Badlands

Written by Alan Cabal on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


1. Twisted Child, Suicidal
Town

My adoptive mother
died on Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Day, just five days after her 84th birthday.
She quite literally dropped dead of a massive, sudden heart attack in the course
of making or answering a phone call. She died in the tidy little well-kept row
home in Camden, NJ, where she’d lived since she and my adoptive father
moved in back in 1949.

In 1949,
Camden was a great little town for a young couple just getting started. RCA
Victor and Campbell Soup had their headquarters there, and the shipyards were
still booming, riding high on the largesse of the infant military-industrial
complex that beat the Axis. Ringling Brothers landed by rail that year at the
old Pavonia Yards on 27th St. in Camden, walking the elephants east out to the
old Stiles family property in Delaware Township, where they’d set up their
tent. Camden was the 103rd largest city in America, not big enough to be hectic,
but big enough to have a thriving downtown shopping district and no fewer than
seven first-run movie theaters, including two authentically opulent studio-sponsored
palaces. The Stanley Theatre opened in 1926 at a cost of $1,000,000, one hell
of a huge sum of money in those days. The first drive-in movie theater opened
in Camden, in 1933. My parents paid $7000 for a two-story, two-bedroom row home
with a basement, garage, yard and lawn on a quiet tree-lined street in East
Camden: 365 Garden Ave.

They planted
rosebushes in the yard and on the lawn. My father was a chemical engineer at
the Socony Mobil refinery in Glassboro, a few miles south. The flying red horse–that
was their logo then. My mother was a housewife. It’s hard for me to imagine,
but they must have been happy together for the first few years. I’ve seen
photographs of them, an attractive couple in their early 30s standing proudly
in front of their new home, frolicking in a pool somewhere, always smiling,
looking hopeful and relaxed. I never saw any of that except in these old black-and-white
pictures.

I was born
on Dec. 1, 1953, to a weird little girl from Bridgeton named Helene who was
15 years old. Her mother was a certified schoolteacher who for some reason was
working as a bus dispatcher at the time. Her mother has been described to me
as "abrasive and domineering." Helene played the piano and had an
interest in mathematics. She had a tendency to break out in hives when she got
nervous, which was fairly often by most accounts. She had been raped, or so
she said. Spring fever, perhaps. The adoption agency’s psychiatrist declared
her "borderline psychotic," but psychiatry is at best an inexact science,
kind of like voodoo or dowsing. They bury their mistakes, like the rest of the
medical profession.

Albert and
Elizabeth Cabal took me into their Camden home in March, 1954. At that time
the population of Camden stood at about 125,000, of which about 2.5 percent
was classified as "low-income." Eighty-three percent of the housing
was judged to be in sound condition. It was around this time that the city began
to register its disgust with the corruption swirling around Mayor George Brunner,
a discreetly crooked thug who’d taken office in 1935. The voters decided
to have school board members elected rather than appointed by the mayor. This
was the beginning of the end of Brunner’s well-constructed political machine.
Blacks began moving into North Camden, centering around Pyne Point. The first
of the shipyards closed: the Quigley Shipyard, at Point and Erie Sts. Quigley
had opened in 1909.

By the time
James Dean collided with Donald Turnipseed on Grapevine Rd., Libby and Al’s
happy little home had begun to sink into a downward spiral of acrimony and domestic
rancor. We all make mistakes. My earliest memories are filled with screaming
violence and swift moves into the night. I have never been afraid of the dark.
Darkness is shelter. My father lit out for Woodbury and my mother and I went
to live with her parents in the Cramer Hill section of town while the lawyers
went to work on sorting out who got what, including me. That year a fellow named
Eugene Mori sold the tract of land in Delaware Township known as the Stiles
Estate to the Rouse Corp., for the development of a new type of shopping center.
Strawbridge & Clothier was the first retail establishment to throw into
the deal. The next year, 1956, Quaker Shipyard & Machine Co. at 5th and
Byron Sts. closed its gates for the last time, after 89 years.

In 1959,
Alfred R. Pierce, known locally as "the fighting redhead," trounced
Brunner in the elections and took office promising to dismantle the 24-year-old
system of graft and corruption that had been very quietly siphoning away the
city’s lifeblood. The number of families in Camden listed as low-income
had jumped to 18.4 percent. The "sound housing" figure had dropped
to 79.2 percent, and total property-tax revenue had dropped by nearly half a
million dollars in the years between 1950 and 1960. The trickle of people
of color into North Camden became a stream. Fearing that the presence of a single
Negro on the block heralded a decline in property values, middle-class whites
began the exodus outward, into Delaware Township.

