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 of me squinting into the sun. This is the late 70s or early 80s. This is back in my materialistic days. I am holding the poster of Farrah Fawcett I bought at the newly opened and very cool mall. The one that would eventually put the mom and pop shops of my neighborhood out of business, but I didn’t know that then. I have purchased this poster because both of the posters of Tatum O’Neal and Kristy McNichol were sold out, also because I figured the poster of Farrah Fawcett would distract my brothers long enough for me to get away from their fists, which in those days was code for love. Just after this photograph was taken I would tack the poster above my bed using three green push pins and one black because I couldn't find another green one. Here are other things I purchased at the mall: two patches, and several quarters worth of plays on the game Pac-Man. I am with two of my brothers. They have just finished throwing rocks at their friends and are about to bicycle to a place where they can light something on fire. First they were enthralled by Farrah Fawcett though and I knew I had made a good purchase. I am uncertain where my oldest brother is, but I will guess that he is either roller skating or smoking cigarettes. He has outgrown throwing rocks at friends. He might be kissing a brown-haired Italian girl behind the garage. She will remain nameless. We are on the east side of Buffalo, New York. It is summer and it is a song. In a few short weeks it will be autumn again and I will become a rasping cough in a square of light from a window with a view of falling orange and red leaves. I will be sick with influenza and a hand so cool and tender will be smoothing my hair. In my deliriums, it will be Farrah Fawcett, then Tatum O'Neal. Their hand will caress my cheek, red with fever. An oak leaf will drift through my view. I will see it in the instant of its fall, flat and spinning, held aloft by my blink. But before that, the summer is bright and lush. It is sunlight, Farrah Fawcett, Tatum O'Neal, and me.
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.)
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.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. This is not a photograph of me. It is a photograph of my father’s father who we called Poppy. He died when I was very young and I only have a few recollections of him, mostly from the time just before he died when he came to live with us. Imagine that. My parents had a three bedroom house with five young children and made a room out of the foyer for him. I remember him slight and stooped with creased trousers and a white shirt. He was short. It was summer. My father set up a lawn chair for him in the backyard and he sat there eating a piece of a fruit and looking at the leggy flowers. I remember him quiet and looking, his hands on the arms of the chair. I knew nothing about him, only that he was my Poppy and that he was old and sweet to me and that he held my hand in his big soft hand. I don’t remember his funeral, though I am sure I was there. My brothers and my sister, each in turn, as it is with age, have more memories than the next. It is through the photographs in our family album, and the stories, both theirs and my parents’, associated with those photographs, that I came to know him. I won’t go into the whole story, but the short of it is that when he was young in northern Italy, he broke his back carrying bricks up a ladder to his father who was a stonemason. When he healed, his father sent him to France to become a pastry chef. When I was older, I found his name on an Ellis Island ship manifest from 1912. He settled on the east side of Buffalo, New York and worked in a hotel downtown as their pastry chef. He saved his money and brought his wife over. My sister recalls that he had a beautiful garden, that he made wine. He had my father who had me. After he died, a go-to Halloween costume when we were young was his chef’s hat and white coat. It seems like every year one of my brother’s was a chef and then I was a chef. I had no idea why we had that hat and coat as he was long retired by the time I knew him briefly, but I liked being a chef. The whiteness of the funny coat, the tall poof of the hat. My mother would throw some flower on our faces and give us a bowl. I wonder if my parents saw a piece of him in us every Halloween. I like to think they did. I like to think that by becoming him once a year, we honored him and in turn the essence of who he was somehow became enmeshed with who we would become. His sense of adventure and resolve to be better, his kindness and love, his ability to make things, to watch things grow and be patient in difficult times. Last week in a phone call to my father we got to talking about death and he told me again the story about his mother’s death. It is a simple story and one of my favorites, and I think it is one of his too. I never knew my grandmother because she died before I was born, so I ask about her a lot because there might be something of her in me too. Anyways, this is the story. She went to lie down in bed because she wasn’t feeling well. She called out to her husband, to the person who was my Poppy. She said to him, I’m dying and I want you to hold my hand and he did. He held her hand in his delicate hands that had shaped and molded the doughs of puff pastries, canelés, cannoli’s, and croissants. The hand that later held my hand. He kissed her and she breathed her last breath and he held her hand.
