Snowing again here. Harshest winter since I moved North. In retrospect, I’ll like it except this should have happened when I was 20 or so. Come to think of it, the winter of 78 had two huge snow storms in Jersey within a month of each other. I remember shoveling Mrs. Boyle’s and Mrs Chris’ walks and then doing my own, because it had been a tradition with my father to shovel them before ourselves (they were both old) . Mrs. Boyle gave us brandy. Mrs Chris gave us a sort of royal smile, which I liked almost as much as the brany. She had a daughter named Dot, and a “ne’er-do-well” son in law named Kenny. You knew men in the neighborhood were not quite reputable if there was a Y connected to their names. It meant they had been good looking and beloved early in life but had failed to grow up.
I liked Kenny because he had played semi-pro football and could toss the ball better than any of our fathers, but he always tossed it too hard, and we’d fall down on the street trying to catch it, or it would hurt our chests or our hands, and he’d say: “when you can catch my ball, you can catch a pro.” He made the mistake of doing this to Oochie, a rough kid who later made it all county as a wide receiver. Oochie never wore anything but a shirt in mid winter. His dad was a Russian immigrant straight out of Dostoevsky who drank. When my mom asked Oochie where his coat was, he laughed, and said: “my dad drank it.” My mom went and got him a coat. Oochie wouldn’t wear it because he knew his father would beat him if he took charity. But he liked my mom after that.
So Kenny throws the ball at Oochie, and Oochie catches it. He’s skinny and only 11 at the time (1966. I’m flashing back). Kenny throws it even harder, claiming the first one was a mercy throw. Oochie catches it. The next one is aimed at Oochie’s head, and Oochie hits the macadam. He gets up with his elbow bleeding. Kenny says his usual: “When you can catch my ball, you can catch a pro.” And Oochie walks up to him and says: “Hey, Kenny… catch this!” And he grabs Kenny’s balls and squeezes them so hard Kenny goes to the ground. Oochie spits on him. He says: “I ever see you throwing a ball in the street again, I’m going to kill you.” Then he walks home.
So Kenny wasn’t all that bad and neither was Oochie. Kenny was just a little sadistic, like many mediocre men who haven’t grown up, and Oochie was the victim of sadists all his life and it had made him hard. But I got off the point of this story.
So in 78 there were two snow storms. Kenny couldn’t shovel because he had a bad back. He got me my first good paying job as a summer worker for Liberty movers back in 76, so I tolerated his bullshit, and maybe it was true. Maybe his back was shot. It was. 120 degrees sometimes in the hull of the truck, riding with the furniture, but 10 bucks an hour under the table–a king’s ransom in 78. I worked 30 hours and then they didn’t need the extra help because they’d moved the office furniture at AT @ T in Sommerville (or Sommerset). I forget. I got laid off, but I had 300 bucks swimming like a sleek shark in my pocket, and I spent it immediately on a cheap amp, a mike, and a Kelly green electric guitar with tan trim. I called it my “gator.” It didn’t matter that I knew not what to do with a guitar. I played piano. I played by ear. I figured I’d just write a song on the guitar, and then no one could tell me it was wrong because it was mine. I figured out some chords, got my blisters, and when my small hands porved troublesome (small hands on a guitar are far worse than small hands on a piano) I took off the high e string and found out this allowed me to play chords I couldn’t play with six. This has troubled decent and law abiding guitarists ever since, but I could now switch chords quickly enough to play basic songs. So how could I hate Kenny, no matter how many times he knocked me down with a football, or claimed his back was out when it snowed? He and Dot were not married, which meant they were common law. This made them different than all other people in my universe, and I liked that. Dot had a niece from Illinois who sometimes came to visit and stood in their backyard staring at me as I stood in my backyard staring at her–in mid winter, the grass all yellow and cropped, her coat a fake leopard skin. I was maybe six then and she was around my age, We never spoke. We just stared and because of all the clouds, and the grass, and the bare trees–everything that surrounded our stare, I kind of fell in love with her, though I never thought of asking her to play and after two winters of this she disappeared into the world of her far off state never to be seen again. I often thought I would go to Illinois and find her, but people in my neighborhood thought it was a trip if you walked ten blocks to the next parish.
