Dead End

It says a lot about me that the local cemeteries are my favorite place in Batavia. As a kid I spent many summer days, alone, riding my bike over to the cemeteries, and the industrial ruins that sit like a wedge dividing our town into a North & South side. I don’t know why, but it has always drawn me to it. I’d walk the rows of headstones, and read the names and dates, and wonder about the history and the lives that went before. The three cemeteries on Harvester Avenue, are among the most sylvan, and shady spots in town, and I have always felt at peace there. Maudlin children, and Gothic kids everywhere can sympathize, but sometimes life was easier among the dead, than it was among the living.

This past Sunday, I drove over to the cemetery to pay a visit to Dad’s grave, and ended up wandering those shady lanes for an hour, alone, looking for something that I felt like I lost once. It was still there. The emptiness, the peace, the silence.

When I started this blog in 2009, I felt like I had so much to say, and so many stories to share. Now, in the summer of my 44th year, I find myself returning again, and again, to the same places, only to find that the words I have already written about them, sum them up so well I have little left to say.

So I’m saying goodbye. Again.

I’ll still be working to publish the book of historical fiction based upon the E.N. Rowell murder from 1883, and once that is complete, I will most likely move onto compiling the stories, fragments, and memories that I have written here, into some sort of cohesive whole that I also hope to publish. Thank you for all the time you’ve spent reading 20 Prospect, and stopping by the front porch to chat. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.

So I leave these words like footprints, pressed into cement, and recorded for posterity. May they someday inspire another introverted child to pick up a pen, and go exploring.

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There she sits buddy, just a-gleeming in the sun…

Growing up I used to listen to Kasey Kasem’s Top 40 Countdown. Not out of love for Top 40 music, but out of boredom, and pure desire to be current. Each week Kasey would read a letter from a listener, who wrote in to make a long distance dedication. These were always heart wrenching letters, along the lines of…

Dear Kasey,

I’m writing to ask for a long distance dedication to my brother Earl. I haven’t seen him since we were both 8 years old. You see Kasey, we were Siamese twins, and it wasn’t until we were four that Mom was able to raise enough money to pay for the operation to have us separated. Little did we know that it would be both the best and worst moment in our lives. Mom loved us dearly, and wanted us to have a normal life like all the other children at the playground. She spent 4 years traveling, and working to raise enough money to give us that operation. If only we knew the problems it would cause in our family life. You see Kasey, my Mom took us to have that operation without my Dad’s permission. He was furious when he found out. Once Earl and I were no longer Siamese Twins, we were dropped from the traveling freak show. What followed was 4 long years of living in bus stations, scraping up gum from the floor and selling it on the street. Those were hard years Kasey, because people don’t like to buy used gum from homeless children on the street. Yes, it’s true. I am sorry to say that Mom & Dad split up. Mom kept me, and Dad took Earl. I am now 25 years old, and have a family of my own. I haven’t seen Earl or Dad since that fateful day. I want more than anything to find Earl, and bring him back into our lives. Ever since he left, I truly have been half a person. So Kasey, I would love if you could play my song and dedicate it to Earl wherever he is.

Sincerely,

Split in half in Oklahoma

Then, wiping tears from his eyes, Kasey would say… “Well Earl, wherever you are, this week’s long distance dedication goes out to you. Here’s Bruce Springsteen’s, Pink Cadillac”…

So consider this post my long distance dedication to my long lost Siamese Twin Earl. Without further ado, here’s another post about a car!

Not just any car. My first car. Well, if you discount the fact that my parents owned it and paid the insurance on it, listing me only as an occasional driver. (My Mother’s halo used to mysteriously disappear when it was time to pay the car insurance bills) This was no ordinary car. As I have mentioned before, it rivaled the U.S.S. Chester A. Nimitz in size and weight. There was so much steel in that baby that it had it’s own gravitational field.

Behold the 1972 Dodge Coronet!