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.
Hashtag Throwback Thursday. As I recount my youth on the east side of Buffalo, New York, I am trying to understand what it was then that somehow stays with me and makes me see the world in the way that I do today. I have touched on this before but only peripherally so I want to be clear. I want to make sure you understand that it was the emotional and physical strength of the women in my neighborhood that had a profound effect on me. Of course, at the time, my thinking was the complete opposite. Instead, the women of that neighborhood, my mother, grandmother, aunts, nuns, and the mothers of my friends were as rigid at the statue of Mary that graced every backyard. Their suggestions and directions were largely ignored once we bicycled out of the neighborhood and made our way into the fields and thin slices of woods where we hunted snakes and found the soggy cardboard mats of old hobo camps where waterlogged issues of Playboy or Hustler introduced us to another world. We turned those pages with a stick and talked big, piling lie onto lie. This was in the time of BMX, skateboards, and stolen bottles of beer from the refrigerators of our fathers. We built fires and poured gasoline on them. We swore at each other and made crude remarks behind the backs of the priests and nuns who taught us. We drank warm beer and smashed the bottles against brick walls and then we went home to a hot meal made from some recipe that was handed down through generations. We were oblivious until we weren’t. We were rude and cruel in the woods. We were nasty on the ice playing hockey. We spat. We yelled. We used our fists and then we didn’t because we had discovered the girls of our neighborhood. They were our equals in every way, except one, they knew, in addition to the ordinary vulgarities of the neighborhood, how to temper that hardness with a softness. They would say, in the scrub of woods where we played, look at that bluebird, and we saw. At the lake, they would float on their backs way out and when they came in they talked about the quiet way the clouds moved over them. They had knowledge in seeing and feeling that we didn’t and we found ourselves changed. My best friend, whose hair was fire and whose knuckles were raw was so overcome he made grand gestures. Once he bought a bouquet of flowers and walked through all of us and handed them to the girl of his dreams. We all laughed and moved aside uneasily. With those flowers his hands became soft, his hair glowing embers. I too was swept away from brutal things. Here, on the shores of Lake Erie, a photograph was taken. It is a photograph of me and my first girlfriend. She lived a block away from me on Roebling. She knew how to spit and swear. She could do little tricks on her bicycle. She stood beside me on the beach, and when in my awkwardness I stood oddly, she put her hand on my neck and caressed it before moving it to my shoulder as if to say it’s okay, pull me close I won’t break, and I did and I could feel her power and the water fell in sighs on the shore and the sun burned bright. It burned away the coarseness and then it began to slowly set and it cast everything in perfect light. All at once I saw everything clearly. It was the way my grandmother showed my mother how to make dumplings. It was the way my father listened, directing all of his attention to my mother. It was my mother canning peaches at the end of summer for those moments in the long harsh winter when she would open them up for us, and they glowed like a sun and tasted of the summer when a girl put her hand on my shoulder and made me realize the power of softness and how it remakes the harshness into something more beautiful, the bluebird in the scrub of trees. The embers at the end of a fire. The light. The light. The light.
