Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Tougher Than the Rest

From the Stoop of PJH:

As far as I can recall, my old man was not a fan of Bruce Springsteen. He might have heard me blasting “Born to Run” or “Prove it all Night” or another Bruce song, but other than that, I have to think he was not really hip on Bruce. Despite the relationship being Jersey guys to Jersey guys. Now as far as that other Jersey guy, some guy named Sinatra, well, the old man loved him! The old man passed away almost four years ago, so my thoughts remain supposition. Honestly, I have an up and down relationship with The Boss. It is a Jersey thing, a Bruce thing. I love him, and then can do without him for a long time. Then, I love him. That is a topic for another blog. 

Anyway, one day, when I shared with my father some difficulties I was encountering in my life, the old man growled at me over sharing a few beers, “Paulie, ya gotta be tougher than the rest.” 

As usual, the old man gave me brilliant advice. The words stuck in my mind. The words are a title to a Bruce Springsteen song from the “Tunnel of Love” album. Springsteen was going through some troublesome times when he wrote all the songs for that recording. In the song, Bruce was singing about love troubles, the old man was talking about life troubles. I had life troubles at the time and one thing my old man was; he was much tougher than the rest. I think he taught me to be so too. I think I am. I persevered then, and I do now. 

After all, I faced one-hundred-mile-an-hour slapshots while playing semi-pro ice hockey and wearing an old fiberglass mask and old leather pads and equipment. No, in retrospect, that is not being tough, that is actually being stupid. 

The world and especially our country right now are in turmoil. COVID-19 and social issues and political issues and anger and meanness and the mainstream media and their crazy agendas and hapless attempts at pretending to be journalists turned everything upside down. Lives are a wreck, physically, emotionally, financially, and people are gasping for leadership and direction and all there are these days are fingerprinting and blame games. People who worked hard for their entire lives have lost everything; businesses, hopes, dreams, futures and pasts. Loved ones and friends are gone; lost to a wretched virus; bank accounts emptied of life savings; schoolchildren are now learning as best they can from remote learning, without social interaction. General turmoil in everything. The damage is irreversible; there is no going back. All because of decisions made by those in charge. Right or wrong decisions. Who really knows? Decisions out of the ordinary individual citizen’s power to control. I will not dive into political arenas, it is not what I do, but I have my own thoughts. Someday, the truth will come out on all of this, especially on the virus, and then we will sort it out. Regardless, right now, we need to be tougher than the rest. It is what we do. I hope that we can push aside the differences, love each other, as we should do so, push aside the media hysteria and influences, stop the blame game and look into the joy at the heart of the sunrise of a new and better day. Join together to make us what we are; tougher than the rest. 

At the end of his working career, which spanned over five decades in various machine shops in northern New Jersey, my father grew tired of the work; he grew tired of the workers that reported to him, he saw a lack of commitment and a lack of desire. They displayed little to no motivation, no genuine interest in the work, and he shared his thoughts with me many times of the changes he witnessed. The world was a much different place than it was when he began as a chip sweeper right out of vocational school. Now that I have been slugging it out for a long time too, I understand. Completely. 

About twenty years ago, and right before he retired, my old man in his endless wisdom, and his street-wise “Paterson, New Jersey Education” invented a specific word for what he perceived was the beginning of changes in the state of human behavior in his world back then. 

Once more, over sharing a few beers at the kitchen table, the old man explained what he was experiencing with the workers in his shop, or as he called them, “The young bucks.”

In his description, he called it, “The Pussification of America.”

I told him, “Dad, I am not sure that is a word.”

He growled back, “It is now.” 

Somehow, I understood. 

I asked him to explain some more of the origins of the new word, and he did so. 

First, a little background information. Other than regular vacation days, a funeral or two and normal holidays, the old man never missed a day of work. In fifty-two years. My best friend Harry and my other friend Jeff . . . their dads were the same. They never took off work, unless they had to do so. It was what they did, we did, and it was our way of life. We all grew up tough and poor, we went to work, and we were happy to have the jobs and keep our families afloat. There were, and are, no Yellow Brick Roads on or near Belmont Avenue in Paterson and Haledon, New Jersey. You can read all about it and a little more in the many works of “fiction” that I created over these past years. 

