A new home with old friends

 

June 1, 1972

 

It is a small room, compared to the Oak Street apartment, almost the size of the prison cell I avoided when I pled guilty earlier this year.

Outside my door, madness transpires a cacophony of voices that reminds me of my grandfatherís house and the constant bickering.

These people, although kin to each other seem to hate each other, stuck with living in the same house because none can quite survive on his or her own.

But they are clannish, too, hating the outside world more than they hate each other.

Iíve known them for most of the last decade, so they treat me like family, which means they hate and love me, too.

Linda, of course, is the newest adult addition to this little tribe, as Daveís wife, contributing two new wild savages who run around upstairs and downstairs near naked with war cries that make sleep sometimes impossible.

Linda, in fact, plotted her way into this royal family, seducing Dave when he was 16, then demanding marriage when she came up pregnant.

She saw this clan as a step up the social ladder from her own family, a scary idea that I avoided exploring since if this is up, I canít imagine anything beneath.

This clan is part of that poor white culture more typical to the Old South than the New York Area, although pockets of this kind cling to factory towns like Bayonne, Hoboken, Paterson and Passaic, clinging to their color when they have nothing else to brag about.

The word ďniggerĒ never comes up, but you feel the intensity of their anger at the black population around us, as if this was the last bastion of a white culture that has largely fled Paterson. All those who could afford to leave, have already, leaving poor whites to fend for themselves in a muddle of self-pity and public hatred.

I guess thatís why Iím here, too, one more lost face floating in this changing black tide, though Mrs. Fetterland didnít take me in out of kindness or because of our long relationship, but because she saw an opportunity to collect a little undeclared rent from a room that served no other purpose. She has an even smaller room upstairs for her husband for his once a month release from the veteranís home when he signs over his disability check to pay the mortgage.

I pay her $50 every other week Ė when I get paid from my job the local hospital.

The job being part time means I donít have much left over for cigarettes and socializing.

My rent, however, supposedly covers meals, which can be anything from an overcooked hotdog to the potato chip crumbs left at the bottom of the bag.

I eat a lot of meals at my motherís apartment five blocks away, or pay a visit to my grandfatherís house where I share pizza with the boys in the boat store.

I often have to shower at my motherís or uncleís, too, partly because the clan here hogs up the facilities and leaves them with drains so clogged I find myself up to my ankles in other peopleís dirty water.

But I canít avoid the stench of the place, even when I stuffed clothing at the crack at the bottom of my door. Dirty dishes, unwashed diapers, even uncleaned pet litter pans have given the air a unique flavor that we all carry out with us. It is an air that the clan has brought with them from each successive living arrangement, from Crooks Avenue when they lived there, to 21st Avenue, and now to this place which they actually believe they own.

I guess I settled for this place because I feel so bad about myself after my marriage broke up a month ago. I figure I donít deserve much better, and it is a familiar landscape, one in which I know I donít have to prove anything or live up to any particular rules.

White men of the past must have sought out savage villages of Native American Indians for the same reasons, unable to handle the rules society in the east increasingly imposed. Sometimes Ė particularly when I forget to shave Ė I look, act and feel like one of those old time mountain men, too shamed of my humble upbringing to associate with anyone but savages like these.

Yet, Mrs. Fetterland does have her rules, strange and barbaric as they might seem, a pecking order of power that has her at the top Ė survival her primary concern, but close behind that, privacy.

She has a door with a lock to her room, and abuses anyone who disturbs her uninvited.

She seems unconcerned about the chaos through the rest of her house, turning up the volume on her color TV to drown out the noise when it gets too loud out here.

Dave, her oldest son, lives in the first flood apartment with Linda and their two wild children, although everyone comes and goes through the whole house as if there was no distinction.

Dennis, her second son, only technically lives here, coming back from the streets only long enough to make love to one or more of his girlfriends or to hide out when hunted by the police.

We receive daily reports of his activities from officers who ring the bell and ask if we have seen him: liquor stores, grocery stores, even five and dimes all victim to his criminal activities. What he does with the proceeds remains a mystery to me, though I have suspected his mother of arranging some of these to meet the demands of the bank when she falls behind on the mortgage.

While all the kids are wild, even Mrs. Fetterlandís youngest, Danny and Debby, Dennis is the most vicious, lashing out at the least excuse, often showing pleasure in his eyes when he attacks.

He claims he leaped off the Great Falls Bridge to escape the cops once, surviving the fall because the heavy rains had deepened the water in the chasm below.

Mrs. Fetterland named her youngest son, Danny, after me, although I wish she hadnít.

A small boy, he lacks even the defense of a brain against other kids picking on him at school, where he has earned an early reputation as a gay boy who at eight could be counted on to provide pleasure to older boys in the gym locker room.

Even in the house, Danny has the habit of slipping into peopleís beds to arouse them, forcing me to wedge a cassette case under my door to act as a lock, although he only paid one visit to me, waking me before any actual contact. Dennis and Dave suffered him most, both beating him up to try to break him of the habit.

Ten-year-old Debby is worse, deliberately arousing any male who walks through the door, sitting in their laps with that cute and innocent expression of hers, moving around until they realize what she is up to, pushing her away only to have her mock their condition. Most of Daveís friends avoid coming to the house on her account, although some say she has met a few in the basement on her own, though no one has actually caught her at it.

She flirts with me over the kitchen table, and mutters the most outrageous things under her breath, refusing to repeat what sheís said when asked, winking at me or Dave or Dennis as if to suggest we might get a visit from her some night.

Dave has more locks on his apartment doors than the house has against burglars, and he has told me more than once he would have moved out had his mother not given him part ownership of the house. I guess he hopes she dies young so he can toss the rest of the family out and live in peace.

I know my time will be short here. But Iím still wounded and I canít yet think straight enough to come up with a better place to go.

So I keep my door locked, and remain out of the house for as long as possible each day, slipping back into the house just before the 10 p.m. curfew when Mrs. Fetterland locks the front and back doors and warns everyone sheíll shoot anyone who tries to come in.

I donít know if she would actually shoot, but she has her husbandís 38 in her dresser drawer, and it is loaded.

 

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