Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Biography of an Exit

It's amazing how tall people can look when you're five years-old. (No. I'm not kneeling. Long-term memory's good, that's all. I don't mean that's all that's good. I mean, what was I saying. . . .?) Of course you don't realize how distorted your perception was until you look at pictures of yourself standing next to the tall one. THEN you can see the proportionate height difference. The real shocker comes many (many) years later when you happen along the same photo and the giant in the tall one is back again, this time to stay. My Grandpa had this kind of tall. I knew him best when I was five.
Dad worked the four to midnight shift at the plant and Mom worked from nine to four during the day so I spent a lot of time at other people's houses. But that year that I was five, I spent most of my time with Grandpa. The first half of that year we went out a lot. We would walk to where he worked, in the factory neighborhood. People would stare at this odd couple - silver straight hair pushed back by his broad forehead which was up-staged by his broader grin. He'd be wearing a work shirt with pants slung low to accommodate his doughy pot belly. And me, little girl with long, chestnut brown 'bah-sie (as in "kielbasi") curls (thusly disciplined with rags every night while still wet & very bumpy to sleep on. My hair was just as straight as Grandpa's), neatly tied back with ribbons, dress starched and standing at attention around skinny legs set in white anklets and Mary Janes. And I would stare at the factories.
Leviton was the biggest. They made electrical things. They actually closed the street that ran between their two buildings to public traffic. I mean Grandpa could remember playing stick ball on that street. No more. (no-sticky-no-walkie-no-touchy/keep-outie) So, when someone pushed you around in Greenpoint, you could glare, "Who d'ya think ya are, huh? Leviton?" and everybody got it. Grandpa said the Levitons weren't pushy, though. They were smart. And I wondered where the Leviton boys played (did they?) and if anyone pushed them around.
Then there was Sucony Gas and Oil, spread out right down to the river, with tanks and towers that burped out the soot and smoke that covered my mother's sheets if she didn't get the clothes in off the line before noon. (Now this used to make Grandpa nervous. Not the soot. The clothes line routine. Mom was short, did EVERYTHING quickly, efficiently. And our railroad apartment was on the fifth floor. I just KNEW he pictured her going ass-over-head with a clothespin in her clenched teeth.) After Sucony came the glue factory - which smelled like rotten eggs. Grandpa said they used horses' hooves to make glue. I cried. He understood. I held his yellowed, calloused hand and jumped over the oily puddles and broken glass. And he reminded me that lots of kids' daddies had jobs because of Leviton, Sucony and glue.
His shop was on the second floor of a furniture factory. Grandpa made reed baskets and furniture. (I'd heard that Grandpa used to OWN - as in Liviton - THREE furniture stores. And then there was a crash and some things you don't ask about.) The long strands of wet reed hung from a string strung horizontally near the ceiling. The old men took the just-right-wet-enough strands and braided them, twisting and pulling until you began to see a cradle, or a rocking chair being born. Pretty things. And pretty things were made slowly, Grandpa said.
Sometimes, we started out for the shop, but didn't get there. We'd go to the park and feed the birds or "listen to what the leaves were saying." And I knew he was missing work and Gramma would be mad and he'd sing, "You gotta GIVE a little, TAKE a little. . ." and if she was still mad he'd sing "Peg 'O My Heart". Usually you'd laugh just to see him burst into song like that. And, too, Gramma's name wasn't 'Peg'. So. Well, I guess he used "Peg 'O My Heart" the way some people used, 'pain in my ass' and, well, Gramma laughed. Everybody laughed - especially at the tap dancing that went with the singing. Except for the routine he liked to do on the kitchen table. I loved it. Gramma hated it. (The top of their table was some kind of porcelain-covered metal - PERFECT, ESSENTIAL even, for the wonderful tinny ring, the very heartbeat of tap dancing. Even then, I had the feeling Stella didn't 'run deep', 'ya know?)
Anyway, I digress. (imagine) We also had lots of friends to check up on. Frank, the pretzel man, would be by the park. Frank had shiny, white whiskers and a pipe. He also had a pushcart filled with steamy, hot, fat pretzels. You could get mustard but we liked them plain. So did the birds. The cart and the lid that covered it were pale blue and dressed with giant pretzels rendered by Frank in oil paints. Grandpa said that Frank was an artist and lived all by himself. His wife and kids had left him - would pass him up in the street. This wife couldn't "know" a pretzel man/artist. I didn't understand that. Grandpa said some day he would take me to Frank's rooms. He really wanted me to see these paintings, not prove anything. It would be a treat. Kids used to make fun of Frank's Italian accent and I would smile inside because I knew that he was SPECIAL and nobody could hurt him - not even a Leviton.
