Monday, March 26, 2018

Paper Drive

I shared this memory in 2017, in a slightly different form, on the Facebook page "Remember When? Growing up in Wellesley."

Not long ago, someone on this page mentioned the Marshall Spring lumber company (formerly located on River Street in Wellesley Lower Falls), and that got me thinking about something that happened back in the fall of, let's say, 1961. I would have been in 5th grade at Katherine Lee Bates School. My family belonged to St. James Catholic Church, and every fall the archdiocese would organize a paper drive, in which parishioners would tie twine around stacks of old newspapers and leave them out at streetside to be picked up. (Back when every household took a daily paper, your old newspapers would really mount up, usually out in the garage. A single Sunday Globe, folded, could be over an inch thick.) My guess is that the archdiocese got about a penny a pound (or $20 a ton) from its buyer for the newsprint.

I never gave "Cardinal Cushing's paper drive" much thought until I was 11 and my mother volunteered me for helping out on pick-up day, a chilly gray Saturday in November; at least, I assume she volunteered me, because I wouldn't have thought to do it on my own. About noon, I biked from my house on Mayo Road over to the St. James parking lot. (So, yes, I crossed the four lanes of Route 9, and probably not at a crosswalk.) There was a small group of kids waiting around, and a flat-bed delivery truck belonging to Marshall Spring, and at the wheel, a friendly but no-nonsense man whom I had only known up to then as Mr. Belforti, the custodian at Bates. From the truck, with Mr. B. sitting in it, I could tell that there was more to his life than mopping the floors at my school. From the size of the truck, I could tell that we were going to be at this for most of the afternoon.

We kids climbed aboard, using the rear wheels as ladders, and then clustered, seated, with our backs to the partition separating the flat bed from the cab and our legs splayed out. Mr. B. started the truck and pulled out into Route 9 traffic, and we were on our way to the beginning of our pick-up route. (A couple of other trucks were also starting out on their routes, elsewhere in the parish.) Already I was out of what we would call my comfort zone. I was not known as a "strong back," and my hands were soft. I also didn't like not knowing when I'd be able to go home. At the same time, it was fun to be riding around backwards on the back of a truck. (No, there were no seat belts or guard rails.) We were clearly a crew of kids being taken to a job somewhere, and grinning drivers honked and waved at us.

Pretty soon we turned off onto the residential streets, and from here my memory begins to blur. The truck would pull over by a stack of newspapers and the kids would hop off and toss them up, then clamber back on board before Mr. B. started the truck rolling again. Gradually, gray walls of stacked newsprint grew around the open perimeter of the bed, and the kids who had done this before made sure that we stacked the stacks to incline slightly towards the center of the bed. This became our chief preoccupation, to make sure that the load, as it grew taller, wouldn't shift (or slide right off, and us with it) when Mr. B. made a sharp turn or hit a pothole. Crevices would appear in the mountain of newsprint as the truck bounced along, and it became my job to help stabilize everything by wedging stacks vertically into these "grooves." So, Groovy became my name, for the afternoon: "Hey, Groovy, hit that groove there! Yeah! Groovy!"

We made many stops, and I gave up trying to keep track of where we were. This was my introduction to a form of work that is mainly physical labor, for little or no compensation, yet there is no complaining from the workers (unless one of them is noticed slacking off), but instead, a quiet pride in doing a job right, especially a dirty job, a numbing job. By mid-afternoon, the paper stack was as tall as we could make it and still ride it, and our hands were black from the ink. We had made no bathroom stops, and had nothing to drink or eat, nor did we expect to. And we weren't done yet.

