Every Day Is Gravy Part Two

My Stories, Writing

Kindred SpiritsI have decided that I would like to post the stories from my collection, Kindred Spirits, on my blog over the next couple of week. I intend on posting everything from the collection, but it is also available as an ebook for Amazon Kindle, iBooks, Kobo, Nook, and Smashwords, as well as in print via AmazonBarnes and Noble, and CreateSpace.

A complete table of contents is available on the Kindred Spirits page.


…Continued from Part One

Old stories. How is it possible that he has known Bruno long enough that they could pass around old stories? Despite having known Bruno for almost 15 years, Alex still thinks of him as one of his new friends. This is what happens as one ages. Time stretches and condenses in unexpected ways. What once seemed like a long period can become something minor. When he was 30, people he knew for 15 years were old friends. At 63, they become almost an afterthought, something tacked on to a life already lived.

It seemed like his life had ended when he and Joyce moved to the suburbs. At least the life they intentionally lived came to a halt and became something they were no longer agents of. Life became this arbitrary thing that had happened to them. Not that he ever had any specific design planned for his life, but there was a general goal that they had edged the direction of their lives toward. If you had asked a younger Alex if he would have ended up retired and living in the suburbs alone, spending his time watching too much TV (the thought of the lack of life remaining making him inert rather than compelling him to make better use of his time), hanging out with a friend who had categorically different interests, leaving the confines of his neighborhood only to go to Atlantic City, he would have shaken his head and laughed. There was no way this was to be his fate, yet he had gotten up far too early on a snowy morning to head to one of the last places on earth he wanted to be.

Alex nudged his life in the direction he wanted shortly after graduating college in 1960. Despite his education, Alex first worked in a warehouse in South Philadelphia. Most of his classmates had moved on to desk jobs, but Alex had read that Sloan Wilson book and got it into his head that he wanted no part of the day-to-day monotony that went along with office life. He wanted to be active, wanted to be on his feet all day, to be loading and unloading trucks in the fresh air—regardless of what the weather had in store for him—his body doing the work and his mind free to wander.

He rented a room with the Cautiero’s, a family of four who lived only a few blocks from his parents’ small home situated above his father’s tailor shop. Rosario Cautiero owned a produce stand on 9th Street. His wife, Annalisa, stayed home with their children, Frank and Peggy. Alex paid next to nothing for his small room and took the trolley down to the warehouses in the early morning.

Initially, Alex had resisted familial pressure to work in his father’s tailor shop. That would have been a monotony of a different sort, one of the possible monotonies expected of him. He was to go to college and apply that knowledge to the success of the shop, to better handle the books. His father, Mariano, often made errors which cost him money. His English was still a work in progress.

But Alex had done well in school and his parents had prepared themselves for the possibility that Alex might opt for a more prestigious office job or even go to law school. They were baffled by his choice to work at the warehouses, something he could have done right out of high school. His mother, Grazi, was particularly upset having spent all those hours praying to the Blessed Mother for her son’s success only to have him become a manual laborer. That was not why they had come to America. But Alex saw his rebellion not only as resistance against the life prescribed by his parents but also as a protest against a post-war culture that favored a complacency that Alex could not abide, a complacency that tried to mask a turmoil that had not ended with winning the war. A complacency that manifested in a jingoism that Alex could not understand. A complacency that told him that a young, well-educated white man such as himself should work in an office and move to the suburbs.

As an only child, Alex felt intense pressure to work in the tailor shop, but he wanted no part of it. He enjoyed the physical nature of his work and appreciated that it was the type of job that stayed on the job. He was up early, but he was also home early. Unlike many of his co-workers, he was not much of a drinker and would spend his nights reading or occasionally watching TV with the Cautiero’s. Alex’s parents never owned a set and he was fascinated by the various ways he could be entertained, from The Andy Griffith Show when the kids were around, to The Twilight Zone when it was just himself and Rosario, to The Tonight Show on those rare evenings when he wanted to stay up late.