Anyway, so I was thinking of all this while I shoveled, and I am thinking about it now. That winter, they took Kenny in an ambulance for bleeding ulcers. My mother was dead. We were slowly losing the house I grew up in and, in 1981, it would be sold off for less than we paid for it in 1961, and I’d have all my belongings placed in the bed of friend’s pick up including the piano my mother had taken a job to buy for me.. The neighbors would stare. They always came out for ambulances, fires, and disgrace. We fell down in low esteem after my mom’s death, my dad’s illness (neither me nor my brother and sister, nor my father knew how to grieve except to get angry, and stop mowing the lawn) . Someone called my sister a slut (she was 13) and the mothers told their daughters (who were not as virginal as the mothers thought) not to play with her, so one night I got drunk and tore off every gutter and drain pipe on the block. I tore down a fort fence. My sister needed some mother to take my mom’s place and instead she got the word slut. Anyway, we weren’t going to be missed after that, so I just looked at them all as they watch me pull away, and played the piano. I played ragtime. I figured it was appropriate.
But in 1978, I was still considered a good kid, someone who had just lost his saintly mother,and was a college student at Rutgers (a big thing in my neighborhood) and I shoveled snow for Mrs Boyle and for mrs Chris. Then I just kept shoveling. It was the first day I felt joy or allowed myself to feel joy since my mom’s death the year before. I remember watching the smoke of my breath and laughing as some kid threw a snow ball at my head. I remember thinking my mother would want me to be laughing, and that I could still close my eyes and see her exactly as she had been–perfect, poised with her double jointed and lanky arm at the kitchen stove, the stove speckled with Ragu, a cigarette in one hand, and a spatula in the other singing to Peggy Lee’s “Is that all there is?” When I couldn’t see her so clearly ten years later as I closed my eyes, she died a second time. And after all the moves, when I lost all my pictures of her, but found one in an old box, I was terrified because the woman in the picture did not match the mother in my mind, and she died a third time. If you ever lose someone you really love, you will find out they keep dying and each death is different, but it is grief anyway, and soon, if the grief dies, you will pick the scab again just to bleed a little for them so that they never think, so they never think you don’t love them anymore.
I shoveled every walk on my side of the street. I shoveled out cars. I shoveled until the whole sky took on the rainbow glory of my being snowblind. Every other house someone gave me a shot or two shots, and I had ice in my long hair from drivers gunning it to get out of a spot even when you told them not to gun it, and we stuck broom sticks, and orange crates, and folding chairs in the dugout street spots to make sure no one took anyone’s spot. I was a little drunk by the time I got done and returned to the warmth of the house we lost three years later. The radiators spit. The old furnace rumbled and chanted and did its version of Boris Godunov. I got on the piano and played Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush, and Springsteen’s Meeting Across the River, and then some Bach -like piece I’d made up. And the drunkenness went away. I slept on the living room couch, woke up. It was night: disorienting. Outside, the stars inside the snow were glittering, and you could hear snow and ice melt all around you if you listened. That was a rough winter. Every winter is rough.
Now, at an age when most people are having their first grandchildren, I have two little babies. I want to tell them what their grandmother and grandfather were like. I want them to know their father had a whole life before them and it was all a prep for loving them. I also want them to know I am scared almost all the time, and its alright, because I know how amazing things are and how easily they can be taken away from you.. I want them to like their own version of the Kenny, and Oochie they will meet at sometime in their lives and to understand if not like them. My mother did not call him Oochie. She gave him the full majesty of his own name, Mathew. And my mother called Kenny, Ken. She gave me my full name too, Joseph. She understood that names were a power to do good or to do permanent unrelenting damage. She would never use the word slut to describe anyone. I remember that Oochie showed up at my mom’s wake in a jacket. That was his way of saying he respected her. I think he went to jail. Ken and Dot and Mrs Chris and Mrs Boyle are long dead, but not here. Here, it is snowing, and I have some shoveling to do.