On the days we didn't get pretzels, we'd walk to the north end of the park (McKaren Park - named for an Irishman who grew up with Grandpa in our mostly Polish-Italian section. Grandpa said, "Everybody's the same - American." There, right behind one of the ballfields, was what I called the onion church. It was Russian Orthodox. A beautiful, white onion growing up into the sky. We were Roman Catholic so my parents said we couldn't go inside the onion church. Grandpa laughed when I told him, Said God had all kinds of houses and HIS problem was getting people IN not keeping them OUT. Naturally we went in - and returned often. God had some neat houses.
Sometimes we'd watch a baseball game and eat a hot dog with sauerkraut. I noticed that the hot dog man was charging some people more than others - much more. I'd hear "fifty cent", then "twenty-five cent" then "two dollar fifty cent." Or "FOUR DOLLAR TWENTY FIVE CENT" so I told Grandpa. Thought he should tell the guy we were on to him. Turns out the guy was a bookie. Actually, the way Grandpa told it, he was kind of like the man at the bank. He took their money and put it away for them. Didn't seem odd at all. Lots of people we knew had two jobs.
We always saw Mrs. Gerardi - talking. She tried to make it look like she was sweeping or beating rugs or something but we figured she just brought all of her cleaning junk out to make it hard to pass without stopping to tell her the latest. And if you didn't have a story, you'd better cross the street because when Mrs. Gerardi said, "What's new?", she meant business. She only asked us once. I immediately looked up at Grandpa who was looking up at the sky. He never broke stride. He just said, "Can't you see I'm talking to the Sun, Panie?" (Which means "Mrs." in Polish)
Then there was Ray Ray - who usually hung out around the fire house. He was a big kid - around twelve, I guessed. They said he was 'retarded' and I had trouble understanding him so I asked Grandpa where he was from ( the whole neighborhood had an accent). "Where's he from?', he said, (and this really got me). "What does it matter where he's from? We're all here together." One day when we were talking to Ray Ray, he said, "I have a present for you.", and he gave Ray Ray a plain block of wood. He took it, held it in his stubby, very white fingers and turned it around and around. Grandpa took out his pocket knife and showed the both of us how to whittle. Then he gave the knife and block of wood to Ray Ray who took them and grinned and drooled and set to work. We left him like that. He was too busy to notice. And Grandpa said, "You watch. Ray Ray is going to make pretty things."
We didn't get to watch too closely because all of a sudden Grandpa announced that we weren't going to be going out much for a while. We had important stuff to do at his house. So we started spending a lot of time at Grandpa's. (Actually, everybody called it "Gramma's" but she must have been very short because I distinctly remember that Grandpa filled the place.) Now, basically, you COULD say that one gray, sooty block of eight and sixteen-family row houses was pretty much like any other in Brooklyn. But if you did, you'd be wrong about at least one block - India Street - that I know of. That's because India Street was Grandpa's - 183. As I swung around the corner - sort of spiraling - one hand on the subway pole, straining to see the other end of the block, there he'd be, draped on one elbow at his window, five flights above the stoop which rested on the rock of garbage that had - from time to time - been dubbed, "the sidewalks of New York." That's how it went. You had the cracked and chalked cement at the bottom, then the black pickets marching up to the chipped door frame, then the four strata of venetian-blinded or shaded windows - all TOPPED by Grandpa.
I always took the time to enjoy the variety of ethnic cooking, laughing and yelling as I climbed the four flights of steel=tipped steps leading to Grandpa's. I especially liked and savored the smells because that was one thing you never found at Grandpa's. To be fair to Gramma, you might find the occasional aroma of fresh kielbasa but it succumbed completely to the admixture of Sloan's Liniment and beer. Anyway, I'd be breathless and burst in, face to belly button with Grandpa, who'd smile and shake his head as if in wonderment at this miracle he thought was me. We'd walk from the kitchen (nothing happening there), through the two bedrooms and into the parlor where we'd light by the American flag, which stood ceiling-high (no matter how old or tall you were) in the corner, by Grandpa's window.