That year,
1959, I tried to run away from home for the first time, pedaling away on my
bicycle. I was six. The handlebars were decorated with heads stolen from dolls
that neighbor girls left lying around on their lawns. I ripped the heads off
and tied them to my bike by their hair. I had my first encounter with a shrink.
I had set some fires and stolen people’s mail. I was looking for identification
papers. My mother had a job with a market research outfit in Philadelphia. My
only friend was a great big gentle retarded kid who lived next door and called
me "Booga-Booga" because I enjoyed scaring people so much. I hid in
my room a lot, reading Edgar Allan Poe, Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine
and whatever horror fiction I could sneak up there. I was obsessed with monsters.
I snuck out of the house at night, wandering down to the woods near the river.
I began to dabble in witchcraft.

The Cuban
missile crisis of 1961 found my mother and me back on Garden Ave. We watched
a lot of television. I loved Sally Starr and her afternoon Three Stooges presentation.
The court had decided that I’d see my dad on Tuesdays, Thursdays and every
other weekend. I was stuck with the burden of deciding the holidays, and we
spent a couple of weeks in Wildwood every summer. There were black people in
Wildwood. That didn’t bother my dad, and it didn’t bother me. I couldn’t
figure the race thing out. They seemed okay to me; charming, even. I loved Amos
’n’ Andy
. I loved everything about them. Nat King Cole had the
sweetest voice in the world. They were very polite, but funky. They understood
irony. My mom’s family vacationed in Ocean City, a quieter town, fewer
rides on the boardwalk, no bars, no blacks. It felt safer to me, but less exciting.

The missiles
of October never flew, but it was damn close. Some folks in Camden even built
fallout shelters. I used to sneak away during the "duck and cover"
air-raid drills at school and piss on the radiators. There’s a large vacant
lot behind the row of houses on Garden Ave., and I’d replaced my Cramer
Hill penchant for setting fires with a deadly serious fixation on digging incredibly
complex holes and tunnels, enlisting the local youth in these projects and getting
them to acquire a wide range of lumber products for the purpose of shoring up
my tunnels. I shifted my reading interests from monsters to espionage. I began
studying the Korean War. The psychiatrists examining me said I had a "criminal
mind" and suggested to my mother that she either ship me off to a military
school or engage me with some form of art. My dad favored military school for
the discipline. My mother opted for art. I wound up pursuing a career as a child
actor, figuring to become a spy. I already had the sociopath thing pretty much
down. I wrote to the CIA looking for work. They sent me a nice letter telling
me to get in touch after college.

Meanwhile,
out in Delaware Township, developer James Rouse of Columbia, MD, opened the
eighth of his HASS constructions, the very first one to be built east of the
Mississippi. HASS was Rouse’s term. It stands for Heated and Air-conditioned
Shopping Street. We call them malls these days. Rouse named his Cherry Hill
Mall after Eugene Mori’s Cherry Hill Inn, a swank mob joint located across
Rte. 38 from the Stiles property. The Cherry Hill Mall opened with 60 retail
outlets and parking for 6000 cars on Oct. 11, 1961. It was the beginning of
the end of Camden. Shortly after it opened, Delaware Township became Cherry
Hill.

In 1963,
the John H. Mathis Co. closed the shipyard they’d operated for 108 years.
In 1964, the Esterbrook Pen Co. lit out for Cherry Hill, taking 400 jobs and
106 years of history with it. One by one they left, lumbering out of Camden
like the Ringling elephants did on that sunny, hopeful day in 1949: Universal
Rundle, Warren Webster, U.S. Gasket, Camden Forge, Iowa Soap, Acme Staple, Boscul
Coffee and Consolidated Cigar. RCA was laying off workers in their Camden facility
continuously as they expanded their new facilities in Cherry Hill and Moorestown.
You can’t tell the ship is sinking if all the rats stay on board.

Alfred Pierce
turned out to be just as bad as Brunner, if not worse. He quickly lost the support
of the coalition that got him elected, including the civil rights leaders who
wound up marching on City Hall to protest discrimination in housing and schooling.
Pierce opened the city’s coffers to a string of rapacious developers with
grand schemes that never came to fruition. They proposed such things as a luxury
motel on a 40-acre tract north of the Admiral Wilson Blvd., a "City Within
A City" project spearheaded by Philadelphia con artist Jerry Wolman, a
52-acre shopping center, a $1,000,000 marina with 1600-foot frontage, even an
airport. None of that ever happened. What did happen was that the state health
department called Camden "the place with the worst air pollution problem
in the state." Brooklyn developer Mechel Rabinowicz snagged a contract
and built a new "Commerce Building" in 1965 at a cost of $1,100,000.
The building promptly went bankrupt. The Northgate apartments were built on
land just north of the toll plazas of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, a little
too close to Darktown for the comfort of its intended residents. The owners
had enough trouble making the mortgage payments that the FHA intervened.

