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. 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. Here is a photograph of me lifting my brother’s weights in the summer of 1979. The east side of the Buffalo, New York of my later youth was much changed from the place where my parents had grown up. The clean streets grew dingy. The once mighty and robust Buffalo economy that built the teeming neighborhoods of first and second generation immigrants reeled from manufacturing job loss and the energy crisis. Businesses shuttered. People moved away. The corner bars were covered in the elbows of those who used to make things with their hands. The deindustrialization of the northeast was occurring around us but our reality was not the same as our parents. For them, the hulking hull of the giant Bethlehem Steel plant that lay empty on the shore of Lake Erie was a harbinger of hard times. A billboard read, “Will the last worker out of Western New York Please Turn out the Light.” This was during the time of the end of the career of Muhammed Ali and the rise of Leon Spinks, Roberto Duran, and Sugar Ray Leonard. The floating of the butterfly succumbed to the missing front teeth from a brick to the mouth of Spinks, to the hands of stone of Duran. In much the same way this was occurring in our neighborhood. The beauty was replaced with an ugliness. My brothers were on the train tracks with balled fists. The hardness of the time was all around us. In our street hockey games, the cars would come down and the game would be suspended, the nets moved, to let the car pass. The exhaust darkening the snow. The white turning charcoal. The oil trucks tumbled down the street and stopped. The beleaguered operator in oily overalls would pull the hose to deliver the heating oil through the hookup on the side of the house to the furnace. The home owners coming out and saying with their hands in their empty pockets, just half, just half, hoping it would last if they conserved. If they pinched and saved or if the winter wasn’t too harsh, but it always was. We would pull the nets back into the street and resume the game until we dropped the gloves and fought like hockey players should. In the summer we lifted weights in our yards. We went shirtless and took on a new, tough language. We swore and spit and made many small fires. We were erasing and erasing and erasing instead of creating. We mocked the Polish accents of the elderly and smoked stolen cigarettes. The light of summer highlighted the emptiness and then the wind shifted from the north and it snowed and we put on our tired jackets and pulled the nets into the street. Our sticks scraped through the thin snow and clicked and scratched along the concrete. Bodies clashed in checks, bone on bone, hardness and anger and desperation in every hit. But within it. In the hopelessness of the loss of jobs for those who use to make things, in the shuttered businesses and bloodied knuckles, there was still that old sense of things. That through the harshness comes something smoother and easier. It was in those moments, when we were all bone and sinew, that we became Wayne Gretzky. For long moments we stopped erasing and created instead. We became adept at dodging checks and anticipating where the puck would be and executing the right move at the right time, and in that way we became graceful again. We moved and looked and saw. We moved through the dinginess and saw in it our own beauty. The men coming home from the bars, still unemployed, stopped and watched, and saw it too. Maybe even saw themselves in a group of kids who yelled car and stopped and moved the net to let the intrusion pass before going back to the game. To the perfect pass and a stick handle and score. The harshness tinged with kindness and grace. The strength of who were, where we came from, and where we would go.