Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Rambler

Note: as promised, here is my childhood narrative. As I brainstormed and fretted--the work of all writers--I found that what I had intended to do at the first required a kind of introduction, which follows below. Perhaps the subject I started with in my brainstorming will appear in another piece. --RKC

The Rambler

When I think of my father, I think of him next to me, walking the streets in the morning mists and fog that rolled down from East River Mountain into the deep cut where the railroad ruled everything in our miniature metropolis. Bluefield, West Virginia, was indeed a small city then, distant from nearly everywhere but close to New York and Chicago because of the peoples on its streets: Greeks, Italians, Russians, Spaniards, Hungarians, Poles, Chinese, Germans. The railroad brought them all into this high Allegheny country at the edge of the Blue Ridge and here, together with the colored people, as we called them then, and the mountain people who lived in the hollows and mountain fastnesses of Virginia, they made up the rich America I knew. It was the kind of knowing we all enjoy are when we are young, the knowing of wonderer with constant questions about the cosmos and its colorful tribes. It was the knowing people can have when they walk everywhere, which is what we did then. My father never owned a car—“every time you turn the wheel, they cost you money”—and his very existence for me was that of a man ambling through the streets of a wondrous city.

Sure, it didn’t always seem so romantic then, especially as I grew older and callow, but those early journeys were primitive and fabulous, indeed, me at five with long, golden locks tagging along on Odyssean ventures into a strange country, standing in fearful awe next to the tracks of the Norfolk and Western—fabulous, mysterious names: Rock Island Line, Baltimore and Ohio, Burlington Northern, Louisville & Nashville, the Southern, Lackawanna, Union Pacific, names on boxcars as indelible in my memory as the questions and answers of the Baltimore Catechism: “Why did God make you?”—feeling the thunder of the big wheels as they rolled through the fog, seeing the red glow in the smokestack of the switch engines, and smelling the sour steam and metal sweat of the passenger locomotives, gods from some other world.

Now it seems to me that I cannot separate my walks with my father on those strange streets from my first education about the world. More, I cannot separate my father from his role as Chiron, the teacher and guide of the Greek heroes, or from his constant joy at showing me the things of this world. Now I can confess the juvenile impatience of being shown the same things over and over or hearing the same stories ad nauseam, but when I was five, eight, twelve, the newness was still on the places and people he delighted in showing me. Sitting perched on stools in Harry or Tom’s or Jimmy’s restaurants, hearing the noises of the waiters and kitchens and smelling the rich foods, hearing my father draw out men’s stories of foreign lands and labors, meeting the black-faced miners who worked underground and the conductors and engineers who knew the secrets of trains: I would happily go back to those places and days and be with my Dad, a teller of tales who was always showing me something new. I heard my first Jewish words (schlemiel, mensch, goy) and Jewish jokes from Shari, who ran the pharmacy and talked to my father as “one of those who know,” and my head was filled with the accents and dialects and tones of a hundred cities. Our Spanish landlord showed us how to make wine, our Greek friends asked me if everything was copasetic today, our Mediterranean neighbors gave us ripe olives, the Hungarians downstairs taught my mother cabbage rolls, and I ate pancakes with a Russian family when their son died, just as young Alyosha does in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

He himself, my mythic teacher, had his own tales of journeys. A country boy from the Kentucky bluegrass, at ten already working in stores and restaurants; at twelve packed off to an uncle in Harlan, Kentucky, where he saw gun battles in the mud streets and on swinging bridges and learned to wire houses in the coal camps; at sixteen a rambler on the rails, living and working in Chicago, New Orleans, Denver, and Washington, DC, where he became a “news butch” in Union Station and met two presidents; and in the Great Depression, riding the rails and living in hobo camps, until he finally landed in this strange city in the mountains with a job he dearly loved. He had started out with movie theaters turning the crank of silent films while his grandmother played the organ. Now he was a union motion picture projectionist in a “first run” theater.

So he had been places, knew things and peoples, and had, as we say nowadays “a lot of mileage.” From the way he talked, I sensed that he missed the road and those days of adventure, but as I entered my teens and worked with him at the theater and on wiring jobs on the side, I also sensed that showing new movies was his way of seeing—and showing—the mysteries of the world. There was always something new to know for him, but what really motivated him in all our times together was showing me something new and suggesting that there were secrets, inside stories that your average schlemiel or hillbilly did not know. There were other knowers, there were powers, there were movers and shakers, there were Edisons and Einsteins and people like Howard Hughes, inventors and entrepreneurs who made the world. They knew things, too, and the point was to become somehow like them.

From his secret place in the projection booth, we could peer through the windows at the latest films, and he could perform the tasks of all true teachers, pointing at things, naming them, sharing them, and in doing those things daily somehow we became partners in something far beyond the mundane tasks we performed. We walked to visit heroes and strange places, we talked of other worlds and of the inside stories of the world we lived in, and when we watched all this together, even when I was impatient and youthfully stupid, we knew a kind of love that is beyond all the books about it.


  1. Thank God! So good to read more from the hermit (not so failed, I venture to say).

  2. Welcome back, good to see where you are coming from! Thought of you yesterday on the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.