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. 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 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. 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. 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.)
Hashtag throwback Thursday. Snow starts as a hint in Buffalo then hunches people over for a time before March releases them back to themselves. The winters are dark and sometimes harsh, but not insurmountable. A good snow quiets and calms the soul. It covers up the ugliness for a minute and remakes a place into something original and true. It did for me at least, and I’m sure if I asked, for a lot of other people too. It’s a funny thing about a long winter though, it remakes where you live and then when it leaves, reminds you of what you forgot. Here is a photograph of the little corner store around the block from my grandmother’s house. It is March, the snow has melted, but there is still the rumor of winter. The trees are bare. There is a chance of flurries. The lit windows of the houses are like eyes. Pots of sauce are simmering on stoves, but here is what I want you to know, and here is what I am trying not to forget about the east side of the Buffalo, New York of my youth. I want to make sure I am remembering the little bits and pieces of that place that stay with me. It is hard to imagine, but the corner store around the block from grandmother’s house was a relic. A beacon of the past fading slowly in the present and I am glad that I experienced it. I knew it as John’s since that was the name of the man behind the counter. He knew my grandmother. They were neighbors. Each with accents from Poland. John and his wife ran the little store and lived upstairs, participated in the community. You would open the door and a little bell would ring and then you would step into the store and the wood floor would creak and you were in a different space. This was during the advent of arcade games and skateboarding, but this place knew nothing about that. This was an old punch cash register. It was newspapers and comic books with the covers torn off. It was candy cigarettes and Pall Mall’s. The store was all heavy wood and glass display cases and shelves. The glass case that ran along the right side of the store was full of individual glass dishes of loose penny candy. My grandmother would give me a quarter and I could walk around the block and spend it. I labored over the choice and John, quietly patient, waited for me until I picked half Swedish Fish and half Smarties, when he scooped them out and put them in a little brown bag for me. He took my quarter as though it were a large bill. I carried the bag back to my grandmother’s and slowly unwrapped the cellophane packaging of the Smarties and shared them with her. It was just a little store, family run, but personable and part of the neighborhood. This was the time before CVS moved in a few blocks away. This was the glory before the steel plants moved away. This was the snow covering the cracked sidewalks and trampled down grass of autumn. This was the spring when the snow disappeared and we became reacquainted with the beauty of our neighborhood. Of the quiet lives and colorful candies in glass dishes. Bright welcoming lights. Thin slivers of the American dream. The past unknowingly disappearing into the present and my grandmother saying, here is a quarter go to the store. Here, in March, a thousand miles away it comes back to me and I like to think that what she was really saying with that quarter was go there and see it before it is gone, before it’s too late. Keep the jingle of the bell of the small shop owner in your heart; keep the creak of the floor that the countless workers in the neighborhood made smooth, and don't forget the hand of the person that handed you a brown paper bag full of sweetness.