Spring/Summer 1994, Volume 11.2
Allan Cheuse (Ph.D., Rutgers U ) is the author of The Tennessee Waltz and The Light Possessed, and other novels and story collections. He serves as book commentator for NPR's "All Things Considered" and as producer and host for the Syndicated Fiction/NPR co-production "The Sound of Writing." He has recently edited (with Caroline Marshall) a new anthology of stories from that show titled Listening to Ourselves. He teaches at George Mason University and is at work on a new novel.
I'm not sure exactly when we first climbed over the barrier into the plant, but it became for a number of years a regular ritual with us, scaling the guard fence and walking around the large pools of human excrement and watching the long machine arms stir and stir the town;s waste before the liquid mass was siphoned off into the second large pool and stirred again with other chemicals until by the third pool the liquid within seemed to have been transformed into some new matter.
You'd think the smell alone would have been enough to keep us boys away. But it was precisely the opposite. Drawn out of curiosity as to just exactly what a vast pool of it might smell like, we went over the fence that first time-the plant, being at the water's edge, sometimes blew its crude perfume back toward the town but more often the wind would shift and usher the odors out across the river toward South Amboy where there were so many crude smelling factories already it was hard to imagine that anyone living there would know the difference, or out along the river toward the bay where the stink of decay would mingle with the sea-smell of fish and weed and wave-but the odd thing was the odor of the plant, and of that first raw pool especially, was not particularly awful. It was not attractive, but it wasn't horribly unpleasant either, and this seemed to be to us a fascinating demonstration of some natural law, that if you filled a vat with shit-we forgot to figure in the chemicals that were already at work breaking down the composition of the excrement-it would smell less awful than a toilet stuffed with the residue of a boy's bowels after he'd, say, gone to a balll game in New York and eaten too many ball-park franks and drank too many sodas and stuffed himself with popcorn and candybars and then come home and had some ice cream bars and more softdrinks before going to bed. Or stayed at home while his parents went visiting on a Sunday going to bed. Or stayed at home while his parents went visiting on a Sunday and smoked several of his father's cheap cigars and then sneaked some Scotch from the shelf in the dining room that passed, in our basically tee-totalling families, for a liquor cabinet.
And there was breaking wind. Farting was to our gang what small talk was to the upper classes at a tea party. And just as within the range of certain octaves there are as many variations in the human voice carrying a melody in full song as there are different people singing that song, so too with the odor of our farts. Tall Joe, with pale skin and many tiny moles all over that white frame,with big bug eyes and flat brown hair and ears too large for his already large though narrow head, my pal Joe had a body chemistry as different from mine as his body was different, and as different from Ron's- short, a little flab around his middle, with wiry blonde hair that clung to his head like a skull cap and a pair of beautifully innocent eyes the color of the bluest blue sky you might see, if lucky, on a spring day at the shore while staring out toward the ocean just at sunrise. Each of us had a life within a family and a house as different from each other as you could imagine within the narrow range of one or two generation American working people who happened to have been born into the tribe of Moses and Aaron. They dressed differently-Joe tended more toward shirts and ties, the influence, I thought, of his appliance salesman father, while Ron dressed more like me, like a junior version of the workmen who brought the money into our families-and they felt themselves differently in the world each morning on awakening, one a cool and rascally sort of guy who was always looking for the angle, the other a more timid and basically agreeable kid ready to help out and do what anyone told him was right-and so along with the way they ate and the way their parents treated them-and all this goes for me, too, of course-it wasn't any wonder that their gas took on a certain signature quality, not just of odor but in sound as well.
Ron's little smaps and pips were of a brief and short-lived variety, the kind of sounds you might expect to hear if you magnified the sputtering noises of a dying flame on the stove or a candle guttering in the wind. At best, when bloated with junk after a binge of sodas and franks and candy and icecream, he gave outthe sound of a deflating balloon. But not a large balloon. And the smell, the smell was predictable-sharp, tangy, even, you might say. But never all that strong, as though even this self-effacing boy's bowels were somehow innocent of any really overpowering wrong.
