April 24, 2008

But for the Grace of an Old, Army Jeep

A few Sundays ago I had the opportunity to take our new car out for a spin. As I accelerated down one of the main highways just outside of town, I felt good, happy actually, and I hadn’t felt that way in a while. With a cup of steamy 7-11 Coffee in my hand and some jazz playing on the car stereo, I hastened past a crude, cardboard sign which simply read “Car Show.” An arrow drawn in magic marker led the way.

I thought to myself that this would be a good place to take the kids later on in the morning. My wife wasn’t feeling well and I felt that the little ones shouldn't hang around the house and waste the day. Then, I caught a peek at some of the cars pulling in the lot where the event was to take place.

Funky notes from the tune “Sponge” by Randy Brecker got my foot tapping and I sped on past the ancient, re-born vehicles filing into the car show’s venue which was a church parking lot. My new Malibu ran smoothly, quiet, and I savored my artificial world crafted by General Motors and my imagination. Everything beyond the windshield was a movie. Pedestrians and automobiles alike were mere extras to be seen and not interacted with. I pressed the accelerator and trusted that the police were not on the alert for speeders so early in the morning.

An older jalopy which caught my eye in the queue of car show vehicles stayed with me in my mind. More of a horse carriage with a motor than a family car, I mused that the scenery surrounding such a machine in the year it was likely manufactured was starkly different than in today’s world. My dad was an eighteen year old kid fighting in Italy when this thing originally cruised around the highways. Detroit in early 1940’s had shut down auto production to produce tanks, jeeps, and other vehicles for the war effort. My guess at the actual age of the car was based on instinct and a wish that I could peek backward in time to that era; maybe visiting my father before I was "born".

To see my dad in person wearing his uniform as he was about to be shipped off to North Africa in August of 1943 would have been spectacular, to say the least. There’s a photo of my youthful father clad in his army trousers and button down shirt, as he posed on the rooftop of his Brooklyn home before being shipped overseas. His face hinted at an innocent enthusiasm as he was only vaguely aware of the horror and death he’d witness in the fighting due east. I often wondered what it would have been like if I encountered him before his departure. These fantasies occurred to me often over the years as I gazed into his confident eyes portrayed in that image. Would I be able to interact with him? Would he understand that he’d survive this conflict and marry a beautiful woman have six children and stay married for fifty two years? Would it be necessary to warn him to keep his head down and to ignore the agony of multiple bullet wounds?

My daydream almost got the best of me and I slowed down to keep pace with traffic. I ejected the CD and tuned in to the local talk radio station. “Religion on the Line,” a local radio program, has been on the air for ages and I listened in out of a sense of nostalgia for the days when going to church was a big event in my family. I am more spiritual now than religious. My mind harkens to God and then my cynicism foils the attempts organized religion makes to subdue me. Though I am a sinner, I lead a moral existence and teach my children to be good people. The show’s hosts, a rabbi and a deacon, both spoke of the Pope’s visit to New York City. It’s hard to fend off my Catholic guilt and not sit up straight and think pure thoughts when the pope is mentioned.

Again, my mind turned to that antique car and my dad. Indoctrinated by Dominican nuns in Catholic school, my father’s loyalty to the Franciscans was fostered when a young priest from that order administered Last Rites to him on the battlefield after he was severely wounded. Coincidently, the priest was once assigned to a church my father attended in Manhattan when he was a boy.

After a fierce battle in the Italian town of Velletri, this priest came to my dad’s side shortly following a pair of POWs from the German Wehrmacht who almost tossed my unconscious father into a mass, temporary grave. They thought he was dead; and, when these two soldiers (older men who were conscripts from Poland) lifted him on a stretcher they fashioned from a door, my dad awoke, frightening them, and they dropped the door and left him where they found him. He’d have been buried moments later by the bulldozer covering the trench with mountains of soil had they actually dumped his body into the pit.

It was fluke, perhaps divine intervention, that two men from the same town, a soldier and a priest, met during wartime thousands of miles away in Europe. Yet the young cleric’s compassion inspired my dad, made him hold on, and ultimately led him home.

Later in the day, I took my son to that car show. My wife was still ailing and my daughter felt a bit under the weather too. Inside, there were some vintage military vehicles; some Willys Jeeps and an old Army truck from World War II.

Did Grandpa ride in one of these when he was in the army?” my son asked.

