Jay Broadhurst Stinks

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Well, of course Jay Broadhurst doesn’t stink, wherever he might be these days, any more than he did when he was eight years old and I was seven. What calls that offensive phrase to my mind is the sight of the newly paved street in front of my house. It stretches forth in its flat blackness like a newly washed chalkboard, begging to have something written on it. Just like our street in Woodbury right after World War II, when the domestic economy was picking up and all the towns were having their streets paved.

There was no traffic on the street. People weren’t so prosperous yet that they had cars to drive around in. Mr. Lammert still had the car that he drove to Deb’s elementary school, where he was the principal–the car whose right front tire I had destroyed in my wickedness, but that’s another story–and Mrs. North’s son Louie had a Jeep he brought home from the war. These vehicles were kept in garages that faced on the alley, though, and they went in and out by Cooper Street, not Woodland Avenue. At dawn the milk wagon drove on the glorious unmarked blackness of the street, and later the bread wagon. But by the time Deb and I got home from school the street was empty. You could lie down in the middle of it in perfect safety. Or you could crouch down and write things.

“I have a piece of chalk,” Deb said.

“Give it to me,” I said.

“What are you going to write?”

What, indeed? “Kilroy wuz here” would have been good, but the humor of it was too subtle for my second-grade mind. Maybe I would write something about Jay Broadhurst, my sidekick. Who am I kidding? I was the sidekick in that relationship. It was Jay who had put me in a cardboard box and dragged me all over the neighborhood in his red wagon, boxed in, unable to see a thing. It was Jay who had said you could start a Jeep by pushing the starter button. We were sitting in the front seat of Louie North’s Jeep at the time, in Mrs. North’s garage.

“Bet you can’t,” I said. So he pushed the button. The Jeep started right up, chugga-chugga, and although it didn’t move except to shake from side to side the effect was terrifying. I never ran so fast in my life. Or Jay either.

So I felt impelled to honor him in some way on this virginal street, my crony, my sometime partner in crime. I wrote his name, in the boldest print I could manage with Deb’s piece of chalk. JAY.

“Jay what?” said Deb.

“Just Jay.”

“You wrote your boyfriend’s name.”

“He’s not my boyfriend.”

“Yes, he is. Katie has a boyfriend, Katie has a boyfriend…”

“Is not.” I finished the inscription. JAY STINKS. It seemed hilariously funny. We both laughed and laughed.

After that I had to make myself scarce for two or three days when the word went around the neighborhood that Jay was looking for me to beat me up. That was an unusual thrill. I used to have dreams of fleeing and hiding out, mostly inspired by sensational radio dramas. Still I hadn’t ever had a real threat to run from that I can remember other than the nuns, who never actually laid hands on me. But Jay Broadhurst was going to beat me up.

He finally found me in Barry Hurff’s back yard, across the street from my house. Face to face, we stared at each other. Now what? All the kids were watching. Honor must be satisfied. Closer and closer he came.

Finally he gave me a good punch on the arm, turned on his heel, and left. Did I cry? I can’t remember.

I guess I took a lesson from that. We who are writers must be careful. A good insult is a delicious thing to craft, satisfying, meaty. Still, it can cause you trouble if you put it in the street.

(The above picture is of Deb, Mary Liz, and me enjoying life in Woodbury.)

 

More about Woodbury

nuns

To go on with my Woodbury stories, I have to confess that I was a very wicked child when we lived there. I mentioned before that I went to Catholic school, St. Patrick’s, to be exact, which is now a good-sized school as I can see from Google Earth. When I attended there was less of it, the school building (a mansion that had belonged to the Greens, patent medicine millionaires in the olden days),  and the nuns’ quarters, the Greens’ old stables and outbuildings, I think. I remember a garden out front of the nuns’ quarters and maybe a stone wall or an iron fence. Behind the mansion was no garden anymore, only a trampled wasteland where the brutish children frolicked during recess.

The thing is I wasn’t Catholic.

I was made to attend St. Patrick’s instead of the public school because it was only three blocks from my house, with no dangerous streets to cross, and I could walk there by myself even as a kindergartner. We did not keep a car. It was wartime. Rubber and gasoline were rationed. My mother neglected to make friends with the other mothers, still less with the nuns. I don’t remember trying to befriend any of the little wretches in my class, but I certainly had no friends there. I hated the nuns. The nuns hated me. As part of our moral education Sister used to draw diagrams of The Soul on the blackboard and then color in the stain of venial and mortal sins. “We’re all going heaven some day if we keep our souls spotless,” Sister said, “Except for Katie here, who is not of our faith.”

Well, what the hell, right? As long as I was destined for The Pit I might as well be perfectly bad. I knew I was developing in the right direction when I was able to lie to Sister to her face without laughing.

Next week: How I Became a Juvenile Delinquent

Early Murders

murder5The Mystery Writers of America is (are?) gathering materials for another swell anthology, a YA this time, I think they want to call it My First Murder. The premise seems to be that dealing with murder, or committing murder, is a normal part of coming of age these days. They have sent out a call to members to submit short stories to be selected. I twitch,  competitive animal that I am, and reach for my word processor. But, adolescents and murder. Do I want to write about this? Have I got the experience? Have I got the right attitude? (Have I got the chops?)