Joe was exactly the opposite. His odors were as brash and forward and offensive as he sometimes could be as a person, and after an initial blast that had a brassiness and blare that, if translated into musical instruments might have been the equivalent of a trumpet fanfare for a monarch known for the cruelty and quixotic nature of his reign, the air he blopped out lingered, languished even, just within the range of your offended sense of smell, like some fog that rolled in slowly onto a salt plain in winter when the weather had turned unaccountably warm and the ground kept the clouds bound to it as if by electromagnetism, and the inhabitants of that low country began to believe that they would never live to see blue sky-or sniff fresh air-again.
As for me, well, who among us is wise enough or with a keen enough sense to know what it is we seem like to others, and the worst of us (and I was hardly among the worst and feel no sense of pride in saying so, since after all I was only a boy just at puberty at that time, and could hardly distinguish between the real and the imagined sins let alone commit any serious act against another person or nature that had any lasting negative effects) have no idea of the impression we make on the world. Yet when I broke wind the air I left behind smelled of no roses, I was sure. But all in all my friends and I had prepared ourselves for the trips we made to the sewage plant, is what I want to say. We were prepared.
The long arms pushing the brownish, lumpy waters, stirring and stirring, the mechanical nature of that first pool fascinated us, and we came, as if students of shit, to learn the process, just as admiring of the endless turnings as we were as when we scrutinized the machines that produce sticky salt water taffy down at the shore resorts we frequented in summer later in these times. The turning and the turning, the endless motionings without visible change in the material-or was it the churning of butter which we had seen on farms ~when our day camp bussed for a few hours out of the town and into the country? or the way in which our mothers whipped up heavy cream into the thick and delicious frostings for the otherwise tasteless cakes they baked from mixes bought in cardboard packages?
By the time the fetid swamp of a pool was stirred and stirred a hundred or a thousand times it was siphoned off into a second pool, lighter in its earth shades but still the color of crap nonetheless, where chemicals bleached the Tesidue of ten thousand toilets and twenty or thirty thousand bowels a day. Row large was our town? I couldn't have told you then in numbers, but I could have clearly surmised that it produced enough crud to fill a swimming pool every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year.
,- And that this detritus of all the meals eaten by all the families in all the houses and apartments in our town, from the Jews and Protestants in the southern part of town along the K11 and the river on through the small section of black folk to the northeast beneath the bridge to Staten Island and the Hungarians and Polacks and Serbs and Croatians and other Middle European tribes to the north of downtown and the burgeoning plains of Spanish speakers spreading out just then from the downtown to western boundaries of the city where only Slavs and other white tribes had lived before this, Catholic shit and Protestant shit and Jewish shit, mother shit and father shit, girl shit and boy shit, all stirred together and from it rising a cloud of odor the likes of which no one who had ever smelled it up close could ever forget, this waste pool of near epic proportions, given our sense of size and place, mystified us and drew us to it and gave us pause such as nothing before had ever done, and short of a huge open chest cavity with a giant heart beating within it where we could gather together and look down into the pulsing of that vital process, or the very top of an enormous brain sliced open so that we might climb a ladder to a walkway above it and stare into the electrical circuitry of something like our very own t4oughts, or-to be honest-if a giant naked girl were splayed out on a plain before us and we boys might stalk at night, flashlights in hand (because we'd be much too embarrassed to come by day) I don't know what else at that time i,d that place might have led us to it with such force and necessity.
Ah, sweet mystery of life!
Number Seven School: dark reddish-brown building made of cement brick arches and casements kin to many institutions built around the same time, prisons, asylums, surrounded by a lawn of cement and behind it a playground of cement. Inside it was always overheated, at least on all the floors above the basement. You worked on your arithmetic, you sweated it out. You traced with your finger the borders of old Russia, you sweated. You watched with the most intense boredom-the worst boredom you would in fact ever know in your entire life-as white-haired Mrs. Liddy diagrammed a complex sentence on the blackboard-and you sweated. In autumn and winter you removed heavy clothes when you came into the building. In spring you wished that you could remove your skin.
