The intersection of Avenue A and Houston Street is the meeting place of four very distinct and disparate worlds. To the southeast are the river side projects, the bridges and the sea beyond, to the southwest the old Lower East Side, that in the first great wave of American immigration held a population denser than Calcutta, to the northeast Alphabet City where we freaks ruled and no law but survival was respected; and to the northwest lay what we thought of as the rest of NYC and the world.
Once on my bicycle I was hit by a speeding car in the middle of the intersection and from the force of the blow, I was separated from the bicycle and took flight over the intersection.
In the resulting concussion, time split open and exploded like a pod burst open with seeds and the seeds were my memories and impressions, I saw my whole life and the lives of everyone that who had made me who I am in fine relief in front of my eyes, not as if I were going to die, but as if I were going to live. I saw the past, present and future in all their dimensions all at once.
I held the trapdoor single shot rifle with bayonet that my first American ancestor had used to gut three separate Indians on a single day in the frontier Montana territory that was not yet part of the United States, but that was always America, the name the Cheyenne Indian Chief American Horse had given to himself, his horse and the land. Were not they all one thing? Before the bastards came to take it away.
My great grandfather was not strictly a bastard in that sense. My great grandfather was named George like my dad and his dad before him. George the 1st wasn’t really an orphan, or a bastard. He was a fatherless child. He knew his father as a spectre, as a drunken voice, smelling of liquor and cursing. Having a hard time keeping a job. Quick to say things like:
"Why don’t you just go on to hell?"
He had seen things and done things out in the Indian country again, with the Crow, the Sioux, the Cheyenne that when he came home and had three kids and a family he could not hold it all at once. His family was a rain storm that grew to a hurricane when he tried to love it.
The first George knew August, his father, better than the other kids because he was five or maybe six when August, his father left for good. I can imagine what my great grandfather knew of his father because I was about that age when George the 1st passed on, in 1968. George the 1st for fifty years served as caretaker for a historic mansion in New Jersey that at different times during the revolutionary years was held by English gentry, Scottish renegades and finally the nascent Jersey government. Maybe because he was fatherless my great grandfather kept a tight house.
He required lunch at noon every day, with freshly baked bread and the classical music station on the radio. He raised prize chickens and he grew roses in the garden of the Buccleuch Mansion. The roses are still there many years later, though the mansion is mostly forgotten, open seasonally for a couple hours on Sundays.
It is still on the historic register and maintained by the city of New Brunswick, overlooking the mighty Raritan River, behind the grounds of the old part of Rutgers University campus, where my uncle was the first of us to go to college in my family. Uncle Dave put himself through Rutgers and joined the Navy afterward. He had his own father to escape.
Forgive me these digressions. The roses will last forever and go wild. What else remains is a sundial, maybe from the old Englishmen, or from some of the renegade Scottish Enniskillen Dragoons.
The funny thing is that August, when he was drunk and didn’t want to go home, when the great house was without a keeper, would join other vagabonds who slept on the grounds. He slept in the 200 year old rose garden, under the elm trees overlooking the riverside, in the dale by the creek, but never inside, as others did. His son was hired to keep drunks like his own father out.
“There’s a lesson you can learn about America in that," my grandmother told us, when we were kids. She wanted to help us to get along as men in the country where we lived, as George the 1st had when he showed us how to fold the American flag. He was patriotic in a way that I suspect his father, the war veteran, never was. He never left home in the way that his father could never stay.
August became an American citizen by enlisting in the army. My older brother Dave, carrying on the tradition, is an American Colonel, veteran of two desert wars. A commander in the town where Hussein was unearthed from his spider hole, he survived three different IED attacks. He doesn’t have to go back anymore because his back is wrecked, though you wouldn’t know it from seeing him walk. That’s how we are.
We are also incapable of controlling our feelings which is something of why I believe my great grandfather took counsel in things that required discipline. Like the chickens, like the Christian Scientist faith he adopted, and like the sundial he consulted faithfully. It was a steel slab of raw metal molded in the shape of the sun, facing north, and set on a stand that caught the light of the sun and cast a shadow that told the time perfectly every single day. It still does, it will as long as it stands.
My great grandfather showed this to me, my older brother and our younger brother Steve, who was barely three and will be forgiven for not remembering. My curse and my joy is to remember everything.
I describe the sundial because for me it somehow evokes what I saw of the world from above the intersection that day. There is a point everyday when the sun hits the dial just right and there is no shadow. Time becomes vertical, the past, present and future are cast up in the sky.
It was barely after dawn on a weekday. On a cold cold day. In a few moments I would come to my senses and dopefiend the driver of the car out of money. A matter of hours after that I would be arrested in the same firm where I had worked with distinction in the past. I was arrested for trespassing, for breaking and entering, though I had walked into an unlocked office as my great great grandfather had walked onto the grounds of the Buccleuch Mansion. His only crime was vagabondage. I would be dragged bodily from the building, still quite out of my head from the morning’s blow and held for a photograph, flash, as was my great grandfather on his wedding day. It is the only one that exists of him.
He had a glint in his gray eyes, our family hair line and forehead, a strong chin and a corduroy suit. I would spend the night in a holding cell like where drunks are thrown to sleep it off, taken downtown in a police cruiser where virtually twenty four hours later I passed through the same intersection where the wreck had occurred.
"You won’t believe this?” I said to the officer not driving. “But I’ve been here before.” He looked nicer than the other one.
“Sure you have.”
“No, yesterday. That’s what started all this.”
“What started all this, maybe you better check out, is that you’re a goddamn dopefiend.”
“Look, you can still see the mark on my forehead.”
I ended up in the tombs and got sentenced to thirty days, and when I finally got to my cell I thought of August and what it must have felt like to touch the tawny backs of his kids’ necks and think of dead Indians. Believe it or not, it’s the truth, and it's the vortex eye center of the story before you, friend.
"Expecting To Fly" mp3
by Buffalo Springfield, 1967.
available on Buffalo Springfield Again
"Broken Arrow" mp3
by Buffalo Springfield, 1967.
available on Buffalo Springfield Again
"Like A Hurricane" mp3
by Neil Young, 1977.
available on American Stars 'N Bars
photograph: © Ted Barron
White Bicycle, New York City, 1985.click on image to enlarge