Somewhere, out there

February 11, 2009

Today, when I should have been working, I went out walking. It comes from working by a window and from a day that you know, just by looking at it, you can either surrender to or regret its passing by without you. I’ve never liked regrets. Once I had left the work behind and felt the day around me, I knew what had been at stake. Sunday was mild, but the breeze flicked enough of a chill at you to remind you of the season. In the breeze today, the chill was gone. The breeze today wrapped warm arms around you, and you could either fall for it – the course I chose – or suspect it as a trick to put you off your guard. There were at least a half dozen crocuses at the foot of an elm tree that chose the same course as I did. 

This was no day for that first-aid kit of an exercise room. I walked outside, nearly a mile along my usual route on a busy street, but then I turned into a road I had never explored. There was a very large house with a wraparound porch and a mansard roof, and an outbuilding big enough to be a small house itself – also with a mansard roof. Across the way was a ballfield – 315 feet down both foul lines – just relaxing, greening, and waiting for what won’t be long in coming. A person could sit on the porch of that house with the mansard roof and watch the ritual play itself out, across the way there,  in the gloaming of many summer days.

I thought, as I imagined myself on the porch I was seeing for the first time – a porch about a mile from my own front door – that we often live as though we were on a stage set, traveling the same routes every day, not looking beyond the familiar scenery, although most of the world lies beyond. 

There was an e-mail on my Blackberry from my friend Ed, who had warned me that the e-mail would say it had come from George. Ed’s first name is George. I didn’t know that until today, standing by the ballfield and the house that was also new to me. I have known Ed for more than 30 years, but today he told me that he has always been called by his middle name to avoid confusion with another George in the family – his namesake. That’s a funny outcome, I thought, inasmuch as he was christened to honor the earlier George but cannot use the name. My middle name is Dominick – to honor my paternal grandfather – but almost nobody knows it.

I turned home, keeping up a pace that I thought would satisfy a 3.5 setting on the treadmill, and I arrived to find the undone work frowning at me, unimpressed that my shoulders were damp with sweat. I’m finishing the work now, regretting nothing.

Silk City

February 11, 2009

Charles Turndoff used to have a fur shop on Ellison Street in Paterson. It’s likely my mother bought such fur as she owned from Charlie, as the grownups called him. I drove by Ellison Street today. I knew Charlie and his shop were long gone, but still, I looked that way. That look was like the flick of a tongue at a sore one knows will hurt but still must touch.

It isn’t that I miss Charlie. I knew him only through the filter of my parents, and I don’t remember ever being in his shop. The ache comes from the larger transformation that his absence signfies in the city. A few blocks from Ellison Street, by the great falls of the Passaic River, Alexander Hamilton stared across the chasm and saw the future, but his vision – fortunate man – didn’t extend past the middle of the 2oth century. Hamilton Street and the Hamilton Club – at least, its spectre – are still among the landmarks downtown. The visionary’s dream is not.

This is a grim place now – Market Street, where my mother walked with us from one store to another, always lingering at Meyer Brothers, with its gleaming floors and polished counters and its saleswomen all in black. We’d expect my mother to remind us again that she, too, had worn black here, at 14, after exaggerating her age – her contribution to her family’s wellbeing. We’d be proud when the floorwalker, who would call her by her maiden name, and whom she still would call “Mr.”, recognized her after all those years. On the street again, we often encountered “Herman,” a mysterious, unexplained figure from my mother’s past – a well-dressed blind man walking with a white cane. My mother’s greeting would always be enthusiastic, and Herman always recognized her voice. We most likely would cross paths, too, with another jaunty figure with a cane, a figure of a different sort that wanted no explanation. And “Mr. Peanut” – in full costume – gave us the cue we needed to hound our mother to take us to the Planter’s store before boarding the bus for home. 

When we were old enough to go on our own, we rode or walked to Paterson and bought records from a man named Rip who looked like Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and called me “Mr. Paolino” when I was 15. And we’d go to a movie, sometimes two, at the Majestic, the Garden, the Rivoli, the U.S., or the Fabian. We were still children, really – insensitive to what was going on around us and coming behind us.

On my way to Paterson today I passed through Woodland Park – strange name on the map of Passaic County, there because voters managed last November, after vainly trying  in the past, to shed the name “West Paterson” and with it an association with the city that stirs under its grimy, ruined facades, a city that can’t forget its own name as it tries to see past tomorrow to a future that Hamilton didn’t plan. I sat in my car at a broken parking meter and watched the people who dream in Paterson now – black, Latino, Arabic – and I was glad to be back.

I made a new friend in the city today, a man who teaches some of those folks I watched on the street. “I was born in Paterson,” I told him. It sounded, it felt, so much better than saying “Woodland Park.”

We looked out the back door just now, and there behind the trees was Cosmo’s moon – bright enough to almost hurt your eyes if you stare at it. I don’t know if it was out there last night, but it would have been appropriate: We stayed up ’til midnight watching “Moonstruck” yet again. We had just watched “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” which neither of us had ever seen. That was directed brilliantly by Elia Kazan, who later went before the House Unamerican Activities Committee and named names. In 1945, when Kazan made that film, we Americans hadn’t yet refined our paranoia about Reds.

We knew “Moonstruck” was scheduled to start at around 10:30 and neither of us made a move to turn off the TV or change the channel. We watch it whenever we’re aware that it’s being broadcast – and this was TCM, with no commercial interruptions and no dubbing over expletives. Of course, one can achieve the same thing by watching the movie on a DVD, and, in fact, there is a DVD of “Moonstruck” in a cabinet immediately under our TV. But that wouldn’t be the same, because we’d be watching it, but no one else would. We can do that any time – and we do, at least twice a year – but the communal experience was too much to pass up.

“Look! It’s Cosmo’s moon! … Is he down there?”

Back in the saddle again

February 8, 2009

Now that I’m back to teaching, I’m used to being the one giving assignments. But I have been given an assignment which can be summarized as follows: “Blog!” I don’t know when I’m going to find the time – to say nothing of where I’m going to find the original thoughts – to sustain this journal, but I know an assignment when I hear it. If there were any chance that I wouldn’t recognize it as an assignment, it came with the word “assignment” explicitly stated. So within the hour I had opened an account on WordPress and posted this first message. This process reminds me of my days in college radio, when I often wondered while I was talking into the microphone whether anyone but the engineer and I were listening. In a way, that was part of the romance – especially on a night shift, when there was nothing but darkness outside the studio window and the engineer in his den seemed oblivious to anything but his own thoughts. My own mind wandered while the records were turning, but the call I dreamed of never came, that throaty whisper both exciting and thrilling: “Play ‘Misty’ for me.”