Yeah, he did, actually.” I answered.

In fact, the only time he time did get a lift in a jeep was when he was heading home. After two months in an army field hospital in Rome, he was ordered back to the states for discharge from the service. His wounds were extensive and he couldn’t handle a rifle. The young soldier argued that he wanted to stay and fight along side his buddies; but, he was no longer fit for duty. All of his friends were eventually killed in action among the hedge rows in France; and, my dad weeps for them to this day.

He is more than sixty years older than when he fought in battle and the pain of war persists. His hearing is deteriorating due to a German bullet which spliced his left ear canal, a fragment of that round remains in the base of his skull today, his arm and hand became arthritic from a another bullet wound, and horrific memories haunt his dreams and waking moments.

Using my camera phone, I snapped a photo of my nine year old son who wore the slight grin of a child who was proud of a secret; that his grandpa rode in an army Jeep just like the one he was posing in front of. For a kid, that's awesome.

In the back of the lot were the older autos, including the one I noticed earlier which caused me to fall into this semi-Somnambulistic state. Dark in color, very long with side running boards, this model was actually built in the 1930s. Still, I was accurate in guessing its age. Nevertheless, I was grateful that the mere sight of this restored motor vehicle got me reminiscing. There but for the grace of God, and a kindly parish priest turned Army chaplain, that I was able to enjoy this event with my son. My father could have been buried alive and this fine day with me strolling in the sunlight with my boy at my side never would have happened.

My entire life was owed to a gentle priest who reached down for a soldier’s weakened, bloodied hand and coaxed him to find God and survive.

After an afternoon of reflection, I no longer felt the urge to sneak back in time to caution my soldier-father about the impending danger of battle anymore. Things turned out well in spite of the war and his close brush with death. That young Franciscan priest became his lifelong inspiration, influencing many decisions which brought him to this point in his life where he frequently calls and asks "When am I going to see my grandchildren?"

On that glorious Sunday I stepped closer to God in the parking lot of a Roman Catholic Church, with my young boy holding my hand, thinking about my dad’s first ride in the back of a jeep, and about how gently the Lord guides our lives.

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April 16, 2008

Service With a Sneer

Maybe I love where I live too much to move; but, I am tired of the crassness, the rudeness, of the people in the area where I reside. Much of my travels have brought me up and down the eastern seaboard, as far north as New Hampshire, and as far south as Florida. The furthest east I’ve pushed has been to Pennsylvania into the Poconos. Outside the New York, metropolitan area, a strange transformation takes place: people become polite.

On Tuesday, I had a long day planned. Several errands needed to be attended to at the bank, the supermarket, the orthodontist (my daughter had her braces taken off) and then my wife and I took our kids to pick up the new car we bought. In the past two and a half years, I have not taken two days off in a row; so I used a vacation day to handle these matters. In my early day fogginess, I put my kids on their respective school buses and then set about my day.

My plan was to pick up my daughter from school at about ten thirty a.m. and bring her to her appointment. My first stop after that was to go to the bank where it was obvious that something devastating happened the night before. Crime scene tape was spread across the front, pieces the front-end of someone’s car were strewn across the parking lot along with sparkling, jagged shards of a windshield. Inside, I was told that the night before some drunken teenagers plowed their car head first through the front of the building at speeds upwards of ninety milers per hour. Thankfully, they were not severely hurt as the car’s airbags deployed; but, it was shocking to see such wreckage and think of what could have happened if they weren’t so lucky.

Then, I picked up my daughter from school and off to the dentist we went. After a much anticipated and exciting moment when the braces were finally removed, I decided to take her to a nearby pizza parlor for a mini-celebration. This restaurant makes some of the best pizza around, and I hate going there. Why? Because the staff there is so damned rude, that’s why. Yogi Berra is credited with a great line. When remarking about a particular nightspot he quipped “No wonder no one ever goes there anymore; it’s always so crowded.” The same can be said of this place, except that it’s busy because they sell tasty pizza; and, with that in mind, the owners do not feel it is necessary to be nice to the customers anymore. They have a product which is in great demand, and if anyone hates the service, tough. There are plenty more suckers in line, myself included. It’s a perfect Long Island tragedy and self fulfilling cultural phenomenon. No one likes impolite service, but we reward it with our patronage.