Mr. B. turned the fully-loaded truck towards Linden Street, down to the Wellesley freight yard, which has since disappeared but was located about where Wellesley Volkswagen is now. He backed the truck carefully up to the open door of a rusty boxcar that the railroad had placed on the outermost stub track. There were more kids working here, mostly excitable older teens who had the job of loading the boxcar, and became short-tempered if you got in the way or weren't working fast enough. One kid was working inside the boxcar, on top of a mound of newspapers, wedging stack after stack into the little leftover spaces close to the ceiling. Outside, I took a minute to explore the freight yard. The sun had come out, low in the sky, and in the cold air the west end of the boxcar glowed with a hard orange light. To the east, the block signals beyond the Kingsbury Street bridge were lit up, and in a minute the yellow headlight of the New York Central's Chicago-bound "New England States" came into view. I don't know how fast it was going, but it flew by the boxcar we were loading and was gone in a heartbeat. (No, there were no fences, nor any adults around to supervise us and keep us from, say, wandering out on the active tracks. If anyone had given it any thought, they would have supposed that our common sense would keep us safe enough.)

I like to think that we made a second collection run that afternoon, and a second unloading in the freight yard, but dusk was coming on, and whether or not we did, we were soon back at St. James and I was biking home for supper. If my parents wondered where I'd been all afternoon and what I'd been doing, they didn't make a point of asking. It was a different time. These days, I enjoy thinking about trying to run a work project like this in the year 2017, and how many rules we would be breaking, all afternoon long.


The thud of a car hitting something, car tires squealing, the yelp of a car horn, and then some angry shouting: somebody had had an accident, out here on South Street, which runs by my side yard and carries considerable morning rush-hour traffic. I phoned it in to the police, then went outside. One car, a van, was pulled up into the front yard of a home that was for sale at the time, and was vacant. Another car, a sedan, was parked at the roadside nearby. A light drizzle fell. Neither driver was with their car. The air had that just-torn-apart feel that it sometimes does after an accident.
Long story short: the van, coming north and doing the speed limit or maybe a bit better, had struck a neighbor's dog that had somehow gotten out of its fenced enclosure two houses down, and had run out into South Street. The sedan, following the van, had gotten into a minor collision with it somewhere in the midst of the swerving and braking that followed the dog being hit. The dog ran off into some bushes; that was a hopeful sign. His owner appeared, went to gather him up from where he had hidden, and, I heard later, took him straight to the vet.

The driver of the van and the driver of the sedan returned to their vehicles and had a short, fierce argument about who had been at fault for what. The driver of the sedan was declaring "I just want to state for the record..." though there was no one around to record his statement; the police were busy elsewhere and hadn't shown up yet.

Finally there was just the unlucky driver of the van. She backed out of where she had parked, inched out into South Street, then turned up Rockland Street to where I was standing by that time with my wife and another neighbor of ours, along with our respective dogs; the two of them had just been finishing a walk out on the nearby rail-trail when the accident occurred. The driver seemed dazed. 

Her van seemed to be packed to the windows with plastic bags. It creaked in its joints and there was something wrong with the muffler. She proceeded slowly by us, made a Y-turn in my driveway, then pulled over next to where we stood, to plead her case with us: what had really happened just then, who had really been at fault. Then she drove away.

Later on, after my wife had fed the dog, I gave him a moosh (rhymes with "push"). We moosh him after every meal, which consists of giving his moustache a light scrubbing with a wet paper towel, to remove particles of food that tend to get stuck in there and can become kind of stinky over the course of the day. Even if we moosh him just once a day (and it's usually twice), we will end up mooshing him more than 5,400 times over 15 years, if he lives that long.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Years of Wonder

For my contribution to the Art/Word show “Passages” at Lasell College in February of 2015, I painted and photographed the various elements separately, and assembled them in PhotoShop. The text (Art/Word pieces always have text accompanying them) is taken from E. B. White’s essay “The Years of Wonder,” about his experiences as a footloose young man on a charter voyage from Seattle to the Bering Sea and back. The text reads:

“Alaska was in the opposite direction from home, where I considered it unsuitable to be at my age...

“At six in the morning, I reported for work. This was the true beginning of the voyage for me; I was below at last, where the ship’s heartbeat was audible and her body odor undispersed.

“Why did I long to be below? I don’t know. I just remember that I did and that this descent seemed a difficult but necessary step up life’s ladder. The whole Alaskan experience was a subconscious attempt to escape from the world, to put off whatever was in store for me; the farther down inside the ship I went, the better the hiding place.