The Tank

We lovingly referred to it as the Tank. Dad bought it off some guy who lived out on the Batavia-Byron Rd. The body was in terrific shape, and it ran great. With the exception of a faulty water pump that limited the car’s range to about 10 miles before it would overheat. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I have a sneaky suspicion that this was the feature that sold Dad on the car. A 10 miles radius wasn’t far enough for me to get into any serious trouble.

Luckily, it was far enough that I could make it to just about every dead end dirt road party spot in Genesee County. So other than that devastatingly fateful night at “the Top of the World”, it worked fine for my purposes. It’s ocean liner like steering, and Saturn V rocket-like throttle response took a little getting used to, but I figured it out. You just had to hold your foot down to the floor, and shake the wheel back and forth from 10 to 2 o’clock to keep it out of the ditch.

Aside from freedom from having to borrow the family minivan the Tank came with a back seat the size of a Queen size bed. No sitting in the GCC parking lot on a winter night, steaming up the windows in a Ford Escort with a stick shift sticking in your backside. (Unless of course you were into that sort of thing). No Ma’am, a night out with me in the Tank promised luxurious accommodations.

I also like to think that this was the thing that sold Dad on the car. (Looks up to heaven, flashes a thumbs up sign) Thanks Dad!

Looking back on those nights out in the country with a sweet smelling girl, umm… “studying astronomy” through the back window, all I can do is smile. At least until a right hook from Mrs. 20 Prospect wipes that misty look off my face. (Her right hook really is her best punch). It seemed so dangerous to us at the time, but looking back I am amazed at how tender and innocent we were. (No really, I mean it) I am also amazed at how lucky we were every time I read a story about a car full of kids dying in a car wreck.

So, at the risk of being a hypocrite, I just want to say, kids if you are reading this, DON’T DO WHAT I DID!

Seriously, when you are old enough to drive I am selling the minivan and buying the smallest subcompact car I can find.

Better start taking yoga classes.

Boo Radley Summers

Do you remember when life was simple? When you woke up in the morning, lay in bed watching the sunlight streaming into the bedroom, and wondered what you should play today?

They say that youth is wasted on the young. I’m not so sure. The kids sure seem to enjoy it. And they are still kids. Nine and Ten, the height of childhood, old enough to ride the big rides at the Amusement Park, and still young enough to squeal with delicious terror. Adulthood is something enigmatic and distant, like a mountain range that never seems to get any closer. Yet mystery still lurks in the shadows, even though you feel protected and immortal. Oh, those Boo Radley summers. They lasted an eternity.

You never see the end coming. It comes on so slow, you look up one day and it is there. When I was a kid I used to have a re-occurring dream. In it I was playing with the kids on Prospect out in the middle of the street like we always did. When looking up through the ceiling of maples I saw a spaceship descending slowly, coming for us. Suddenly, I was overcome with fear, and began running for home, looking up to see the ship advancing on us. Suddenly the world was different, the reality that we knew was over and a new one was descending out of the sky. I never understood that dream, but in true Ray Bradbury fashion, I think I get it now.

The ship descending slowly towards us was adolescence. Like adolescence it never announces it’s coming until you realize one day it has arrived. Then everything changes. From age 13 until 17, our bodies convulse, and transform like Dr. Jeckl becoming Mr. Hyde. We become grotesques, long legged, knobby knees, our bodies too big and awkward for us to control. The face that looks back at us from the mirror takes on different proportions. Our noses, and ears suddenly stick out like a caricature.

I can remember the trips to Dr. Trifthauser’s. From 6th to 10th grade, I made a monthly visit to sit in that chair and have my braces torqued and adjusted. It was a form of medieval torture, as if the good Doctor, in his garish golf pants, were trying to extract a confession from me. Six chairs in a big room, facing a wall lined with one long carpeted bench, on which the youth of Batavia sat in silence, waiting for their turn. Kids from every elementary school in town, all together in the torture chamber on the second flood while their Mom’s waited outside.

