Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Litwin's Bar and Grille, Sixth Avenue at Oliver Street, New Year's Eve 1971.

Dere are some tings you should know about me (not typos, Gentle Reader, but an homage.  Read on!):

1. My relationship with my father is strained, partly due to the fact that for half of my adolescence he was gravely ill, and for the other half he was dead.  You've heard that Mark Twain line about fathers and sons, something like "When I was 17, my father was an imbecile; when I turned 21 I was shocked to see how smart he'd become."  When the father-son relationship is suspended, either through abandonment or estrangement or death, the son spends a lot of time feeling uncertain and disoriented, wanting and needing to figure out something important, to set in order something screaming to be set in order, and not being able to.  It's like waking up in an unfamiliar place, or discovering that your zipper is undone and there is no way to unobtrusively remedy the problem.

(Parenthetically, the worst, most insulting, most aggravating thing religious people say to the bereaved is, "God had something else for him to do."  The Mormon version of this is "The Lord had a bigger mission for him on the Other Side of The Veil."  If I ever hear somebody say that to anyone, I will wait until the grieving family is a safe distance away, and then I will punch that person in the nose.  For most of my adult life my deep and abiding conviction in the notion of a personal God and my paranoid fear that that personal God really doesn't care about me have conducted WWE-style wrestling matches in my brain, bashing around and breaking things, all because some cementhead declared, when I was sixteen years old, that Dad died because some very important God-issued assignment, something more important than being with our family, required his attention.  Stupid words mess people up for life.  Just hand them a casserole and say "I'm sorry for your loss" and shut your pierogi hole.)

2. We have lived, for all of our married life, within three miles of my in-laws.  For the last 22 years, we have lived less than three blocks from them.  This has not always been comfortable for me. My wife's family is very close knit, and my in-laws protect that family unity with relentless watchfulness, Secret Service watchfulness, Swiss Guard watchfulness, Robert DeNiro in "Meet the Parents" watchfulness (funny, but still Robert DeNiro, so funny with liberal dash of When Is He Going to Rip Out Someone's Spleen?)  Living near in-laws is a little like playing golf in a lightning storm: One Must Be Careful.  The blessing is that they are wonderful people, and our kids love their grandparents, and love going to their grandparents' home.

3. My favorite people in the world were my maternal grandparents.  Grandma was tough, and smart, and maybe just a little bit mean.  My grandparents had separate bedrooms, both hardly bigger than walk-in closets, just off the main rooms of their tiny slate grey house on Sixth Avenue, the place with the same linoleum tiles from the entryway to the kitchen, and the one car attached garage, and the postage stamp back yard, and the attic plastered with hundreds of baseball photos my uncle had cut out of old "Sport" magazines.  Grandma's room was stuffed with Important Papers and crossword puzzle books and World Almanacs and newspaper clippings and hundreds of pill bottles and, on the wall, an enormous painted Crucifix, nearly as big as she, surely heavier than her tiny body, that filled me with shame and terror and gave me nightmares about Jesus straining on the cross, suffering for my sins.  Grand-Pa was silly and blustering, telling scary stories that weren't even scary and coloring with us and playing his fiddle and making us give him kisses.  Grand-Pa was first generation American, and learned English as a second language.  He still had the old Polish lilt to his voice, dropping his "h's" and saying "dese" and "dose" like a man with a head cold (I told you they weren't typos!)  Grand-pa would fume sometimes, and complain about your behavior, but it was impossible to take offense.  That's the thing:  Dad told me he loved me, but I always felt like he thought I was a bum.  Grand-pa told me I was a bum, but I always knew he loved me.  

I do not understand how it works, but I know it's important, that relationship between grandfathers and grandsons.  It heals things.

Grand-pa died a couple of years ago.  I didn't go to the memorial service, and I really can't explain why.  I miss him.  I think about him, and not just him, but that whole place, the Avenues, with Bonk's Delicatessen and the big steeple of OLC Church and all of those Mom and Pop bar and grilles.  It was heaven to me.  I hope my kids look back on their time with their grandparents (including my mother, who lives much farther away) and feel that same warmth, that same happiness.

Anyway, I've written a song lyric.  I have a tune, but I didn't write it, and I don't have permission to replicate it, so the lyrics will have to do for now.  It's for my grandfather, and it's called "Oliver Street":

In the Avenues
It's the same old thing
Factory whistles blow
And the church bell rings
Down in Litwin's bar
I pour whiskey neat
For all the boys on Oliver Street

From the old Bolt plant
And the paper mill
When their shift is done
They come drink their fill
And my fiddle plays
Something soft and sweet
For all my pals on Oliver Street

In a room upstairs
An accordion plays 
An ancient melody from someplace far away
And the sound it makes drifts through these potholed streets

Like some faint memory of younger days

In the Avenues
It's the same old thing
Factory whistle blows
And the church bells ring
In my pocket there's 
A black rosary
I carry it down Oliver Street

Our lives were there

In the Avenues
The bars and houses shined like fireflies in the night
And we laughed and drank, wrapped in that amber glow
Now Time has moved her hand, put out the light

In the Avenues
Nothing's stayed the same
It's all peeling paint
Broken windowpanes
Even Litwin's bar
Sags in sad defeat
There's only ghosts on Oliver Street

(Happy birthday, by the way, to a gentleman and a scholar, the most earnest, most decent, most sincere young man I know.  Now you know where your love of almanacs comes from!)

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