“No young man could have asked for a more direct exposure to heat, fumes, toil, and trouble. When I close my eyes these days and think of Alaska, the picture always comes to me in a round frame, for I viewed much of our future forty-ninth state through the porthole of the firemen’s messroom, and the picture has a special smell—a blend of cabbage, garbage, steam, filth, fuel oil, engine oil, exhausted air, exhausted men.”

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Clock running slow? Researchers say: it’s not just you

Ever feel like your day at the office starts to drag around mid-afternoon? It turns out that you're not crazy (at least, not for that reason) -- and you're certainly not alone.

Researchers at the Workforce Policy Center have discovered what countless office workers have long suspected – that there is a bubble or bulge of additional time, as much as an hour or more, that tends to insert itself within the average workday between about 2:30 pm and 4:00 pm. These extra minutes go unrecorded by any office clock. What appears to be about 11⁄2 hours of passing time actually adds up to 21⁄2 hours or more, depending on the day and the office. "And it sure feels that way," according to several workers we talked to. "The afternoon just plain bottoms out," says "Anthony," a claims adjuster. "It feels like it's never going to be time to hit the door."

"Time is variably elastic at all times of day – we've known that for years," asserts labor expert Rona Rotifer of the WPC, who directed the recent study. "Say you get to the office around 8:00 in the morning to catch up on your email. Ten minutes later, boom! it's 9:00, and the boss is bugging you. That's a pretty common story. But almost without fail, you glance at the clock at 2:45, work for another hour, look at the clock again, and it's 2:55. We thought, how could that be?"

Employees who notice and comment on the typical workday's midafternoon "valley of death" have typically been told that it's all in their heads and to get back to work. Now, with the news of Rotifer's study, workers are talking about the additional compensation they might be owed, where the extra time might be coming from, and whether it could be applied instead to holidays and weekends.

Rotifer's group was able to detect the mysterious bulge of time by using their own clocks and keeping them located outside of the office being studied. Researchers found that the extra time created in the afternoon would be often evened out by day's end, usually by having the pleasant events of the evening simply go flying by. "Bedtime so soon?" complained more than one subject in the study. "It feels like I just got home!"

Balloon Story

It was on a Sunday in October, many years ago, when my son and I found ourselves on the fields next to Holliston High School, looking like the balloon-man and one of his young customers. The afternoon sun was bright and warm, and a stiff breeze blew. A soccer game was in progress, spectators were cheering, dogs were running and barking. And overhead, the deep blue sky waited for us to release our balloons.

During the preceding week, my mother-in-law had become seriously ill at her home in Rochester, N.Y., and had to be hospitalized. My wife had gone to be with her, in what would turn out to be her final illness. At 6-going-on-7, my son could not really grasp all that was happening (I'm not sure I could myself). It seemed best to start filling up the weekend with projects, in that carefree-but-glancing-over-your-shoulder way people have when they're killing time while waiting for the phone to ring.

Sunday morning was crisp and clear, and after church, I came up with an idea. Peter, I said, people at the seashore sometimes put a message in a bottle and let it go on the outgoing tide, to see if anybody will find it and answer. When we were kids, we used to buy helium balloons, attach messages to them and set them free from an open field. The message was always brief, because it had to fit into whatever small plastic container we could find. Almost never was there a reply. Often, the wind was too strong, or there were not enough balloons for the weight, and then the whole thing would scutter along the ground, maybe rise to 12 or 15 feet, high enough to be out of reach but too low to clear the treeline. The balloons would lurch upwards, then at the last moment they would get good and snagged in the topmost branches. They would snap around up there for a while, but the flight would be over.

Many times, though, the balloons flew free, and once, a message did come back. A couple in a nearby town found a broken balloon in their driveway, tethered to our plastic message-bottle, which they were happy to return. This gave us the confidence to send up several more balloons over the years, none of which came back.