My mother
and I paid no attention to any of these developments. I’d become a journeyman
child actor and by 1965 was sufficiently busy at it that we moved to New York
City, where I managed to support her in the style to which she would have liked
to have become accustomed. I was having the time of my life, working commercials,
summer stock, Off-Broadway and eventually Broadway. She had rather extravagant
tastes in housing during our time together in the Big Apple. Our first residence
was in the Oliver Cromwell on 72nd St., across from the Dakota. She got to complaining
about the noise there after a while, and we moved over to the Esplanade at 74th
and West End. I didn’t care where we lived, as long as we stayed in New
York. All of my nastier dreams of monsters and warfare dissolved in the bright
lights of the life I was living. I fell in love with this city. I think New
York was the first thing I ever loved absolutely and unconditionally.

Adolescence
was the traditional shakeout phase for kid actors in those days, and my agent
suggested that we relocate to L.A. to keep on track. She didn’t want to
go. She didn’t want to be that far from her family, and she certainly didn’t
want to let my dad off the hook in their ongoing legal imbroglio. We moved back
to Camden in late summer, 1967. I started as a freshman at Woodrow Wilson High
School that fall. To say I had trouble fitting in is an understatement. If I
hadn’t had the ideology to match my peace amulets and love beads, Woodrow
Wilson would have preceded Columbine by 32 years. The last of the shipyards
closed: New York Shipbuilding Corp. laid off its last 1500 employees and closed
its gates. NY Ship had been founded by Henry Morse in 1899. At its peak, during
WWII, it employed 35,000 people.

Between
1945 and 1968, nearly 39,000 jobs had been lost in Camden’s shipbuilding
industry alone. By 1968, "white flight" was a real issue. That was
the year the city’s population tipped in at 50 percent nonwhite. That was
also the year I started getting high, and began to drift away from my mother,
her family and Camden. I ran away a couple of times, and after I got out of
high school in ’71 I just left. 1971 was the year the Puerto Ricans rioted,
torching 40 homes and a large number of the few remaining downtown businesses.
By then the town was nearly 75 percent black and Hispanic.

I stayed
in touch with my mother as I drifted to Idaho and California and eventually
back to New York. I visited periodically, and each time I came it looked worse.
In 1990, the Peace Corps took to sending volunteers to Camden to train for service
in the Third World. The white population dwindled down to less than five percent.

2. The War Zone & A
Drug-Trade Buddy

I
despise talk shows and the talk show mentality. During my last stint with the
circus, I spent a fair amount of time in Boston trying to train a pit bull hybrid
named Kaiser to kill Jerry Springer, even going so far as to promise him a lifetime
of steaks and a human woman in exchange for this service. I figured to lure
Springer onto the lot with the promise of revelations of serious behind-the-scenes
depravity at the circus and then set Kaiser loose on the porky scumbag. So I
won’t get into the specifics of what led to the 10-year estrangement between
my mother and me during the period 1988-’98. I have referred to her marriage
to my father and their subsequent divorce as the Dr. Zhivago of hate
affairs. He moved on, remarried, mellowed out. She remained alone. Wilhelm Reich
said that love and work are the wellsprings of life. She had neither. Part of
her divorce settlement consisted of an arrangement whereby if the house was
sold, she and my father would split the take. That’s why she stayed in
Camden, across the street from a crack house, the only white woman in the neighborhood.
It’s called spite, and it will eat you alive if you succumb to it.

Victim culture
consists of blame and justification: blaming your parents, your spouse, another
race or the government gets you off the hook for your own failures and transgressions.
Nobody knows whether they can raise a child until they try. People who blame
their parents for their own dissatisfaction are just plain stupid and usually
wind up addicted to therapy or some other nonsense.

I ultimately
just walked away and reinvented myself. That’s not to say it was easy,
but it’s certainly easier than walking around with a big ugly clot of bitterness
and regret lodged in the brain pan. I’m still nasty. I’m no damn blissninny.
I’m a New Yorker, like Rudy Giuliani or Howard Stern, maybe Ruth Gordon
on a bad day. After a time, I got comfortable enough in my own skin to reopen
contact with my mother. In the fall of 1998, I visited Camden for the first
time in 10 years.