Ironically the only haven from the heat was the basement, the cool depths of the building where you could walk below the thick, asbestoswrapped pipes that stood out on the ceiling like the veins on the neck of an angry old man. This was the domain of big Jimmy Skank the janitor. A big bald head and piercing blue eyes gave him a much more commanding presence than any of the teachers who worked on the floors above his basement kingdom. Jimmy Skank talked to us about sports, the World Series in the autumn, and then college football, which in those days not many boys knew much about outside of the deep South and the Ivy League, and through the winter he held court on the subject of the next season's major league ball clubs. In his white undershirt and his baggy blue jeans he'd sometimes lectured us on these favorite subjects while we were temporarily rescued from English and arithmetic by a hall pass for the bathroom, turning his back to us in order to work on a stubborn pipe-fitting in the boiler room-where we were forbidden to set foot without his company-and spitting out over his shoulder his latest estimates of the chances the Yankees had for another pennant.
Or his predictions about our lives.
"You, Saul, kid, what the hell do you know? You're a wise guy, I can see it in your eyes"-even as he was working over the pipe with his back to me"You don't have no concentration and if there's one thing you need in this world it's concentration. Look at me, what I'm doing, if I let go, one slip, and I got a boiled hand to live with the rest of my life."
Or marriage. Jimmy Skank was a bachelor, and in love with his condition.
"Marry, you guys," he said to us, "and you might well go to prison, you understand? You want to give away all your freedom, why not just walk up High Street to the city jail and turn yourself in. Me, I know how to live, I work hard all week, I see my beloved mother on Friday nights, Saturday, Sunday, I can go fishing down at the river, I can drink with my pals at the V.F.W. hall. And what's life without that? You think I could do this if I was married? Forget it, I'm telling you boys, forget it."
I always believed everything Jimmy said because of how he spoke about his mother. My logic was simple: he loved his mother. I loved my mother.He seemed to know what he was talking about, because he was an adult with a job. So therefore I must be doing the right thing with my life, too. Which was spending as much time as I could outside of class, down in the bowels of the building with Jimmy Skank. Or before and after school, in the little candy store abutting the school grounds where we boys played endless rounds of baseball card pitch. As for the candy in that store, I shunned the sweets. Uptown, just a few blocks away, stood my grandparents' store, which was my own free candy supply every day of the week if I wanted it.
Grammar School: In any other town this would have been called for what t was , a junior high school or intermediate school or middle school. But in ur town it was stuck with the old name, though the last thing we learned there was grammar. The school was a huge dark red-brick monstrosity built t the turn of the century on a slight rise of ground just above the main business district on the site of an old Revolutionary War barracks. And once again it was one of those places where not much went on in the classrooms that was worth recalling. Most of the interesting things in the school took place below street level.
In the gym room, a gimpy German named Mr. Glockau directed our play 'ke some tired old liontamer working with beasts he could barely control. And in the detention rooms, the worst boys in the school gathered together quite often, at the behest of their teachers, and could powwow and plot frighteningly dangerous afterschool gang fights and now and then a car theft or a break-in at a candy store. Nothing that ever took place in the classrooms above could equal the fascination of watching Stash Wosniak flip out his gravity knife and dare black-as-night Willie Green to say one more word about his mother. No emotion or idea that any teacher upstairs could elicit came anywhere near the pungency and depth of the cloud of unknowing sent forth in a rasping burst of sound from the anus of Billy Kazmarek.
"Oh, Jeez, help, help us," boys cried out in mock-terror at the attack.
"Please, I swear on the Virgin, we'll be good, let us out of here!"
"Jew-boy, swear on your God, too! Or else we'll die here!"
"Swear," he said.
"Oh, please, Jeezus, open one of them dumb stuck windows, for Christ's sake, we're going to die here from the smell!"
Though I do remember a few moments worth recalling from events on tie floors above.
