Born to Run (2016)
I wake in the half-morning light to the sound of weight on the steps leading up to the small landing outside of my bedroom. A door creaks, a turn, a squeak, the running faucet, then the sound of water moving through the pipes in the wall between my room and our bathroom, a turn, then silence, a click, the sound of plastic on porcelain, my mother’s makeup case on the sink, time … then the last-minute rustling of garments before the mirror. These are the sounds that greet me every morning of my teenage life at 68 South Street. They are the sounds of my mother getting ready for work, preparing to present herself to the world, the outside world, which she respects and where she is confident she has duties to fulfill. To a child these are the sounds of mystery, ritual and reassurance. I can still hear them.
My first bedroom was on the second floor, off the back of our house, over the kitchen. A lazy turn to my right in bed and through my window I had a perfect view of my dad on fifteen-degree mornings down in the yard, back to the frozen ground, cursing and grumbling underneath one of our junkers, that he might get ’er running and make work … brrrrrrrr. I had no heat in my room, but there was a small iron grate on the floor I could open or close over the gas jets of the kitchen stove on the east-facing wall. As physics has taught us, heat rises. Hallelujah! For in our first years on South Street those four jets provided me my only warmth and salvation through many a cold New Jersey winter. A voice calling, two half notes, a step up and a rise to the whole note, shouting through the grate, “Bruce, get up.” I plead unmusically, “Turn on the stove.” Ten minutes later, with the smell of breakfast cooking on the kitchen gas burners, the edge has come off of my icebox and I roll out of bed into the cool and unwelcoming morning. This will change when, with my little sister at her side, my grandmother dies in the room next to mine. At sixteen, I will be visited by a black melancholy I never dreamt existed. But … I’ll inherit Grandma’s room—heat!—and the early-morning symphony of my mother preparing for work.
I get up pretty easy. If I don’t, my mom hits me with a glass of cold water, a technique she’s refined from dragging my father out of bed to the job. My sister Virginia and I are at the kitchen table, toast, eggs, Sugar Pops; I snow more sugar on, and we all hustle out the door. A kiss and we’re off to school, lumbering with our book bags up the street, my mom’s high heels clicking lightly in the other direction, toward town.
She goes to work, she does not miss a day, she is never sick, she is never down, she never complains. Work does not appear to be a burden for her but a source of energy and pleasure. Up to Main Street and through the modern glass doors of Lawyers Title Inc. she glides. She walks the long aisle to her desk, farthest in the rear and closest to Mr. Farrell. My mom is a legal secretary. Mr. Farrell is her boss and the head of the agency. She is secretary numero uno!
As a child, I delight in my visits here. Alone, I wheel my way through the door to be greeted by a smile from the receptionist. She makes a call to my mom and I’m given permission to walk the aisle. The perfumes, the crisp white blouses, whispering skirts and stockings of the secretaries coming out of their cubicles to greet me as I stand exactly breast high, feigning innocence while being hugged and kissed upon my crown. I walk this gauntlet of pure pleasure until I end up back at my mother’s desk in a perfumed trance. There I’m greeted by “Philly,” the beauty queen of Lawyers Title, a knockout and the last stop before my mom. She has me shy and speechless until my mother comes to my rescue, then my mom and I spend a few minutes together as she entertains me with her typing skills. Tick-tack, tick-tack, tick-tack, keys hitting the margin, then the typewriter’s decisive bell, slide and bang as her fingers, flying, continue to type out the vital correspondence of Lawyers Title Inc. This is followed by a lesson on copy paper and a crash course on getting rid of unwanted ink smudges as I stand fascinated. This is important stuff! The business of Lawyers Title—and essential business it is to the life of our town—has been momentarily suspended for me!
