August 29, 2015
she sprouts up suddenly,
like a roadside weed;
a skinny, awkward, 5’8,”
clumsy, pre-pubescent girl
who wears glasses and plays the cello.
That’s about as nerdy you can get.
She slinks along
hunched over at the shoulders,
eyes focused on her feet,
trying to look smaller, shorter, invisible;
trying to hide the newly emerging breasts
that seem to be always at eye level,
for the boys in her class to gawk at and laugh.
But….. just two years later,
it’s all changed.
Boys in her high school classes
are taller than her now,
and she’s blossomed into a beautiful, statuesque,
full busted, blonde bombshell,
who attracts boys
like bears to honey.
Still embarrassed a bit by her height,
she dates mostly basketball players,
and inadvertently becomes one of the “in crowd”
and part of the high school elite.
No more the nerdy loser,
a new sense of confidence breeds a smile
that’ll break the hearts,
of most of boys in her class.
Along with that great smile,
are those 34Ds,
causing a sensation,
whenever she shows up at the town pool,
in her California bikini.
The blond hair and those boobs
are gonna’ be her ticket
out of a blue collar world,
into the “Leave It To Beaver” TV show
middle class life she longs for.
That dream crashes and burns at eighteen, though.
Knocked up in her first year of college,
it’s a shot-gun wedding,
followed months later
by a still-born baby girl.
The winning smile is gone now,
and the 34Ds?
They’re gorged with milk
waiting for that little girl gone.
A marriage doomed from the start:
Seven years of depression,
and fighting memories
of a baby held hopelessly,
for only a moment.
The road to middle class Utopia
vanishes before her eyes.
An impending divorce,
leaves her fleeing to New York City.
She reaches out to an old college roommate,
who offers shelter
a blind date with a friend.
When asked what he’s like,
her friend replies, “Hey, he likes blondes with big boobs.
You’re perfect.” “I don’t think I’m ready for this yet.” “Trust me on this one!”
In anticipation of this blind date,
the once confident high school “hottie,”
falters back to the awkward,
hunched over, twelve year old.
Prepared for the worst,
the blind date offers instead,
a humble, decent looking, blue collar guy.
There is an immediate and strong
mutual attraction on this first date,
and within days, they’re inseparable,
The hunched over twelve year old
once again transforms into the buxom blonde.
New found happiness
brings back that endearing smile,
and those 34Ds
are privately admired now
only by her lover.
Life takes on a new beginning
with revived hope
of living that middle class dream.
Happy years of travelling, working, sharing a life,
are meticulously documented by her
in countless photos,
hoping to preserve these good memories,
and the deep love they share.
those 34Ds are not quite as firm as they used to be.
She’s starting to get a bit self-conscious about them again,
so now the bikini’s retired
for a one piece bathing suit.
She still looks amazing, and life is good,
so fuck it!
she detects a lump in her right breast.
It begins a perilous journey,
shared with doctors, surgeons, radiologists,
and that blue collar guy who loves her.
Within a year,a second lump is discovered
in her left breast,
requiring more doctors, more surgery,
and briefly, a loss of hope.
That hunched over twelve year old
is back again,
trying to hide the destruction
going on in her chest.
Blue collar grit
make her a fighter though,
and she eventually regains
her strength and her life.
The surgeries leave those once proud 34Ds
a good bit smaller,
but ….. hey …… they’re still there
and they’re actually a bit more firm,
than they were at forty.
She passes the five year mark,
and a “thumbs up” from her doctors,
offers a big sigh of relief.
After ten years,
the painful memories are mostly faded,
but the long thin scar on each breast
remains as a reminder,
of how fine a line there was,
between life and death
That awkward twelve year old,
turned blonde bombshell,
matured into a strong, independent,
happily married, and a survivor. . .
Charlie’s Log Cabin Inn
February 28, 2011
It’s the late 1940’s,
I‘m six or seven years old,
and it’s a blistering hot August afternoon.
I’m on my grandmother’s back lawn
in rural South Jersey, watching,
as Uncle Leon removes the wooden washboard
from Gram’s large metal washtub.
He places it carefully against a post
on the side of the back porch.
With little effort,
he lifts one side of the large tub
and tips it over.
A wave of soap and bleach water
foams out across the lawn
and slowly soaks into the ground.
