Blue-Gray Days

Olde Port Fish Market
Down to the Olde Port Market

Written November 2009

I moved to this town many years ago, because the blue fog combined itself with the false impression of infinity that an ocean can provide if only an eye looks beyond the foaming coastline that signals a return to port.

For years before I came here, to this town of short-sleeved polyester shirts sitting proud around a boardroom table; this town of short walks to the Post Office or the sugary-pink bakery; this town of hello good mornings spoken to strangers; this town enveloped by a Sunday-morning, aromatic cloud of steam lifting off from crackling bacon and pan-fried onions; this town of inconsolable old fishermen and their exhausted wives. For years before I came to live with all of this, I vacationed in the next town over, just twelve miles away, but they were twelve miles that I never wanted to traverse.

Not until the morning I sat beside a wrinkled, fat and dusty man dressed in denim overalls, the two of us hunkered down over the diner’s counter, dipping burnt bread into sunny-side egg yolk, scooping dollops of homemade corned beef hash onto the wet and buttered toast. Not until we began to speak to each other, or rather he began to speak to me.

“Good to have an old-fashioned diner here in town. Mike, the tall guy who owns this place, comes from Atlantic City,” he said. His cheeks bulged with food as he spoke. His lips, full and chapped, looked slimy with the egg yolk he spilled there.

“Atlantic City? New Jersey?” I said.

“There isn’t any other, not that I know about.”

“My dad used to take me crabbing in Atlantic City.”

“Yeah, well you still have the accent,” he said. “I grew up there, too, along with Mike, though I expect that you and us came up at different times.”

“Sometimes I miss the place,” I said.

“There’s lots of crab and fish in the next town over. Just a short stretch, and I’ll be going there after breakfast if you want to come along. Won’t be much sunshine there today. Never is,” he said. “Want to come with me? Finish your meal, then.”

We both let the weight we gained from our full breakfast pull us down from the diner’s vinyl-covered stools.

His truck, rusty as a ripened crab trap, was parked around the corner. Along the way we walked past clean-shaven Christians holding hands with their pleated-skirt wives and pert college girls looking at their reflections in shop windows.

The truck door’s hinges creaked as I pulled her open. I climbed the distance from sidewalk to worn-cloth upholstery, sat and stared through a dirt-streaked windshield; and once out of town I allowed my glance to follow the four-lane highway’s painted lines.

My breakfast companion said nothing until we reached the exit that led to Our Town.

“Gotta drive down to the boat launch first, then we’ll ride back again and meet the crabs I was talking about. You game?”

“I’m game. You own a boat?” I said.

“No. I clean the fish that others carry up to the sinks. Then I sell what I can for them down to the Olde Port Market. Rest I give away to friends. It’s all part of the deal, the way I make my living now that I’m old. Once upon a time, though, I owned a side trawler. Many folks nowadays find it fashionable to condemn the man who trawls for the food they eat, but that’s just the way it is.”

“Is that why you gave it up? Because tree huggers criticized you?” I said.

“No. It’s a long story you don’t want to hear, but the short of it is that Manny, one of my Mexican crew, killed himself by being crushed in the winch’s cable. Nothing any of us could do in spite of his screaming. Once you’re caught, you’re dead. There’s a monument just the other side of town that makes mention of Manny and all the others lost to sea. Maybe someday you’ll say a prayer while standing there.”

I thought better than to ask the man any further questions. I figured that he needed time to think about Manny and then some more time to recoup his sense of purpose.

The boat launch felt like a lost and empty place, grey and filthy as the fog, constant rainbows of blood and guts flickering on the metal cutting boards beside the sinks. My breakfast companion worked fast and with the skill of a seasoned surgeon. I shuffled and humble-shifted my body around the several men working there, men who not once asked who I was, men who seemed so intent on completing their day’s work that nothing outside of that sweat-soaked reality registered as being part of the world.

My companion loaded several coolers, each filled with fresh-cut fish covered in ice, into the bed of his pickup truck, then wiped his hands on a blood-soaked towel and climbed back into the driver’s seat. I followed suit. We traveled less than a mile before he pushed his foot down hard on the brake pedal.

“There’s the crab tubs. Get yourself down and out, and go to look at them,” he said. “I’ll be inside talking business with Giovanni.”

To the left side of the Olde Port Market’s front doors sat two metal tanks filled with live crabs. A filter ran a continual bubbling stream of water into the vats in order to keep the crabs alive. I stared and ran my thoughts backward to the times I and my dad went crabbing just outside of Atlantic City.

“They’re beauties, ain’t they now?” he said.

I jumped when I heard his voice come from behind me. I’d been lost in thought, and now I felt irritated because of his interruption.

“No. No, they aren’t beautiful, friend. Matter of fact, they’re downright ugly,” I said.

“What’s got you pissed?”

“The hair on the back of their shells. I never saw, much less ate, a crab who needed a haircut.”

“This ain’t Atlantic City, you know, but it’s as close as you’ll come out this far away.”

“Maybe, then, just maybe I should turn around and make my way back home.” I said.

“I like you better without all that make pretend shyness, kid. Hash and eggs, and catering to old men like me won’t cure your disease, but –”

“Disease, what disease are you talking about?”

