Wednesday, January 20, 2010

***The Ghost Classmate-For P., Class Of 1964

Click on the headline to link to a YouTube film clip of Arlo Guthrie singing a song made famous by his father, Woody, Hobo's Lullaby.

Al Johnson, Class Of 1964, comment:

Every once in a while I am reminded that it has been more than 45 years since we, the Class of 1964, went though the hallowed halls of the old school. Now, in 2010, those of us that went to Atlantic Junior High School (now Middle School) are facing our 50th anniversary since graduation. Those who went to Central get a year's reprieve, but your day is coming. To mark the occasion I have written a little something. The following tale, although not as light-hearted as some of my earlier entries, I believe, makes a point that is worth thinking about.


Not everyone who went through our old high school survived to tell the tale, or at least the way the tale was suppose to be told, or how they wanted it told. Moreover, we, as a class, after 45 years, are long enough in the tooth to have accumulated a growing list of causalities, of the wounded and broken, of the beaten down and disheveled. This entry is going to be about one of our classmates who got lost in the shuffle somehow and it only here, and only by me, that he gets his struggles voiced. I will not mention his name for you may have sat across from him in class, or given him what passed for "the nod" in the hallway back in the day, or had something of a 'crush' on him because from pictures of him taken back then he certainly had that 'something' physically all the girls were swooning over. Let's just call him, as the title for this entry suggests- the ghost classmate (and in the interest of saving precious space in order to tell his story, shorten it to GC).

Now I will surprise you, I think. I did not know GC in our school days; at least I have no recollection of him from that time. I met him, or rather he met me, when we were in our early thirties in front one of the skid row run-down "hotels" that dotted the low rent (then) streets of the waterfront of San Francisco. My reason for being there is a tale for another day, after all this is GC's story, but rest assured I was not in that locale on vacation, nor was he. Ironically, at our first meeting we were both in the process of pan-handling the same area when the light of recognition hit him. After the usual exchange of personal information, and assorted other lies we spent some weeks together doing, as they say, the best we could. Then, one night, he split taking all his, and my, worldly possessions.

Fast forward. A few years later, when I was in significantly better circumstances, if not exactly in the clover, I was walking down Beacon Street in Boston when someone across the street on the Common started to yell my name. Well, the long and short of it, was that it was old GC, looking even more disheveled than when I had last seen him. After an exchange of personal data and other details I bought him some dinner. The important thing to know, however, is that from that day until very recently I have always been in touch with the man as he has descended further and further into the depths of the skid row ethos. But enough of the rough out-line, let me get to the heart of the matter.

I have left GC's circumstances deliberated vague until now. The reader might assume, given the circumstances of our first meeting, GC to be a man driven to the edge by alcohol, or drugs or any of the other common maladies that break a man's body, or his spirit. Those we can relate to, if not fully understand. No, GC was broken by his own almost psychotically-driven need to succeed, and in the process constantly failing. He had been, a number of times, diagnosed as clinically depressed. I am not sure I can convey, this side of a psychiatrist's couch, that condition in language the reader could comprehend. All that I can say is this man was so inside himself with the need to do the right thing, the honorable thing, the 'not bad' thing, that he never could do any of those. What a terrible rock to have to keep rolling up the mountain.

Here, however, to my mind is the real tragic part of this story, and the one point that I hope you will take away from this narration. GC and I talked many times about our youthful dreams, about how we were going to conquer this or that "mountain" and go on to the next one, how we would right this or that grievous wrong in the world, and about the need, to borrow the English revolutionary and poet John Milton's words, to discover the "paradise within, happier far". Over the years though GC's dreams got measurably smaller and smaller, and then smaller still until there were no more dreams, only existence. That, my friends, is the stuff of tragedy, not conjured up Shakespearean tragedy, but real tragedy.

Hobo's Lullaby
by Goebel Reeves

Go to sleep you weary hobo
Let the towns drift slowly by
Can't you hear the steel rail humming
That's a hobo's lullaby

Do not think about tomorrow
Let tomorrow come and go
Tonight you're in a nice warm boxcar
Safe from all the wind and snow

I know the police cause you trouble
They cause trouble everywhere
But when you die and go to heaven
You won't find no policemen there

I know your clothes are torn and ragged
And your hair is turning grey
Lift your head and smile at trouble
You'll find happiness some day

So go to sleep you weary hobo
Let the towns drift slowly by
Don't you feel the steel rail humming
That's a hobo's lullaby

©1961,1962 (Renewed) Fall River Music, Inc. (BMI)
All Rights Reserved.

drifters, grifters, hoboes, be-bop nights, skid row bums, tragedy

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

***For Margaret G.-In Lieu Of A Letter- The Class of 1964 Somewhere

Click on the headline to link to The Literature Networks online copy of Edgar Allen Poe's, Ullalume. Sorry, the Mayakovsky poem that I followed in writing the post below is not available in English on the Internet. Poe's poem gives the dreamy mood I was trying to evoke, though.

Al Johnson, Class Of 1964, comment:

I make no claim to any literary originality. I will shamelessly ‘steal’ any idea, or half-idea that catches my fancy in order to make my point. That is the case today, as I go back in time to my elementary school days down at the old Snug Harbor Elementary School in Germantown. Part of the title for today’s entry and the central idea that I want to express is taken from a poem by the great Russian poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky.

So what do a poet who died in 1930 and a moonstruck kid from the Germantown projects, growing up haphazardly in 1950s Quincy, have in common? We have both been thrown back, unexpectedly, to childhood romantic fantasies of the “girl who got away”. In my case, Margaret G., as the title to this entry indicates. I do not remember what triggered Mayakovsky’s memories but mine have been produced via an indirect NQHS Internet connection seeing her last name mentioned on a profile page. In this instance, damn the Internet. I do not know the fate of Margaret G., although I fervently hope that life has worked out well for her. This I do know. For the time that it will take to write this entry I return to being a smitten, unhappy boy.

Mayakovsky would, of course, now dazzle us with his intoxicating use of language, stirring deep thoughts in us about his unhappy fate. I will plod along prosaically, as is my fate. Through the dust of time, sparked by that Internet prod, I have hazy, dreamy memories of the demure Margaret G., mainly as seemed from afar through furtive glances in the old schoolyard at Snug Harbor (which is today in very much the same condition as back then) . This is a very appealing memory, to be sure, of a fresh, young girl full of hopes and dreams, and who knows what else.

But a more physical description is in order that befits the ‘real time’ of my young ‘romance’ fantasies. Margaret G. strongly evoked in me a feeling of softness, soft as the cashmere sweaters that she wore and that reflected the schoolgirl fashion of those seemingly sunnier days. And she almost always wore a slight suggestion of a smile, working its way through a full-lipped mouth. And had a voice, just turning away from girlishness to womanhood, which spoke of future conquests. I should also say that her hair… But enough of this. This is now getting all mixed up with adult dreams of childhood. Let the fact of fifty plus years remembrances speak to her charms.

Did I ‘love’ Margaret G.? That is a silly thought for a bashful, ill-at-ease, ragamuffin of a project boy and a ‘princess’ who never uttered two words, if that, to each other, ever. Did I ‘want’ Margaret G.? Come on now, that is the stuff of adult dreams. Did Margaret G. disturb my sleep? Well, yes, she was undoubtedly the subject of more than one chaste dream, although perhaps not so innocent at that. But know this. Time may bury many childhood wounds but there are not enough medicines, not enough bandages on this good, green earth to stanch some of them. So let’s just leave it at that. Or rather, as this. For the moment it takes to finish this note I am an unhappy man and… maybe, for longer.