I watch and wait.
Moments later, big fat night crawlers
start popping up
through the grass and suds,
I grab ‘em and stash ‘em
in a Maxwell House coffee can.
I spread a little dirt on them,
cover it with wax paper,
put a rubber band around the wax paper,
and poke a fork through it,
leaving four tiny holes for air.
I stash the can in the shade under the porch,
to save ‘em, for when I go fishing.
Uncle Leon takes my hand, walks me across the lawn,
and down the side of the road about 20 yards.
We pass our neighbor “Charlie The Goat Man’s” house.
We cross over the blacktop,
and head down a narrow dirt road,
passing Chicken Yocci’s house……
He’s the weird neighbor
that all the kids are afraid of.
I push in close to Uncle Leon’s leg
and hold his hand tight, as we pass,
hoping Chicken Yocci won’t put the “Maloccio” on me.
We cut through an opening in a split rail fence,
encircling a lawn,
with a long, low, log cabin in the center.
There are old wagon wheels, propped up with logs on the lawn.
It looks like a stage coach stop
in a John Wayne western movie.
As we get closer to the cabin door,
a bright neon sign flashes “Charlie’s Log Cabin Inn”.
Uncle Leon pushes open the heavy wooden door …….
I’m wild with excitement,
and about to fall down the rabbit hole forever.
The darkness blinds me for a moment,
but I feel the cool air of the room on my cheeks...
there’s the smell of cigarette smoke, ash trays, beer, and peanuts.
I hear a Phillies game on the radio.
Eddie Waitkus is on second,
Richie Ashburn hits a homer and ties up the game.
As my eyes slowly adjust,
I can make out a dim light over a circular bar,
in a large open room,
with hot beams of intense sunlight,
shooting across the floor from tiny windows.
There’s some booths in the back, a juke box, a shuffle board,
a cigarette machine by the door,
and a pinball machine against the front wall.
It’s an old Gottlieb machine
with Lil’ Abner and Daisy Mae
painted on the glass,
and Daisy May is wearin’
a really low cut, tight fittin’ blouse.
My uncle picks me up,
sits me up on the bar, and pulls up a stool.
He orders a coke for me and a beer for himself.
He winks at me,
and shares the knowing smile,
of two pals on “road trip.”
He pops a stick match with his fingernail,
and lights up a Lucky Strike,
while the bartender draws his beer.
The bartender yells over,
“Hey kid, what’s your name?”
I softly answer, “Phillip”.
He comes back from the register,
hands Uncle Leon the beer,
and offers me a handful of nickels
painted with red nail polish.
“Ever play pinball, Phillip?”
My face lights up like a neon sign.
I nod a silent “yeah, yell a quick “Thanks”,
and leap from the bar,
one hand full of red nickels,
the other full of peanuts,
arms raised triumphantly in the air,
I make a mad dash for Daisy Mae,
wearin’ a shit-eatin’ grin,
wider than the Grand Canyon….
For me, that moment remains frozen in time
“I knew I found my home.”
If there was an internet in 1955 and you could Goggle “Juvenile Delinquent”, Johnny Boy’s name and picture definitely would pop up first.
He’s the best looking, most athletic, and most evil person I have ever met. He’s 6’2”, blonde; blue eyed, and heavily muscled for a teenager. He is Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Elvis… all rolled up in one really bad-ass “Greaser”.
Every girl in the neighborhood is in love with him and every guy is scared shitless of him. We all want to be him, be like him, or at least, be around him. I’m allowed to hang around with him only because of my sister. I do shit jobs for him just so I can tag along with the "older" guys; I’m a freshman; they’re juniors…. In high school that’s a big deal.
Johnny Boy’s parents never seem to be home. He regularly has card games in his mom’s kitchen. I run for cigarettes and coffee. I also mix drinks for them from bottles of Seagram’s Seven that Johnny Boy and I liberate from the local bar. He conveniently leaves a cellar door unlocked when he delivers kegs of beer for his father’s beer distributing business. On our way out, we grab handfuls of quarters
for the poker game, from the cash register. Johnny Boy and his buddies play poker for quarters, while I mix “7&7s” for them sneaking sips from the bottle until I’m very drunk.
