Sunday, July 26, 2015
Poetry is not an expression of personality.
It is an escape from personality. It is not an outpouring
of emotion. It is a suppression of emotion--
but, of course, only those who have personality
and emotions can ever know what it means
to want to get away from those things.
-The Sacred Wood
After the womb,
We’re all tourists.
WHEN I WAS YOUNG, WHO KNEW SHIT...ABOUT DYING?
If I could only live at the pitch that is near madness
When everything is as it was in my childhood
Violent,vivid, and of infinite possibility:
That the sun and the moon broke over my head.
I was eleven, lucky eleven. And I was “husky.” You didn’t say “fat” in 1958, not if you were fat and Jewish. At least grandmothers and clothing store owners never called it that, not if they were smart that is. Faye, my grandmother, would say, “I’m the one who’s fat, I’m like a house, but not him; if he were fat then I’d worry.”
My father was a big-boned Cadillac man, a disappointed gangster at heart. He breathed heavy and fought fat most of his life, usually losing in the caloric wars. He inherited his mother’s dominant gene, food...both selling it and eating it. Kafka knocks, enter the madman.
Annie, my mom, always teetering toward fat, remained on the border. Perhaps her particular masochism and guilt commingled in such a way they channeled misery into a narcissistic and dangerous love that shed inner weight which always threatened to drip from her put-upon flesh. Quick to laugh and quick to yell, she hawked her kids with equal parts of love, suspicion, and abandon.
The last member in our emotional quartet was my brother, Bobby, born puny and sick; a stomach disorder put him in a hospital shortly after birth. The fat gene saved him. He survived to grow as tall as the other males, thin at first, then fat, again thin, and the last I saw him, fat; six and a half years separated us chronologically and an ocean of history carves our distance now.
Born in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the first real memory I have is sitting on a wooden bloodstained butcher block table that held I don’t know how many tons of meat and poultry. I’d eat fresh “chop” meat that came from the innards of a steel hand-ground strainer; the red meat sliding like strands of spaghetti into the thick wax paper held in the fleshy hands of a mustached butcher. The meat was cold, rich, thick and delicious. The narrow “Mom & Pop” deli was our 21 Club... our steak tartare was without the egg, the Worchester sauce, money, pretense, cachet, sophistication, and boundaries.
Faye’s son, Mickey, my father, was the inheritor of food, both ingesting (inhaling it actually), and selling it. Coming from a small town in Pennsylvania, Faye owned a bar with Becky, her sister, catering to the truck drivers who drove through. Tough ballsy women them. Each was funny in an unabashedly lewd way. They looked like one another: obese Jewish fireplugs, the first to dance, laugh, fight and curse--the world and each other. Owing nothing to anyone, they fiercely guarded the family and did whatever the hell they pleased, whenever they pleased. They fought, they laughed, and they cooked for their families and customers. Each of them took turns throwing out some tough sonsofbitches, and I’m sure, loved a few of them as well. When they moved to Brooklyn, Faye opened a little delicatessen that my father worked in. After he married my mom, she begrudgingly loosened her hold, but only a little. My mom was able, after becoming pregnant and giving birth to yours truly, to move him further away from his mom and into a life more their own, or so she thought. He probably thought he now was supposed to side with his wife, as men eventually were supposed to do, but, in reality, he never really did “throw in the towel.” Because, in fact, he never had to. The helix of fate sealed with genetic glue grows like mold in the dark; it is moist, responds to secrets or silences, and needs no nourishment, except fear.
My father finally bought (with a partner he didn’t trust for almost 40 years), a supermarket on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. I can’t separate the bullshit from the poetry that is Brooklyn, at least from my memory of Brooklyn. Memory is maddening; it provides sperm to the impotent, eggs for the infertile, and offers hope where there was none. Yet, it’s still a kind of accomplishment. I walked by a sewer today in New York City. I remembered sticking my head in a similar one looking for a “Spaldeen” ball that we played stick ball with as kids, and because of the water and waste, the urban flotsam and jetsam, the smell like a skin above the water, I remembered a young kid in short sleeves, thin golden tanned arms, sure, strong fingers who fashioned a coat hanger into a “lift” to get under that pink ball to cradle it and bring it back to the surface so we could play some more without spending what we didn’t have to buy a new one. That smell is lovely today.
