Story by Pete Shaw
I was recently on a train from Denville, New Jersey to Pennsylvania Station (Penn Station as the locals have it) in New York City (The City as those same fellas have it), my balance bent. I grew up in New Jersey, not far from The City, and at least once I became an adult, the way in was easy. New Jersey Transit bus route 139, which I picked up at the Union Hill Road stop in Marlboro is only a long stone’s throw from the house at 9 Markham Drive into which I was born. A 75 minute jaunt later, largely up Route 9 and the New Jersey Turnpike, and I was in the Port Authority, just a few blocks from Times Square.
A year ago my brother John and I moved my dad from the old house to an apartment in Denville, about three minutes from where my brother, Nancy his wife, and their three dogs, two cats, and two ducks live. It is much better for all of us, particularly because my dad turned 90 back in March. He had been a figure of good health most of his life, but even his body must succumb. Two winters ago he fell on ice, cracking a vertebra, and he later twice developed bleeds in his colon. The only two upsides I can discern are that he moved near John and Nancy, and at least for a few weeks was taking some opiate which helped me somewhat realize my lifelong dream of talking with Keith Richards.
The late, great Townes Van Zandt once sang that there was “no prettier sight than looking back on a town you left behind.” The 139 is now in the dustbin of my history, as are the sights along the ride, many of which put sights I had earlier known into their own dustbins. I suppose I left that town behind many years ago, but never with so much a sense of finality as on that train.
Friend Paul lives in Chatham, New Jersey. He too has left Marlboro behind. In particular, he has left behind 4 Markham Drive. I have known him since I was three or four, when that walk to his house seemed like a long trip. His mother, who recently passed, his father, and his brother, as well as their three dogs Ginger, Nugget, and Snoopy, are kind memories.
Once when I was about four years old, we were playing in Paul’s backyard. His dad had just finished painting some chairs and admonished us not to sit in them. Not long thereafter, I did just that, a big red stain on my blue shorts. I decided I’d better get out of Dodge and make the long walk home.
But when I got to the sidewalk, there he was mowing the front lawn. What to do? I could have gone around the block, but without enough food and water, survival was not guaranteed that way either. So in what no doubt to me seemed to be a master plan, I began walking sideways up the sidewalk, my indicting backside facing the street. What could go wrong?
He looked at me, turned off the mower, and asked me why I was walking like that. I burst into tears, knowing that this giant of a man–all adults were giants then, and as it turns out, he is well over six feet tall–was going to yell at me. But he did not yell. He told me it was okay, that he could just put on another coat of paint, and that I should head home, change, and then come back and play with Paul. It was a nurturing moment, and clearly one that has meant much to me. No dustbin for that.
Paul and I were great Friends. In the summers I would go down to his house around 8 in the morning. I’ve always been an early riser, and at least then, Paul was not. His mom finally told me–kindly–that I should come at 10, which seemed awfully late, but the days were so adventurous and fun that two hours was only a small eternity.
As we got older, with Paul a year older than me and thus leaving me behind for one year in primary school, I had my first taste of the hurt of parting, even if only for a few hours a day. Later, with me going to a different high school, we did not see each other too much. But the foundation of our Friendship had been laid, and now at age 45–he now a fresh 46, if my memory serves me well–that Friendship continues growing, branching out with his lovely wife and their two wondrous children, and to my wife as well.
My dad has seen a lot. He grew up during the Great Depression, and he fought in World War II. Those, I think, would be the primary events of his life, as well as marrying my mother and them giving birth to John and I. Mama Shaw now lies in her own historic dustbin, interred in a military cemetery in Wrightstown, New Jersey, where she has rested for the past five years. We went down there one day to visit her. I do not get much from such things–memories, very much alive, do the job just fine for me. In them, she is alive, and when she was truly alive, she rarely rested. My dad finds comfort in these visits, and good for him because it is good for him.
Afterward we went to Moore’s Inn in Manalapan. It is a very old establishment, dating back to the late 1700s. As kids my dad would often take us to Turkey Swamp Park, and on the way back he would sometimes stop at Moore’s for a beer, and I would get an orange soda, my favorite at that time. Perhaps today some government agency would strip me away from him if he did such a thing.
Earlier during my visit we went to Coney Island. It is no longer an island, and I suspect there are very few rabbits to be found there. A few touchstones of my and my dad’s youth remain. That is no small feat as while Coney Island was once a thriving resortish area–as much as a public beach that drew millions of people over the course of a summer can be called a resort–known for its amusement parks, particularly the Cyclone and the parachute jump, it had fallen into disrepair due to the typical institutional segregation that forces people of color into certain areas and then refuses to provide the support that makes so many largely white middle and upper class communities thrive. The Cyclone still provides thrills, while the parachute jump is now defunct–a city landmark harkening to another time, a time not so far away now as the support is once again being provided.
