side of Buffalo, New York. This was in the time of tube socks, Bactine, and bubble gum. This was before the words ovarian cancer, metastasize, and life expectancy came to be known. We were golden in our green. Our lips the color of popsicles. The sky a Crayola crayon blue. There was no such thing as money or debt or loss or leaving. We were enveloped in the embrace of the neighborhood that extended several blocks. The struggles were unknown, they were the things of adults, and the things of adults were another country to us. The photographs of my youth are tricks of memory. I look outside of the frame, search inside the house for my mother. My father. But somehow the photograph pulls me outside again. I am on a bicycle again. I am running through mosquitoes at dusk again. I am a bloody knee. I am a scab. I am the band-aid placed there by my mother. I am peeling the wrapper off of a popsicle again. I am in the backyard again. I am peering through the fence again. I am looking out across the expanse of the neighborhood. The lights are coming on one by one against the darkness. There is the shadow of Mrs. Schlauger again, she is a ghost now. She was a sweetness of wet eyes who we got to know. How was it we got to know her exactly. My brother mowed her lawn when her husband couldn’t anymore. He was an oxygen tube in the front window. She was a candy. I am nine again looking out through the bent chain link fence to the future before the future took hold. Long before the words malignant and stage IV. Before metastasize and glioblastoma. Before the scratching of numbers on a notepad. The adding and subtracting of a mind at the end. Plus signs and minus signs. The figuring and dividing. I want to go back again to that fence and come back to it when I am out of college, when I have children of my own. When everything is falling apart. I want to stand at that fence and call out plus sunlight. Plus fireflies. Plus pancakes. Plus you. Plus you. Plus you.
Hashtag throwback Thursday to the Buffalo, New York of my youth. The light in every captured moment in the square of a photograph is something to be celebrated. I pulled out the shoebox of old photographs this morning. The ones that remind me of the long story of my life and contain the ordinary moments that I thought I had forgotten or maybe misremembered. This is the significance of the shoebox of old photographs. This is the significance of the family albums. It brings you back to yourself. It brings the people and moments that are gone back to you. Here is one that stopped me. It is a photograph of me with my mother, we are in Canada at the cottage my parents rented every year in the summer. We are in Lake Erie and it is a plate of glass. My brother is in the photograph too, and though you can’t see him, my father is in the photograph because he is the one who captured this moment. What was it that made him get off the blanket and pick up his camera? It was my mother. The way she loved the water and the beach. The way she loved the way it made us smile. We were fish, my brothers, my sister, and me, and my mother loved that, she could sit on the blanket with a book, or look out at us, or look out at the lake and remember herself. Every summer we went to the lake and we swam and we ate peaches and we fell asleep in the sun, and my mother made a tent out of towels over us so that we wouldn't burn. There are so few photographs of my mother at the cottage. But here she is again. She is standing in the water and I am looking up at her. I am forever frozen looking up to her. She is in the water. She is in the sky. She is blurred just a bit, but there she is again. She is Lake Erie and she is the light that my father saw and stopped what he was doing to stop her there. To hold her in that light with the knowledge that she would never disappear.