I remember the fifties more by the Cadillacs that my father owned than by the inner workings of those years: the slight difference between the ‘54 and ‘55 mobster Cadillac bumpers, like Marilyn’s breasts, the gas cap under the back taillight; the fin inversion of the ‘57 and ‘58 Caddy, and the beautiful radicalism of the ‘59, predicting the space travel of the next decade. Most of the country was like Eisenhower’s smile, vanishing into the green golf carpet; the smug infancy of a nation emerging from wars won, sold to us with a starched white crewcut regularity. But Brooklyn, my lunch bucket borough had an identity: a hooker with a heart of gold; a striving failure; a William Bendix sentimentality. Wonder Bread and beer factories belched stability, the beautiful bums of Brooklyn flashed World Series spikes good enough to last a thousand years. The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports brought boxing into our homes every Friday night. My pop, who seconded for a short time Sugar Ray Robinson when he fought in the Golden Gloves, showed me how an old man was able to turn back the clock, how Sugar Ray flicked his showy jab, quick, and danced well enough and long enough to enfeeble the young Turks like Fullmer and Basilio once or twice before fading into a California Smalls’ Paradise of palms and sunshine. My father sat, like his father before him, and fought the fight, scored it, and was usually right about who won. His father, a gentle soul, loved his whiskey and boxing. I would see him sometimes watching the old black-and-white TV fights; he’d bob and weave, jab and hook to the air, lean back weary, breathing hard...and wait for a decision.
My mom did what most of her Jewish and Italian friends did: She cooked and cleaned...and waited for her husband to get home late at night to feed him and tell him what he’d sooner not know, the day’s tedium. The failures, frustrations, betrayals, trivia, disappointments, aspirations, and news--some shocking, most pedestrian--were balled up and hurled at him in the first minute of his arrival. Sometimes the words were launched before he actually appeared, just the opening of the garage door was enough to trigger the verbal onslaught. Who could blame her? Her work went not only unnoticed, but unappreciated--even hated. My father, no less a narcissist, but male, was smarter, had more guile, and was overtly much more manipulative than my mother, and his anger, bordering on the physical, scared her. That came, my mother would lament, “from his side of the family.” Her side, he would heatedly counter, were “cold,” “remote,” “stupid sonsofbitches.” And every woman, at least of Jewish/Italian persuasion, of those times, should only know how to cook, clean, wipe asses, cater to the male cock, take temperatures, heal, help, launder, starch, dress, solve problems (domestic only, please)...and laugh. Then I came along and provided her a new kind of guilt-edged mirror and a paradigm of impossibilities. She thought that she shouldn’t, couldn’t fail...and that followed her like a vicious rumor which she secretly thought was true.
“Absence” not only “makes the heart grow fonder,” it also can scare the shit out of us. I’ve been told that for my first few years of my life I was inexorably attached to my mom, not “leaving go of her skirt”; so much so, that when my grandmother would walk up the stairs to our apartment above the superette to baby-sit me she would have to wear a towel over her head so that I would not recognize that it wasn’t my mother when I got up or rocking me to sleep. If I uncovered the ruse, which was often the case apparently, there were no stopping my screams until Mom returned or became so fatigued that I fell asleep.
“Hmm,” I must have said, “where the fuck is she? This doesn’t feel right; I’m hungry, wet, shit in my diapers, a little off. Hmm, not back yet? I think I’ll cry. Huh, maybe she didn’t hear me. I’ll try screaming. All right, fuck this, it’s time to panic.”
The “fight or flight” instinct is cool--if you have a choice. But where the fuck was I going to go? God, or whatever gods sit on high, thought of this. In order to keep us alive they endowed us with instant unalienable secretions: First the big guns to “fight”: Adrenaline, Cortisol, Dopamine, and the like: Boom, boom, boom boom boom. But then...
If that response failed, and my needs still weren’t met, I couldn’t maintain that fever pitch of expression and took “flight” internally. “Fuck this, I’ll rely on myself for comfort.” My endogenous opiods were tapped to soothe and balance an out of whack system.
At first, that’s all I was doing, trying to stay alive; a time worn and tested survival mechanism kicked into gear, and it was quick and repetitive. Sixteen years later I’d have to go outside to satiate my insides, but then I didn’t have to go out to “cop”--my brain brought it to me. Hell, anything living can fuck, but to do so without getting caught and killed is no easy task.
Without a scalpel, I began performing my own bypass operations. Like the branches and roots of a tree, my psychic forces curled around or broke through any and all obstacles; my internal limbs, not able to fully coordinate my natural progression detoured, and produced branches, deformed as they might be, but were to me as limbs to a tree, as natural as breathing.
My mom for many different reasons (which were never examined and so remained unconsciously dangerous), was a doting, and indeed suffocating, mother. Her parents were ignorant Jewish immigrants who expected my mom to take care of her two younger sisters, work, and navigate all their worlds in a new culture. She had married a man who charmed her but never cared to know her, and thought he was doing her the biggest favor in the world by taking her away from her “impoverished” upbringing and so expected my mom to cater to his every need. Becoming pregnant must have seemed like a vacation to her.
