©1997 A.D. Sullivan
Something to Be Grateful For
Seeking the Parade, 1968
Alice's Restaurant Revisited
He never ate honey
nor came too close to tips of flowers
always in his hears.
Unconvinced of off-season reprieve
always looking under sticky lids
for the hiding little beasts
He, saying, he had been stung as a child
and could not forgive them
or his father,
who laughing took out the barbs
with tweezers and magnifying glass
the pain never left him,buzzing in his belly or his lungs
he, believing pieces of the stringer
remained, unrealized in the now older man
working slowly through his veins
to his heart,
where they might make honey
Something to be grateful for
My sixth Turkey here in Toms River. I am constantly amaze how quickly time passes.
Last year, I brought my uncle Richie south, and had to lock him in the room downstairs like an animal, to keep him from doing harm to himself, and still he snuck out, a cunning escape artist who slipped out the bedroom window and walked out in the frigid cold without his shoes. We found him walking the side of the highway, he mumbling something about his walking the whole 83 miles back to Passaic.
Two years ago, I spent a divided holiday between Rutherford and here, my uncle not even in the back of my mind, sharing carving honors with the family of a woman named Susan, from college. They thought a man like me could help their daughter settle down. But I was just one more summer romance, someone to occupy her attentions before she went off to grad school. And the year before that, Rock & Roll dragged me away early, with me doing sound for nowhere band named the Shayds.
Ever since I was a little boy, people have told me Thanksgiving was a time for reflection, for looking back at the year and saying thanks for the harvest. In 1978, when I came here, I had no harvest, having been fired twice from jobs for insubordination. One job had had kept for almost four years and realized suddenly that my boss was a capitalist pig. He had abused a woman in the front office and I set out to get even by making his suppliers aware of just how unethical a business he ran, sending out over 100 letters before one of them informed him. He called it industrial sabotage and gave me five minutes to get off his property before he called the police. The second job ended two days before Thanksgiving, after owners of the wine import company for whom I worked the summer found out I was the one who reported the head of the union corrupt. Management had attempted to force the union to violate its contract. The union official encouraged the men to obey. I sent a letter of the president of the union in Newark. The contract remained in tact. The union rep vanished. I was fired on a technicality. I could trace back the details of such disasters before every thanksgiving of my life, hiding from the police in an East Los Angeles rooming house in 1969, to family feuds after my grandfather's death in the 1960s, each seeming a test of my endurance, a retelling of the story of Job, with God and Satan gambling as to whether I will crack.
It is a terrible test. It is a joy to survive. And for that, I suppose, I am thankful.
Seeking the Parade, 1968
"Well, do you want to go?" Hank asked me, standing in front of Paterson City Hall, waiting for his bus up to Haledon.
"I don't know," I said, keeping my eye out for my bus scheduled to stop at the corner across the street.
"Because I'm supposed to spend the holiday with my family."
"Every holiday?" Hank said, seeming shocked at the idea. It made me wonder about his own family's traditions.
"Most of them," I said.
Actually, I couldn't recall missing one.
"For Christ's sake!" Hank howled, his voice bounding off the face of the building and the stern-faced statues of dead mayors who stared perpetually down at the bus stop and the bums who resided here. "You can't spend all your time with them."
"Hank, please, you don't know my family."
"Sure I do," he said. "I met them plenty of times."
"Met them, but you don't know them. They wanted to lynch you for bringing over that record that time."
"The Arlo Guthrie thing."
"Come on, who could get upset about that?"
"They could. They don't like their world shaken. They believe in all those traditional things that record seemed to mock. That's why they don't like you."
"They said they don't like me?"
"No, but I can tell."
"It's your imagination, Kenny."
"They don't like hippies, Hank, and you're a hippie."
"But I'm a friendly hippie."
"They don't like people who are against the war, and you've protested against it."
"But I wasn't mean about it. Besides, I don't see how they can object to your coming along with me next week. I'm taking you to the parade, not a war protest."
"They like the family being together."
"Can't you sneak out?"
"Sure," I said. "But I'd have to come back and face them sooner or later."
"And then what will they do?"