Hashtag throwback Thursday to the sweet streets of the east side of Buffalo, New York. Here is a photograph of me with my sister. I have no idea where my brothers were when this photograph was taken, probably on the train tracks throwing rocks, or behind the garage kissing girls. In my youthful milk belly days I was a mischievous, troublesome, disorderly hellion whose sarcastic demeanor at the gumball machine was the stuff of legend, but my sister was a confection, and under her tutelage I learned politeness and kindness, and generally outgrew my rude behaviors.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. Here is a photograph of me from late last week. The lyrics Old man don't lay so still you're not yet young, there's time to teach, point to point, point observation, children carry reservations are in my mind. I am wearing my favorite yellow sweater. I have had it for over 25 years. It’s amazing to think about isn’t it? It is amazing to think about the everyday objects in our lives. The quiet meanings they impart. I don’t know what I am saying other than these are the things that move with us through life and carry us forward while whispering about where we have been. The way the sunlight doesn’t come this morning brings me back and illuminates the bent chain link fence of my youth where the bottom of my sweater snagged on the sharp top link and tore. I am thrust again to the east side of the Buffalo, New York of my beginnings. There again is the Archie Bunker of my neighborhood sitting on his porch. The gardens are brown and bent. There is Edith carrying a bag of groceries gingerly over the wet leaves stuck to the sidewalk. Meathead is on the corner in a cloud, smoking cigarettes by the boarded up bakery. Gloria is jumping rope. This throughout the day, day after day. The way the past comes over you in the most mundane of moments. When sleep has overcome the house, I check to make sure the door is locked and sit down, alone, in the lull. I listen to the song, King of Birds from the album Document and then listen to it again. Over and again. It is on the lowest of volume so that you have to really pay attention. In the instant, my brother is in his leather jacket again, leafing through his albums. Tells me I should listen to this one. All at once, it is autumn and I am the loneliness of the long distance runner. I am coming up the hill by the statue of Michelangelo’s David in Delaware Park, and there is my brother halfway up the hill dressed in black saying, looking good, looking good. The album cover is on my table and it becomes a portrait of him clapping on that slope. The house is quiet but for the thin strands of guitar that transport me some long way back to the edge of Lake Erie where I am running. The kitchen cupboard is quiet with the bowls of my mother and grandmother. When I use them, I put my hands where their hands once were. They are gone again. I leave myself on that hill, run my hand over the album cover. The song is a thin ghost playing on the quietest of volumes. The strum of the guitar over the wires and through the speakers fills the room with all of this, the television sets and leaves, the brown grocery bag, the stolen cigarettes, old crockery, leather jackets, hands that once held, Michelangelo and the narrow path of the cross-country course. It contains all of this and more and it grows and grows, and it gets so loud on the lowest of volumes.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. Here is a photograph from 1978. In the old days, photographs were printed and kept in books, or shoeboxes. They were pulled out and looked at and looked at and looked at until they bent and creased, and then they were unbent and smoothed back with the palm of a hand and looked at again. The smartest people wrote descriptions on the back of them, but the smartest people were usually the elderly, and by the time they thought to write on the backs they had forgotten many of the details associated with the photograph. Luckily, on the back of this photograph is written, “Doug, David, and Heather, 1978. USA.” USA here did not mean the country, it meant a skating rink just past the east side of Buffalo, New York. It is gone now. It was scraped away to make room for a big box store. A Home Depot. This is what they do now, they knock down the uniqueness and put in its place the sameness. USA. But on the back of this photograph USA stood for United Skates of America and the youth of our neighborhood and adjoining neighborhoods met there on Thursday and Friday and Saturday nights, ostensibly to skate, but more than likely to smoke, drink, and kiss. We were in the becoming stage. We were becoming ourselves and we were sampling it all. Fistfights were not uncommon, because what is becoming without a fight. It was always some squabble over a girl that was settled swiftly in the back lot where glass bottles lay empty. But enough of that. The music poured out of the speakers and into our ears and we moved, swirling in and around each other. The best skaters, of which group my oldest brother belonged, would look as though they were floating from blank space to blank space. Gliding between the slower skaters, moving in perfect sympathy with the music and in an instant becoming the music, becoming the physical embodiment of the music so that if you watched you were seeing the music in long arcs that weaved around and between the slower skaters who themselves, if you took the time to look, were lost in the music too. They were moving at their own speed while around them everything whirled and turned. Looking at this photograph and turning it over and reading the cursive, it occurred to me that many years later, after I am gone, this photograph will be found and the finder will