And what a couple we made! I was her perfect baby, and she a perfect mom. She didn’t know just how twisted I was becoming. And me? After finding my way around whatever roadblocks presented themselves, I took a breath, and went on, staring as it were in my own tragicomedy--a preverbal Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot: “I can’t go on like this.” “That’s what you think.”
But what was I going to do at that age, read a book, go to the movies, go to the beach, talk to a social worker, go on Oprah, buy a gun? Barring those options I made a decision, unconscious at first: rather than live in a world of dissonance, I’d live in one of fantasy, one where all my needs were met, my desires fulfilled, my dreams realized, and discordant voices stilled. It would be twenty years before I would read, From that spring whence comfort come, discomfort swells.
Then something happened at age four when I could talk, that terrorized me and that, to this very day, makes any recollection of that time--and up to the age of eleven or twelve--appear like sporadic undated snapshots.
One day my mother was gone; she simply vanished. Nothing was explained to me. For weeks I was handed from relatives to neighbors. It turned out that her cancer was misdiagnosed. However, I developed a stutter, which made it impossible to get out a word, let alone a sentence, without turning beet red and feeling I was going to die. I remember standing in front of my father, this incredibly large and monstrous figure, when this stutter first announced itself. He looked tortured watching his son blush. And I, trying to pronounce a word, could not catch my breath. Even after my mother returned home, the stutter remained. When special classes in elementary school failed to “cure” my speech impediment, my parents chose to ignore it, thinking it would go away on its own; and for the most part it did...for the most part. When I was under pressure of any sort, it sprang--and springs--full blown. Remember in class, when you knew you had to read a sentence aloud and you counted the kids until it was your turn? I began panicking as soon as I figured out the countdown sequence. Life, became a countdown.
At home I was quiet, perhaps introverted. My folks were loud and volatile. It was a time of Dr. Spock and Bishop Fulton Sheen; it was confusing. I was curious, though. There was a little girl across the hall from us. Our folks were close friends. We played together. One day, a rainy afternoon I believe, we crept into a closet, and discovered our differences. It looked so innocent, so smooth, so internal. She was a bit older than I and probably had developed a greater capacity for guilt; in short, she copped-out and told. Our parents treated it like The Nuremberg Tribunals. Standing over us, they demanded “The Truth! Goddamnit, Tell us the Truth! How could you do such a thing?” I felt my cheeks blush; hot blood rose that branched into every part of my body. Embarrassed, we said we’d never ever never do that again. We avoided each other, for the rest of our lives.
For a traditional middle-class Jewish family living in Brooklyn, our yearly cycle was pretty normal: my pop worked for fifty weeks out of the year and made enough money to support us; my mom took care of the rest for fifty-two, and we all took a summer respite in a bungalow colony in Far Rockaway called Finkelsteins. Two large wooden framed buildings built in the 1940s housed most of the guests, and a few adjacent bungalows sheltered the rest. The wraparound wood porches with chairs and benches overlooked lawns, trees, a row of hedges to the north, a ball field behind that, and a small distance away, the beach and Atlantic Ocean. I can see the ancient soda chest in the main lobby...a steel box of ice water and old steel rails, slightly corroded. In one corner was the soda, Mission, and it was a mission to get one out of there. The bottles bobbed to one part of the chest. After inserting the dime I’d tried to find my favorite flavor. Sticking my hand, up to the wrist, in that chest was a testament to youth...and thirst...but trying to maneuver and manipulate that soda through the maze, usually catching fingers in the process, was innocence and perseverance combined.
Families came back year after year, with few exceptions. And so, I made friends with those kids that were near my age. When there wasn’t much to do, a few of us would hide underneath the steps leading up to the main house and look for change--pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters--and the colors of the panties that women wore walking up those same steps. Seeing a glimpse of that was almost as good as finding money. When we went to the beach, me and my best friend, Morty, who was a few years older, would sometime, between swimming and swimming and eating and swimming, sneak off to peek through wooden slats that bordered the women’s solarium to view unadorned female flesh hanging off. They seemingly all had tits like my mother’s: huge, pendulous, giving. Sometimes they’d see us and scream, “Get outa here you crazy kids,” and we’d dart away, afraid we’d be caught and thrown off the beach. The flesh, but mostly the private parts, of women clearly fascinated and excited me. It was forbidden, but it beckoned me at the same time. The whole package: pussy, tits, make-up, perfume, hips that swung and invited, intoxicated me so. I also liked being seen and chased away by those with a smile on their faces--which told me something--although what, I haven’t figured out.
