Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Working the Bars (Chapter 10)

Our lager,
Which art in barrels,
Hallowed be thy drink,
Thy will be drunk,
(I will be drunk),
At home as I am in the tavern.
Give us this day our foamy head,
And forgive us our spillages,
As we forgive those who spill against us,
and lead us not to incarceration,
But deliver us from hangovers,
For thine is the beer,
The bitter and the lager,
Forever and ever,
     — The Beer Prayer


The summer before I started junior high school was spent working at Eddie’s garage on Court Street in downtown Reading. It ws on the northern end of town, several blocks past the courthouse which is where the street took its name, and there the road narrowed and took on the appearance of an alley rather than a major road. And indeed that did appear to be its purpose. The tighter blocks had thin row homes squeezed together, but mostly warehouses and industrial type businesses. Few cars ventured up this part of the block unless they were lost, tourists or had business there.

I always assumed it was my punishment to be banished there while my friends were swimming at the pool, ogling girls in bikinis, playing tennis or generally having a much better time than I was. I got a few days off here and there, but by and large it was the Siberia of downtown where I spent that summer. When I reached puberty, I began spending more and more time with Eddie without my mother. I think the idea was that a boy should be with men in order to help him become a man, at least that’s how my family sold it. Personally, I wanted to be with girls or at least my friends. But I was naturally not consulted in the decision. So Eddie had free labor for the summer. I was paid only the weekly allowance of $20 I would have received even I hadn’t been working plus lunch, which invariably was a sandwich shop set up in one of the row homes at the bottom of the block we were on. They had shredded pork sandwiches that were very tasty, but either it was the only kind they had or it was the only kind I liked, because that’s what I ate every single day, along with a Mountain Dew. Eddie had the radio tuned to a local radio station that played the hits of the day, and the played a lot of the top songs over and over again. To this day, whenever I hear one of the familiar songs of that summer, such as Paul McCartney’s “Listen What the Man Said,” it feels like I can actually smell and taste those pork sandwiches. That’s how often we ate them.

The Mountain Dew came from the soda machine in my father’s shop supplied by Pepsi, who also made the sign for the garage that hung above the entrance. It was about as basic a sign I could imagine. A simple rectangle, with two-thirds of it a colorful Pepsi logo and the bottom third white with “Eddie’s Garage” in simple black block letters. It lit up at night from two bulbs inside that had to be changed every couple of weeks. That was one of my jobs, to climb up the ladder and unscrew the sign to replace the bulbs. Of course, I got all the janitorial jobs as well as anything else Eddie didn’t want to do. He spent a good portion of the day just standing around drinking, sometimes with friends who’d stop by and sometimes alone. Not every day, but enough of them.

Occasionally, he would actually work on the cars and he did try to teach me about cars. I was not a very willing pupil, however, and I had almost no interest in cars. It just never grabbed me the way it did him and many other people. People are different, with different personalities, which draw them to different things. That’s not a particularly profound idea but it was one Eddie had a hard time understanding. He felt that what he enjoyed, I should too. It caused a great deal of friction and by the summer’s end I was released and didn’t return over subsequent summers for on-going torture. He finally gave up on my becoming like him, which was a great relief to me, at least at first. It did work against me later when whatever I was interested in was openly ridiculed and mocked. This was especially true of things that Eddie could not do at all, like playing a musical interest, being an artist, or almost any other profession that required an education. It played havoc with my self-esteem in such a severe way that it plagues me to this day. Eddie, in addition to resorting to violence, was also quite gifted in verbally tearing a person down with caustic barbs. At this he never let up. Whatever I did or wanted to do was a waste of time in his eyes. And it wasn’t so much that I sought his approval as that he actively withheld it or tried undermine any goals I might announce. It was a very demeaning pattern and coupled with his violent outbursts created in me a very low opinion of myself.

But that summer I was still a gawky kid, just coming to understand the changes to my body and the world was just beginning to open up on the subject of the opposite sex. Girls and masturbation had taken a new and prominent role in my life and consumed much of my spare time. I discovered pornography in a trunk in our attic, fueling much of my rich fantasies with images my friends could not yet imagine. That coupled with a sex education course my mother taught me in elementary school meant I knew more about what sex really was than the average sixth-grader.

One day coming home from elementary school when I was in second grade I saw the letters f-u-k written in chalk on the sidewalk. Not knowing the word and being naturally curious and quite innocent that it was a word they would have preferred I not know, I casually asked my parents over dinner that evening. “What’s fuck?” There were dropped forks and gaping mouths so I knew I was onto something. My mother — I’m sure it was the nurse in her — snapped into action and bought a teacher’s sex education textbook complete with a workbook and teacher’s companion. Over the next two years, I had to read that book and was given homework over and above my regular public school curriculum, which my mother would then correct. At first, it started out with simple birds and bees stuff but by the end I was studying explicit anatomical drawings and having to identify the various bits and describe what they were for. It was certainly strange, especially in retrospect, but seemed quite natural at the time. My parents walked around in the nude for as long as I could remember, so I was not in the least bit bothered by the naked body. It seemed perfectly normal. And my mother and I were still quite close in those days and she sincerely wanted me to know about sex in the same way she wanted me to learn math or science.

So by the time I discovered how good it felt to jerk off, I knew a lot more that than average adolescent about what was going on and where all the various bits fit together and what they were for. But at just that same time I went sent off to learn a trade in the Court Street Gulag. I did learn quite a bit, though nothing much about car repair. Mostly I learned to be an observer and became more of a student of human nature, as least that’s what I told myself. The quirky, odd characters that came and went from Eddie’s garage were a colorful lot, to say the least. It was at that time that I formed the opinion that people were not meant to live in such close proximity to one another as the average city demands. Live that way for too long and it affects your mind. I have not yet found the city that doesn’t bear out that fact.