This day, it simply seemed like a good way to fill time. We went home and found a piece of card stock upon which Peter wrote a message and drew a picture of himself, his house and his yard. We put this into an empty gallon milk jug, sealed it with tape and drove to Fiske's to buy the balloons. It turned out that nine balloons were needed to lift the jug from the floor with enough "oomph."

Up at the high school, with the balloons tugging at their ribbons, we waited for the breeze to stop and catch its breath. Peter was impatient, and wanted to let the balloons fly. But I wanted to be sure that this bunch would clear the trees.

Then I remembered my mother-in-law, dying in a distant hospital, and let the balloons go. My heart sank as a gust of wind pushed them to the ground, then they twisted free and began to climb quickly, gliding towards the trees but already high enough to miss the top branches. We watched as the balloons sailed east, soon becoming just a black speck against the clouds, then vanishing.

Betty Anne died a day or two later. We drove out for the memorial service, thus beginning that long journey so familiar to many of you, the one you take when a parent dies. It was many weeks before life began to return to normal.

But sometime before Thanksgiving, a padded envelope with a Canadian postmark appeared in the mail. At first, we thought it must be from friends of ours who live in Maine, some vacation photos. But we could see that it was not, when we opened the envelope and out slid Peter's drawing of himself, his house and his yard. There were also some packets containing seeds of native Nova Scotia plants, some seashells and a note from a grandmother and the grandson who lived with her near Yarmouth, N.S.: "Thank you for your message from across the Gulf of Maine. We found your bottle with all the balloons on our favourite beach. We hope these presents reach you unbroken . . ." I have often pictured the balloons, rising until they weaken and burst, and the jug tumbles out of the sky and lands in the sea. I picture the woman and the little boy spotting the tangle of ribbon and plastic among the shells and seaweed. They fish the note out of the jug, read it, and then (I'm sure) both look out towards the horizon. When they get home, they locate Holliston in an atlas, some 300 miles to the southwest across the open ocean.

I would like to report that we visited Connor and his Nana and became friends for life, but it hasn't happened yet. We still have the seeds. One day we will plant them. And we still have the note, and Peter's well-traveled drawing.

So why tell this story now, years later? Perhaps, with winter closing in and the difficulties of life in full array, it helps to remember that all you need to get the universe rolling in your direction again is to give it a little shove. You could say that nothing will come of it. But you never know.

Bullets on the Brain

When you see a news story about Afghanistan, or some other place where there's a lot of fighting going on, do you ever stop and wonder about the bullets? I do, sometimes. All those little bullets, flying around through the air and tearing things to pieces. I probably wouldn't give them any thought if I had been in the army or something, but I wasn't, so I do, maybe that's why. The "insurgents" who shoot at our soldiers day after day, I'd like to know where they're getting their bullets, and their bombs, and all their other stuff. How are they paying for it? Who are they paying for it? Who gets them their food and clothing, and the gas and oil for their trucks? Once you start asking pesky questions like this, it's hard to stop.

Back to the bullets. You never see much about them in the news, but without them a gun would be useless; you could do more damage with a garden shovel. So small, and nearly invisible when, on a video, they come flying out of the barrel of a gun, but the fear and suffering they cause is tremendous. People in combat are probably afraid every minute of someone shooting at them, but they're also anxious to get off a good shot first if they meet up with an enemy (that is, anyone with a gun who apparently would like to kill them). Believe me, I want our soldiers to have guns that work and plenty of bullets. But then I think, if it weren't for bullets, no one could fight much of a ground war. And as many guns as there are in the world today, there are many, many more bullets. Not only that: they get used up. Soldiers around the world, taken together, must run through thousands of them every day; they always need more. So where do all the bullets come from? How exactly do they get from the assembly line up to the soldiers who need them? Wouldn't you think you'd see something about this online or on TV once in a while?

When we need supplies at the office, UPS makes the delivery. Sometimes the driver stays a minute to talk a little baseball. They always wait for one of us to sign for the shipment, because that's the system. So, I got to thinking, when the bullets get delivered to where the fighting is, it must be something like that.

