Every day Gert wondered if she was doing the right thing – if she ever had done the right thing. Had the move back to New Jersey been right for the boys? For her? And what about Hy? The whole thing with Louis – she couldn’t believe what a mess it all was. And she was so exhausted. Working every day at the trucking company. Just thinking about it all made her want to fall into bed in a coma. So many people depending on her. And she knew she was getting old. I seemed to have happened so quickly.
Louis, her best friend Martha’s cousin, practically family, practically incest. He was a good man though so different from Hy. At least the first Hy, the one she’d married. That’s the only Hy she wanted to remember. The second time around he had been someone else, a complete stranger coming back from the war, a ghost coming home late at night and leaving before anyone was awake – avoiding eye contact, being invisible. And then one day, he was gone.
What had happened to him when he was away? Why couldn’t she reach him when he came back. Why couldn’t they be like before? She’d tried so hard, had done everything right. She’d made a beautiful home, cultivated nice friends, dinner parties, kept kosher and gone to Schul with him. She was still slim and pretty. She’d tried desperately to reach out to him at night but he would have none of it. It was as though he was afraid he had a contagious disease and wouldn’t touch her. Something had broken inside him. He slowly left her and the boys in an empty house as he drifted farther and farther away.
It was hard not to think back to that part of her life. Five years away, mostly five years he was away. And then coming back so different. They didn’t all come back like that. Jess was all right and Terry’s husband was OK though he wasn’t much before the war. What happened to Hy? Why couldn’t he see me? And the boys? He acted as though he hated them but they were just children. Could it hurt to say a few words to them once in a while? They had done nothing to deserve this. Gert hung her head in her hands and cried a little.
Well, the boys weren’t children any more. David was out of high school and Marc, 14. And now Louis. It had just been so hard alone. She needed some respite, just something good to happen to lighten the load. Yes, he wasn’t much of a catch but he was a good man. Not handsome but a solid worker and he had saved what he made. He was a baby in some ways, never having been married, living with his mother and then his sister. He drank too much, that was true, but he wasn’t violent. He wasn’t very refined but people liked him, her friends said they liked him. She could make him happy enough and he’d slow down with the drinking, she was sure.
It wasn’t so good in bed yet but she’d work on that. Gert had seen this book from the Far East, India, with detailed instructions on how to make love in all positions. She’d get it for Louis and they’d try some new things. That would make him happy, she was sure. As long as he hadn’t drunk himself into a stupor yet that night.
And David…what was wrong with him? He’s almost crazy and so angry. He never comes out of his room any more except to go to work. He doesn’t have any friends and he’s acting so erratically. Could he be on drugs? Oh god, I hope not. He seems so lost and hurt. I just can’t get through to him and I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say to him – it’s like he’s from a different planet and doesn’t speak our language. Nothing works. What am I going to do with him? And he and Louis. God, couldn’t he be nicer to Louis? Louis is trying, he’s just not that bright. Not like Hy. But he’s trying and David could give him some credit for that. David’s so dark now, I don’t know if there’s room for both of them in this house. Oh god, I don’t want to lose my family again.
Living at home become more and more profoundly bleak for me. Everywhere I looked reminded me of what a failure I was, left behind by my friends who had gone on to college. The few who were left were beginning to blend into the blue-collar landscape of Newark and the Oranges, run-down, pot-holed streets, decaying mom and pop stores. I stared into my future and the overwhelming feeling of my own dead end.
With my high school friends gone there were no guys to hang out with and work on cars and no girls to take out. No making out and copping a feel in the car at night overlooking the river and the lights of the city. Just work and being stuck with my family. It wasn’t long before I began to crumble under the weight and implode in my 10 x 10 room in mom’s house.
I did a stint working at Bamberger’s, a department store in Newark, with the lofty title of Assistant Buyer. This was the lowest rung on the employee ladder, right under the Sales Assistants who actually got to talk to customers. Each gray, winter morning I huddled damp and cold at the bus stop and again in the dark at night. I often thought of the mountains and plains of Arizona where I’d grown up, the sun warming my arms under rolled-up t-shirt sleeves, jack rabbits and families of quail in the desert behind our house and air so light it did your breathing for you. Here in New Jersey, I was sinking into a dank, black hole.
One of the girls working at Bamberger’s desperately tried to seduce me. She was about my age and living with her parents in East Orange. She wasn’t what I thought of as hot but she seemed to have made up her mind about me and she let me know. She made it clear that even though she hardly knew me, she was ready to do anything and go anywhere with me. It only made me feel worse that she saw me as her best option when I felt like such a looser. I guess getting knocked up by a stranger was better than being stuck in Newark forever.
I managed to dodge that bullet but realized how vulnerable I was to love and it scared me. I would be trapped in a weak moment if I remained there much longer - I’d get someone pregnant and find myself working for their father hanging plumbing pipes or clerking at a hardware store in the valley. I’d spend the rest of my life surrounded by big-haired women and guys who’d never left the New Jersey towns they’d been born in.
My one high school friend who was still around, Paul, from a good Irish working class family, had an uncle who was a shop steward for Newark Teamster’s Union local 210 and got us union cards and jobs in dairy processing plants, he at Borden’s, me at Tuscan Dairy, pasteurizing and homogenizing milk and loading trucks, mostly the night shift. This meant in the evenings when Mom, Marc and Louis were at home, I was just leaving for work in my white overalls and rubber knee boots, a small blessing.
