They were mostly anonymous men. Often they’d be gathered in late spring from the county jail, after being arrested for drunk and disorderly. Not bad men, just guys who were older and weary and down on their luck for so long that it had managed to become a chronic condition. Where our parents had friends, family, jobs and community, these guys had the weekly paycheck and what solace there was at the bottom of a bottle. It might not have been much, but it was dependable, and affordable.
Too often they caught crap from the colony kids, but it wasn’t warranted and it wasn’t pretty. The older kids called them “bimmies,” and winos. But, for the most part, what drinking they did they did on their own, in their cramped dingy quarters, or in local shot and beer joints we had been instructed to avoid at all costs. Mostly they did their jobs with little or no notice–repairs to bungalow roofs, minor plumbing, routine carpentry, groundskeeping, pool maintenance.
Of all the faceless and nameless men that filled these thankless jobs over so many summers, two stand out in memory. In our small Mountaindale bungalow colony the owner’s right hand men were Paul and Martin. Both were tall, strong and weather-beaten men. They gave the appearance of being old as the mountains, though in looking back I realize they were likely no older than I am today–late thirties, early forties. I remember them always in soiled tee shirts and khaki work pants. They wore beaten up lace-up boots, even in the dog days of summer, and each man owned a tattered and faded baseball cap that was his daily guard against the sun burning a balding scalp. Paul had various tattoos over his biceps, but now I can’t quite recall what any were about. Martin, though, carried a vibrant tattoo of a warship, the USS something or other, on which he had dutifully served during World War Two.
Paul had had a family. My dad had told me that, one day after we’d seen him in town, sucking on a can of Schlitz outside the local grocery. For some reason I failed to ascertain at the ripe age of nine, my dad held a special affinity for both Paul and Martin. I remember my mom berating him for lending money to the men, because she was certain the cash would do little else but contribute to their almost constant off-duty state of inebriation.
Yet, for whatever their shortcomings, each June we returned to find Paul and Martin dutifully at work painting bungalows, repairing lawn furniture, seeding gardens, prepping the pool, and apparently genuinely happy to see the return of the summer guests. Where they dispersed to each autumn, and how they passed their winters, was a never answered mystery. One time, when we were returning from visiting a maiden aunt in Manhattan, I imagined seeing them among the lost and lonely roaming the Bowery. Although I am now certain that was youthful whimsy.
In the summer I was to turn 12, I secured steady weekend employment babysitting the Goldstein twins in bungalow 12. The twins were three, and usually asleep before I arrived to take charge from the casino-bound parents. It was an easy gig. Janet Goldstein was a nice lady, not too tall, with generous hips and an easy smile, and her kitchen was often better stocked with junk food than the local grocery. I’d arrive with an armful of comic books and sports magazines, and on the umbrella table outside the bungalow I’d arrange myself a small banquet of potato chips, pretzels, M & Ms, raisinettes, cookies and soda. Then I’d wipe a lawn chair free of dew, switch on my flashlight, and start in on my reading material, cognizant of the seventy-five cents I was earning as each hour ticked off the clock. It was one Saturday night just like that, under a speckled night sky, amidst the incessant din of the crickets and cicadas, that Martin decided to keep me company.
I couldn’t tell if he were drunk. He certainly seemed sober enough, and there was no tell tale scent of liquor. He ambled out of the darkness, and pulled up a wooden lawn chair. He stretched out, crossing his long, lean legs and placing his muddy boots up on the metal table. Squinting in the moonlight, he reached into his tee-shirt pocket for a pair of grimy eyeglasses, placed them on the bridge of his nose, and began examining my reading material, pausing at the most recent issues of Baseball Digest.
“Ya a baseball fan, huh?” He said. It was more words than I’d even heard him speak at one time. His voice had the feel of gravel, deep and husky and rumbling. I thought it might have hurt his throat to speak.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“Seen ya playing softball,” he said, still perusing the magazine. “Ya play third base?”
