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Winter's Book of Wisdom

The winter sun frowns over the crest of a hill, uncertain whether to keep rising or go back to sleep somewhere in the thicket of pine trees to the west. It hangs there like an old man waiting for the bus, as if unaware that the bus didn't stop here anymore. A school bus lumbers over a hill without any students; the driver is heading to a gas station in the next town, where diesel sells for about a nickel less than it does here. The time it takes to get to the next town pretty much evens out the difference he will have to pay. I feel sorry for him. But maybe a slow crawl through the two-lane road gives him a chance to day dream and forget the boring task of going back to the parking lot to wait for the kids to board. The glue of winter has made most things get stuck in the fading sunlight. No snow. Not even the hint of rain in a sky paved with slabs of concrete. Just numbing cold air hanging dead around your ears. 

            Everyone wears the look of my mother when she was about to mop the kitchen floor. I would gaze at her from the living room as she wrung out the gray strands bubbling with soapy water. Her hands were red and when she squeezed hard enough, her knuckles turned white. I must have been four years old at the time, so I couldn't offer to help her. I might tip over the bucket or slide on the wet floor and hit my head. Better if I just lay crumpled up in the easy chair and watch in polite silence. A clock ticking. The gargled start of a cold engine as someone went back to work after lunch. The mailman rattled the lid of the letter box and stuffed some circulars and bills into it and left on heavy feet.  

            Two blocks away was a rug factory with huge weaving machines humming and grinding away at the endless supply of wool yarn. Men, many of them Polish immigrants, gazed out the glazed windows and chatted idly before going back to oil the gear works. They wore knit caps and ear muffs and turned their cigarette butts in their fingers, and dropped the still bright cinders into the somber air. You could smell the dye coming off the wooden boats where they dripped colors into the fabric -- gray, dark blue, brown, the colors of storm clouds. You came upon these vast carpets in the lobbies of bank buildings and in the offices of men wearing suits as they talked on the phone. 

            A Jewish bakery filled its windows with freshly baked bagels and loaves of rye bread. Jars of dill pickles lined a shelf behind the meat counter. This was the diluted culture of Central Europe, the part that had been bombed and turned into internment camps and weapons factories before the Allies stormed in and liberated the death camps and the last of the ghettoes. The men couldn't wait to board a ship headed for America to start over again. Wives and children would follow when there was money to buy passage. The old folks stayed behind and often took care of the war orphans. 

            Occasionally you heard klezmer music playing on a radio, or a woman singing some sort of dirge in a cracked voice as she cooked supper. I liked the sound of her voice and would hang around under her window until she finished. No doubt she ended with tears in her eyes as she thought of the old sooty town she had come from. She understood the grim tedium of winter better than anyone. The men went underground to mine iron ore and coal and came home at nightfall. They got up before dawn and pulled on their stiffened pants and heavy shirts and trudged off with a lunch pail and coffee thermos. The sky would be growing pale with winter clouds as they descended into the dimly lit tunnels to take up their shovels and picks. Their lungs were already black with soot that would one day kill them. But for now, in the prime of their mid-life, they could wield a pick against the gleaming earth and loosen huge walls of coal and load the  trolleys to the brim. Nothing had changed since the Middle Ages. 

            The faces of the kids I grew up with were pale and hollow-cheeked. They were used to eating cabbage soup and peanut butter sandwiches, sometimes enjoying a cheap cut of beef full of gristle and bones. Everyone pinched their pennies; no one had enough money to buy a car. A house might cost two thousand dollars which would sell for about the same when you sold it. Small rooms, a damp cellar, a kitchen that had no air vents to get rid of the soup smells. A furnace that sent up the moldy odor of coal that seasoned the walls and darkened the wall paper. 

            All the Catholic churches were packed with believers, with the old men serving as ushers and responsible for the collection plates. The women wore babushkas and woolen overcoats. The kids milled around in the lobby until the organ sounded. Christmas was lively with candles and flowers and choirs singing all the Latin hymns. No one talked about the American dream; everyone was willing to accept the rigid hierarchy of the working classes, where you grew up learning a trade and you plied it until you retired and died. That was the arc of human mortality, and there was no wiggle room to advance oneself. College was a distant dream reserved Ifor the rich and gifted. Some kids wore tweed jackets to school as the sign of their inheritance. Others wore the corduroys their older brothers bequeathed them. Girls wore skirts that had been hemmed and unhemmed through the years of family life.  

I may have lost my footing many times in these neighhborhoods, stumbling down blind ends and desiring some unlived abstraction of what I thought was the good life. I didn’t know how to wish for something better than I had. I was stranded on a beach of empty promises and withered experiments in social idealism. I hadn’t read Plato’s Republic yet, but I knew there were obscure Utopias out there that one could reach for, even if you fell off your ledge into oblivion. But I had seen enough to know that desire was fed by illusions and everyone had their private most longings tucked under their pillows. When you heard how the rich lived, how they ate, and dressed, and drank champagne, somehow it didn’t quite quench the thirst or erase the archaic memory of being of humble birth. You were who you were, common clay, the iron ore of primitive democracy. The remains of warfare, part of the survivors who crawled in the mud and made it to another shore to live again. That was what we were given and, for some reason, it was enough if you didn’t dream too much.             



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