"Ground me for months," I said.
"Ground you? But you're 17. Who grounds 17-year-old kids?"
"My uncles do," I said.
"I'm really disappointed, Kenny," Hank said, shaking his head slowly, his ragged long brown hair hanging down from under a world war one campaign style hat, something he wore nearly as religiously as his sandals and ankh.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"Don't be sorry," he said sourly. "But don't talk to me about being free and all that when you don't mean it."
"I do mean it," I said.
"If you meant it, you'd do something about it."
"Yeah, right," Hank mumbled, lifting his hand to attract the attention of the bus driver as the number 14 pulled up to the curb. The door hissed open and Hank mounted the first step, turned, and glared at me. "Call me at home if you change your mind."
I broached the subject with my mother when I got home. She didn't always understand what I told her so I told her twice, her expression growing pained when the words sank in.
"You don't want to spend Thanksgiving with the family?" she said in that vague way of hers, something I later found typical among many mentally ill.
"It's not that I don't want to be here," I said, squirming already because I knew the worst was yet to come when I sought out my uncles. "But I've always wanted to go see the parade."
She sighed, as if already resigned to my absence, then floated down the hallway to her bedroom to lay down.
Uncle Ed was next.
"No way," he said flatly. "You're going to be here with the rest of the family."
"But Uncle Ed..."
"Don't whine at me, boy."
"But I've always wanted to see the parade."
"You can see it on TV."
"It's not the same."
"You heard me. You're spending the holiday here," he said, and took the last swallow of his coffee before rising from the breakfast table to go to work.
I knew then, I could convince no one else. My other uncles might have been amenable to my arguments if Ed had said yes, but his denial meant they'd all fall in line, all of them arguing we should stay together in the memory of now-dead Grandpa who would have wanted it that way.
I went to my room and stared out the window at the New York skyline, dark shapes just visible over the Hackensack River valley, like jagged teeth.
I loved the place, the vibrancy, the noise, the constant motion that made me come alive during my visits there. My uncles disapproved of my going, believing it evil and corrupt, telling me I would come back hurt. They did not know how often I took the hour-long bus ride there, or how I cut school to join Hank to wander its streets.
I could not get over its mystery and grandeur. I could not wash the smell of it from my clothing when I got back. The place had something important for me, I just didn't know what. But I knew I would never find it by sitting in my room, and knew I would miss it if I didn't go with Hank.
Like I had missed the Columbia protest in April, and Chicago in August, and still blushed each time Hank talked about his exploits, how he had fled from a horsed police officer at Columbia, scrambling over the wall into Central Park.
"I'm going," I told myself, "no matter what Uncle Ed does to me when I get back."
On Thanksgiving Day, Hank called.
"Are you ready?" Hank asked, his voice sounding deeper over the telephone.
"I can't go," I whispered back.
"Can't or won't?"
"They're watching my every move," I said, glancing over my shoulder towards the living room, where four of my five uncles sat, each with an eye on me, Uncle Ed or my mother, spilling the news to them that I had planned to visit New York for the parade.
"But I've made plans," Hank insisted. "You can't back out now."
"I don't mean to..."
"I just don't know how with them watching me," I said, thinking how unfair it was for the family to be condemned to this house by a ghost. Grandpa had dominated all five brothers when alive and they could not escape it even in his death, hearing his thundering voice rising from the grave with the same terrible warnings.
But I was 17, and I needed to shed old ghosts like him. I didn't want to find myself chained to this house, to this kind of life, the way my uncles seemed to be.
"You can't sneak out?" Hank asked. "You've snuck out before."
"That was different," I said. "They were working or out at the time. I suppose if I pretended to take out the trash or something I could get away. But there would be hell to pay when I got back."
Hank laughed. "You always say that."
"This time I mean it."
"Then you're not coming?"
I didn't answer. I didn't want to tell him no. Finally, I said "All right, I'll come."
"Are you sure."
"I said so, didn't I?"
"Where? It's kind of late for you to take the bus to Paterson to meet me."
"We can meet at the Port Authority. Is that all right?"
"It will be all right if you show up."
"I will. I promise."