It’s true that I just finished writing a book about an eighteen-year-old girl who killed three people, but they were German agents in 1915 and they deserved whatever happened to them. It’s also true that I know the stories of a number of real young people involved in murder. Their stories are too sordid to write about. A young girl wakes up to find her mother beaten to death, probably by her father. She remembers nothing of the event even to this day, forty years or so later, while the father goes free. (Actually he’s dead, but he was never brought to justice.) Another young girl, after seven years of sexual abuse by a family “friend,” walks in on the “friend” in bed with her father and shoots him. Impossibly sordid.

And then there’s young Skakel. I once collected a dossier of online writings of inmates of Elan, the so-called school his family sent him to to keep him out of the public eye after he murdered Martha Moxley. How the “students” were treated at the “school.”  Sordid to the thirteenth power. I found it fascinating, in a horrible way, but I could never write about it, never sit down with these people’s lives long enough to write even a short story.

I’m no good at writing short stories anyway. So there’s that. When I was younger and had a thicker skin and less understanding of the meaning of life and death I suppose I could have tried my hand at writing about adolescents and murder, but I’m too much of a snowflake now. Contemplating young people and murder causes me to feel distress. I prefer peace and quiet. Good luck to the other writers, blessings on you, knock ’em dead and all that good stuff.

 

 

Woodbury Revisited

mom1945When I was a small child I lived in a town in South Jersey that I moved back to later as a young housewife. I was reminiscing about some aspects of the place to Harold this morning. He told me I should write an essay. Truly my experiences in Woodbury are worth a number of essays. The differences and similarities between the Woodbury of 1943 and the Woodbury of 1963 are worth talking about all by themselves.

Bad plumbing is the first thing that comes to mind. When I was little my family rented the first floor of Doctor and Mrs. Harney’s house on Woodland Avenue, a neighborhood respectable enough to please my mother. The Harneys lived upstairs. The household sewage would back up at inconvenient times and rise up in our bathtub, usually when my mother was about to give a party for the neighbors, or worse, for my father’s fellow naval officers. For some reason I thought it was my fault, because I had dropped some pebbles in a drain in the back yard. For weeks I lived with a crushing sense of guilt (did I mention I was going to Catholic school?) until I dreamed that I confessed everything to my mother and she spanked me. Children were spanked in the old days. That was life.

But bad drains were endemic to the town. Not my fault. Twenty years later my first husband and I rented a second-floor apartment where the landlords lived on the first floor. In a fit of go-go mod enthusiasm I painted the little bathroom in many shades of pink, from deep shocking to palest petal, and it was a sight to see. People remarked on it. To complete the effect I used to buy pink toilet paper until I noticed shreds of pink toilet paper appearing in the gutter out in front of the house. Whatever they used to do for sewage disposal in that town was not awfully effective. Nowadays you can’t even buy pink toilet paper, nor would you want to. It’s bad for the environment, you see.

The tap water, at least the delivery of the tap water, was as bad as the sewage. From time to time the pressure would fail and the water would run backward out of the pipes. Then the air in the pipes would compress. When you turned on the tap at the kitchen sink it would fire a charge of water strong enough to blast whatever you were holding underneath it right out of your hand, smashing it in the sink. And yet I kept forgetting. That’s why I only have three Wedgewood cups left out of the four that my Canadian aunts gave me for a wedding present, along with a teapot, cream pitcher, and sugar bowl, together with instructions on smuggling them all across the border.

One afternoon as I was washing my hair, lathering it all up nicely, the water pressure quit. Luckily I found the landlady at home downstairs when I knocked on her door in my bathrobe. Being on a lower level she had water, and she kindly rinsed my hair out for me in her bathroom sink. Neighbors should take care of each other. If you live in a place where the neighbors don’t take care of each other you should move.

And here I leave you, dripping but squeaky-clean. Perhaps I will continue this reminiscence next week.

Ta-da!

The years of strange research are over, the obsessive collection of the memoirs of WW I spies, the painstaking scrutiny of subway maps, elevated railway maps, street maps, and neighborhood maps of 1915 Manhattan, the writing, rewriting, and finally the deleting of embarrassing sex scenes.

Also the heart-in-mouth approach to agents, those all-powerful gatekeepers to the publishing world, and the three-day depression that comes with each rejection, no matter how encouraging or polite. I’m self-publishing this puppy. It feels like a fifty-pound weight off my shoulders.

I don’t expect commercial success, I just want my friends to read it if they like. Here is the book, FREDDIE ZORN AND THE DARK INVADERS. It will be available as a Kindle on February 10, and you may pre-order it if you so desire. I think $5.99 is reasonable. For $15 I will send you a paperback copy, if you send me the money first and let me know your mailing address, but I have to tell you that the paperback copies are pretty scarce, so you’re probably better off with a Kindle.