In some ways, the Orthodontists’ office was the symbolic event that revealed the bonds between us and our families were about to be supplanted by bonds between us and our fellow prisoners, in a coming of age ritual that never made the pages of the National Geographics hanging in the magazine rack. For six years we would be prisoners in our own bodies. Serving time as the Inquisitor did his best to extract a confession for crimes we had yet to commit. Is there anything more unjust in life than adolescence? Is it any wonder that when we are finally released we go crazy with our new found freedom, and race headlong to try out the tools of adulthood which we are so unprepared to use?

So let the kids play. Let them be kids. It will be over all too soon. All we can do is to love them, and prepare them for what lies ahead. There is no point in telling them. They wouldn’t believe us if we did.

Hamlin Beach

It began as a very ordinary day at the tail end of May. I’d been home from college for about 2 weeks, and had just begun my quintessential summer job mowing grass around the electrical substations of Western New York. It was a high paying job ($8.90 / hr) that my Dad had managed to get me working at Niagara Mohawk, his employer of 35+ years. It would be a hot, dry summer in 1988, the temperatures would set records, and the creeks would dry up. I would spend my days driving in circles around Western New York, from the hills of Cowlesville, north to Medina, east to Brockport, and south to the shores of Hemlock Lake. It was an enormous expanse of country to cover in a company pickup truck with 2 others, pulling a trailer loaded with mowers, gas cans, trimmers, and the tools of our trade. By July the grass has burned out to straw gold, but our work continued, making the rounds of rural back roads from substation to substation, tending to the weeds, and holding back nature from the electron laden arteries of civilization.

In some ways it was the best job I had ever had. At first I had considered the painting crew as the pay was around $12 / hr, mostly due to the inherent danger of climbing the electrical towers. But in the end, my fear of heights got the better of me, and caused me to chicken out. It’s just as well. My friends on the crew complained about the long hot days in full coveralls, burning in the sun and “bitch-a-mastic” paint, as they worked their way through the mosquito infested swamps of Bergen and Alabama. By contrast, my days were spent driving the idyllic farm roads of Western New York, familiarizing myself with every short cut, and coffee shop between the waters of Ontario, and green hills of Wyoming County. I learned more about my home during that summer, than in the other 19 summers combined, and fell in love with the place. But I digress…

The evening of my birthday was not intended to be anything special. I had made some plans with Dan’l to get together and hang out, and he was due to pick me up shortly after dinner. To my great, and ever lasting surprise, when he pulled into the driveway of 20 Prospect in his 1978 Chrysler Cordoba, the front and back seats were full of my 5 closest friends in the world. When I jumped into the back seat, I noticed a case of Molson Golden sitting on the floor, and was informed that we were heading to the lake.

It was a gorgeous, warm summer evening. The sun was slanting in golden rays across the landscape as we drove due north through the muck lands of Elba, across the fabled canal at Albion, through the orchards of Orleans County, and on up Route 98 like an arrow for the shore of Lake Ontario. Six of us laughing in the car, with the windows down, and the moon roof open, and Steve Miller’s greatest hits playing on the radio. We arrived at the beach, and sat on a break wall, looking out at the Lake, drinking beer, and talking until well after the sun had gone down.

It was a simple evening, and one that we would repeat many times over the course of the summer. A group of kids, a case of beer, and a remote rural spot where we could share a laugh, and some stories, and discuss our dreams for the future. We were a cocky bunch, like all 20 year olds are. We were chafing at the restraints of being stuck in Batavia for another summer, and looking forward to the day we moved away to somewhere important, and exciting, and did “real” work. I look back and laugh about it now. If we’d been told how lucky we were, we’d have never believed it. We were convinced that somewhere “out there” important things were happening, and we were somehow missing out on them. We were so eager to get out there and stake our claims in the world.

The time would come soon enough. It was the last free summer we had. The next summer was the interim between our Junior and Senior years of college, and most of us had moved on to internships, or “important” summer jobs in our fields that would prepare us to land that all important post college job when we graduated. It would be a time to lay the first brick for the foundation of that all important resume. But the summer of 1988 was one last fling. A summer to be spent in idleness, drinking in the cool of dusk, leaning against the warm hood of a piece of Detroit steel, watching the swallows dart through the twilight, chasing mosquitoes like so many dreams. I loved those days, even though I wished them away, and I miss those dear friends. And despite the times and distances that have grown like weeds around us, I love them still. God bless them all, wherever they may be.