The trash, of course, was a poor ploy, one I'd used too many times for my uncle's to believe it.
I went to my room on the third flood and took my denim jacket from the hook behind the door. The Sergeant Pepper's patch had come undone a little, but not enough for it to flap from my shoulder. I also took my black bush hat from the drawer, where I hid it among my underwear. I knew I could wear neither downstairs without revealing my intentions. So I stuffed the hat into the arm of the jacket, and then wrapped the jacket around my history text, and dropped the package out the window, watching it drop down into the snowball bushes along the side of the house.
"Well," I said, our dog Skippy glancing up from my bed. "At least, I'm committed to going out to retrieve that."
I heard the madness as I went down stairs. My aunt had arrived with her tribe of kids, her laughing voice providing an unaccustomed cheeriness to the normally insufferable house. I could smell the change for the holiday, the cooking turkey and the scent of sweet potatoes, all of it recalling Grandpa as vividly as any photograph, him, sitting at the head of the table with knife in one hand, fork in the other, bellowing out a Thanksgiving prayer in preparation to eat.
"Kenny!" my aunt shouted when she saw me, her eyes so full of tenderness I blushed with shame over my intended flight.
She brought back the magic her marriage had stolen from the house. She was always the special child, the child upon whom all my uncles and grand parents could agree, charmed with an energy that made the holiday special. When my uncles put my mother away in the state mental hospital, Alice took care of me, dragging me out on dates with her when she was still single, singing songs to me while I took a bath, rocking me to sleep in my crib when I cried. She stitched the broken pieces of the family into a whole, teaching each of us the meaning of laughter. Everywhere she went, everyone she met, loved her.
"Hello," I said, and she frowned, sensing something about my mood as she always had, as if we had a private means of communication the others could not penetrate. She stared at me a moment, and then seemed to grow annoyed when someone from the kitchen called her to come and help them finish preparations for the sit down dinner already late.
"I'll want to talk to you later," she said, then hurried off to help the others.
I made my way into the kitchen, and through the rush of women who were moving in a variety of directions in a mad attempt to hurry dinner, some going this way with mashed potatoes, others going the other way with gravy and stuffing, me, working through this criss-crossed activity towards the back door.
"Where do you think you're going?" Uncle Ed said, stepping out of the dinning room. "There's work to be done and you're not going to hide from it on the back porch."
"I'm sorry," I said.
"Don't be sorry. But since you're going out, take out the trash. Then get back in here. You hear?"
It was almost too good to be true and I stared at the man's broad face to see if he was joking. But his craggy face showed not the least sign of humor.
He handed the trash can and I yanked open the door with my free hand and left.
Fall was in the air, swirling around in the cool breeze with the dead leaves. I dropped the kitchen trash near the metal trash barrels and kept going, dragging my coat from out of the bushes. I left my history book on a basement window ledge.
I was free! Of the house and the ghosts, the traditional meal and its trappings fading from me as I fled across the boat store yard towards the corner and the bus stop, where the number 50 stopped on its way to New York.
A twinge of guilt touched me when I saw the bus, and for a moment, I wondered if maybe I should go back, for my mother, if not my grandfather, for my aunt, if not my family.
Hadn't Alice wanted to talk to me later?
I wondered about what?
The red and silver bus pulled up to the curb, the door hissed open. I stared at the driver; he stared at me. Then, after a long sigh, I climbed aboard the bus, shoving two dollars in the man's hands.
"New York," I said. "I'm going to the parade."
It was cold, I tell you.
That's what started the whole mess.
I know it's supposed to be cold on Thanksgiving, but I'm not sure The Godhead meant for us to dance and chant dressed like this. Especially because this is New York, not Bombay.
I'm not saying anyone paid us much mind.
I think that might be part of this, too. For all our holy work, nothing seemed to happen. Nixon had just been elected President. And I was feeling empty, the way I had when I left home. Why couldn't I do something more to save the world?
Every time I went home, my father would mumble about my getting mixed up in cults.
"My daughter is having an orgy," he said. "Any day now, I expect you to call home from New York, telling us you're pregnant."
