20130124

Michael Gottlieb


from The Colorama


6.    The Miracle Of Garth Road

                I put down my nickel and from the display beneath the cash register I select a pack. The first one at hand. The one on top. It didn't matter.
                From the soft give, the ply of it, the supple accommodation as I bend it back and forth, clearly, this gum is still fresh.
                If stale, the flat pallets of pink resound and crack. Jagged shards, a hazard to the dentine as you try to fold them into your mouth. Friable. Low, base tricked up cardboard, the sugar going, distinctly somehow 'off.' But this one gives nicely. The dusting of dry powder that coats the gum fairly leaping up to the taste buds. Only then do I bother with the five baseball cards lying there, face down, waiting, in my palm.
                Old enough to go out by myself, but not old enough to go to camp.
                I left my aunt and uncle's apartment, pushed the down button for the elevator and walked down Garth Road, past the rest of the half-Tudor, mock gothic apartment houses. Past the Plaza, where my mother used to drop me off on Saturdays for matinees while she had coffee with her sister. Past the A&P, that's gone now too. To the little stationery store sitting in the row of modest shops, halfway down the hill to the Scarsdale train station.
                Hot. Past the end of the real season. Indian summer.
                A few years earlier my father had taken me to a game. The thundering subway. Dark green buses and black and green and white police cars. Soot everywhere. Emerging from the dark streets beneath the El, pulled through the echoing tunnels, then: the green revelation of the outfield. The incredible buoyant roaring. Jumping up from the seats. The pitcher so near. The shouts for food. The close violence implied in every swing. Men in hats and suits. And Mantle hit a homer.
                1960. The beauteous, Indian Summer blazing-in-glory of the New York Yankees. A Yankees fan? Of course. So is everyone I know. Are we not but four towns north of the Bronx? It was not that many years ago that my parents moved up from there. Of course it is more than that. It is natural to be a Yankee fan. The Yankees are to baseball as New York is to America, as America is to the rest of the world. This is the natural order of things.
                I turn over the cards.
                Right there, on the top: a Yankee team card. Each and every one of them, lined up, squinting in front of the Stadium's cast iron-white picket ornament. All of them, our gods. Rising above them in the distance, the upper decks' girders, the painted I beams and rivets—like the IRT line, only taller, more noble.
                I catch my breath. This is a card you wait years to get. If you got one, or had one passed down to you, you held on to it. It's for your children. I leave the store, stepping out into the hard sunlight of the fall afternoon. I want to go back and tell the grown ups about my great fortune. This miracle. Not that they can be expected to comprehend the enormity of it, but there's no one else around.
                First I must thumb through the rest of the cards.
                Nothing else in the pack can be worth anything, I know that, but it is foreign to my nature, to any boy's, to take a step further without seeing, knowing, having, and by eyeing owning, the rest of the cards in the deck. There's that greedy hunger, that necessity—I have to know. That eager consumptive shuffle. Even the inevitable disappointment doesn't much dim it—you never know. Just not knowing makes it worth buying. All those second rate Cleveland utility outfielders no one has ever heard of—the first time they appear in your hand, fresh, perfumed with the sweet musk of the gum, even they have an immense power—clean, new, the sun glinting on the black-out streaked beneath their eyes, standing with their bats cocked before empty Florida grandstands, or awkwardly crouching in a simulacrum of attentiveness—knees bent, hands, gloved and bare, open, receptive, forever waiting for that screaming grounder up the middle.
                I shuffle the team card to the back of the pile.
                Bobby Richardson. The next card is Bobby Richardson. I gasp. I smite my forehead. Matrons passing by study me suspiciously. Bobby Richardson, the artful, the matchless, the small, sleek and errorless. The infielder nonpareil. That seeking, merciless glove. The precise, inhuman arm. The Yankee of Infielders. His neat, even, compact features, supremely confident, gaze back at me.