Hashtag Throwback Thursday. I am trying to get this all down. I am trying to capture the essence of the place where I was born and gave me definition. The distance from then to now seems so short, but the amount of history in every extinguished flame of life that has been lost is significant, so I feel like I must rush to define that narrow space so as not to lose it completely. Everything that comprised the few blocks of the east side of the Buffalo, New York of my youth was compact. My parents grew up on the same streets I roamed. The houses were separated by a narrow band of drive. They were nestled close together with low chain link fences in the backyard that encouraged conversation with your neighbor. My parent’s parents had settled here too. They came from Italy and Poland. They dug gardens in their yards and had children who spoke Italian but became fluent in English and they, in turn, had children who spoke only English. Because of this, there was a sense of the old world in the neighborhood. The old world where people built things with their hands, used flour and water to make bread which they broke with their family over conversation every night. That distance somehow narrowed with the rituals they brought from those small towns. I sometimes wonder, was this the uniqueness of the place? The hardship and longing in the heart of those who left what they knew and remade that place on the streets and in the neighborhood where I grew up. It was this longing and closeness that was passed on from generation to generation. It was the lives and families that were built on the backs of hard workers, the clipped lawns, the money in the envelopes that went into a basket passed by your neighbor. It was more than this too, it was the overwhelming influence of the women of that neighborhood. My mother and grandmother. The mothers of my friends and their grandmothers. It was the old stooped women who walked with their kerchiefs on, who knelt and prayed the rosary every morning and stopped for a minute on the way to the grocery to watch the children run and play. It was the remarkable ordinariness of them. It was an ordinariness that became extraordinary.Their constancy as the economy in Buffalo turned. Their worrying and thinking and getting the pen out, the writing down of figures after figures hoping everything would turn out right after their children were safely asleep and then there again in the morning bright, their husbands already at work. The quiet dignity and emotional strength they imparted with the most ordinary of tasks. In those days the big heavy industry, the steel plants that sustained the economy, was disappearing, but it was the women of that neighborhood who stood in defiance and refused to give up hope. They had come from people who had endured more difficult moments and stood making soup with the vegetables from their gardens as if to say our times are hard, but no matter how hard times get, if you have a family and you stick together you can make the best of it. It was this emotional strength that permeated the place. This idea of closeness, of how we are all connected, poured out of them like a light and allowed us to see. It was the women in our neighborhood who were strong and carried us forward without ever letting us know their strength. At parties I would see them huddled together in a kitchen, smoking and drinking, talking in a conspiratorial way before rejoining their husbands who they made laugh. I often wondered what they said to each other, but looking back at a photograph I found from the old neighborhood I like to think that what they were doing was simply listening to each other.
Hashtag Throwback Thursday. This is not a photograph of me, it is the photograph of two of my classmates from the Catholic grade school I attended on the east side of Buffalo, New York. As I have described before the east side of my youth was predominately Catholic. The old Polish and Italian women in their thin dresses praying the rosary in the vastness of the basilica like church named for the Saint, Gerard, patron of children and mothers. It is not for nostalgia that I try to remember or at least try not to forget all of those moments spent on those few city blocks. It is, instead, the looking and seeing of what it was that helped shape me. It is all of those grey Ash Wednesdays that differentiated an ordinary winter day into something more, a stopping to recognize that we are here for a brief moment and then we are gone. This comes back to me sometimes, most acutely in the south where the sight of a person with ashes on their head is all the more striking on Ash Wednesday because they seem to be the exception rather than the rule, but it happens other times too. At the scraping away of an old building. At a saddle shoe on a Sunday. At the dim reminders that surround us of a past that continually recedes. There was a piece of orange yarn laying in the street nearer the curb. It brought me back to the time of tube socks, Topps hockey cards, and pay telephones. Sometimes that is all it takes, a piece of string to bring me back to a grammar school parking lot at recess. To the moments that shaped me and made me who I am. In that piece of yarn in the gutter were two pig-tailed girls on a red rail holding a bit of string. Their fingers move and their foreheads narrow in lines of concentration. The old women are in the church while the children run and swear outside. In the midst of all the yelling from the jumping of the ropes and the hockey game I am watching them and everything turns silent when they run through a series of string figures passed down to them from their grandmothers. The fish in a dish to candles to the cat's eye. They were holding in the palms of their hands the secret. That bit of string that they held became the thin threads that connect one generation to the next.