That summer, as I went from my eleventh to twelfth year, I played lots of softball (becoming a better pitcher, copying my father’s unusual delivery, a pronounced wind-up by holding my knee up in the air, belt high, while my arm hesitated a beat, throwing the batter off). I swam like a fish, and had a crush on a tall thirteen-year-old Texas gal nicknamed, what else? Dallas, who had the body of a 30 year old. One night late in the communal T.V. room I put my husky, though rapidly thinning arm, around her broad shoulder, twisted my neck and planted a kiss on her soft and rounded lips. Oh, that was nice. I think my little dick jumped a bit. All I could hum for the next few weeks was “Volare” in Italian. The only low point for me came when I fell off the cot one night during sleep (maybe I was trying to get closer to Dallas’ secrets) and cut open a gash above my eye that required a butterfly stitch to close. A difficult circumstance to explain was when I pissed on a boy who wasn’t my friend for doing I don’t remember what. My folks made me apologize to him. They couldn’t believe their son would ever do something like that. But the kid had his piss-stained, piss-smelling pants for evidence. I hope he still has them.
Labor Day came and went. Jerry Lewis was just beginning to help “his kids.” Vacation was just about over. Time to go back to Brooklyn; I wasn’t sorry. I was looking forward to it. I was about to begin the seventh grade in a brand new junior high in Marine Park on a huge playground and ball fields, see my neighborhood buddies, and begin my last year in Hebrew School before being Bar Mitzvah’d. Hebrew School, damn. I detested the first two years and showed it by either disrupting class or cutting it. I was suspended so often that I had to invent things to tell my mother we were studying during the times she thought I was there. My belief, even then, was that my God was a punishing one. I even began using my brother, Bobby, as a foil. I’d offer to baby-sit him by taking him to a movie which was a leap for me. Even at that young age I could detect in him a “wildness” that I was unable to express but had noticed I lacked. At this point, however, early in September of 1958, everything was rollin' right along...except I was losing weight.
I can’t say with any certainty whether I was prodigious, suicidal or saintly as an eleven year old; I was husky--smart and husky. I began reading at the age of one and a half, a little rebellious in school but so what? I read The Hardy Boys for “Christsakes.” And now I was growing, shedding baby-fat, a lot of pounds at an alarming rate. As I said before, my family could eat, pack it in, especially sweets: ice cream, cake, sodas, candies. Sugar city. Our world didn’t revolve around the sun; it revolved around a Lazy Susan. My mantra was: “What’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Ma?” My mother’s response was, “You’ll know when I put it in front of you.” The kitchen was our battlefield for love, control, retribution... and brisket.
Physically, I didn’t feel right when I got back to Brooklyn. I was pissing more, drinking more, eating more, and losing weight. My mother, insanely unsure and overprotective, was growing suspicious and I was in denial. I had the idea that if something was going wrong, it was my fault and so I tried to hide it. What I failed to understand was that whatever the problem was had found me.
Something else found me too at just about the same time, conveyed in two separate incidents. Just after the summer ended and we were home settling back in, a phone call came late one night. My mother answered, listened for a second, let out a “OH NO,” and dropped the receiver. My father grabbed the cord, jerked the phone up to his hand and spoke into it. I could see the color drain from his face. My parents’ closest friends from the summer, Jerry and Selma and their two children, Maxine and Warren, had experienced tragedy. Jerry had met death literally head on. He’d been driving home late that night and had kissed a stanchion doing about 70. Splat. Finito. I was pretty shaken. I liked him, and I liked his daughter even more who was my age. My first girlfriend at seven. The first girl I ever bought anything for, an ice cream frappe (sundae as we say today) and we held hands. I went, out of curiosity, to the funeral over my mother’s objections.
We stood in the back and looked at the open coffin. A pink wax-like glow emanated from Jerry’s face with its familiar mustache. My mother kept saying how it didn’t look like him, but I thought it did. I imagined what a hard job somebody must have had trying to reconstruct his face. I stared, waiting for him to get up, laugh, say it was a joke, one way to get his friends and enemies together in one spot, but he was no Lazarus.