Johnny Boy is walking me around the neighborhood to sober me up and we stroll through the commuter train parking lot. Johny Boy is trying out car doors, looking for an open one. He slides in behind the wheel of a '49 Chevy and “hot wires” the ignition with silver foil from his cigarette pack, while I watch and learn. He presses the starter button, the engine kicks over and we head for US Route 1. Johnny Boy looks over at me, smiles, and says, “We’re goin’ to Miami.” I’m really scared but also very excited. I say nothing. I nod my head, force a smile, and light up an unfiltered Chesterfield King. I try to look “cool”, like I do this shit all the time. It’s dark in the car, so I’m hoping Johnny Boy doesn’t notice my hands are shaking.
In Maryland we pick up a hitchhiker who calls himself “Radar.” He gets to ride shotgun and I have to move to the cramped back seat.
Radar and Johnny Boy talk a lot. Radar is nineteen, been in prison, and he and Johnny Boy seem to have a lot in common. I feel myself slowly become invisible.
When we stop for gas in Virginia, the gas jockey asks for the gas cap key. Without hesitating, Johnny Boy gets out of the car, walks casually back to the gas cap, and easily twists it off, breaking the lock. The teenaged attendant doesn’t say a word as Johnny Boy smiles at him and gets back in the car with the gas cap. The kid seems clearly impressed. We speed out of the station with the open gas tank streaming a trail of splashing gasoline. I’m hoping Johnny Boy doesn’t throw his cigarette butt out the open window.
Around midnight, we’re deep in South Carolina, with Radar driving. He pulls off the road into the woods where we sleep in the car ‘til sunup. I wake up and have to pee real bad. I get out of the car and walk a bit into the woods. I hear the engine start and turn quickly to see the rear wheels sliding and kicking up wet leaves. Johnny Boy and Radar drive off.
At first I think they’re only messing with me, but after an hour, I get it……. they’re not coming back. I’m shittin’ myself…. I’m fourteen and in the middle of nowhere, with no money. My stomach’s growling, I’m out of cigarettes, and my mouth tastes like ass. Late in the morning I finally hitch a ride. I give the driver a sad story about how the last guy I got a ride with, took my money and left me in the woods. I don’t know if he really believes me, but he’s kind and buys me meals. Fourteen hours later, he amazingly leaves me off on Route 1, not far from where I started.
I’m afraid to go home that night because my parents will be there. I remember that the American Legion Post is closed in August. I climb a tree and open an unlocked second floor window. I spend the weekend drinking beer, eating pretzels and chips, and shooting pool. When I get bored, I fire off blank rounds from an old WWI Springfield rifle.
My father has me declared a “chronic run-away.” I have to go to court when I do go home. When the judge ask me why I continually run away from home, I snidely tell him, “My father’s too cheap to take us on a vacation..” …which is mostly true.
Jump ahead two years to my last adventure with Johnny Boy:
He’s breaking into bar at night with a tire iron. He’s not subtle and it’s noisy. Someone calls the police. Johnny Boy runs a lot faster than I do. I don’t rat him out and that costs me a night in jail, a beating by my father, six months probation, and I lose my driver’s license for a year.
I’m expecting at least a grateful wink next time I see him but he just points his finger at me and laughs his ass off. My mother has been charmed by Johnny Boy for a long time and only makes my sister break up with him, when he goes to prison for a two year stretch.
I’m hoping he gets to share a cell with a hard core “lifer” who makes him his bitch.
It’s 1998. I have a coworker who was born and raised in Communist China. He has a Doctorate in Computer Science from some Ivy League school. I’m here to replace him. We work together for several months,
without much interaction. We often stay after normal work hours,
finishing up whatever project we’re involved in. One night I take a break and go out. I come back with a six pack of Chinese beer under my arm.
We sit and drink together. He talks plainly and openly, for the first time. His wife is expecting twins any day now. He isn’t really crazy about computers. He left China in search of freedom, but now feels trapped in a career, and marriage he chose before he had a chance to experience freedom in America. His dream of freedom and being a real American now, is playing guitar in a rock band in the village. He loves Rock & Roll; plain and simple. Yinchao Zhang, rock on. This one’s for you:
almost in a whisper.
in what seems,
he extends his hand.
My name is Yinchao Zhang.
