Soft black t-shirts and
the Gasoline Witch?
polishing short zippered boots
smoothing soapy cheeks
shining the wok that was
caked with dark sweet remnants of
And remember some you’d rather not
Come Here Your Not Here Yet
how cheeks can also sting
with tears and toughen from the redness
that burns when they are slapped?
This poem can not be long enough,
It requires all the time that I have
and this day
his longest day
today I know for certain
that there just isn’t any
Marv often seemed to be admitting to his flaws (which is a rhetorical habit I have copied much of my adult life), but that didn’t mean he was sorry. Even at my current age, I don’t think I can entirely fathom what his perspective may have been on his actions – in short, how he slept with himself. His code of gallantry included infidelity in stupefying proportions; his tenderness rarely kept company with mercy.
For a time, when we were very little, Marv would occasionally tuck us in, and in the dark, play us a story on his guitar. Cinderella is the one I remember best: the hypnotic sound of his voice as he sprinkled her magical dress with sparkles, the hollow tap of the guitar as the mice tried to escape the fairy godmothers’ wand, and said, “Shit!” when they found themselves footman. It seemed so real.
I honestly don’t know where he reached in himself, this grown kid whose childhood was, as far as I know, a string of truancy and poverty and feral self-sufficiency, to find the ingredients to cast this spell on his four year old, middle class daughters. But I do think he was searching for enchantment, and that it wasn’t just us who wanted to find the glass slipper.
Three people in this world remember the 402 Club, an exclusive establishment, staffed by Marv Berkman, serving corned beef hash and welsh rarebit ala Campbell’s to famished grade school patrons, one Wednesday per week or by special appointment. Breakfast was also served: Lipton’s Cup-a-Soup and hot Nestle’s Quik made with half coffee; burned bacon sandwiches (for Pammy); or cinnamon toast.
The floorplan is unchanged, although the room adjacent the kitchen is now called a bedroom, instead of a dining room, as it was known by earlier inhabitants, so you can rent it for 10 times what my parents paid in 1970, and to this end the lovely archway opening has been reduced to a mere doorway. The alleged “closet” off the kitchen was our breakfast nook and, for a while, Barb’s studio. I see they moved the kitchen sink; very drole.
Rice candy and almond cookies,
hot flowery tea and whole fish
staring back, wreathed in green onions.
“That doesn’t gross you out, does it?”
How they petted us, drew us close into their
chest high realm of files and torches,
these men with fingernails like opals,
translucent pink cabachons
embedded in thick, furry hands
which could cleave the Earth’s most precious
or turn Her deepest buried veins to raw liquid;
Who gave us not rubies or gold but
smooth polished cheeks sweet with shaving cream and
tobacco to delight in as if we were
photo by me, 1984-ish, developed in some bathroom somewhere.
Chicago belonged to Marv, absolutely. Roaming it at night, on foot and by car, was his legacy to me. It is with some shame I confess I can’t be sure any more whether this Art Deco el station is on Milwaukee or Western Avenue – though I know it is north of North Avenue and south of Fullerton. Beginning with my first camera in high school, Marv fuelled my obsession with the fading, vainglorious facades of deteriorating buildings by driving me whenever I wanted to take pictures of them, which was often. What he made of his odd teenage daughter, while he waited as I jumped out of the car to record views of name plates, tiled entry ways, crumbling ornamental plaster, he kept to himself, but I think he had his reasons for indulging me. By the time I got my license, I could navigate the Northside with confidence, by streets and landmarks, from Evanston to Old Town, and Lakeshore Drive to California Ave.
He never wanted us to feel afraid, or lost. Well, Pop, I never did.
It’s past my bedtime; here is a song from Daddy to help you sleep. I’ll write you more tomorrow!
Down by the station, early in the morning,
See the little pufferbillies standing in a row.
See the station master turn the little handle –
Puff! Puff! Choo! Choo!
Off they go!
(This guitarron belonged to a friend; it wasn’t Marv’s.)
The latches snap back, click, click. The lid hinges open, and the bouquet of rosewood, mahogany, steel and silk escapes the velvet lined crypt. There she is, sleeping. Not time for music yet, but there are other sounds: a shrill, clattering twang like no other sound on earth, as old wire strings are removed and new ones replace them; the wooden body percusses dully as it slides around the bed, rests on the knees of black trousers, is handled in any way necessary, like something precious but intimate.
In a few minutes, other latches will snap open, and the smell of lard will fill the air as scrub, scrub, scrub soft bristles buff black leather boots to a perfect shine. But now, it is time to tune the guitar and let the strings know who will be in charge of them tonight. UP the pitch slides, and then DOWN, to just the place where it must be, just as it has almost every night of your life, since before you were 14 and “musician” was already your way through.
Slip the tortoise shell pick, translucent and impervious, between the thumb and index finger. And then suddenly bursts out – so much sound.
Until Marv’s death, I had only ever seen one picture of Raphael and Brunya, his parents – an image of a dapper, elegant Gatsby man seated in tall grass beside his round faced, curly haired lady with deep, expressive eyes. Marv never made any comparisons between Pammy and I, and his family – no sentiments such as “You’ve got your grandmother’s eyes,” and so on. It almost seemed like a superstition with him to avoid discussing what they had been like, as if knowing about them might make some negative quality or powerful flaw contagious. During our last week together, though, Dad found me dressed to go out in my striped corduroy pants and medallion print shirt. “My mother always wore prints together like a gypsy,” he said with amusement and, I think, some pride. “I never knew that,” I said. “Oh, she was a gypsy, a real gypsy at heart!”
Other kids thought the Jungle Book was a Disney movie with goofy songs; I thought it was part of my father’s wardrobe, since for several years of my life, he was rarely seen without one volume or another of Kipling’s fables of animals who behave like humans, or a little bit better. Kipling imbued his monkeys, the Bandar Log, with our callow, smug, self-satisfaction, reflected in their motto: We are great. We are free. We are wonderful. We are the most wonderful people in all the jungle! We all say so, and so it must be true.
Here is an excerpt from the Road Song of the Bandar Log:
Here we sit in a branchy row,
Thinking of beautiful things we know;
Dreaming of deeds that we mean to do,
All complete, in a minute or two–
Something noble and wise and good,
Done by merely wishing we could.
We’ve forgotten, but–never mind,
Brother, thy tail hangs down behind!