                A Yankee Team Card and a Bobby Richardson in one deck. A wave of unalloyed, unearned bonhomie and shameless self-esteem washes over me: I shall be able to dine out—or the child's equivalent thereof—on this, this moment, for years, forever. I am a made man. I am compleat.
                Bobby goes to the back. I have no expectations. I have been blessed enough for one day. I almost don't want to see what is there, looking up at me, his wracked and weary face, the beatific, accepting eyes, the discreet bulge of chaw in one corner of the jaw, cocking a jaundiced, knowing look beyond the camera: Casey Stengel. Casey, the Bunyonesque, Runyonesque, the Durante of our, our—quick, I flip back to the Team Card—yes, somehow it is clear—these were snapped the same afternoon: the muss in the bristle of his crewcut, the way his jersey sags over his belt. He was ancient even then. He was always old. This was what managers were supposed to be. They wrote poems about him, he knew Ruth, played with Ruth, coached Ruth—something to do with Ruth. He was Casey, our Casey.
                A quick fugitive thought—actually, we ponder this often: how is it determined what cards to slip together into each deck? Is it random? How random can it be? What are the odds? And now I think: every once in awhile do they—who ever they are, some white coated types at Topps—do they purposely stack one deck, just like this? Put together one dreamy, immensely fantastical wonder of a deck—just to drive us mad, keep us buying, hungry, ever hoping---and somehow make sure it ends up in the right town? This deck would be wasted in St. Louis. Can they do that? Is it possible?
                Then, unbelievably, the next card is Mantle.
                Mickey Mantle, the sum of all our perfections. The sun in his face.
                The way, then at least, a Texan was the most typical American—the way California soon took over that role—and at the same time, the most typical New Yorker. Of course he was a Yankee, what else could he be, a Senator? Those same modest American cheekbones and dimples, in every DC Comics hero. The tousled hair, the prototypical cowlick, the white teeth. That grin, abashed, a little crooked, modestly boastful—and who had more reason? He was our everything, our—if only we had an ounce of Cole Porter in us—that sun, that flashing grace and hurtling, massive, controlled fury as the throw came hurtling back from the far reaches, past the cut off man right down to the catcher's ankles, just in time. Or batting, like that time I saw him, as he swung and connected, and I stood, found myself standing with the thousands that flawless afternoon, as the ball rose and rose and flew off, slowing as it lifted, describing an arc that never seemed to fall, impossible that your eye could still see this tiny whiteness—if he had not drawn you along its path with his bat. As if he was saying to us all: look, here, this is where I am sending this one.
                With Maris—that doomed, flawed, mortalled deity—the deck would have been perfect. Perhaps it was better without him. More fitting certainly. Poor Roger, that lost look in his small eyes, you could see it there even in that miracle summer when they battled. As if he somehow knew, saw it all unfolding before him. It would all be downhill from here.
                The fifth card was some Brave or Cub or Tiger or Phillie or some such lesser being deserving of little or no note. It was almost comforting, a gentle return to earth. I looked about me. The traffic on Garth Road seemed unchanged. The tailor down the street and the consignment shop just past it, all the trim discreet shops, they all remained as they were, as they always had been, looking for all the world as if nothing had happened at all, altogether unchanged. Only I had changed.
                And no one seemed to notice. My parents, my aunt and uncle, they just didn't seem to understand. And my friends, as I rapturously poured out the news, the words tumbling over themselves—at least the first few times I recounted the tale, they didn't quite seem to buy it, buy into it. What were the odds of this anyway? I had older brothers and cousins, that was known. How much more likely was it that these had been handed down to me? Such things were not unheard of.
                "But these are this year's cards," I expostulated. No one seemed to believe me. "Look. Smell. You can still smell the gum."