To my Western ear,
this is the sound
of a dissonant, bluesy chord,
bent and blasted
through the amp
of a brightly polished
1968 Fender Strata-Caster,
to a set of giant ,
AR7 “Voice Of The Theatre”
He works silently,
alone at his desk,
fingers constantly in motion,
scanning the keyboard,
from the gods of Unix.
Only an incessant clicking
marks his presence.
daily attacks the universe,
with machine gun bursts,
The cool, quiet,
by bursts of brilliant exuberance;
the flowers of discovery.
But In daydreams,
his hands lovingly
grasp the handles
of the bright, new,
as he proudly propels
his new creations
New York streets.
Yet, in the quiet of his heart,
these same hands
slide smoothly along
the highly polished neck
of that Fender Strata-Caster,
forming chords that speak,
his true soul.
In a Friday night
smoke filled , purple haze,
looking “real cool”
behind those John Lennon,
pin spot sunglasses,
bent into the guitar,
like a question mark
The “Little Rock”
For Mom On Her 78th Birthday
June 18, 1977
must have had a premonition,
for of seven children,
they choose to name this child
Pietralina, meaning “Little Rock.”
Antonio and Santa marry young
from the desolate poverty of Sicily
to the "Sanctuary Of The Hopeless,"
They struggle to make a life
as the Great Depression
slowly gnaws away
the meager remnants
of their American Dream.
Poverty and illness visit
and are warmed at their hearth.
Influenza, Measles, Tuberculosis,
Heart Attack, and Cancer;
each take their toll.
Pietralina, the “Little Rock”,
By the nineteen fifties,
only three remain
of this luckless clan of ten
to bear the family children
but none, the family name:
Margaret, Angelina, and
Pietralina, the “Little Rock.”
A decade later
only two remain.
They appear so alike
in look and spirit
that God seems to have
blessed their beauty twice;
now just Angelina & Pietralina.
As we enter the twenty-first century,
Pietralina alone remains,
to walk the paths at Holy Cross,
and honor the graves of her kin.
She places a solitary flower
by each headstone,
offers a silent prayer,
and locks their memories
and their dreams in her heart.
II: Building A Dream
She appeared to me always
as a wall
of warmth and strength,
solid and permanent,
like a rock.
Propelling her life forward
by sheer stubbornness and will,
she meets each adversity with
the power of faith and
the protection of the Sicilian "red ribbon".
The "Malocchio" cannot penetrate
Pietralina, the “Little Rock”
She chooses to marry a boy
Tuberculosis has marked
for early death.
Against all objections,
they forge a new family and home
from the broken dreams
of both their lives.
Long sweatshop days,
followed by lonely,
trolley ride, hospital nights,
visiting first the husband,
then the son.
An eternity of bedside vigils.
She remains Pietralina, the “Little Rock”.
Plowing through each adversity
like a demon train,
she determines not to be stopped
in pursuit of her family's dream:
Pinafore dresses, prom dreams,
Chevy Impalas, mink stole,
lawn mowers, catholic school,
diamond ring, air conditioner,
Miami winters, and children’s graduations!
She remains steady
and labors tirelessly through it all.
III: Approaching Darkness
Overnight it seems, things change.
Suddenly, it's back to the city.
Gone is the house in the "burbs".
Gone next, the children,
and finally her faithful pet Coco
who loved her unconditionally.
Pietralina, shudders a little
but doesn't know why.
The boy marked for death
survives everyone’s prediction of death
by more than 50 years.
She nurtures him, bewilders him,
cares for him, torments him,
and has enough love
for both of them.
She is his cross to bear
and she is his crutch.
When he is gone,
a long silence remains.
A final whisper speaks
the unspeakable fear:
She is alone.
Ozzie and Harriet dreams of family,
arriving for Walton Mountain Christmas',
turn to long days and nights alone.
Hurt, she feels that the family door
has been slammed hard in her face.
Pietralina, feels the cold of night alone,
for the first time in her life.
She has no weapons
for the fight with "alone".
The rock weakens
and cries for help
but family is "busy".
Storms of fear
seem to wash away her footing,
and a gradual slide begins for
Pietralina, the “Little Rock”.
When family fails her,
she is forced to confront
her demon alone
and finds God is there,
waiting to embrace her,
and reveal her own truths.