Bitter Harvest

The great concrete bulk of the building still looms over the street. Its heavy shadows a cool relief from the heat of the sun.

The tracks where trains once flashed by on their way from New York to Chicago are empty, and hidden in weeds. My car bumps across their rails, as I pull down the street.

Across from the old factory, the wrought iron fence of the cemetery continues its centuries long surrender to rust. The factory and the cemetery, surround me like two shores of a river as I drift past.

Three generations of immigrants squeezed into this space between work, and death. Walking up from the South Side every morning, with their exotic meats and slabs of homemade bread, wrapped in wax paper, carried in buckets, and empty tobacco tins.

If I close my eyes, I can see their ghosts in denim, and overalls.

Three blocks away they could already hear the ringing, and pounding from within the echoing halls, a world of steel and stone, turning out reapers and threshers for a nation of farmers.

Knife blades of sunlight slant down from the vents in the roof, and pierce the darkness. They stand at the lathes, and presses, and watch the hours drip like beads of sweat from their brows.

My car rattles over the broken pavement, past the bar where they quenched their thirst after a day inside the dark, and dusty halls. Thick hands, and thicker accents were wetted by the mugs, whose drops of condensation fell like tears onto the sawdust floors.

They are all gone now.

The workers to their humble graves in the Catholic cemetery down the street , the threshers and reapers to rust and weeds, the jobs to places where men and women sacrifice limbs to feed their children.

But the great hulk of the building stands.

Its weather beaten face is scarred by the years, and crumbling around the edges, but its heart is still as hard as granite.

A head stone for a city we used to be.

Another trip down memory lane

It’s spring. Heart achingly beautiful spring. The lilacs are poised to bloom any day now, and as we all know, I’m a sucker for lilac time. While spring may not be my favorite season,there is something about the cool, fresh evening air that transports me back in time. So climb aboard the Tardis, and lets go for a ride…

They say that the most potent of all of the human senses is our sense of smell. While sight, sound, taste and touch can all evoke memories of our past, there is something unique about the sense of smell that makes its connection to our memory stronger, and more vivid. I have experienced this many times. Put me within 20 yards of mothballs, and I am immediately transported to my Grandmother’s house. Put me near fresh cut grass during the dusty days of late August, and I can almost feel the pain of football 3 a days. So I find it highly distracting when a co-worker of mine douses himself with Polo by Ralph Lauren, and proceeds to fumigate the office with memories of 1985. Like a red shirted character on Star Trek I am suddenly beamed down to a hostile planet where I know I am doomed.

The year 1985 could have been the high water mark of my life. In fact, it had all the makings of it. When it began I was in the 2nd semester of my Junior year at ND, and had suddenly found myself in the midst of a flowering social life which seemed unattainable a mere 6 months earlier. I had a steady girlfriend, more close friends than any man deserves, and access to alcohol that only increased with each passing month. By spring of that year every week seemed to promise a new experience, and a new coed with whom to become acquainted. By all rights I should have spent the rest of my days in Batavia living in the long shadows of my life at 17. How I managed to escape that fate, and wind up happy, and somewhat well adjusted, on the frozen prairies of Minnesota is still a mystery to me. In fact, attempting to solve that mystery by retracing my steps backward to the very beginning is half the point of writing this blawg.

So these periodic blasts of a dated cologne result in a flood of memories that send me off in a reverie trying to grasp the essence of what I felt at the time. The spring of 1985 was an early one that seemed to linger deep into June. With each passing week the temperature inched upward, the world became greener, and began to vibrate with life. My braces had come off after 6 years of suffering and pain, and my self esteem soared. Never before had anyone ever considered me to be “good looking”, but suddenly it seemed as if there was a different, maybe even handsome, face staring back at me from the mirror. The same could be said for all of us that year. We had turned the corner from gangly teens, to young adults, and we were thrilled to get out and try out our new equipment.