What do you suppose it takes to provide the bullets, grenades, and other things people need each day where war is happening? So much goes on backstage in any war, without which the whole thing would grind to a halt. Factories, roadways, warehouses, truck stops, landing strips . . . plus pilots, mechanics, workers hanging around loading docks, and places for everyone to eat and sleep. And it all costs money; people expect to be paid. Every time a carton of bullets arrives at its destination, it probably comes with some sort of paperwork, and the driver waits for a signature. Otherwise there would be chaos, which would be unacceptable. The way we get news from "war-torn" regions, the fighting always seems without sense or pattern, but you can be sure that somebody knows when the next carton of bullets is due. The trucks, meanwhile, are on some sort of schedule for servicing; otherwise they would be unreliable, which would also be unacceptable. When the delivery is complete and the paperwork is collected, the manufacturer sends an invoice and awaits payment, and every intermediary along the way gets a cut.

Can you picture it? Rumbling semi-trucks bring crates of bullets up from the docks or the airfields. People in freight sheds break open the crates, remove the smaller cartons inside, and load them into smaller vehicles, which take the bullets out into the field where the soldiers are, running low on ammo. The soldiers break open the cartons, grab packs of bullets, load the bullets into their guns, aim, and fire, immediately creating a need for more bullets. You have to admire a system like that.

All around the world, big boxes full of bullets, stacked high on pallets, are on their merry way by sea or air to wherever guns are being fired. Maybe the bullets our soldiers use are manufactured here in the States, or maybe we buy them cheap from Russia, or Canada, or China. Maybe some are made here in New England. Who knows? Maybe one of your friends from college is now in the arms business, and just bought a lakeside cottage for the family, because it's been such a good year. Well, somebody's making money on all this; maybe it's you.

Of course, the whole process must be going on, after a fashion, among the forces opposed to ours. Their bullets get used up, too, but there always seem to be more where those came from. Yet no one is giving them away. You'd think if the insurgents' bullets and bombs were just magically appearing each day out of the sand at their feet, you'd hear about that.

Somehow, planes and trucks and boats are bringing everything our enemies need right to their back door, by the ton and on time. So the system must be fairly well organized. What are the origins of these supply lines? Do you think we don't know? Couldn't we snuff out a lot of conflict by snuffing out the places where the bullets come from? Or would that, too, be unacceptable?

Tires and oil for the trucks, fuel for the planes, light bulbs for the warehouses, all of these things are needed, and are ordered, delivered, and paid for on a schedule that's agreeable to all the parties. To read the news, you'd think our soldiers (and their soldiers) were out there all by themselves, but of course they're only the very top of the pyramid. Beneath them are the many who make war possible and profitable. Someone makes the uniforms, the boots, the tarps, the portable toilets, the cafeteria equipment, and the food that is served there. Above all, someone makes the bullets, and makes a good living at it. How many makers of bullets are there in this strange society? Who are they? Where are they? Do they meet over drinks at annual conferences in Manila, or New Orleans? Who makes our bullets, and who makes our enemies' bullets? Do they know each other? Are they the same people?

Chickadee Story

This is a small story about a small bird and a suburban guy; the bird makes quite an impact, and the guy travels backwards in time.

On the back of our house is a one-story addition that we call the sunroom, though the sun only reaches it in the summer. More accurately, it's my son's room, the place where his stuff tends to wind up. His old PC is back there. He doesn't use it much any more, but I've found that it's all right for things like checking your email while enjoying a view of the back yard, which is what I was doing one morning not too long ago.

The sunroom has large picture windows and a sliding glass door; in effect, the walls are mostly glass, and when the window shades are up, birds on their way to and from our feeders sometimes mistake the oversize panes for clear spaces they can fly through. You'll be in the kitchen getting a second cup of coffee when you hear a sound like a tennis ball hitting a window none too softly. You go over to have a look, but there's nothing to see. Birds are pretty resilient and probably run into stuff all the time; you just don't see them do it. They have to pick themselves up quickly and fly away and mostly, I guess, they do.