9.    That Inscribed Sinking

                Kennedy had just been elected. So much dates from then, right then. Time, in a way, starts. Eisenhower versus Stevenson? Vague memories of campaign buttons. The '56 Oldsmobile—that's a clear memory. And the old Dodge before that? Certainly. The dark navy paint job and the must in the seats. But when, exactly?
                After Kennedy is elected all memories now have time notations. The inaugural. The news conferences every Friday afternoon. Jackie's tour of the White House. And then, 1963 and that weekend—every hour before the TV becomes marked, entered: the scenes from the hospital, the jail, Air Force One returning to Andrews.
                But before 1960, even a year before—time is so much hazier: Castro and Cuba—that was on TV, but precisely when? A fierce argument with my brother, fighting over the channel dial because Fidel taking is Havana at just the same time as Mickey Mouse Club—it had to have been at four o'clock in the afternoon or perhaps it was five o'clock, but when? Day and date?
                After Kennedy we knew too much. And time, regular, even, wretched time, the continual diminution, the inscribed sinking, became part of us.
                Grown-up time had commenced.



23.    The Bumps

                My father would drive on Sundays. The only day of the week he got behind the wheel.
                All of us would pile in and we would ride. Sometimes we would head down to the Bronx to see my grandparents, sometimes we would make for the Cross County, another parkway. Now, where it crossed the Thruway there was something new, a shopping center. There was a Gimbels there and a John Wanamaker. Wherever we were going, there was always a faint overlay of disappointment when we got there. It was the ride that I looked forward to. That's what counted.
                Most weekends, one way or another, we would end up riding down the Bronx River Parkway. Perhaps only a little way, say from the exit closest to our house, Fenimore Road, south for a few miles to Garth Road, where my aunt and uncle and two of my cousins lived.
                It was all of a piece. The gently turning parkway, its easy curves beneath the tall trees, the rusticated stone overpasses. Those everpresent brown stained, planked guard rails. The swaths of park land on either side of the double roadways. The ponds and lawns, ducks and geese, paths and benches. The Tudor gas stations, with discreet little Mobil flying horses. All in keeping with the established tone. Along the accompanying parkways to the east and the west, the Hutchinson and the Saw Mill, there were similarly tricked out toll booths, with their small paned windows and overhanging woodwork and roughly applied plaster. Very bucolic, very English.
                It all cohered. The half timbered train stations that were planted every few miles along the right of way, right up the middle of Westchester: Bronxville, Crestwood, Tuckahoe, Scarsdale, Hartsdale, White Plains. The conductors' long plaintive litany that generations of commuters, now long retired to Broward County, still hear echoing through their dreams.
                As if Cornelius Vanderbilt himself, as he laid out the New York Central, plotting the stations along the Harlem and the Hudson and the New Haven lines as they ran north from Grand Central, through the Bronx and Mount Vernon and Yonkers and then further north; the Commodore decreeing, 'Yes, I like this, this will be the leitmotif for these suburbs.' That late Victorian, early Craftsman rustic look: in the facade of the stations, the grand, elaborate newsstands that used to be out on the platforms, in the decoration of the waiting rooms too, before they were effaced, in the very frames for the signage suspended from the overhangs. It was everywhere.
                You can still see it carried through in the built-up centers that were laid out near each of these stations. The stores and the six story apartment houses that rise above them, lining the avenues nearby. The flats originally meant for the better sort of clerks and secretaries who couldn't afford the suburbs that were already spreading out from the train stations.
                All of those buildings, with their dark, variegated, rusticated brick, have all long since been converted to cooperatives and condominiums, their garages filled with moderately expensive Japanese sedans. No clerks or secretaries can likely afford to live there nowadays. But back then the only kids I knew who lived in those buildings, the ones near Hartsdale station, were kids who we could feel sorry for, because they didn't have fathers, or who we usually steered clear of, because they were rougher, and bigger, always eager to fight.
                Along this particular stretch of the Bronx River Parkway, going south from Fenimore Road, that is from the Hartsdale train station, towards Scarsdale station, there was a stretch of roadway that ran just parallel to the New York Central tracks. There was landscaping in between the road and the tracks of course, this being a parkway and all, but here the parkway was essentially flat and straight.
                With two exceptions. One right after another. The bumps.
                There must have been culverts beneath, old stream beds, something that the road builders were forced to arch over. They were little launching pads, twenty or thirty feet apart. And only on the southbound side. Perhaps a foot or so higher than the rest of the road. Ample warning signs, of course.
                Most drivers, even if they hadn't been that way before, would have had the time and sense to slow accordingly. But we would speed up, our dad would, as we screamed and began the ritual anticipatory bouncing antics. Perhaps only I screamed. My brothers must have been too old already.
                Giddy as we approached. Catching sight of the little angles of the guard rails where they went up and down, up and down in tandem, parallel with the bumps. "Faster, faster," I would urge. Taking a grip on the back of the front seat, for insurance. At the last minute my father would tromp on the accelerator.
                That thump in the stomach as gravity suddenly fell away.
                For a moment airborne, the back seat sinking beneath me.
                Up in the air a good three or four or maybe six inches
                —but still in the seated position, knees bent,
                hands resting lightly along the gathered vinyl seam along the top of the front seat. Fingernails picking at the tight stitching.
                But the rest of me gone.
                Flying. Triumphant. Soaring.
                For at least a second.
                Four or five years later, watching the news. The Mercury astronauts, in training. Floating for a moment or two in the back of an old DC-3, diving to earth from thirty thousand feet. Huge, silly grins on their faces as they push off the against the cabin's ceiling. Those beatifically raucous expressions. It all looked so familiar. That instant or two of weightlessness: defying, bettering, mastering the earth.
                I had been there too.
                And then the thump down. And, a moment later, the same thing all over again as we sailed over the second bump.
                Though he was not a straitlaced or prudish man, this was the one wild thing, the only entirely unruly, uncivilized liberty I can ever remember my father taking. And it was for us.