The second incident occurred on an Indian summer day at the tail end of September while I was walking home from Hebrew School. I was about to cross the street, which was one of those complicated three way intersections, when an old woman who must have been in her late seventies or early eighties, pulling a shopping cart, started to do the same from the other side of the street. She walked slowly off the curb and inched her way onto the roadway. A car came screeching around the corner and blind-sided her, lifting her at least 25 feet in the air. She landed with a dull thud. Half her skull opened, creating a flap that allowed you to see her brain while her thick blood formed a pool around her head. Wisps of silver hair tinged with maroon liquid lay on a soft and steaming black asphalt bed. The driver got out, went to his trunk and removed a blanket as pedestrians ran toward her. Shouts of “Call an ambulance” broke the stunned silence--as if all the world stopped to honor a death. I inched closer to get a better look. Through the picket fences of elbows and legs I managed to see how life drains out of someone. As I made my way home, I kept sneaking back glances at her lifeless body. Death had left me alone until I was eleven. It seemed God was making up for lost time.
When I got home, I said nothing to my parents. I didn’t know how to say what I was feeling. I do know I was scared, fascinated, and repulsed by the image that had embedded itself in my memory forever.
The body always asserts itself. Your mind can be cloudy or clear, weak or strong, confused, assertive or procrastinating. But the body is animal. It doesn’t know how to wait.
I never had to close my zipper, I was pissing so much. Pissing and drinking. Drinking and pissing. I would devour pints and quarts of ice cream. Run around the corner after dinner to the candy store and buy Breyer’s vanilla from bulk containers, vanilla beans almost as large as coffee beans, the taste so wonderfully vanilla and creamy. Cold ice cream, and sodas, anything cold or freezing, especially water. I’d go to the bathroom, where the water was the coldest and open the tap and let it run for awhile, put my mouth to the faucet and just guzzle. Back and forth from bed to bathroom at night. My mother, a notoriously light sleeper, would call, “Norman, what’s the matter?”
“Nothin'’ Ma, nothing.”
“Why are you up so much?”
The drinking, pissing, eating and losing weight continued with a vengeance. I was feeling fatigued like I went 15 rounds with the heavyweight champ and just about could get back to my corner--arms weak, legs leaden, body weary, mind distraught. I felt like shit passing through a fly papered tube.
The stomach pains came next, serious and severe. It was like they were saying, “Hey asshole, if you don’t believe what’s going on now, try some of this.” It made a believer out of me.
“Ma, I can’t go to school today, stomach hurts too much.” That’s all I had to say and she had to hear.
“Get dressed. We’re going to the doctor.”
I got dressed as quickly as I could, took a leak, and we left.
The urine test wasn’t scary. The pink tip of the dipstick turned purple in a second. The blood test was more frightening and painful. I’ve always had thin “rolling” veins so it took the nurse awhile to find one. It seemed like she was playing darts. She jabbed and missed until she finally succeeded. The syringe was fat and made of glass. The needle was thick steel and a bit dull compared to what we know today. She drew my blood up into the syringe and then transferred it into a test tube. I tried humor, “It looks like good blood.” My mom tried to smile. She was visibly shaken, asking the doctor a million questions as he hurried from examining room to examining room, treating three, four patients at a time. All he’d say to her was, “We have to wait, try not to worry; go home, take him home; I’ll call later when I get the results.”
“Don’t worry. Go home, I’ll call you later.” Much later.
We came home and did what we were told. We waited. My father soon joined us, and waited. Nervously, we looked at the phone. When it rang my mom was the quickest to answer. She’d usually say, “We’re waiting for a call from the doctor,” and got off. With each teasing ring, our collective hearts would hold a beat. Finally, he called. My mother’s part went like: “Yes...yes...what?... what’s that?...yes...now, right now?..Immediately?...Yes. All right, right now?...Yes...Thank you, doctor.”
She cradled the receiver and turned to my father trying to control her tears. “He has keto...keto something. He has to go the hospital.”
“Right now, right away, now. The doctor said he got him a bed right here, across the street in The Kings Highway Hospital.”
My head bounced like a ping-pong ball from my mom to my dad, “the ping-pong of the abyss” as Ginsberg would write.
“Tonight, Ma? I gotta go tonight?”
“Tonight. He said right away. Don’t worry, everything will be all right,” they both said. The first lie that I spent a quarter of a century proving wrong. “I’ll put some things together for you. Maybe take a book.”
A book! How long was I going to be there?, I thought. “Yeah, OK.” I went to my room to find something, hearing my parent’s voices whispering feverishly behind me.
I chose a biography of Jack Dempsey that was overdue at the library; hell, they couldn’t find me now.
We were rigid and silent going to the hospital. I was determined to be “strong,” take it “like a soldier” all that shit, even though I didn’t have any idea what I was about to “take.” I knew though, there was something my parents weren’t telling me--like my pancreas was missing.
pgs 4-10 from JUNK SICK: CONFESSIONS OF AN UNCONTROLLED DIABETIC
Published by Norman Savage at Smashwords
Copyright Norman Savage 2010
Greenwich Village, 2015