I’m having an Alice’s Restaurant moment.
By that, I mean that I want to tell you a story. But first, I need to tell you ANOTHER story. In the Arlo Guthrie song, he talks about 7 minutes about, well, Alice’s Restaurant, and garbage. But then he says: “That’s not what I came to tell you about. Came to talk about the draft.” Now, my second story, I’ll write about eventually, but probably not for this week.
At the end of the fall 1974 semester at the State University College at New Paltz (NY), I broke up with the person who would soon be my ex-wife Nona. She moved to Philadelphia for reasons that were unclear to me then, and certainly no clearer 30 years later. The primary relationship issues were religion and money.
I drifted to Binghamton, my hometown. In January 1975, my sister Leslie and I kidnapped my 75-year old grandmother and took her by train to Charlotte, NC, where her daughter (my mother) had moved the year before. Gram was getting lame. She had a coal stove and it would have been dangerous to get up and down the stairs to get it. Nor could she walk up the steep street on which she lived.
13 Maple Street
When we came back a couple of weeks later, I didn’t have any idea what to do next. So I ended up living in my grandmother’s home. Funny thing, though; as often as I had seen her tend to the coal fire in my childhood, I could not keep it going at all. I suffocated it, essentially. Even got help from a friend; no success.
Eventually, the pipes froze. It was an old wood house with old wiring, so I could either run the refrigerator or run the space heater. Given the cold of the house, I opted for the latter.
In February 1975, I spent virtually the whole month in bed watching television. My grandmother’s TV only got one station, the VHF station Channel 12. So I watched the soaps, Hee Haw, and whatever was on CBS that month. It was undoubtedly the deepest state of melancholy I’d ever been in.
The space heater was on the ground and, of course, I had every cover I could find. One night, a blanket, handmade by Nona, fell off the bed in front of the space heater. Fortunately, the acrid smell woke me up and I was OK. My sister Leslie told me later that my mother (in NC) THAT NIGHT woke up from a dream in which I was surrounded by fire, and stayed awake for a time. Perhaps my mother woke me up, six states away. I don’t dismiss that out of hand.
Occasionally, I’d go to the library to listen to music on the record player and headphones there. I remember once listening to the Beatles’ Abbey Road. The song that ended the first side was “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. During the dirgelike instrumental ending, I cranked it up louder and louder. So when the instruments suddenly stopped, I really thought for a half-second that I had died.
Now and then, I’d visit my friend Carol, which is where I got cleaned up.
The janitor gig
I didn’t have a phone, so I missed at least a couple of opportunities to get a job. Eventually, though, I got a position as a janitor in Binghamton City Hall. There were 4 or 5 of us covering the building. I used to empty the wastebaskets from the desks of the police officers and also clean the holding cells, as well as wash windows, buff the floors of the common areas, and other tasks. Two of the guys started calling me Flash because I would get my work done by the end of the sixth hour of my eight-hour day, at which point I’d hide in the bathroom or a storage room and read. It wasn’t that I was so fast, it was that they were very slow.
I really liked the police captain, and we would occasionally have erudite conversations about issues of the day or my future (which seemed bleak to me, but I’m sure I didn’t say that.) The police officers, however, were a more hostile lot in general, and I often felt that they would intentionally make a mess so that I would have to pick it up.
Now there were folks who ABSOLUTELY were making a mess that I had to clean up, and they were the prisoners. These were holding cells they were in, and the detainees were usually there only one night before being arraigned in the morning. So they thought nothing of taking a lighted match and melting the paint from the walls. More than once, they would take their own bodily wastes and smear that on the walls. Perhaps they thought that they were getting back at “the system,” but all they were doing was making more work for a college dropout.
As the weather warmed, my spirits brightened somewhat. I started going out with this woman named Margaret, but it was a classic rebound situation, and that lasted about a month. At the same time, I ended up doing a play. And in the fall, I successfully returned to school at New Paltz.
It was one of the more difficult periods of my life, and I figured that if I could survive that, I could survive just about anything.
But that’s not what I really wanted to write about. I wanted to write about homeownership…