have no reference to what the USA on the back stands for, they will think it is the country, and so this throwback. I throw it back so that the hallowed wooden floor of United Skates of America is not forgotten. So that the freedom of that floor is not lost. So that the beat up rental wall of skates still stands silent like a sculpture and like a sculpture carries with it the essence of that time and place. The essence was in the rusting cars and the factories where our fathers once worked. It was in the way we drank and smoked and worked at becoming adults. We lied and laughed and joshed and joked. We dressed in our best jeans and terry cloth shirts. What was it within me that stammered and halted as I went up to the girl with the eyes that shone like two wet stones and calmly asked her to skate? What was it within her that said yes? This is what we did. At the start of the slow songs, the lights went down and the rink thinned and the boys and girls of America asked each other to skate. Remarkably, I asked, and remarkably she took my hand and dragged me to the floor and we skated in a circle slowly. We talked and smiled and she took her hand, when it got sweaty, and wiped it on her jeans and then took my hand again, and wasn’t that something, I thought, the way she took it away and wiped it off and then reached for my hand again. In an instant it was over and the lights went back on and we were engulfed in the throng again. In the smell of alcohol and smoke. There was a cherry red skate box emblazoned with hot rod stickers advertising Moroso and STP under a bench. There was a paper plate with a cigarette bent into the center on a sticky table. Socks and paper cups crumpled on dirty rugs, but the music swept it all up into something beautiful and true. We found a place to be alone in that sea of becoming. We sat with our backs against a wall, our knees touching each other, everything new and pressing. The moments ripping away towards the unknown tomorrows but we leaned in closer against it, certain of each other, certain that nothing would hold us back, that we would be propelled cleanly into the America of our golden future, whirling and turning through the obstacles and defeats smoothly. We would be hooting and hollering and turning and slashing and slowing to take it all in, to hold tight to the freedom of that moment for all of our moments. Looking at us again stopped on that thin sheet of photo paper I remember the details; I turn the photograph over, smooth it out with the palm of my hand and beneath the USA write United Skates of America. The rest of the words are on the front. In the image on the front if you look close enough you can make out the words USA, and freedom, and youth, and yearning, and innocence, and truth, and hope.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. When I last visited Buffalo I came across some old notes in a box in my father’s basement. Old handwritten grade school notes that were surely passed to me through intermediaries in a snowy parking lot at recess or stealthily, from hand to hand, while a teacher wrote in loops on a chalkboard, until it reached me. That former me, the eight-year-old me in a navy shirt and navy pants. My hair blonde and new. I was full of love and curiosity and imagination. I was Wayne Gretzky and Gilbert Perreault. While my brothers poured gasoline on Big Wheels on the train tracks by my grandmother’s house, I read old books from the library and leafed through the old photographs of my parents. Of that time before me. There they were strong in the sunlight of the Alleghany Mountains. I am getting ahead of myself, I should slow down so as not to forget any of it. A statue of the Virgin Mary stood in a corner of our classroom with her palms outturned in mute appeal. The note folded and then folded again and then passed to me and unfolded and saved and forgotten until now. It occurs to me, all these years later, in light of Paris and San Bernardino, in light of cancer, and old age, how quickly we are here and then gone. How we try and try to hold on to the moments which keep slipping away. The edges of those memories blurring like old photographs. We live and then we disappear, we come from somewhere and then we go somewhere. In that parking lot youth of our hockey games, our sticks scraped in chops along the snow, our yells and shouts echoed off of the red wall of the school and faded as we rushed back and forth beneath a gray sky that to us was golden. The school itself, where our brothers and sisters went, and where our parents went, is closed for good now. What was the first to go? The hardware store? The bakery? The grocery store? Which building was the first to be boarded up? In those moments, the note, that had been passed to me, carried with it a monumental significance. It carried with it, not only the love of the girl who lived on Roebling Avenue, but of her existence and in turn mine too. I kept them all in a shoebox and hid them from my brothers who surely would have used them to burn bonfires on the tracks against the snow that fell and would continue to fall. I stowed them away, carefully, and then forgot about them. And then the children of that time scattered to New York, and Charlotte, and Dallas. They are in New Orleans, and Boulder, and Seattle. They are holding the hands of their mother in a hospital. They are visiting with their father in a room in Buffalo on an unseasonably warm and bright day before a holiday. In the photographs in our family albums, with notes and dates written by my mother on the back, I find my brothers again. I find my sister again. There they are as they used to be, and I can smell the gasoline on them. There is the school with the Fallout Shelter sign above the door that recessed back into the building, a perfect spot where my brothers bent to kiss the girls of their youth. Where they passed bottles of Genesee Cream Ale stolen from the refrigerators of their friends fathers, and here I am holding a cup of pop in the sunlight, and here again in the folded note of a girl whose eyes shone like wet stones. In the sweetness of a note I am reminded again of myself and that time. Of skating parties and holding the sweaty hand of a girl who wrote a note and passed it to that former me. I am reminded of that period where everything was opening and nothing was closing. Before I realized that after everything is gone, the photographs remain, the writing remains, the words remain and with them, in some small way, we remain.