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“Hard spot, the corner. That’s why they call it the hot corner. Ya know?”
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“Played third base myself,” he said.
“Before I became a pitcher.” Then he hocked a bit, twisted his head, and spit into the night.”
Baseball and softball be two different animals,” he said. “Softball like an old ladies game. Ball up there big as a watermelon. Howcin ya not hit it?”
Then he hocked again and spit again and reached into his trouser pocket to take a cigarette from a crumbled pack of Camels, which he lit with a shiny, steel Zippo lighter.
“Ya play baseball?” He said.
I nodded that I did. He nodded. The smoke snaked out from his nostrils in a long, spiraling helix, then disappeared into the night. He was quiet for a long time. I said nothing. After a while his breathing settled into a quiet cadence, his chest moving so slightly he might be taken for dead. The cigarette burned down to a stub, and softly dropped from his mangled fingers. I leaned forward to see that his eyes had shut, and, I noticed, too,that his mouth had moved slightly, so that in his sleep there was just the trace of a smile about his lips.
There were other nights that Martin visited me, as I sat under the Catskill stars, standing watch over the Goldstein twins. He told me stories of having seen Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson. One night he brought a baseball and, in the quiet evening, he began instructing me on the proper grips for throwing a curveball, and a knuckleball, too. I began experimenting with these pitches, to become both exhilarated and bewildered when the ball commenced breaking and arching, moving to some mysterious heretofore-unknown music that I was suddenly able to master by the simple placement of my fingers on the horsehide.
Sitting near the pool one Sunday late in August, an atypically warm day for so deep into summer, I became aware of a small commotion on the central lawn. The parents had fled the pool to assemble in a small mob, gesturing and arguing with great animation. Then, on top of the hill, at the front entrance to the colony, from behind the colony store, a red and white ambulance rolled onto the grounds. It slowly moved across the center of the colony, passing between two bungalows to the rear of the grounds, where I knew only the laundry room, clotheslines, and handymen’s quarters stood.
I raced from the pool, with my friends David and Joel, to be cut off by our moms just feet from the water. No one was volunteering any information to the kids, but somehow, intuitively, we knew. Someone either was very, very ill, or worse. Judging by the meandering pace of the ambulance, we would bet on the latter.
I don’t remember anyone actually telling me Martin had died. He’d been found lying in his bed, still clothed, a half empty bottle of gin and the latest Sports Illustrated propped next to his stiffening body. I remember very little else from that day, or the few that followed. I remember sitting behind my bungalow and crying. I remember my dad, and a few of the other dads, returning from the city mid-week, something they’d never done before, to be present at a small, sparsely attended graveside service. I remember developing circuitous routes about the colony so I might avoid passing by Martin’s now vacant shack. I remember babysitting those last weeks of summer, after his demise, and being afraid to sit by myself in the night, retreating inside the Goldstein bungalow.
A few weeks later the summer ended, and we said our good-byes to friends and neighbors, returning to the city, where, in a few days, our lives resumed their normal cadence and routine. The ten ensuing ten months passed quickly, and the following June we returned to the bungalow colony. Martin was gone, of course, and Paul, we were informed, had moved to Florida, to be closer to his adult children, with whom he’d reunited during the winter. In their place were two new men, one black, one Hispanic. They were good workers, polite, easy-going, friendly, and they managed to last the entire season. But that was all, and the following summer they were replaced by a parade of unreliable drunkards and sinners.
In the years to follow I sharpened my skills with the hardball, succeeding in baffling my peers with a sharp breaking curve and an unpredictable, but infuriating knuckler. I suspect I was the only high school kid throwing the knuckler in all of New York. And oftentimes, standing alone on the mound, peering in and waiting for my catcher to flash a signal, I would think of Martin and those sweet, lost summer nights when he’d taken the time to pass me his legacy, such as it was.
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