It looked
like a war zone, like Groszny or something: collapsed and boarded-up houses,
parched and ruined lawns, pit bulls, open drug sales and liquor stores barricaded
behind steel gates and bulletproof glass. There is no neighborhood in New York
City to compare with this. East New York looks like East Hampton by comparison.
Carjacking originated in Camden: a pack of young hoodlums hang out, some unlucky
person comes by in a car, two little boys straggle out in front of the car looking
wide-eyed and innocent, the car stops and the whole pack descends on the vehicle,
smashing the windows and peeling the occupant out like a chunk of lobster meat.
The cops warn white people not to stop at red lights after dark.

Naturally,
I was worried about my mother’s safety, but there was no getting her out
of there, and I certainly wasn’t going to live there. She had a couple
of good neighbors who looked in on her, and the block she lived on was mainly
working families. Eighty-two percent of Camden’s population is on welfare.
During my visits, I acquainted myself with the politics of present-day Camden
in a casual way, reading the local papers and occasionally touching base with
old drug contacts of mine, some of whom had fled to the suburbs, some of whom
had actually drifted into respectable jobs.

It seems
that from the late 80s to the present day, Camden has been governed top to bottom
by a vicious coalition engaged in the cocaine and heroin trade. A Puerto Rican/Dominican/black
alliance known as "The Organization" has been running the town. A
suppurating sack of shit known as Jose Luis "J.R." Rivera handled
the finances and is reported to have bragged openly about bankrolling the 1997
campaign of Mayor Milton Milan, the city’s first Latino mayor. Milan has
never managed to shake the stench of death that attached itself to him as a
result of an unsolved drug-related murder in 1988. He was questioned as a suspect,
but never charged. Rivera’s big mouth, incompetence and insufferable arrogance
landed him in the slammer, where he and his minions are rolling over on the
Mayor and the police, putting out like crack whores for a break in sentencing.

I awoke
on Tuesday, Jan. 18, to a message on my answering machine from my cousin Bernice
to the effect that I’d "better give a call." I knew immediately
what it meant. I poured a double shot of Wild Turkey, broke a raw organic egg
into it and called it breakfast. I made the call.

On Wednesday
I headed down to Camden in a rented Ford Escort. I spent the ride down there
listening to a cassette of rants by Henry Rollins and a Johnny Cash tape I’ve
been getting into lately. There was no way I was going to stay alone in that
little haunted house in Camden. Hell, I wouldn’t stay in any house
in Camden unless I was very well armed. I got off the turnpike at Exit
4 and cruised west until I got to Camden Catholic High School, at Cuthbert Blvd.
and Rte. 38. Camden Catholic was where they sent me after I got kicked out of
Woodrow Wilson for various subversive activities including, but by no means
limited to, my involvement with an underground newspaper and stealing a fire
extinguisher for self-defense purposes. It took me another year to get kicked
out of Camden Catholic for attending a pot party in the Girls’ Room, but
I had fond memories of the place.

I took a
room in the EconoLodge across Rte. 38. I’m not real picky about lodging
when I’m on the road. I spent 11 years in the circus industry sleeping
in trucks and cars and such, so Motel 6 is quite satisfactory to me. This EconoLodge
was pretty bad. The first room they gave me was drafty and cold, and half the
lights didn’t work. I could deal with that, but I like to keep CNN on as
wallpaper; it makes me feel connected to people. The damn tv was dead. I called
the front desk and got another room, one with heat, light and a working tv.
I let them know that I found the room acceptable and that I would not require
maid service. I don’t like strangers in my room. I pulled my bags out of
the trunk, set up my laptop and took off to drive around a little and get some
beer. I picked up two four-packs of Guinness in those fancy exploding cans they
pack it in now and went cruising. I was feeling a little phobic about actually
entering Camden itself, so I stuck to the suburbs.

Camden Catholic
High School is actually located in Cherry Hill. It used to be in Camden, a long
time ago. The church moved it out just before the shifting demographics dealt
the final blow to my hometown. For some reason they kept the name; a touch of
Roman Catholic perversity, perhaps. The teaching staff when I was there consisted
of Jesuit priests, nuns from the Sisters of Mercy and a scattering of lay teachers.
At Woodrow Wilson I was a freak and an outcast, but by 1969, when I entered
CCHS, the culture of LSD and day-glo monsters like Hendrix and Syd Barrett was
beginning to consume the suburbs, and I suddenly found myself very popular with
my peers. I was even popular with certain elements of the priests and nuns.
The conflict between my commitment to nonviolence and activism and my flagrant
advocacy of the use of hallucinogenic drugs and speed must have posed an interesting
challenge for them. The fact that I was an open Satanist could only have sweetened
the mix.