We ordered slices from a guy with a terse attitude and a waitress stepped behind the counter to ring up the sale. She blinked at me and merely said “Eleven ninety-five.” Then she held out her hand for me to fork over the cash. She did not say please, thank you, or anything else remotely gracious. The waitress merely announced the total and that was it. End of transaction. I’m used to this sort of behavior. On certain days, I am just as happy not to converse with the guy or gal behind the counter because this type of casual rudeness has been bred into me as well. But, the capper to my day happened when we left the pizza joint and went to a specialty supermarket to make a specific purchase.

My daughter is learning Italian in school; and, the Italian club is sponsoring a small event where they experience the culture of Italy; i.e. music, foods, art, etc. Each student is assigned to bring in one item for the event, and my daughter was to bring in Panettone. Served around Christmas time in Italian families, Panettone is a round, dome shaped cake which resembles pound cake in consistency; but, it can have chocolate chips, fruit, or creams added for flavor. My wife is 100% Italian (that makes my kids half Italian, and half of the rest of the world) and I am used to enjoying this cake along with holiday cookies and hot cocoa. The store we went to is a large supermarket catering to Italian culture. Knowing that we were way out of season, we took a chance, my daughter and I, and went straight to the bakery.

We'd been there before and the staff was pleasant and helpful on the few occasions we'd asked for assistance. Tuesday would erase some of that benevolence between me and this establishment.

Did you ever look at somebody and immediately think to yourself “Hey, this guy is a jerk?” Well, I had one of those moments when I saw the guy behind the counter whom fate guided me to in order for him to get me annoyed for the rest of the afternoon. At first, I chided myself for being judgmental as I had not even spoken to the man up to that point. Yet, my assessment of him turned out to be correct.

The employee in question was busy goofing off with a much older man while they brushed some yellowish fluid on what appeared to be unbaked bread. Right away, the guy saw me, and yelled to a young woman in the back room to come out and help me. He was too busy giggling with his buddy to assist some idiot customer.

The girl was nice enough, and I asked with the same confidence as if I inquired about purchasing a hamburger at McDonalds if they had any Panettone.

Pound Cake? Sure, we have some.” She said, and then she started to walk away.

No, no I need Panettone. Not pound cake.” I said. That stopped her in her tracks. By then I realized that she had no idea what I was talking about. She looked over her shoulder and deferred my request to the Jerk who already sized me up and eyed me as if I asked for something as out of place as communion wafers.

Panna-what?” He said with an “I can’t believe this moron” expression on his face. He squinted and raised an eyebrow and seemed almost amused by what he thought was my stupidity.

Panettone.” I repeated showing my impatience through clenched teeth.

There’s no such thing.” The guy stood defiant, with his balled up fists on his hips, glaring at me.

It should be noted that I do not suffer fools lightly. If I was in an ordinary supermarket and I asked for a specifically ethnic food and the guy behind the counter was unaware of it, jerk or not, I could live with that. But, this was an Italian store, with an Italian name, catering to Italians, and this man, a baker no less, not only never heard of Panettone, but he declared that it did not exist. The ensuing argument, which consisted of me marveling at the obvious, that he damned well better know what Panettone is because it is the same thing as walking into a Mexican restaurant and the waiters not knowing what a taco is. The conversation was futile.

Another employee came up to me from behind, on my side of the counter and said “Oh, you want Panettone? I have some over here.” This gentleman politely guided me five feet to my left and showed me two or three packaged loaves which had seen an awful lot of daylight since this past Christmas. We opted for the Italian cookies instead, and I made sure to say goodbye to the dumbfounded baker before we took our cookies to the register in order to purchase them.

The whole way home I fumed. I could see if the baker never heard of the cake, like I said, but he was arrogant, poorly trained, and resentful of the very people whom he needs to make a living, and they are customers. Like just about everyone I know, he and others like him feel they are owed a lot more in life. That no matter what they are doing for a living, it is not their dream job and they deserve to be rich and have an easy life of luxury and expensive travel. This thing that they are currently doing; serving pizza, baking at the supermarket, is only a means to an end, or, worse yet, what they are stuck doing until they win the lottery and get out of “this shit-hole.” Customers are to be dealt with, tolerated, and occasionally mocked.