My grandma on my mother’s side lived in Brooklyn, and sometimes on the way home from there we would stop in Coney Island. When I was very young, we once took the train there, the same line my dad took from Greenpoint when he was younger. I remember being terrified as we moved between the cars that I was going to fall on to the tracks. Another time, or perhaps that same time, we went on the Ferris Wheel (Question: Who’s the big wheel on Coney Island? Answer: Mr. Ferris.) which unlike other similar rides had cars on rails, so at certain points the car would swing along them. It scared the living shit out of me, and I ended up lying on the floor of the car, desperate for the ride to end, preferably with the car not falling from the sky.
Nathan’s hot dog stand, approaching a century old, remains. It was the general reason we would go to Coney Island. Grab a hot dog, fries, and a draught Hires root beer. At the time, I suppose, there was not much else to see. But with the right kind of eyes, there was a sort of majesty. For example, a block or so from Nathan’s was the skeleton of a roller coaster–the Thunderbolt–perhaps meant to compete with the Cyclone. The people who owned it used to live under it, which must have made for interesting dinners. Trees were growing through it when I knew it, and it was magnificent in its dilapidation.
And at the east end of the boardwalk–unless that direction is north–was a handball court. About 25 years ago I spent an afternoon with some illicit beer watching the old codgers play handball. Old school style with just their palms to hit the ball.
The Thunderbolt was razed about 15 years ago, but a new Thunderbolt has emerged. New fangled, perhaps. Coney Island is revitalized as they say when they mean gentrified as they say when they mean a land grab has occurred. Not to say that Nathan’s was a paragon of nutrition, but compared with the It’s Sugar opening up across the street, a hot dog likely is the healthier choice. I wonder if the option to work off the calories on the handball court still exists.
Not so long ago, somewhere along the Oregon Coast, I was in a place that had a photo of Coney Island from the Summer of 1941. Perhaps my dad was in it. It would be nearly impossible to know because there must have been 30,000 people on the beach, sardines that had adapted to breathe out of water, packed tightly on a bed of sand. I wonder how much less packed that photo would have been if they had tried to create it again five years later.
My better 99% came in for the last few days of my visit. One day we went to the Museum of Modern Art in The City. Yoko Ono had an exhibit. Her art is generous, and it invites you to partake in it. One piece is an all white chess set, on a board with white and off-white squares, set on a white table. Players sit in white chairs. Eventually players will get confused and wonder whose pieces are whose. What is the point of this fighting? You can play with that chess set in the courtyard of the museum at certain times during the week.
Ono is more famous among most people for being John Lennon’s wife. A certain subset unfairly and ridiculously blame her for the breakup of The Beatles. But contrary to the naysayers, she was an accomplished and known artist prior to meeting Lennon. However, he can and must cast a long shadow over any such exhibit if only because they became each other’s muse. When once asked how he felt about his music career, Lennon replied that considering he had been able to write songs with both Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono, he could ask for little more. No doubt many scoffed at putting those two in the same league, but it always seemed clear to me that this was something beyond music. McCartney is one of the great songwriters (The Kinks fan in me reminds you, gentle reader, that he is, however, no Ray Davies) whom Bob Dylan once said even sneezes melodically, and Yoko Ono’s music, to be polite about it, is challenging. But to have been able to make art with such a great rock composer and the person who turned you on like no other person could was surely the gift of a lifetime.
And so after walking through much of Ono’s work–after taking part in much of it–there is John Lennon, projected high on a wall. It looks like a still, but it is actually a film of him smiling. Caught at 2000 frames per second and then reduced to the standard 24, that smile takes about 45 minutes to reach fruition. His presence is tasteful and respectful, a reminder that they influenced each other’s work and that his influence remains, lovingly and loved.
Later on in Central Park, with Friends Dave and Howard (The Word), we walked to Strawberry Fields, just across the street from the Dakota, where Lennon was murdered in December of 1980. It has always been crowded when I have passed by. People play music, take photos, and interact. Within that space there lies a brick circle with “IMAGINE” in the middle. Yoko Ono did not design the circle, although she did help create the landscape plan. The generous spirit of the space would have fit seamlessly in her MoMA exhibit.
Serena Williams won Wimbledon for the sixth time, giving her 21 major championship singles titles, one behind Steffi Graf for all time during the Open Era, and three behind Margaret Court for all time. If she ties Graf by winning the US Open, she will have completed the Grand Slam, winning it, the Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon in the same year. It is a rare feat. Last I checked, I have not even won one of them.
Williams is Black in a sport that is largely white. She is in incredible shape. These two facts have made her the target of much abuse, yet she endures and excels. A day prior to her victory, a writer produced a piece for the New York Times that somehow made it beyond his computer, concentrating on Williams’ body and how unwomanly–how un-ideally feminine–it is. The article, written by a man, tried to paint Williams as a freak show rather than one of the all-time greatest athletes.
Perhaps because my dad was older than most of my Friends’ fathers when I was growing up, I’ve always been a little fatalistic. I am notoriously difficult to get out of your door if I visit, although better than I used to be. If it is to be the last time I see you, I want a strong memory to keep me company, to soothe the pain of your absence. But if I don’t leave, how can I miss you?