This day, I'm sitting at the old PC, cruising around; the shades are up. There is a dark little shadow against the glass in front of me, and I see it: a chickadee swoops up and smacks into the window – whap! – and drops out of sight. I get up, slide the door open, and look outside. It's gone – no, there it is, on the grass with its head down, wings still spread, knocked out cold.

The Black-capped Chickadee (poecile atricapilla) is the state bird of Massachusetts. I suppose it was chosen for this honor because it is a common year-round resident of the state, but so are a lot of birds such as pigeons and sparrows, so I'd prefer to think it's because the chickadee is such a pleasure to have around. It's pretty cute, for one thing, and a hard worker too but there I go: just because the chickadee is less wary around people than many birds, it's easy to start assigning admirable qualities to it. People like to say that chickadees are bold, clever, energetic, even pugnacious, when all they're really being is chickadees.

Before one of the cats can get it, I step outside and pick the chickadee up and cup it in my hands. Instantly I am transported back 50 years to my grandmother's house, listening to her story about rescuing a small bird that had struck a window at her house. She had gathered it up and then sat holding it in her hands, warming it, not moving for a long while. In her many retellings of this story, the tale grew, I think, until it had turned into several such incidents and many hours of waiting in stillness for the birds to die or revive. They always revived.

The bird story is my grandmother all over: the sweet, do-it-yourself rescue of a defenseless thing, the selflessness and extreme patience, the sentimental happy ending. Many people would have ignored the fallen bird and gotten on with their day. Weren't there already plenty of chickadees? But Gran could devote herself entirely to saving a single bird, even a common one, maybe especially a common one.

She came from an old-fashioned time when women began practicing to be elderly from an early age, or so it seemed. In my memory she is always tottering up the stairs on her old-lady pumps, her cloud-white hair forever in a tight bun, her brittle, quavering voice as she tells the cornball little story about holding onto that dumb bird. I probably heard the story first when I was very young, but now as I recall it, I am looking down at her as she sits beneath a shawl and demonstrates with her hands – "like this" – so I am probably 11 or older and have heard the story many times and am impatient to go outside and play. She hoped that I would be just as soft-hearted towards cute little birds, and I probably would, but I also knew that being nice to animals was no way to get respect from the kids I played with. Saving a bird was stupid and sappy – you were supposed to stomp on injured birds, and run your bike over snakes. Besides, I knew some of my friends' grandmothers by now, and it turned out that grandmothers drank beer, ate pizza, went out to movies and dances, pushed power mowers, vacationed in Florida, things my horse-and-buggy Gran would never did and never would. In a sense, her life was more about waiting for poor things to fall to the ground, so she could scoop them up and save them.

So here I was with this bird. It wasn't dead, though I couldn't tell how alive it was. How long would I have to wait for it to wake up? At what point would I decide that enough was enough and set it down in the garden, to let nature take over? 

I called to Annie to come out and see, and a neighbor came by and we all looked at it, the tiny black-and-white head poking out, the black eyes blank at first, then blinking a little. I noticed, having never held a live bird, how small it was, and how weightless. A chickadee isn't very big even when it's darting around with its feathers fluffed up against the cold, and when it's lying in your hands half-conscious and deflated, it's very small, a little wind-up toy whose spring is broken.

It blinked more quickly. I stroked its head and back, probably not soothing it at all but just to see what it felt like. It stirred a little and I opened my hands, letting it stand, swaying slightly, where it could feel the sun and wind. I sidled over to a nearby bush to see if it would hop onto one of the branches, but it just stood there.

Several minutes went by, and about the time I was wondering if the bird had knocked something loose in its head and now I was going to have to care for it indefinitely, it vanished from my hands, and, a moment later, reappeared in my grandmother's. There she sits, forever huddled now with a chickadee protected and growing warm in her hands, with all the time and patience she was fortunate to have. I would sit holding that bird too, for as long as it took.