Marc was even more distant than when I was in school. He was a junior now, getting A’s and hanging out with a gang of preppy, rich kids in their chinos, cordovan loafers and madras shirts. Whenever any of them visited, they’d manage to find somewhere in the house where they could avoid me. I think they saw me as his retarded older brother. They laughed a lot and I couldn’t help thinking it was about me. It was well known that I’d almost flunked out of high school, barely graduated - not college material, bouncing around from job to blue-collar job. I couldn’t look Marc or his friends in the eye.
I had recurring nightmares about being cornered and then desperately fleeing, always running away with nowhere to go. Each dream unfolded in a completely different setting but the emotions behind them were always the same, running for my life away from something terrifying.
I spend most of my free time in my room playing guitar. The little cookie-cutter, tract house mom had bought in West Orange was exactly like all the others on our block and I missed the ranch house we’d had in Tucson when dad was alive, even though he was never there. In my mind I made an effort to create something uplifting. I’d taken the money from my first job, bussing tables at a pancake house, and tried to transform my room into another world where I didn’t feel like I’d lost so much – something modern and hopeful. I papered the walls with an expensive, beige grass cloth I found at a design center, bought dark walnut cabinets with a white Formica work top and burlap curtains that matched the walls and sat on my bed wishing I was somewhere noble and inspiring. When my high school friends had come over and seen my designer space they had been mystified.
Mom’s new husband, Louis, bored me to tears, smelling of alcohol every evening, attempting to be profound and long ago having convinced me he was just a dumb hick from Virginia. At night, after drinking himself into a stupor on the couch, he’d snore so loudly the whole frame house would shake. Mom would get him up to bed and then he would start again.
Mom and Louis’ bed was just on the other side of the wall from mine and never being a sound sleeper, the noise would drive me crazy. I’d often wander into the living room at night, bruised and foggy from trying to sleep in the racket, to find mom, herself, downstairs, sleeping on the couch. This was her second husband with an militant snoring problem – the poor woman just couldn’t catch a break.
I contributed to this caged hamster experiment with rebellion and an animosity toward Louis, striking out when I felt like it. I rarely said anything to anyone and when I wasn’t working, spent most of my time in my room noodling on my guitar. I was experimenting a little with amphetamines then which darkened my moods even more and I think mom was getting suspicious. She watched me circle the drain, unable to pierce my shell. She had been heroic in the years we had been alone, working long hours as a secretary at a dingy trucking company in the valley, taking dictation in shorthand, typing tedious business letters, all to make sure Marc and I had a good home. But her traditional upbringing had never prepared her to understand my complexity. Neither of us understood what was happening to me but as I got older and my behavior became more erratic, she watched in despair.
But now for her, it wasn’t just a matter of watching me self-destruct – my turmoil had started to effect the rest of the family and her new marriage. Marc seemed oblivious to my demise. We never connected any more and he handled the weirdness at home by spending more and more time with is friends and out of the house. Louis, frustrated by his failure to bond with his woman’s sons, who he’d never really wanted anyhow, drifted away into work and drink, starting with a few in the afternoon with the boys in his New York office and continuing through the evening until he was catatonic. My mother watched in horror as her new life fell apart around her and made what was probably the hardest decision of her life. She threw me out.
She came to me quietly and controlled one afternoon when I was in my room, between jobs. She put it bluntly;
“David, I’ve been thinking. You’re very unhappy here. It’s been tremendously hard in the house, with you boys and Louis living here now. I don’t know what’s going to happen to you but I can’t help you any more and I think it’s time for you to go your own way. If you stay here and things get any worse, I think I’m going to lose Louis. And I need this marriage. You have no idea how hard it’s been over the years and I don’t want to lose him. Do you have someplace you can go?”
So here it was. While I sat paralyzed, something had come along to change my life. I saw a door opening and another closing. I was 19, had dead end job prospects in a town with no friends, my guitar, some clothes and a few bucks saved.
For a long while I’d been idly dreaming of a trip down through the South to learn blues from the old masters and it was the only thing I could think of now, so through clenched bowels;
“Oh yeah ma. I was going to go anyhow. I-I’m going to take a trip down south to learn the blues from Lightnin’ Hopkins. I just need to get my stuff together and I’ll leave.”
And that was it. I sold my motorcycle and took a couple of weeks to get ready. Guitar playing was really the only thing at which I’d had some measure of success. Some people thought I was good and I could usually get people to stop and listen when I played. So this would be my new, portable identity. I would let everything else drop away and travel as a performer. I found a tiny guitar amp that I could pack into a special backpack I had made. You could drop a flap in the bottom and pull the amp out on the street to busk. If I were going to show up somewhere to play, I wanted to feel like a pro. This was long before the advent of the battery-powered Pignose and other portable amps. Bob Dylan’s electric debut at The Newport Folk festival wouldn’t happen for another year so the lines between acoustic folk music and rock were still hard drawn. I was more of a folkie but longed to be a rocker. I played a giant Martin D18 but had installed an electric pickup in it, dreaming of a real electric guitar some day and a slicked-back, DA haircut. Before I left, I also had a leather worker in The Village make me a harp case, a slotted belt bandolier that could hold 8 harmonicas. These were the items in my survival kit.
In those weeks before leaving I began to methodically sever my mental and emotional bonds to my home and family and began my reinvention as self-contained and autonomous. I would take all I needed with me and not look back. I pushed this vision hard so as not to get emotional or terrified about my circumstances, a trick I would utilize for most of the rest of my life.
Early in the morning on a another gray New Jersey day, my mother drove me through the quiet industrial areas and strip malls to highway 22, the first leg of my trip, that would deliver me to Pennsylvania, the south and beyond. I got out of the car, put my pack and guitar on the ground. I looked back at her and she was crying.
“David, I’m so sorry. I hope you understand. Please write.”
“I will ma, I’ll write.”
She drove off and I stuck out my thumb.