I only wish I had that much fulfillment. For all my chanting, for all my cutting of my hair, for all the robes and cymbals and prayers, the world seemed the same.
Then came the parade, Thanksgiving floats sailing high above my head, making me feel like a little girl again, making me wish for daddy's hand and a bit of cotton candy.
And oh, that cold!
My teeth chattered so hard I thought they would break. I could hardly chant. And with all the bands drowning us out, and all the people shoving us out of their way, I thought: "What's the use! Why are we bothering if no one will listen?"
Most people treated me as if I wasn't even there, including my companions.
That's when I heard the singing.
Yes, little more than silly pop songs that I normally blared from car radios, and that's what I thought it was at first, until I turned and saw these two boys, walking towards me, the sound coming out of them like their own chant.
One wore a campaign style world war one had. The other a black bush hat with a artificial leopard skin band. one wore heavy sweater, the other a denim jacket with some sort of patch peeling off, but not much more.
I thought they were crazy, but then, people said the same about me, so I stopped chanting and turned to listen.
They sang a lot of Simon and Garfunkel songs, and a lot of other folks songs I didn't know. They seemed out of touch with reality. I mean, I remembered being like them two years earlier, before the war got so bad I couldn't watch the TV news at night, before the Democratic National Convention in Chicago made it bad to be a hippie.
But if these two thought of throwing rocks at cops, they didn't show it. They just sang, giving their songs an unusual harmony that wasn't on the original record, harmony that turned other people's heads, too. The two sang and stared up at the passing floats, looking so happy, I could have burst.
Naturally, I smiled. You would have, too.
And they noticed me, and noticed how cold I was, and they stopped singing and came over to me, and asked if I was all right.
"Sure," I said, though I obviously wasn't.
"Maybe you should come inside one of the stores with us," the boy with the campaign hat said, his crooked front teeth making him look a little strange -- but a good strange, a jack-a-lantern strange. "We'll buy you a cup of hot chocolate."
I felt guilty, even as I said yes, knowing somehow I had opened a door in me which I could never quite shut again. But I was so lonely and there two seemed so close to each other. No one of us ever got so close as that, not with each other. All our affection and wants were directed to the Godhead, and these two had actually acknowledged me as a person -- which was more than my father ever did.
Oh, I vowed to do extra chanting. It even crossed my mine that I might convert these two and bring them and their energy into our fold. I could imaged the life we would have with them at our side. Maybe then, we could even change the world. But to my own horror, I felt their attracting me, pulling out of my long hidden sense of humanity, something which had never hit me quite so hard before.
They knew it, too, asking me if I wanted to go with them after the parade.
The temptation was immense. What was the point of having universal love and balance if I couldn't find either in my life?
The Godhead still had enough of a hold on me to make me send them away. They laughed and said they understood, giving me their phone numbers where they lived in New Jersey, telling me to call them if I got lonely.
No, I didn't keep the numbers.
That would have ruined me entirely. I couldn't have lived with the guilt. But I can't live with the emptiness either.
And maybe I was thinking of them, thinking of the joy in their eyes when I called my father and begged him to take me home...
Alice's Restaurant Revisited
My uncles grumbled the minute Hank walked through the front door, staring at him from the kitchen as if he'd just stepped off a space ship from mars.
"What the hell are you trying to do, bringing people like that into our house?" Harry asked after pulling me aside.
"Like what?" I asked.
"You know," he said, waving his hands around his head because he could not say the word hair or hippie, though I'd heard his mumbling once about both when he saw them walking on the street, grumbling out the same old line TV bigots used: "Can't tell if they're boys or girls." Yet with Hank, no one could mistake him for a girl, so martian came closer in describing his crooked teeth and jack-a-lantern face, not to mention his nehru shirt and sandals.
"No, I don't know," I said, and really didn't. Hank hadn't looked so odd when I worked with him at the theater, yet even with his elaborate getup, I still thought of him as my friend, and I'd brought all my friends home, one time or another. "We're just hear to listen to some records."
"All right," Harry said, glaring at Hank who stood in the hall, glaring at the few LPs he held lightly under his arm. "You listen to records. But keep the pocket doors closed and the volume down. Me and Ed are playing to watch TV."