Regardless, my dad is 90. That is old. He wears it well. Considering his health issues in early 2014, he is doing great, and he is also mentally sharp. But 90 is well beyond the mean age of death, and having lived on the this side of the country for 15 years now, I don’t get many chances to visit. And when I do, when I leave I wonder if I will see him again. But it’s not so hard getting out the door: he knows I love him, and I know he loves me. I think he can look at me and my brother and think he did a good job as a father.
But the fact remains that the odds of seeing him again, already slim, get a little thinner after every visit.
I started writing this as a reminder of things I did when I was eastward. Nothing major, and nothing to be seen by any eyes other than mine.
But not long after I got back we came to one year since Eric Garner was murdered by the New York City police. How many times must a person say, “I can’t breathe,” before he is believed? How many times before a grand jury indicts?
Last year when I was visiting my family, Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown.
In between, police have killed over a thousand people, an inordinate number of them people of color. They have brutalized many as well. My wife often asks why they do this.
Because they can.
As I type, dashboard camera video footage from the arrest of Sandra Bland, who was found dead in her cell on July 13, three days after she was pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. She was snatched out of her car and assaulted, her face slammed into the ground. Some higher up justified this abuse by saying Bland was “argumentative and uncooperative” when she refused to put out her cigarette and demanded to know for what reason she was being arrested. In earlier times, Black people acting as such were referred to as uppity. A clear reminder that about the only thing post-racial in the United States is the dog whistle.
Bland putatively hanged herself, although that conclusion is heavily disputed with many people contending that she was murdered. Did the police murder Sandra Bland? I’d not like to think so. But ask the Garner and Brown families if they think it is possible.
Let’s assume she did commit suicide. She was assaulted and placed in prison for three days for a traffic violation and more egregiously, a violation of racist social norms: for not knowing her place. She was treated like a subhuman, like police have always treated people of color in this country.
Was it then any less a murder?
She was 28 years old, with so much of her life out in front of her.
This, in the post-racial United States of America, was a post-racial lynching. Terrorism against Black people remains as American as apple pie.
The calls for police accountability, police abolition, and justice for the victims of police brutality are loud, proper, and growing. And the organizing around these and related issues has been stellar and invigorating. As a white man, I can never understand the courage of those people of color who are standing in the face of the horrifying statistics and numbers relating to Black mortality at the hands of police–in the face of those police and politicians who create those horrifying statistics–on top of having to go through the day-to-day inconveniences, rigors, and humiliations of a society, government, and economy founded on racism that as well I can never really understand, but from which I benefit every moment of my life.
But if I may, for a moment I wish to consider something on a much simpler level; one perhaps meaningless and certainly more shallow, yet one that may have meaning for those who still might wonder why this call–any call–for justice matters.
Above I gave some detail to a slice of the great pleasures I recently had. Many were deeply personal and others were vicarious. All were shared in some way with people I love.
Not everyone lives to be 90, that is certain. But Eric Garner was 43 when the police murdered him. His children will not live to see him reach 44, and unlike my father, Eric Garner will not see his children grow into middle age or further. They will not discuss sports or art or school or life or anything else. When Garner’s children visit family and old Friends, talk about their father will be too brief. When Garner’s Friends get together, Garner will be stuck in amber as they move onward. He no doubt left behind wounds that no amount of time will heal.
Sandra Bland had no children, but she left behind many loved ones who will now only think of her as what she was and what she might have been.
I just spent about ten minutes trying to figure out what tense that “might have been” is. The closest I can come up with is some sort of future perfect conditional tense. Whatever it is, it is not the future. There is no future for Sandra Bland.
If this was just one case, one might be inclined to decry it as a shame. But with one Black person being killed by police and police-types every 28 hours, it’s a travesty, to put it mildly. How do you even reform such an institution? And do we really want to reform something so wretched and rotten? With all the clamor surrounding the Confederate flag, shouldn’t the police system that arose from the slave patrols and continues to oppress Black people and others who threaten our unjust social and economic institutions be destroyed along with that symbol of hate? Shouldn’t police as we know them be in the dustbin of history?
When my dad and I went to Coney Island a few weeks ago, we again grabbed a couple of Nathan’s hot dogs and some fries. Hires is no longer sold there, and either way, it would almost surely not come from the barrel. We sat on the boardwalk overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. About 70 years earlier he had been 3,500 miles further eastward, an Army Air Force crew member celebrating the Allies defeat of the Nazis on VE Day. In years prior and after he had perhaps walked this same stretch of sand just in front of us. Maybe he had taken me and John on it, and if not, with that dreaded ferris wheel not far behind us, I know we had been close by this spot at an earlier time.
I have shared half of my dad’s life, and he has shared all of mine. I know these moments cannot last forever. But they have been, and when they are completed, they will have done so in something resembling what we would like to think is a natural fashion, eventually making a smooth transition to memory.
Such continuity, so little in the grand scheme of things, but so meaningful to me nonetheless, should not be a luxury.