Eighth grade social studies class: I was sitting next to Helen Karb, watching her breasts move up and down in her tight puce sweater, marvelling at the wonder of her breathing, when Mrs. Stubble heard a knock at the door and went to answer it and came back in and announced to us that Josef Stalin had died. This sent Helen to breathing hard and fast and it excited me in a way I had never been before, and thus I owe to Stalin, his death, this early and strange and wonderful experience.
And one autumn afternoon, dark with menacing clouds, the radiators already knocking out their steady wintry rhythms, Mrs. Brody passed out a sack of candy corn and read "Snowbound" to us, asking us to pretend that we were all snowed in together in this room-oh, fate worse than death, I remember thinking. If there was a hell, I decided, it was Grammar School, middle of the week, English class, with Mrs. Brody presiding. I hoarded a few bits of the yellow candy in my shirt pocket. I knew I'd be hungry again.
Perth Amboy High School: Another, larger Victorian dark (grey) brick, covered with ivy, as if the entire edifice had been deserted by its inhabitants and left to ruins in a forest years before. Difficult to know where to begin to describe the mis-education one suffered here. I remember Marty Bertman, son of the barrel maker whose factory stood on the highway on the north side of town, telling me and Joe and Ron that freshman at the high school were supposed to come dressed in costumes on Halloween. My first few weeks at the school convinced me that this was true. I'd never seen such a huge array of grotesque teenagers gathered together every day on the steps and street outside the school.
Only the teachers were a more bizarre group, not a rogue's gallery, because few of them lived lives intense enough to be considered as vital as a rogue's. But bizarre enough, though, ironically, most of them had come out of the so-called "normal" school teacher's educational system. America, the eastern seaboard, as they say, in the late nineteen fifties, and you could not have found a group so lacking in passion and analytical intelligence, a group so backward in its educational views and so obtuse in its social behavior, if you had trekked on horseback for several days into the Mongolian interior on a quest for the educational equivalents in an encampment of the old Golden Horde. At least there you might have found someone with practical knowledge to impart, how to ride and how to shear sheep and how to tie knots and how to build a philosophy in the face of the bitter winds and cold of a winter on the Asian steppes.
I could name names, but this could only lead to regrets and recriminations. I could cite scenes, but there are better stories to tell in the time I have to tell them. Leave it to say that our education came about in the halls and the streets and the cars and the bars and the poolrooms and the trains and the subways and avenues of nearby New York, and in reading whatever good books we might smuggle into the high school. Yes, smuggle in. I judge my education by what books the teachers caught me with and confiscated.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that Clara Fergusson, my home room teacher, took away from me on the grounds that its author wrote smut.
The Sound and the Fury, which Mr. White, the physics teacher who was was presiding over a sophomore study hall, snatched from my hands because it was a "dirty book." Etc. Etc.
The proscribed list held by the conventional minds on the faculty there would be good enough to make up anyone's serious education. Only Shakespeare escaped, because Shakespeare was taught by some of the worst teachers in the cosmos-I know that if there are some day other inhabited planets discovered in our universe that no extraterrestrial fuckup could teach Shakespeare as badly as Mrs. Convivo. Shakespeare with her was like eating the finest ingredients in the world cooked into the most preposterously flavored banquet, salt, say, mixed with chocolate, and garlic n milk, tomatoes and icecream, meat and strawberries. She didn't know what she was doing, she had no sense of poetry, less sense of life, and seemed dedicated to the task of making the greatest writer in English boring and vile in the eyes of the likes of us who needed his poetry and vision the most.
Better to have sent us to sea for four years on a vessel with a crew of sailors determined to teach us the practical matters of running a ship, and good library, not to mention the shore leaves in exotic Asian and South American ports, for even then if we had been caught in the doldrums part of the time and suffered through great storms and found ourselves in real peril and then sailed around in circles for weeks or months, we would have come home knowing something of the world and ourselves or how we face the world, I should say, perhaps.
Oh, those years at school, they were pathetic, and above all they were a waste! a waste of my time! and a waste of your time to even have to read what a waste they were!