Friday, October 23, 2009

Where The Bottles Break

 Some rapids are easier to ride than others...

It's "Guess the Obscure Song's Artist" day.  Take a guess!  Use your Brain Power! Have fun!

Give up?  Of course you do.  Today's title is "Where The Bottles Break" from the album "Jack's Crows", penned by the estimable John Gorka.  The song is about living in a poor neighborhood, a place "where the bottles break, and the blacktop still comes back for more."  It's a neighborhood where gentrification is changing things: "they've turned biker's bars into flower shops," so "the wild and poor get pushed aside." And just when you think he's going to go all bleeding heart and Joan Baez and tell us how delightful and outstanding and praiseworthy being poor is, Gorka pens the best line I've ever heard about the realities of poverty: "These people aren't saints; no, people just are -- they want to feel like they count; they want to ride in their own car."   

The great social critic (and Hall of Fame goalie) Ken Dryden once asked, "Where is the romance in beginning life poor, except if you didn't?"  

Poverty is marked by acquisitiveness .  When you have nothing, all you think about is having something, anything.  Romantic versions of this drive to acquire show up all over popular culture.  Eliza Doolittle dreams of a "room somewhere, far away from the cold night air," where she has an endless supply of chocolate and heating coal.  Marty McFly's Nirvana amounted to a new pickup truck and a trip to the lake.  Commercials for casinos and state lotteries rely on the notion of better living through sudden affluence.  Nearly every prop in every rap video ever made plays on the same fantasy, from the fancy cars to the diamond-studded cell phones to the pneumatically enhanced, frantically gyrating young women.

The reality is uglier, and it crosses generations.  You convince yourself that life will have meaning if you could only buy that car, or that flat screen television, or that new furniture, and you lock yourself into a bunch of payment plans that force you into some drudge job that will never begin to make you solvent, and before you know it, you've convinced yourself and your kids and your kids' kids that the only thing you all were put here to do it is to mow those lawns, or man those assembly lines, or drive those trucks.  You'll find this in the popular culture, too.  It's Stephen Stills's father in "Four + Twenty", the resentful salesman, "working like the Devil to be more."  It's Springsteen's kid, walking "the same dirty streets where I was born," seething with resentment that his father had to settle for another used car.  It's Al Bundy and George Costanza and every character Danny DeVito has ever played, mean and low and grasping, blind to everything except The Big Payoff.

With our hearts set upon the world, we rarely allow ourselves a vision of something better, of accomplishing something more than scraping out a living, of acquiring something more valuable than a new car or a flat panel teevee. 

Poverty of the spirit works the same way.  We had a girl in our second grade glass, Paula, who terrified us.  She rarely came to school, and when she did, she showed up in torn, ratty, dirty clothes, her hair matted and filthy, her hands and face streaked with dirt.  She had no friends.  She was a horrible student; I'm pretty sure she didn't know how to read.  North Tonawanda was a working class town, but it was a town with standards.  You didn't walk around looking like that.  You didn't live that way.

What I remember best about Paula was her eyes.  There was no light there, just fear.  I'd never seen anyone with eyes like that before. 

Eventually, Paula shopped showing up at school entirely.  If people went looking for her, I didn't know about it.  Small towns in the late 1960's didn't have social welfare nets.  It was your family and your church and your community, and if you didn't have any of those things, then too bad for you.

I saw her, a couple of years later, standing next to a dirty, disheveled woman on the porch of a sagging, decrepit old house just off Oliver Street, a place that got torn down a few months later.  We were collecting old newspapers for a Church fundraising drive.  The woman had Paula's filthy clothes and matted hair and haunted eyes.  Paula didn't recognize me.  We asked for papers; the woman swore at us, and they went inside.

Now I have seen those eyes dozens and dozens of times, on dozens and dozens of faces, mostly women's faces or children's faces, but not always.  They are victims' eyes.  They are the eyes of the unloved, the neglected and abused.  They are the eyes that bear witness of blood and hate and horror, and they string themselves from parents to children, as the same cruelties, the same viciousness is visited upon each succeeding generation.

Sometimes I wish I could go back and find that little girl.  Sometimes I wish I had possessed the words, the awareness, to tell my parents what was happening to Paula, so that they could have helped her.  Sometimes, I wish that I had shown more compassion, but more often, I wish that I had never seen such eyes, never known that such lives were lived.

It's easy, in the face of heartbreaking injustice, to feel self-satisfied.  We aren't those kind of people!  Our children are loved!  Our lives are clean!  We are better than that!

Breathe deep, and you will see that we all carry a faint stink of sanctimony.  We are guilty, of not loving perfectly, of not trying hard enough, of being too quick to censure, too slow to listen and to be kind.  We will let loose some tsunami -- a flash of rage, a display of impatience, a commitment broken -- that will bruise the spirits and break the hearts of the people we love, and when the storm is passed, we act as if it never happened.  We treat our behaviors like some  Disneyland ride: the waters rage and the village is wiped off the planet, our family bouncing along, hearts racing, on the crest of it, strapped down in some spinning raft.  When it's over, pumps whir and the water is returned to its holding tank, every drop. Mechanically driven chains pull taut and the grass huts and palm trees and terrified natives all crank back to their original positions.  Everything is back to normal, ready for the next performance.

Life doesn't work this way.  What we loose, ravages.  What we do, cannot be undone.  And repairing the destruction can take forever.   And without some herculean acts of self-control, the destruction repeats itself, again and again, for generation to generation.

Even if we live where the bottles break, we don't have to be the ones doing the breaking.



  1. I had a Paula in my school too. Not quite as bad though maybe. She had crazy cotton candy hair and always smelled like pizza because she lived above Piece-a-dough or Big Daddy's or one of those other lousy Oliver street pizza places.

    I ran into her at Topps years later when I was home from Christmas. She had lost her teeth but had managed to find a husband -- short guy with a pony tail down to his butt.

    I asked her how life was and she said, "Great, ever since getting far away from that dump NT." She had moved to Tonawanda.

  2. This is so depressing, on so many levels.

    That area around the old McCarthy's Market -- Oliver from about Wattengel's Funeral Home all the way down to Rainbow Rink, was like a scene out of the first Max Max film: beat down, ravaged, weird, and populated by some really sad people. And McCarthy's used to have really good produce, before they closed up shop.

    There were some places like that on Webster Street, too: pay by the week apartments over failed businesses, populated by sketchy single moms and dentists who may or may not be practicing without a license. And then five blocks away, you had nice families living in old lumber baron's mansions.

    You allude to three of the four things that Western New York seems to have in endless supply: dudes with ponytails; adults in dire need of dentistry; and a conviction that it's better someplace else, even if someplace else is just across the Canal. In those respects, NT is like Great Britain, with uglier accents.

    The fourth, of course, is smokers. I'm pretty sure the DeGraf nurses gave me a complementary carton of Marlboros when I was born.

    Thank you so much for the comment. North Tonawanda is the tattoo I never got Freshman year, poorly executed and a little embarrassing, but with me forever, an indelible psychic stamp. I think we all feel that...

  3. Hate to tell you, boys, but there's a bit of NT in every one of the dozens of places I've lived as well. I see those eyes every day at school, and even though I know what they mean, and even when I try to help, those eyes are as nothing compared to seeing the parents that gave them the pain, the terror, the fear and the hopelessness behind those eyes. Then you realize what the face of evil, of ignorance, is.