One of Eddie’s friends that was more or less a fixture at the garage was Jim. If Jim had a last name, I never knew it. Nor do I know where Eddie knew Jim from but they appeared to have know one another a long time. Jim reminded, in a good way, of Wilbur, my alcoholic step-grandfather that lived in our basement for a time. Jim drove a dull green Plymouth Duster with a souped-up engine. I would not have been surprised to learn he actually lived in the car, though it really gave no sign of that. Jim looked like a hobo. He was tall and lean, with the thinness one associates with heroin addicts or the chronically hungry. It was more likely the latter, as he was quite strong with a stamina that didn’t quit. He could work for what seemed Herculean lengths of time without tiring. Jim’s face was hard and grizzled, with a permanent two-day stubble of a beard. His skin always looked a little dirty, even in the morning when he was clean. He always wore the same clothes, a white pocket t-shirt with dark pants and work boots. If Jim had a wife, girlfriend or kids, he never talked about them. It seemed as if he didn’t really know anyone except my stepfather and few of their mutual drinking buddies.

Jim would, from time to time, just show up looking for work and Eddie would tell him where to start without missing a beat. There would never be any discussion of pay, no filling out of any forms, no nothing. Eddie would simply hand him a glass of whiskey and tell him what to do. Then just as suddenly, one day Jim would be gone again and we wouldn’t see him again for days and sometimes weeks. It never seemed to faze Eddie, but I was always a little saddened during those times when Jim wasn’t around. For starters, Eddie picked on me a lot more when we were alone. But more than that, I really liked Jim. He seemed very worn down by life, but I also imagined that he had lived life to the fullest. He had stories about seeing places all over the country, places I’d only heard about or read about. He never talked about seeing tourist kinds of things, but about the people he’d met, what the land reminded him of, or the adventures he had. Whether his stories were true or not never seemed to be the point, they were entertaining nonetheless. I suspect he may have embellished a little, but his manner was so off-hand and laconic that I don’t think he’d lie unless there was some advantage in it for him, and telling a young boy his stories gave him no such reason.

Jim had more of a problem with drinking than even Eddie, if that was possible. But Jim was a sad drunk, never a violent one. I didn’t doubt that he could take care of himself, but he shrank from violence whereas Eddie embraced it, indeed sometimes looked for it. Jim seemed instinctively to know when it was time to go, before any violence be loosed in is direction. He’d give me a mournful look and wave goodbye silently, slipping out the door and into his car, leaving me to the angry displays Eddie was so prone to. But for some reason I never held that against him. I guess I figured it wasn’t Jim’s problem, that curiously that it had become mine. It’s strange to think that I had taken a certain amount of ownership in my own abuse, but your mind does odd things in coping with a situation it has to deal with.

After work, and often that was early in the afternoon, especially when there weren’t many cars to work on, we adjourned to a local bar. There were too many of these to count, though Stanley’s was undoubtedly a favorite. It served Reading beer, a local brand favored by Eddie and many of the city’s residents. National brands like Budweiser and Schlitz were certainly around, but they had nowhere near the market share they do today. People really were loyal to the local brands. Often they knew someone who worked there or just liked the idea of supporting local businesses. That seems like such a new concept now but I remember my family and indeed most of the families I knew shared the concept that you should support the businesses in town. We bought most of our food from the local farmer’s market from the time we moved to Shillington in 1964. Meat we bought either there or from a local butcher my stepfather knew in Reading. We bought only food we couldn’t get elsewhere at the grocery store. It seems peculiar to me today that only those who’ve made a conscious decision to buy “green” do so now and feel self righteous for the decision, like they’re doing something special. Because growing up that’s what everyone did, it was just the obvious thing to do and required no high-minded politics or ethical positions to convince anyone. I guess that says quite a lot about how different people’s attitudes about their communities are today. The modern grocery may conveniently supply all of our needs in one central location, but the loss of so many small, local, idiosyncratic, family-run businesses is a real tragedy that has made all of our lives more than just a little bit less satisfying.

One such loss is definitely Stanley’s Tavern, a Reading fixture for years and years that no longer exists. It was at the corner of Laurel and Minor streets in the southeast part of town near Bingaman Street. Only men were permitted at the bar, but anyone could sit in the dining area where they served delicious, ridiculously inexpensive meals. The last time I was there, a mug of beer was still well under a buck. There was an actual Stanley, and Eddie, of course, knew him well. He was a burly, balding man with a mustache who didn’t laugh easily but when he did, bellowed and through his head back. Eddie loved trying to get him to laugh. It was a challenge he really enjoyed. Stanley’s was also filled with all manner of things to buy, like a corner grocery and also had little toys and gifts “for the ladies” as I recall the sign claiming. Behind the bar there were cigarettes, candy, gum, meat and who knows what else for sale. You could have a beer and get your shopping done, too. It was a one-of-a-kind place but was also indicative of the personality that the local scene was filled with and which chain stores have largely destroyed.

Usually Jim would join Eddie and me at these happy hours, and we’d often eat another meal before going home for a late supper. It was certainly different being in this world of men after so many years with the women of my mother’s family. They may not have been the best role models, but they offered a completely fresh way of seeing the world for a twelve-year old. I think I saw more that summer than at any time since. I don’t know that it paved the way to begin junior high, but I did look at the world with new eyes from that point on.

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