Now it is her struggle.
She must fight for her life.
she finds the strength
she always provided
for others in their struggles.
Time and prayer are her healers
and she is reborn.
The dormant volcano stirs again,
and lets flow a wall of fire,
with new will and new wonder.
She finds a new beginning,
a new life . .
this one, her life.
This poem offered today,
is the song of her life,
and remains her only reward
for a lifetime
of selfless giving.
She triumphed over all,
by lending age
such beauty and grace.
I’m often chided
for being stubborn to a fault,
for grabbing on
and refusing to let go.
it’s a badge of honor
that I wear with pride,
for it was passed on to me
by my mother
Pietralina, the “Little Rock”.
A Seamstress Story
June 5, 2005
I don’t think anyone grows up knowing they’re poor. You just open up to the world in which you’re born, and accept it as what life is supposed to be. Most environments, no matter how desperate, can be accepted as normal to a young child.
My mom and dad married in their teens, during the Great Depression, while he was in treatment for Tuberculosis. He wasn’t expected to live past twenty and no one could understand why mom wanted to marry him; but marry they did. He told me just before his death at seventy that he didn’t really love her at the time but all his friends said she was beautiful and that he should marry her because no one else would want to marry a “dead man”. He had to agree. He would come to love her much later in their marriage. He spent most of my childhood in and out of “TB Sanitariums.”
Mom had to quit school at seventeen and started working as a “seamstress” in a clothing factory. Looking back at the terrible working conditions, it seems now that the only difference between a “clothing factory” and a “sweatshop” was that one was a legal business with “union representation” and the other wasn’t. Conditions were appalling in both environments, although agreeably worse in sweatshops. To me it was just mom’s job and seemed perfectly normal.
The Amalgamated Garment Workers Union, really acknowledged only “tailors”, as valued union members and they were exclusively men. Women were relegated to “machine work” for the length of their “careers”. Union Shop Stewards told all members who they were to vote for in elections from union locals up to presidential races. You voted the union ticket or suffered the consequences. Mom, along with most women, went along with the program, kept her head down, and pushed pants through the machine. Violence was common during elections in the shops but it was relegated mostly to the men. Women kept their mouths shut and their heads down. A young man could start out as a “bundle boy” carrying bundles of clothing to the female machine operators. If he was sharp and/or had “connections” he could become an apprentice tailor in a few years, and if he was stamped “okay” by the union and other tailors, his career was made. Women had only one option; push clothes through the sewing machines until they quit or died.
Sewing machine operators were paid “piece work”; that is, they were paid for each piece of clothing they completed their portion of the job on. Mistakes were costly because they had to be corrected and cut your production time for the day. Following WWII mom worked at the Philadelphia Quarter Masters Depot sewing linings in army coats. Dad picked her up after work in the cab he was driving for a living and they loaded her “mistakes” in the cab. We spent family evenings unstitching mistakes so mom wouldn’t lose the time at work. She would redo them the following day and get the “piece rate”. She quickly became sharper and faster. Over many years she changed jobs frequently and progressed up the food chain to a coveted position as a Braid Stitcher. Braid Stitchers sewed the shiny satin stripes on the side of men’s tuxedo pants. It was a four part operation (sewing two sides of two braids) and considered one of the better positions in the factories because it paid a higher rate per piece than most other jobs. Mom gained in skill and speed and became well known in the industry. She was “Bea the Braid Stitcher”. She was sought after by all tuxedo manufacturers. She commanded the highest rates and if she really busted ass she could make a sustenance living. Mom was a workhorse and she flourished. Other factory owners were always trying to “draft” mom to work for them.
Arthritis eventually crippled mom’s fingers and she had to quit working at fifty-five. She never collected a penny in benefits because the union contract required that you work until sixty-two to be eligible for a union pension, no matter how many years you had worked. Thirty eight years of indentured servitude, to be left with no union benefits whatsoever. Fuck you Amalgamated Garment Workers Union! Your alligator skin shoes and those sharkskin suits came at the cost of my mom’s arthritic fingers, and the millions of other union women, whose lungs where choked with clothing dust while you helped suck the life blood from them and prospered. You became the monsters that unions were supposed to protect them from. Union corruption has helped hastened the demise of the middle class and the American Dream….. and you still don’t get it.