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. This past weekend driving through my neighborhood I saw three little girls chasing each other with spray bottles on a square of green in their front lawn, squirting each other with water and laughing in the sun. Is this what old age is? The noticing of the tiniest of moments that surround you and then send you hurtling backwards in time and space. Here is a photograph of me and my sister. It is summer on the east side of Buffalo, New York. We are at our grandmother’s house on Dorris. Everything is overgrown and there is the roaring quiet of the heat. My sister is ten years older than me. This is before we became aware of ourselves. This is before the world set its fangs in us. Before disappointments and heartache and death would take away the people who loved us most. I was reminded of this photograph by the three little girls playing on a lawn a thousand miles and many years away from the time it was taken. My sister has children older than we were then. They are making lives of their own now with their own memories of my sister. Her oldest might remember our grandmother. There is a photograph of her with my mother, my grandmother, and my sister that is framed in my sister’s house. But this. She has never seen this photograph. She has never seen her mother in this moment. When my sister was buoyant and unbothered and sunny. This is not to say that she isn’t still all of these things, she is, but as you all know life sometimes wipes away the idealism of youth and replaces it with a pragmatism that in comparison might seem dull. This is what I want to say to my nieces and nephew. This is what I want to say to you. That in our youth we were thirsty for the spectacle of it all. For the smell of the earth after a rain, for the way the winter succumbed to a soggy April which turned chartreuse then filled in and became the plump and overgrown summer. We shouted at the awe of the drawn world. We raced through the sheets flapping on the line. We drew white lines on the pavement with rocks. We filled our bellies with the water from the garden hose. You can see the girl stopped in this photograph in my sisters eyes now if you look close enough. If you pay attention and listen you can see the airy girl in the photograph rising up, you can see that she never disappeared, but I want to add something to the photograph. I want to add to it the moment that wasn’t captured. The moment so obvious it didn’t need to be captured. The moment just before we went outside in anticipation of the beautiful mysteries that the world had in store for us, before we knew what all of those mysteries might be, and drank it in.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. I was leafing through the old photographs again last night. This is what happens when you get old, you wake up in the middle of the night and think about the past. The moonlight comes in through the window and settles in a trapezoid across your body, bathing you in its quietness. It’s easy in these moments to feel pangs of sadness about the people in your life who are only photographs now. It’s easy in these moments to feel the weight of passing time. The way, for instance, the moonlight moves across you and up the wall and then fades with the coming of the day’s light. You forget the moonlight and the way it was a neat box on your wall as the daylight erases it. But within that quiet, away from the day and its screens, comes a contemplative moment that lifts the fog that is your life and brings into focus the things that matter, and the things that you had thought you had forgotten. I want to talk about the architecture of the east side of Buffalo, New York. I want to talk about it in a roundabout way. I want to convey what it was about the close set houses, the bent chain link fences, and the laundry on the line that stays with me and has somehow informed me and made me who I am today. I want to talk about the density that was the east side of Buffalo, New York before deindustrialization and economic despair destroyed the vibrancy of the place and left it empty and rotting. The low chain link fences invited conversation. The neighbor’s laundry swayed with the breeze like a country’s flag and you watched it, noticing the way the line was tied to the pole that was painted gunship gray. Their yard a foreign country with rock plants and roses. A whiffle ball fouled into their yard lay still until their dog went inside and you could hop the fence and race to rescue it, thrilled with the foreignness of your surroundings. The sidewalks and streets were our playground, where the flirting and shoving and the talking and loitering was conducted carefully because the windows were eyes. The neighbor watering his driveway knew us. The old woman rocking on her porch who never looked up at us, knew who we were, so we had to build our fires on the train tracks. From behind curtains we were noted, so girls and boys pushed each other into deep door wells at