Ed and Fred eyed Hank strangely, too, when I led the boy through the kitchen to the dinning room, and then moved to close the double doors that divided it from the living room.
"What's the matter with them?" Hank asked, when I had secured everything.
"They don't like anything that strikes them as strange," I said. "Just don't play the records too loud and we'll be all right."
Ed hated my music in particular, and often shouted up the stairs when I played the Beatles or the Rolling Stones too loudly in my room, telling me to turn down that racket or he'd come up and turn it off. But I'd never run into anything quite like the records Hank had brought, particularly the one by this fellah named Arlo Guthrie, who Hank said was Woody Guthrie's son, who I did know, and hated, because my uncle Ed played his music all the time. I kept expecting to hear some whinny-voiced hillbilly stuff, and was shocked when I didn't, when this Arlo sang -- well, not exactly what you would call singing -- Alice's Restaurant, instead.
Even then, with the volume turned down and the music nothing like the Rock and Roll I usually listened to, Uncle Ed rumbled from beyond the closed doors.
"Turn that goddam nonsense down. We're trying to watch Bonanza in here."
Maybe all Arlo's talk of Thanksgiving Dinner made my uncles hungry, or maybe his talk about piles of trash made them mad, but Uncles Ed and Fred and Harry took an instant dislike to us and our music, even with the soundtrack to Bonanza turned real high, they kept saying things about "Hippie crap" and how they ought to put a stop to it, how all this bell bottom bullshit would have a bad effect on me. Maybe they caught some sense of truth in that song, about the unfairness of life, of how people couldn't just live their lives like plain folks without having rigid rules to live by, how somebody was always trying to make you do something you didn't want to do in the first place, and that if you didn't do what they said, you found yourself in jail or in the army. Maybe my uncles understood right from the star just what this "song" would mean to me, and how me and Hank would use it over time as our anthem, more relevant to our lives than any "Star Spangled Banner," and that by playing it then and there in my uncles' house, we were effectively declaring our independence. I know that after listening to it then, I suddenly wanted to become a hippie like Hank, and later followed Hank into Greenwich Village where he sang it and other hippie songs in the street as we wandered.
While Hank and I never did half the stuff my uncles believed hippies did, shooting dope or staring at the sun on LSD until we were blind, and we never had as much sex as my uncles thought hippies had, we believed we had the right to do anything we pleased as long as we didn't hurt anybody, sit where we pleased when we got tired, eat what we pleased when we got hungry, go where we pleased, when we got bored with where we were at the time.
Over and over and over, Hank sang that damned song, each rendition growing more defiant, each firming up for me the vision of that place in New England where we could get almost anything we wanted (except for Alice).
Hank sang that song the whole summer of 1968, and then through the winter, into 1969. He sang it on the streets of Paterson and on the streets of Manhattan, he even sang it on the bus we took between the two. Once, when he got stuck in a snow storm on the way to New York, the other passengers on the bus threatened to lynch him if he sang it once more after singing it a half dozen times all the way through. And long after, we stopped making our weekend pilgrimages to Manhattan, after we had ceased becoming hippies, after the 1960s ended and the 1970s came to be, I still thought of that song with reverence, and sat myself before the radio each Thanksgiving when the local rock station played it.
Then, one day, a very nostalgic Hank got it into his head that he wanted to visit the place. We weren't drunk yet, just delirious, and perhaps a little disappointed with how our lives had turned out, how all the promises the world had made to us as hippies of peace and love had evaporated, replaced by fuel shortages and greedy people. But we knew if one place existed on the planet that had kept faith with that past, Alice's Restaurant was it. We drove up, keeping the car under the speed limit. We didn't want to get arrested by officer Obie the way Arlo had. Then, when we crossed the tracks -- the way the song said -- and journeyed up about a half mile, we saw the place, pulled into its parking lot, and then marched right inside, only to have a large man stop us just inside the door.
"Do you have a reservation?" he asked.
All work is by A.D. Sullivan except where otherwise indicated.
Those who wish to comment can do so by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or by traditional letter to:
PO Box 765