“Loneliness. Don’t go back now to pretending, because a second act can’t erase a first impression,” he said.

“I’m not particularly lonely. No more than most who move from one shore to another,” I said.

“Okay, whatever you say, but for what it’s worth, I think you’re right about crabs. You’re not the only one who remembers the oily smell of mud around Atlantic City. But home you are. Right here and now. Manny was lonesome for home, too. But in fact of things insofar as I understand them he died at home, right there crushed to bits inside that winch’s cable.”

I never again saw my breakfast companion, and I never want to see him on a different day. But on blue-gray mornings such as this one I oftentimes visit the monument he talked about, and standing there I say a prayer for all of us.

 

An Amusing Anniversary

Raining Rice and Revelry

I suspect that a man learns to forgive when he moves away from a melancholy interpretation of events and toward the delightful. Either that or he simply grows too old to consider himself so important as to claim past injustices committed against his person as a worthy cause for sympathy.

Dad was a storyteller.

“Once upon a time, I was working for the railroad company, Pennsylvania Reading Seashore Line,” he said to me. “I was part of a crew of men who lived inside a box car and traveled the rails from town to town. When we reached a station where repairs were needed, to the tracks, to the cars, or to the station house itself, we did the work.”

Dad loved the railroad. I knew this because whenever he told me stories of his adventures there, I could smell creosote in the air around us.

World War II had recently ended. Dad came home from North Africa to Atlantic City, New Jersey — to the house where he’d grown up on Arctic Avenue — and he found himself lost, lonesome and depressed. He slept on the living room couch, because he didn’t feel like climbing the stairs that lead to his childhood bedroom, and because he realized that he couldn’t be a child any longer. Most mornings, as he told me, he failed even to shave his face. Why shave? Shave for whose sake?

Today we’d describe his malady in terms of difficulty readjusting to civilian life. Back then, no one bothered with any such description. Men were supposed to be men. Oprah Winfrey wasn’t born yet. Veterans were expected to become part of the super-dominant society that the USA had become and to get their butts back to work.

And so Dad went back to work a lonely man who grinned his way from one sunrise to the next.

The Crew, Dad on The Far Left

“She kept the cleanest counter inside any Newberry’s Five and Dime I’d ever seen. She was pretty, Anthony. She reminded me of Claudette Colbert. I knew I was going to marry her. Love at first sight; that’s real, I tell you.”

Only problem, as my father’s version of the story had it, was that Dad’s best friend, Frank DePalma (fourth from the left in the crew’s photograph) fell in love with the same girl. But as Frank was indeed a best and noble friend, he gave way and space to Dad. Frank let Dad have first shot at the girl.

Mother resisted Dad’s every flirtation for a while. After all, she yet pined away for Wayne, the Navy man who suffered a “nervous breakdown” soon after his discharge from the service, a disgraced patient of Ward Eight.

As all such tales of film noir romance must end, however, Dad’s grin won the day. On one spring evening, the aroma of love mixed with that of nubile honeysuckle dominating the atmosphere, young Rosario Toscano showed up on Florence’s wooden porch and knocked on her door. She opened both the door and her heart, and accepted the one-quarter-carat diamond mounted on a sliver of a golden band that he offered her.

One day later, Florence changed her mind about marrying Rosario; but her father, Anthony, insisted that she’d made her bed and now must sleep in it.

A June wedding was planned and later executed. May God bless the ancient Romans for the chosen date.

Rosario and Florence spent their first honeymoon night inside a room of a favored hotel. Many years beyond the first and final take of this scene, and well out of my mother’s earshot, Dad told me another short tale.

“She was a virgin, just like The Virgin Mary I prayed to when I was lying on that couch on Arctic Avenue. And she was scared to death of sex. So when I tried to hold her, she went for the third-story window. I think she would have jumped out and down if I hadn’t saved her.”

The Hotel Still Stands Proud Today

In years now gone by, I’ve oftentimes written about the misery of my childhood days and nights. The beatings, physical and emotional, born of early resentment and doubt. Oh woe is I, said my melancholy mind.

More recently, however, after looking at some photographs of those early times, photographs I placed as part of a tribute to my dead brother John, a cherished friend wrote to me to say:

“It is the photos of three brothers that I dwell upon, and what I see is almost an exact negation of some of the word-meanings in the accompanying text. And also within your previous postings over the years that have forlornly mourned the horror of persistent maternal misbehavior.

At that time I considered writing to my friend to explain that my parents were masters of the setup shot. Each and every family-album photograph was staged both to present the face of perfect love and to hide the sadness of the third dimension.

Yet if my friend is reading this article here today, may he know that he did me a favor by way of his remarks. True enough it is that my mother and father pretended to live a life of 1950s’ marital bliss, and true enough yet again that I fell victim to their pretense. True as well, however, is the happiness my parents discovered within the boundaries of an anguished home.

So where, then, is my delightful interpretation of this cheerless story?

Where?

Mother and Dad loved each other, that’s where the tale must begin and end.

Where?

Well, I am here to interpret events in the fullest manner they deserve.

Where?

Inside the smile that this moment shows itself upon my face.

So, Happy Anniversary, Mother and Dad. Thank you for the stories, and thank you for my life.

That’s Me In There