If your book club wants to read it and talk about it, I’d be happy to show up, as long as they’re not too far away from Lambertville and they don’t meet on choir night. But I’m not getting on a plane and flying to Houston. I’m not even getting on a bus to go to New York. I’m perfectly comfortable right here. *Sighs contentedly*

Anyhow here it is.

FreddieTinyCover

What to Chant at the Demonstration

protest

The women and occasional men who are going to the march in Washington on Saturday will be a diverse group. In the old days when you went to a march everyone was agreed about why they were marching. Chanting was easy. Hey hey, ho ho, (whatever you hate) has got to go. This Saturday we will be marching for many different reasons, because everything is a mess and we hate it all. That makes it hard to pick a good chant.

Pete Seeger, rest his soul, will not be there to lead us in song. Will there be drummers? I hope so. Marching goes better with rhythm. Will there be stilt walkers dressed up as Abraham Lincoln, young women dressed as the Statue of Liberty? That would be nice, too. But mostly there will be two or three hundred thousand women, marching for a mile and a half because they’re fed up.

The organizers of the event have warned us that people from the alt-right plan to infiltrate the march and try to provoke us into doing stupid stuff, breaking windows, maybe, or sticking our tongues out at cops. Some say, be careful what you chant. Bad guys will try to get us to chant offensive or illegal things and then put pictures of it up on YouTube to show how degenerate the Left is. I can’t think who they mean to show this to. Those who think the Left is degenerate are going to think that anyway, and the rest of us know better. Hey hey, ho ho, Breitbart News has got to go.

We could all sing the Star-Spangled Banner, but the tune is hard to sing, requiring enormous vocal range, and as a march tune it isn’t stirring. When some of us hear it we think of Francis Scott Key in the middle of the Patapsco River watching Fort McHenry under rocket attack, and we want to weep. Others think of sporting events. It doesn’t inspire us to march, not without a marching band. The Marseillaise works better as an inspirational marching song, good rhythm, plenty of blood and guts, but we aren’t French, so that’s no good.

Some say we should remain silent, like the protesting Turks. It’s hard to keep your energy up for a mile and a half in silence. I don’t see that happening.

The most satisfying noise I personally have ever made at a march, and I think they’re still doing it, was just to holler. Someone would  start by calling “aaah” at top volume and others would answer in thirds or fifths, until a great roaring harmonic tone echoed from the office buildings, shaking us from our toes to the roots of our hair, louder and louder until windows flew open all up and down the street and office workers leaned out to join the call. We are here. We are of one mind, if only until the song ends.

Going Back to Washington, Fifty Years Later

Washington.

I used to live there, or near there, in the years before the Metro was built. In my mind it was my town, although I had no feel for politics, or indeed any sense at all, being young. But one could get on a bus in those days and roam all over the city, taking in the passing scenery, observing the people on the street. The view was exciting. You can’t see anything worth looking at out of the window of a subway train.

keybridge1The family home at that time was in Arlington, a house my parents rented from some army colonel who had been posted to Panama for a year. (Every year we rented a different colonel’s house.) I would get on the bus and ride to work in the city, passing the most amazing and seductive things. A used car lot full of strange European cars: a pale gray Opel, a huge black Mercedes sedan whose thick passenger-side windows were pocked with bullet holes, a tiny blue-green Morris Minor that I coveted. If I ever got hold of some money and learned to drive, that Morris would be mine. Or the Mercedes. You had to admit it had cachet.

Just over the Key Bridge was a grain factory belonging to the Washington Milling Company. They had posted a sign just outside the factory: “The objectionable odors you may notice in this area do not originate in our plant.” Where, then, did the smell come from? I never knew. In fact I don’t remember it smelling all that bad, but I can’t forget the sign.

One morning I saw, standing on a corner, a tall man in a floor-length black cape, a broad-brimmed black hat, and a long red scarf. I was thrilled and intrigued. You must remember that this was the early sixties. People didn’t dress funny. Come to find out he was only the doorman at a night club, not the actual Shadow. What the nightclub was doing open at eight-thirty in the morning is another of the secret mysteries of D.C.

My job in those days was as a library clerk at the Washington Post. Politics were talked in the library by people much more knowledgeable than me. A friend made me read the Post’s  copy of the Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, in the hope that it would raise my consciousness. It sort of did. After a year at the Post I was fired for conspicuous lethargy.

Time went on and I married a newspaper man, my college sweetheart, to our subsequent chagrin and distress. When we left Washington we were still in love, I think. John Kennedy was president. The highest ambition of a number of people I knew was to be invited to dinner at the White House. I still didn’t understand politics.

The nature of politics is slowly becoming clear to me. The only reason I seem to have anymore for going back to Washington is to scream at the government, which one is better off doing in a large group of like-minded people. If you do it by yourself you attract unwelcome attention.

It’s not the same city. It’s full of cops and bollards now because of terrorism. Everyone rides the Metro. If you want to dine at Trump’s White House, I don’t want to know you.

We will go to D. C. next Saturday and scream at the government, if only to vent our frustration. I will breathe the air of a place where I was once young and silly. Maybe I’ll cry a little.

Meanwhile I’m going back and reading the Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens again.