Occasionally I’ll even see “the Man” himself. My mother and I will wander into his wood-paneled office, where Mr. Farrell will sternly tousle my hair, say a few kind words and send me on my privileged way. Some days, come five o’clock, I’ll meet my mother at closing time and we will be amongst the last to leave. With the building empty, its fluorescent lights out, its cubicles deserted and the evening sun shining through the glass doors and reflecting off the hard linoleum floor of the entryway, it’s as if the building itself is silently resting from its daily efforts in the service of our town. My mother’s high heels echo down the empty aisle and we are out onto the street. She strides along statuesque, demanding respect; I am proud, she is proud. It’s a wonderful world, a wonderful feeling. We are handsome, responsible members of this one-dog burg pulling our own individual weight, doing what has to be done. We have a place here, a reason to open our eyes at the break of day and breathe in a life that is steady and good.
Truthfulness, consistency, professionalism, kindness, compassion, manners, thoughtfulness, pride in yourself, honor, love, faith in and fidelity to your family, commitment, joy in your work and a never-say-die thirst for life. These are some of the things my mother taught me and that I struggle to live up to. And beyond these … she was my protector, stepping literally into the breach between my father and me on the nights his illness got the best of him. She would cajole, yell, plead and command that the raging stop … and I protected her. Once, in the middle of the night, my father returning from another lost evening at the tavern, I heard them violently arguing in the kitchen. I lay in bed; I was frightened for her and myself. I was no more than nine or ten but I left my room and came down the stairs with my baseball bat. They were standing in the kitchen, my father’s back to me, my mother inches away from his face while he was yelling at the top of his lungs. I shouted at him to stop. Then I let him have it square between his broad shoulders, a sick thud, and everything grew quiet. He turned, his face barroom red; the moment lengthened, then he started laughing. The argument stopped; it became one of his favorite stories and he’d always tell me, “Don’t let anybody hurt your mom.”
As a young girl of twenty-three, she struggled with the early years of motherhood, ceding far too much control to my grandmother, but by the time I was six or seven, without my mother, there was nothing. No family, no stability, no life. She couldn’t heal my dad or leave him, but she did everything else. My mother was a puzzle. Born into a relatively well-off family, used to much of life’s good things, she married into a life of near poverty and servitude. My aunts once told me that when she was young, they called her “Queenie” because she was so spoiled. They said she never lifted a finger. Huh? Are we talking about the same woman? If this is so, this was someone I’d never met. My dad’s family treated her like the help. My father could be sitting, smoking at the kitchen table, and his parents would call on my mother to go to the store, get the kerosene for the stove, drive them and our relatives where they needed to go—and she did it. She served them. She was the only person my grandmother would allow to bathe her in the last corrosive months of her cancer. She covered for my dad constantly, bringing home the bacon on countless mornings when, depressed, he simply couldn’t get himself out of bed. She spent her life doing it. Her whole life. It was never over. There was always one more heartache, one more task. How did she express her frustration? With appreciation for the love and home she had, a gentle kindness to her children and more work. What penance was she doing? What did she get out of it? Her family? Atonement? She was a child of divorce, abandonment, prison; she loved my dad and maybe knowing she had the security of a man who would not, could not, leave her was enough. The price, however, was steep.
At our house, there were no dates, no restaurants or nights out on the town. My father had neither the inclination, the money nor the health for a normal married social life. I never saw the inside of a restaurant until I was well into my twenties and by then, I was intimidated by any high school maître d’ at the local diner. Their deep love and attraction and yet the dramatic gulf between my mother and father’s personalities was always a mystery to me. My mother would read romance novels and swoon to the latest hits on the radio. My dad would go so far as to explain to me that love songs on the radio were part of a government ploy to get you to marry and pay taxes. My mother and her two sisters have an unending faith in people, are social creatures who will merrily make conversation with a broom handle. My father was a misanthrope who shunned most of humankind. At the tavern, I’d often find him sitting solitarily at the end of the bar. He claimed to believe in a world that was filled with crooks out for a buck. “Nobody’s any good, and so what if they are.”
My mother showered me with affection. The love I missed from my father she tried to double up on and, perhaps, find the love she missed from my dad. All I know is she always had my back. When I was hauled into the police station for a variety of minor infractions, she was always there to take me back home. She came to my countless baseball games, both when I stunk up the place and the one season lightning struck and I turned into a real fielding, hitting player, with my name in the papers. She got me my first electric guitar, encouraged my music and fawned over my early creative writing. She was a parent, and that’s what I needed as my world was about to explode.