the school after it was out, finding their own sacred spaces to kiss and touch. The neighborhood allowed us to travel without ever having been anywhere. The old people conversed in Polish or Italian over the counter at the bakery. A bocce game was played on a lawn. Pinochle and Euchre were words that carried smoke and the smell of stale beer. It’s hard to imagine, if you were to walk through east side of Buffalo, New York, today to imagine its vibrancy. To smell the bakery, to feel the cool dark of the corner bar or the pungent floral smell of the flower shop with its talking Mynah bird. It would be hard to imagine the blue of the milk machine, or the streams of people walking the sidewalks. The stream of dresses and squeak of shoes out of the church. You would not be able to imagine the hardware store, that pile of metal fittings and pipes and screws and doorknobs that packed the place. You would not be able to see the little handmade signs that read screws 5 for 5 cents. You would not hear the bells from the church tower. You would see nothing much, boarded up houses, a decommissioned church and an empty school yard. There is a vacant lot where Ray and Theresa’s Clam shack stood. The little white chalked box we drew on the side of the brick wall of the school where we played a version of baseball called Strikeout is faded to be almost imperceptible, but if you look close you can see it. In the middle of the night, when I am thinking about the past, I see it again, and as the light shifts and moves and disappears I keep it within me. I keep it within me, the hardware store and its hand lettered signs, the smell of the bread, the Mynah bird, the cool dark of the bar, the bent chain link fences, the narrow driveways, the laundry on the line, and it slips out of me as I move into the day and if you listen and look closely, you’ll see it. You’ll feel the old time hello of the neighbor and see the way the white sheet lifts on the line and wafts on a breeze before hanging limply like a white flag.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. Listen y'all, I want you to know something about me that you might not know because isn't that the real reason we throw it back on Thursdays? I have forgotten the reason we throw it back on thursday. Namely because I am constantly throwing back, I throw it back on Sunday and Tuesday. I throw it back on Monday, but anyways, I want to tell you something about myself. During the four and half months of late spring and summer after I graduated from high school and went to college I worked in a steel plant. I started out just doing labor, you know, whatever they wanted. Sweeping. Painting. I started on the second shift and moved to the third pretty quickly. I would have lunch in the lunch room with some of the old timers. Guys who had worked at Bethlehem Steel or Republic for 18, 19 years. They had battered lunch boxes and drank from theromoses. They swore a lot and talked a lot of shit. They were relentless to each other, and then they turned their wit on me. I mostly kept my head down, but after a bit they opened up to me. I noticed their lunches were packed lovingly by their wives and they appreciated it, you could tell by the way their eyes shined when they opened their boxes. This was the type of place where there was a giant furnace where they would process sheets of steel into coils, I think it was used in automobiles or office furniture. It was a really clean operation. Processing was different than manufacturing. Anyways. After a month of sweeping and painting, I got put on the line, shadowing an old thin guy who worked the banding machine. He showed me how it all worked. Told me what went on before and where the steel went after it left us. Mostly we sat silently in the racket of the machinery, watching the steel pass along the conveyor belt. I asked him one night about what he did before this. What he did in the other plant he worked in before it closed, and this is what I want to tell you about myself. I want to tell you what this old time steelworker told me in the middle of the night in Buffalo, New York one summer before I left Buffalo to go to college, and though I didn’t know it then, the last summer I would spend in my hometown.
He said: I worked in the chip shop, when the work was steel. When the blast furnaces billowed smoke that turned snow black. He said, the poured ingot molds don’t come out too perfect,
so a back leaned into a nine, ten pound hammer and chisel to chip and smooth them until they come like they ought to be.
He said: you work days, evenings, and midnight. Swinging.like 7 to 3, 3 to 11, & 11 to 7. I liked midnight, the big wheels wasn’t around then, and well, jeez, just starting out everybody are not talkers and everybody are not open, so you do what you do, you find the ones that you could talk to, that are drawn to you and in the end they will be the ones that clear the way for you
and show you how it’s done.
That’s the one thing.
He said: the guy who showed me to chip, real nice guy. We called him Squeege. He said, you can do this chip in two ways, you can just push and push hard on that hammer like all these guys do or you can sharpen your chisel.
don’t cut no more than you can cut.
you do it right
you ain’t going to be aching harder
than anybody else.
a day’s work won’t hurt at all.
This is what he said to me over the machinery, he said: I come to call myself a good chipper. They come down, the boss and them, the big wheels, and the boss said, I got this for you to do and I got that for you to do, and that made me happy. I figured I must be able to do it, like maybe I was one of the good chippers and maybe I come out like I ought to.
(this appeared in slightly different form in New World Writing in 2014.)