I am a born pessimist. For as long as I can remember, I have viewed every good event in my life with the suspicion that it was fleeting, and would soon be followed by Faulkner-ian loss. If ever there was such a thing as Western New York Gothic, I embodied it. But that spring of 1985, for the first, and maybe the last time in my life, the future seemed boundless. My heart still aches remembering it.

Photo copyright atsjbosma @http://www.flickr.com/photos/87185102@N00/2436554995/

It was a spring evening, with the first breath of summer sighing through the trees. It was a Friday, and after school we had borrowed one of our parent’s cars, and driven a classmate who could pass for 21, out to a convenience store on East Main to buy beer. With thrilling success we had managed to acquire 2 cases of beer. Well, if you can classify Old Milwaukee, and Old Milwaukee Light as beer, but at the time we weren’t exactly selective drinkers. Being 16 and 17 year olds, we were limited in our range and mobility. Getting a car after dark, was pretty much out of the realm of possibility, so we had to do some quick planning to figure out where to store this beer, and where to drink it after nightfall. After some discussion, we decided on the woods behind the Blind School. It was a central location, accessible by a short walk from most of our houses. So we drove the dirt driveway back behind the school that afternoon, and stashed our illicit treasure under some upturned concrete blocks, in a pile of dirt and construction waste from a recent construction project. Then we returned to our homes for supper hoping that no one had spotted us.

That evening, shortly after supper, we began to gather in small groups at various houses. The guys started showing up at 20 Prospect on their 10 speeds before, ahem, “going to the movies”. The girls began to gather at Bella’s house on State Street for the same ostensible purpose. Then as the shadows began to lengthen, we started making our way to the woods to rendezvous. The spot we had chosen was a wooded hillside that sloped down towards the north, and an undeveloped area of scrubby growth that extended to the Thruway. The nearest homes were on Burke Drive, over a hundred yards to the west, through a wooded area thick with undergrowth. It was unlit and very secluded, well off the beaten path for any passing kids, or adults.

Looking back it all seems so innocent, but at the time we felt like hardened criminals committing a felony. Retrieving our warm Old Milwaukee, we began passing cans around the circle, and talking in hushed, conspiratorial tones. Being kids it didn’t take more than half a can for us to begin feeling the magical effects of alcohol beginning to tickle our consciousness. I had never felt more mature in my life than I did sitting around that circle, talking and laughing with 8 other guys and girls. It was the first real clandestine “party” we had ever thrown, and it would not be the last.

Sitting there in the gathering dusk, the city began to disappear around us, until it was just the nine of us there in the dark, our senses alive like never before. Goosebumps appeared on my arms, as much from the excitement of the moment as it was from the coolness of late May. The girls huddled close to the guys, and we began to look at each other in a new light. Up until that point the friendships between us had been reserved and platonic. But as the night went on, and the cans piled up, we became aware of each others presence in a visceral way that we hadn’t ever noticed before. Like blind kids, the dimness and the alcohol had suddenly magnified our other senses. We could feel each others presence, even in the indigo darkness. It was an awakening for us all.

As summer came on, we would repeat this scene many times, in many places, but our relationships had begun to change. With each progressive step, our familiarity increased, and romantic intrigues developed. Over the course of the next 5 years the couplings, and breakups would become too numerous, and intertwined, to keep straight. But sitting there on the edge of 17, the future stretched out like a trackless wilderness. We had no idea what lay before us, and we tingled with anticipation, poised and ready to step forward into the virgin woods and begin blazing our trails.

That was 25 years ago. We had no idea of the twists, turns and the dead ends that we would wander into. One by one our paths would diverge into a forest of our own choosing, and slowly the path behind would be overgrown with weeds and burdocks. But the memories are still there, somewhere far in the back of our minds, until something, say a colleagues bottle of ancient cologne, flips a switch and it all comes flooding back. When it does, there’s not much that can be done except to pause, smile, and marvel at the journey.