Hashtag Throwback Thursday. This is not a photograph of me. It is a photograph of my Aunt Laura, the youngest sister of my grandmother. My aunt who lived above my other aunt, her sister Rose. My aunt who kept a yellow canary named Dickey who when he died, bought another yellow canary and named it Dickey. It seems like nothing, this photograph. An old woman is carrying groceries and a newspaper. Seems so ordinary. Look again. This is what I have been doing on Thursday. This is what I do in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep on Monday and Tuesday. This is what I do on Saturday and Sunday. I get up quietly so as not to wake the dogs. Not to wake my wife. I put on a dim light. I read a book or try to read a book but the sentences somehow turn to memories. I pull out a shoebox of photographs and flip through them to find myself again, or to see where I went wrong, to see what happened that made me end up here. I’m not sure what I am trying to say. I think what I am trying to say is that in my youth on the east side of Buffalo, New York I was surrounded daily by what I wrongly assumed to be the ordinary. There was the butcher and there the bakery. There was the flower shop with the black mynah bird that hopped around on the counter or stood staring out the window. We jingled the bell above the door and stood fascinated before it as it said hello in greeting. A bird said hello and it pleased us until it didn’t. There was the milk machine that coughed up dimes and there was my aunt walking down the street. It occurs to me sometimes in the middle of the night how little I know about her. The non-filtered Lucky Strikes she smoked or was it Pall Mall? The yellow canary. The candy dish of kisses. With new eyes I look again at my aunt walking, the ordinary pedestrian, and I see myself. I see myself in her conspiratorial smile as she hinted at her past in the ways we all do. Relaying bits and pieces the best way we can. She was the wild one. The one who snuck out through windows to go dancing and drinking in her own youth. The one who had a married lover who I only knew as the bookie. But it is more than this too, this photograph brings back that former me. The dumb one reading books, leafing through New Yorker magazines, wanting to get out and out and out, sick of the same sidewalks. The milk machine. The way the light slanted in winter and then left altogether. I looked and listened but failed to see or hear. In the middle of the night, in dim light, I turn the photograph to let the light catch it so I can see it better. So that I can see what I missed. What I missed was the extraordinariness of the ordinary. The light tilting. The weight of the bag, and yesterday’s news in a hand I once held.
Hashtag Throwback Thursday, circa 1980 to the sweet streets of Buffalo's east side. Here I am smoking a cigarette I had pilfered from the purse of my lovely Aunt Laura who kept a canary that was yellower than the turtleneck I relentlessly wore. My Aunt lived above her sister in a spotless apartment. She smoked several packs of non-filtered Lucky Strikes a day and she kept a yellow canary, that sang sweetly, in a cage. She also kept a covered glass dish on her coffee table full of Hershey’s Kisses. There was something about lifting the lid to grab a kiss that made the chocolate seem finer than the mass produced piece it was. But enough of that. Though I didn’t know it at the time, in regard to love, I was some lesser, but no less important, Antoine Doinel. I am with my gaggle of goons. We had been wandering around the neighborhood as we were wont to do in those days, laughing, riding handmade skateboards, playing stickball, gambling, and lighting small things on fire, generally before the street lights came on. This was in the time of tube socks, banana seats, and pay telephones. I was clearly delighted with myself, having just held the sweaty hand of my first love who momentously took her hand from mine to wipe the sweat onto her Jordache jeans before entwining her fingers into mine again. It was then that I realized all things were possible. We broke up a day later via a note passed in music class where my joy of being next in line to play the xylophone was greatly diminished by the words "i’m sorry” with a broken heart in place of the dot over the lowercase i on a sheet of snow white paper folded into eighths. She had found another. The first of many such experiences in my young life. But this was before that note. We were walking our familiar streets. There the barber. There the butcher. There the lot where we played hockey. We were untamed, bodily, and brutal. We laughed with our mouths open, we spit and swore, stumbling towards the things of adulthood. The holding of hands, the kissing and touching. The overwhelming beating of our hearts in our fine, thin, chests that we ignored by making sarcastic remarks or setting small things on fire that belied our true feelings. Those feelings that we felt when we held the hand of the girl in the perfectly blue jeans or when we heard the sound of that bright bird cut through the silence, or lifted the lid of a glass bowl to reveal the treasure of a tinfoil wrapped kiss.