His maroon, horse-haired chair tickled my arm and the backs of my legs. The rest of me was stroked by the fuzzy flannel of his robe, as I always sat on Grandpa's lap. (The robe was something new. The slippers, too. Same work shirt and pants, though. He told me many gentlemen wore robes when they came home from work. But he wasn't working. Said they called them 'smoking jackets'. He didn't smoke. Whatever. I decided it was his 'window outfit' because that was our post.)
Here, he explained all about life and people. The window was essential, you see because from there we had all the props - real and/or imagined - at our disposal. Some days we looked straight out and talked about crowds and ships and factories and what they were and did - for, by and to us. Some days we'd focus on looking down and watching the movements of India Street - its cars, its kids, its vendors, its sewers. Sewers, in fact, introduced me to what I might now call the notion of ambiguity. Grandpa just said sewers are good and bad. The city empties its bowels into them daily, but, viewed from atop, as it were, they were measures of athletic achievement. If you punched or hit a Spalding ball two sewers far, it was an automatic home run.
Grandpa and I had a favorite game which I might as well tell you about since probably no one from India Street will be reading this. On days that looked especially gray, inside and out, he would take a fresh piece of chewing tobacco and give me a tiny piece. After we had worked up a lot of spit, he would say, "Let's aim very carefully and try to hit the next Ford." - or Plymouth or whatever he decided would be the target. Now you may cringe. And I can understand that. But let me tell you this feat is both art and science and God, it was fun. Especially trying to look innocent when you missed the Ford and got the fedora.
Sometime, I don't remember exactly when, Grandpa didn't seem to be having as much fun as I was anymore. I figured he was bored. Some days, though, he'd say he was tired and sigh a lot, "Matka, Matka," or "Boze, Boze," which mean Mother and God respectively in Polish. He'd even go with a "Matka Boze" every now and then, which had me a little worried. I guess he figured me out because one day he said he said he had something very special to show me. He checked to make sure Gramma wasn't around - a touch that transported me skyward as a rule because I loved intrigue, especially when it meant he was putting one over on Stella.
Anyway, he goes to his dresser, which smelled like English Lavender (Stella's smelled like moth balls, What can I say?), reaches way in the back, and reverently extracts a holy card-sized picture which had been bound over and over again with tape, now yellowed such that I could hardly make out the image. "This," he said in a harsh whisper, "is the Black Madonna. I speak to her every night. I always have." He was holding back tears now, so I could tell this was serious. "Last night", he continued, "my Madonna began to cry." I was anxious to assuage his obvious pain and pointed out that whatever it was, it must be over because she wasn't crying any more. He said, "Look closely." I did as I was told.
There it was. Now, unmistakably, a large tear was sliding down from her suddenly discernible, heavily-lidded eyes. Naturally I asked him why she was crying. He said it had been going on for a while (probably the whole time I thought he was being bored) and that he didn't even know himself why until last night when she had finally told him. He reminded me that Stanley, my father's youngest brother, was fighting some big war for us over in some place called Korea. He had been talking to his Madonna about God sending Stanley home safely. Well, it seemed that when push came to shove, Grandpa had ( I'm sure in a wildly careless moment and if you'd known Stanley, you'd be sure, too) made a deal with God. If God brought Stanley back, Grandpa would go. I couldn't believe it. I was frantic. Wasn't there time to reconsider? Couldn't Gramma go instead? Is THAT why the Madonna was crying? See. Even SHE thinks it's a rotten idea! My pleas and arguments were endless and to no avail.
There was a fair amount of crying going on in our house over the following few weeks. I figured Black Madonna must have leaked the story. Who else knew? Then, one Saturday morning my brother and I went to the dentist while Mom went to Grandpa's - which she had been doing a lot of lately. When she came home, I didn't tell her about my filling because she looked like she had lost something very big and very important. Actually, it was something very, very tall. Grandpa was gone. They were saying he died of cancer. They were also saying, with tears of sadness and joy, that Stanley was coming home. Stanley, who was so SHORT! I'll never figure God and Grandpa out on that one. Didn't seem fair when I was five.
Now that I'm very much older, it still doesn't seem fair. I can still hear him, though, "You gotta give a little, take a little, and let your poor heart break a little. . .the story of love". Love is the tallest thing I know - his kind of tall. . . .L