During the summer, he would sit on the front steps with Rosario and they would listen to the Phillies games together, Frank and Peggy playing with other neighborhood kids in the streets, yelling “butta’ gazz’” whenever a car would come by and interrupt their game. The homes were all row homes, neighbor attached to neighbor attached to neighbor. Alex lived a very public private life, his comings and goings silently noted by the women hanging laundry and sweeping the sidewalk or, on the weekends, the men washing their cars.

Alex’s parents discouraged him from speaking Italian and he appreciated the Cautiero’s lack of pretension. His mother insisted that Alex would never succeed among the medigan’s if he did. But they also often needed him to act as translator between his father and his customers.

He lost touch with his college friends. Many moved out of the area for jobs. Those that remained often spent their evenings doing work they couldn’t complete during the day, lugging allegedly important papers in leather briefcases. Alex carried only his lunch, prepared by Annalisa. Sandwiches stuffed with some combination of gabbagool, mortadell’ and brosciutt’, muzzarell’ and provalon’ that Rosario would bring back from the other markets on 9th Street. Fruit from Rosario’s own stand. Figs from the tree that monopolized their small back yard. The same lunches she would prepare for Frank and Peggy before food was segregated by age and marketed to children.

Yes, Alex was happy with his choice, with his rebellion; however, one wet, winter day after about three years of working at the warehouses, he fell while carrying a heavy box. Landed hard on his back. He couldn’t move and his co-workers were reluctant to touch him given his screams of pain. An ambulance came and took him to the hospital. The injury wasn’t as serious as he had first feared, and he was told that with rest and exercise he would one day return to normal.

He moved back in with his parents hoping it was a temporary situation. But resting only helped so much. Exercise made him feel worse. Medicine only masked the pain. He eventually felt better but never good enough to return to a life of physical labor. He had to face the truth that he could no longer work at the warehouses, that he would have some level of discomfort the rest of his life. The injury forced a way of being that he didn’t think he would have to concern himself with until his later years: the divorce between what one wanted to do and what the body would allow one to do. He felt prematurely old. Reluctantly, he began working in the tailor shop and had to tell Rosario and Annalisa that he would not be moving back in with them. Frank and Peggy were heartbroken, having accepted Alex’s quiet presence as a source of comfort. No one was more disappointed than Alex, his much sought after independence evaporated, returning him to a life that he worked hard to avoid.

Toward the end of the 1960s, the shop went out of business, partly due to the changing culture—the quality of mass produced clothes narrowed the once significant gap between it and tailor-made—partly due to his father’s declining health and eventual passing, and partly due to Alex’s indifference to the business’s success. His own slowness to heal and lingering symptoms did not help the situation. He and his mother sold the shop, and they moved together into a small nearby apartment. Alex lived with her for four years until his marriage to Joyce.

His long-held resistance to having a desk job, the growing distance between his education and his job search, and his experience in the tailor shop led Alex to taking a position at Jeremiah Allen’s, one of the large department stores in the city. He started out as a sales clerk in the Men’s department, a job he approached with pride since, at that time, this was a job for an adult. In more recent years, whenever he went to a department store, or any store, he was confronted by some high school kid whose mind was on anything other than providing Alex with something resembling real service. Sure they memorized the platitudes they had been instructed to say, but they were lost if they had to go off script, if they had to retrieve information that was not stored in the computer in front of them. They were trained to get people in and out as quickly as possible, and people had been trained to value and want this kind of efficiency. There was a time when customers expected professional service, when relationships formed between the people who sold things and the people who bought things. The person who waited on you did not disappear when a new semester started. Alex was not above admitting his nostalgia for such times. He was proud of his work at Jeremiah Allen’s, enjoyed working in the heart of the city, and would not have met Joyce if his circumstances had not led him there letting him nudge his life in a direction that would grant him his happiest years. He had expected to live a solitary and lonely life, being, as he was, shy around women, but their chance encounter around the holiday—which he often referred to as a “Christmas miracle”—kicked off a relationship he never anticipated, filling his life with a level of satisfaction that he never thought possible.

…Continue to Part Three

A complete table of contents is available on the Kindred Spirits page.