One particular memory always comes to mind, and that is what my father used as an example. Snowstorms. We went to work through blizzards, ice storms, tropical storms, hurricanes, everything. It is what we do. I think everyone in that old neighborhood saw it as a challenge. During one snowstorm, Harry’s old man made him shovel the snow from 20 John Street to Belmont Ave when the city plows did not come through so they could go to work. I can still see Harry shoveling ten inches of snow off the street, with Mr. Rogers in the car, beeping the car’s horn for Harry to shovel faster. Can’t be late for work! My old man told that story until he died. He loved it and he loved Harry and Mr. Rogers too. 

They cut us all from the same mold. 

Tougher than the rest. 

Between sips of beer, my old man told me about how a recent two-inch-end-of-the-world-snowstorm, caused the large majority of the young workers in his shop that reported to him to call out of work for a sick day or for a paid day off because they determined that they could not make it to work, “Because the roads are too bad.” My old man shook his head, lamented about days gone by, blizzards of old and snow tires and chains, and bags of sandbags and snow shovels in the trunk of his car, and of no excuses. Of Harry shoveling the city street to get to work. Of being tougher than the rest. 

He told me it was then and there that knew it was time to hang up his work apron and pack up his beloved tools. He hoped that he was wrong, that we could and would persevere when tough times arrived. My father had great realism, but he also had great hope for this country too. I know that he truly hoped that he was wrong in his assessment. I sure miss those special times of sharing beers over the kitchen table or on the front stoop with my old man. Vital education. 

Now during this current turmoil and losing my father, and his words and his experience, my own memory and experience comes to mind. Of when I was very young. It involves a snowstorm, too. I guess that I am old now too. 

His face had long weathered lines in it. The lines were crisscrosses of age, time, and experiences. I had seen him at the end of the bar many times and he usually nodded and smiled at me. Previously, we never spoke; but we nodded and we smiled. Smiles and nods from strangers count a great deal in our lives. His eyes were clear and blue, but they had a hint of sadness deep in there, somewhere. His hairline pushed back. His voice when he ordered his beer was low but strong. I would guess him to be around seventy years old. 

It was a good day to enjoy a beer or two. I had been up since 3 A.M.  It was now four in the afternoon. 

It was a gin joint in Hawthorne, New Jersey. It was dusty. The Front Porch was the name of the joint. On Wagaraw Road. They had a club called, “The 100 Beer Club.” You sampled beers and received special badges to wear. It was very cool. 

It was a snowy day and I had spent the best part of the day in a snowplow truck and outside in the ice, wind and snow while clearing, shoveling and pushing snow, but now, the storm ended and it was time to relax. I would have a few beers, knock some ice and snow off the plow, head home, and relax. Tomorrow we will spread salt and touch up the edges. It will be a cold night and the freeze will set in. 

I was twenty-five years old or thereabouts. The bar was quiet and empty. The snow kept people away. The elderly man patted the barstool next to him and invited me to sit next to him. The bartender knew my favorite pour, and he leaned into one as I greeted the man and settled into the stool. No sampling today. No badges required. Regular pour. 

“How ya doin’?” He asked in a Hawthorne, New Jersey accent. His eyes checked my winter-reddened face, my wool-lined vest with work gloves stuffed in the pockets, and my ice-caked watchman’s cap jammed down on my head. 

“Nice to see a young workin’ man, workin’. Been out plowin’ and shovelin’ snow all day? Long day, huh?”

“Yes, sir. Been out since three in the morning.” I answered in a Paterson, New Jersey accent and added, as I watched the bartender drop the beer in front of me, “I guess the snow did not keep you in the house, huh?” 

His eyes widened and a sigh emitted from him. 

He leaned into the beer and then after a taste and replacing the beer mug on the bar counter, he spoke just above a whisper, “Kid, I stormed the beach on D-Day. There were shells, explosions, and bullets flying all around. I made it. Many of my friends did not. I damn sure ain’t gonna let a little twelve-inch snowstorm stop me from enjoying a few cold beers.” 

Tougher than the rest. 

We need to be so, now more than ever. 

My best advice is, “Don’t call out.” 

My old man is watchin.’ 

Cheerio for now.




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