Maybe I care too much about what I currently do and what I did in my former profession, and I am projecting my professionalism on others. But, I have a trip to Nashville coming up soon, my employer is sending me to a conference, and I know that I will be hard pressed to find someone as bad-mannered and nasty as some of the desultory malcontents I am forced to deal with here in my town.

Here's a quote which is appropriate for this article: “You know you’re a Long Islander when you don’t realize you love the place until you leave it.” Yes, that is true; but, there are plenty of strong reasons for wanting to leave in the first place. A longing for nice folks to interact with is at the top of that list.

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April 4, 2008

Sheltered Harbor

My home town of is located on the south shore of Long Island, New York. The Merrick Indians named the area "Copiague" which literally means “sheltered harbor." Early settlers adopted the name for their village and today Copiague is a hamlet within the town of Babylon. South of Merrick Road, which severs Deauville Estates (where I was raised) from the rest of the town, is the Great South Bay. The homes down there sit along canals which lead to this majestic body of water, which afforded a living to generations of hardy baymen who harvested it’s depths for clams, crabs, eels, and other sea life. The dwindling bounty culled from the bay still feeds Long Island and New York City; but, that lifestyle is dying. So too are folks like me who’s life is inexorably tied to the waters around Long Island

There is a saying: “You know you’re from Long Island when you’ve gone clamming at least once in your life.” That is certainly true for me. Many of my friends owned clam boats. These are long, flat vessels with a mini-cabin and ample space for a person to squeeze into and operate the steering wheel. Long clam rakes are tethered to the deck, and the bay becomes your home for a day. There’s something supernatural about breathing in sea air, sipping a can of Coca-Cola fished from the bottom of an ice-filled, Styrofoam cooler, and enjoying the view of the looming Robert Moses Causeway Bridge. A powerful spell cast by the briny bay water draws one back to its shores during the course of one’s life to relive those quiet memories.

From my childhood home, one can hear the braying of motorboats racing along the coastline during the summer. The salty bay breeze wafts gently into the neighborhood and teases the olfactory nerves of bored school children yearning for the beach. The beaches of Long Island, stretches of sandy Heaven along the south shore, remain burned, like sun on skin, with affection, in my memory. In my formative years, I was accustomed to this existence of carefree days swimming in the surf. My skin was tan, my hair bleach blond, and my muscles tone from swimming for day long stretches amongst the seaweed and horseshoe crabs.

My home now is on the opposite end of the Island’s spectrum. My children are being raised in a rocky, hilly, terrain alien from my oceanic origins on the south side. The Long Island Sound's whisper is too gentle to compel many more than a handful of seafarers to its banks in comparison to the mighty Atlantic; and, its beauty demands a harsher aesthetic adapted to stony ridges and sloping seaboards.

Long Island is, by geological definition, a terminal moraine; leftover scraps from a glacier in the shape of a fish. Topmost is the heavier portion, boulders and sloughed off bits of mountains. What’s left at the bottom is pulverized, softer earth and sand, pushed ahead as if swept by a broom. There is much more to the differences between the north and south shores of Long Island. There’s a class difference unique to the separate and unequal suburban towns on different sides of the Long Island Expressway.

The north is wealthier; the towns rich from higher taxes and a falsely perceived elite class of citizens. My original home on the south shore is composed of mostly blue collar working families; the school systems straining under the weight of too many students and not enough revenue. So many families, with the mother and father both working, have to rent rooms in their homes or create apartments within their dwellings to take on renters to help pay the mortgage and taxes. My roots are there. The return visits I make to my father’s home rile my senses and cause my skin to prickle with the residual anticipation of a return to the shoreline.

My wife grew up as I did. Summers at the seaside with her family provided her with parallel memories to mine. We often share stories driving around the omnipotent water towers both at Robert Moses State Park and Jones Beach, our respective awe at riding over the extended Robert Moses bridge, and the joy of body surfing in the foamy waves with sand in our bathing suits. Our own children are denied such a life. We bring them to the beach and their enjoyment is not the same. It’s as if we took them to an amusement park; its rides being the waves, the games being the sand and sea shells, and they lose luster and allure to abandoned video games and computers back at home.

There is no kinship between my children and the water. The Great South Bay and the sparkling Atlantic have no secrets to tell these outsiders. One has to reside along the edges, the sinewy strips of sand and shells, and listen from birth; there is a promise, a covenant between those who are enchanted and the ocean. It is a code, a lifestyle, and its bond exists forever.

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