53.    The Cambridge Rider

                My mother took me to Cambridge to visit my brother. It was not a planned visit. My parents had quarreled. It had something to do with my father's job. My father had done something my mother didn't want him to do, or hadn't done something she did want him to do. They often spoke about the men my father worked with. Sometimes they spoke of them angrily. They were horrible men. They did horrid things to others. But whenever these same men came with their wives to visit everyone was quite friendly.
                My parents argued, not infrequently but never loudly or long. This argument was different, that much I remember. It was very sharp and shorter even than usual. It occurred one night just after my father came home from work. The next morning my mother announced that she was taking me up to Cambridge to visit my brother.
                The trips to Boston back then have been blended by time into one long ride north: up the Merritt, then the Wilbur Cross. There were no interstates yet. Somewhere near Hartford the Wilbur Cross would peter out and then came a wonderfully depressing, endless avenue: mile after mile of motels and gas stations and Burma Shave signs and beyond them, the flat fields and long, apparently derelict drying barns for the tobacco. They must have been building I-95 and the Massachusetts Turnpike by then. A few years later all this was gone, gone from our view as we swept up to Boston.
                We stayed at the Treadway Inn, an entirely suburban motel with parking beneath it, just off Brattle Square, near the bus depot. I don't remember anything particular about the trip: where my brother was living then, what we did to pass the time with him, how long we stayed, what our room looked like. Perhaps we even flew up and back.
                What I do remember was the breakfast served in the lobby. Donuts, danish, milk, coffee, some orange juice that tasted of chemicals. The lobby was walled with glass. I pushed the curtains aside and looked down onto the streets of Cambridge and the foggy morning. The spires of the Harvard colleges were shadows against the horizon. Below us a complicated intersection of slick cobblestones. A car passed now and then, a truck, an electrified bus trailing sparks from the wires overhead.
                Then a boy went by on his bicycle, cycling easily through the fog. He wasn't a boy to me. He was a man, a young man, an undergraduate certainly. He wasn't just riding a bike, he was on a yellow ten speed, with narrow wheels and taped, turned down racing handlebars. He was wearing a tweed jacket and a blue oxford shirt and khakis and over his shoulder he'd slung a green book bag, what we used to call a Harvard bag.
                I saw him for no more than five seconds. In a moment he was gone. But right then and there it came to me, and I decided. This is what I want. This is what I want to be. I wanted to be in this world, this place of narrow little streets and bookstores and coffee houses and genteel, worn, red brick sidewalks. I wanted to be far away from everything and everyone that was familiar, pedaling effortlessly through the fog, on my way to meet my aged tutor in his dim booklined study. We'd have a long, learned, witty discussion, entirely in German, over tea. From a pot, not from bags.
                Not long after I got a Harvard bag as a present from my brother. Over the years I have come to own several tweed jackets and a couple of ten speeds too. In my early twenties, for a time, I shared an apartment off Massachusetts Avenue, not far from Harvard Square. But the perfection, the grace that boy on the yellow racer showed me, entirely unconsciously, in those few seconds, I have never been able to approach.



Michael Gottlieb is the author of sixteen books, most recently The Dust (Roof Books, 2012), a reprint of his long 9/11 poem brought out in conjunction with the dramatization of that work at St. Marks Poetry Project to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the attacks. His essay Letters to a Middle Aged Poet was published in 2012 by Otoliths. The Colorama is his second memoir. His first, included in Memoir And Essay (Faux Books/Other Publications) was published in 2010. He is now at work on a third memoir. His next book of poems, Dear All, will be published by Roof Books in April 2013.
 
 
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