Around midnight
I started feeling a little maudlin about my mother, head swimming with the old
neurotic "should have, could have" loops. I’m of the opinion
that whenever the brain starts a train of thought with the phrase "I should
have" it should be soundly whacked with a golf club or the rough equivalent
thereof. I steered into the parking lot at Camden Catholic, laid a couple of
donuts with the Ford so that I could smell some burning rubber and headed over
to the motel to drink myself to sleep.

I was awakened
at 10 a.m. the next morning by keening female voices arguing incomprehensibly
about something. I peeked out through the curtains and sighted a huge black
woman, built like the Venus of Willendorf, lumbering along in the snow outside
with a cleaning cart. It was the maid. Quite a bit of snow had fallen while
I slept. I felt like a low-budget Jack Torrance. I cracked open a Guinness and
considered the business of the day.

Thankfully,
my cousin was seeing to the details of my mother’s funeral arrangements.
The old woman hadn’t left a will, but she did leave a letter detailing
her wishes with regard to the disposal of her remains. She wanted the whole
nine yards, the full-blown American death spectacle, including the dreaded viewing.
I would have needed serious drugs to deal with death industry professionals,
and I’ve been trying to be more reasonable about my lifestyle these days,
so I was mighty grateful for Bernice’s assistance.

The Philadelphia
Inquirer
was dishing the dirt regarding the unfolding dope scandal in Camden.
I read over the morning paper as I drank my breakfast. I needed more details
on this. I decided to contact the Flash, an old associate of mine from my wild
years who used to live in East Camden. He’s semiretired from the informal
pharmaceuticals trade and currently derives most of his income from gunsmithing
and motorcycle repair. He lives in a modest, secluded house out past the turnpike.
We arranged to meet at Steak 38, a steak joint located in the EconoLodge where
I was staying.

Walking
into Steak 38 is like walking into an episode of The Sopranos. The decor
is what I call Understated South Jersey Mob Glitz, skirting the edges of tacky
without ever quite arriving there; borderline tacky, if you will. It’s
actually a decent-looking place, on the inside, in a very suburban kind of way.
I strolled over there at about 8 p.m. and ordered a white Russian at the bar.
A bunch of rather obvious wiseguys were having a heated discussion about astronomy.
They were jabbering at each other in classic Mean Streets dialect about
distances. The clear alpha male, a rotund and well-dressed fellow with a swarthy
complexion, Roman nose and, I shit you not, a pinkie ring, began bellowing,
"How many light-years away is da sun?" He kept at this despite
the chorus of "I dunno" emanating from his crew like "amen"
in a gospel choir. Finally, I leaned over and said, "The light from the
sun takes about eight minutes or so to get here, roughly the time it takes to
smoke a cigarette. It’s about 93,000,000 miles away."

The Boss
thanked me profusely, bought me another drink and asked me how far the moon
was. I said, "I forget. I know it takes about as long to get there as it
does to get to California by car."

Just then
the Flash arrived, and the waiter escorted us to a nicely isolated table. The
Flash offered his condolences on my mother, we caught up with each other on
recent events in our lives and got down to the business of Camden after the
waiter delivered our entrees. We’d both ordered the special, a magnificent
filet mignon with portobello mushrooms and fresh crabmeat. The Flash proceeded
to deliver a brief history of the dope trade in Camden.

"You
know, of course, that when Keith Richards got busted for smack in Toronto, he
came to Camden to lay low?"

"I’d
heard that," I replied. "But why?"

"Supply,
discretion. Also the fact that there were still a fair number of white guys
in Camden in those days, and a lot of them looked just like him. Dressed down,
he didn’t really stand out, and the splibs didn’t know him at all."

Splib is
Camden slang. It’s likely the nastiest word for blacks used by whites anywhere.
Ask the Flash what it means, and he tells you it’s "the sound their
heads make when ya hit ’em with a baseball bat."

"Anyway,"
he went on, "shit went downhill fast when the last of the honkies pulled
out. See, the smack trade was here all along, very stable, a wide range of interested
parties of all ethnic persuasions, even the Jews. That kept it stable. Camden
was the central distribution point for all the smack from Boston to DC
from Prohibition into the 80s.

"When
the blow started flooding in from Nicaragua in ’85," the Flash continued,
"the shit really hit the fan around here. The Sicilians backed out right
away. They’re too busy with Atlantic City to be fuckin’ around with
the moulis and the spics in Camden. The Jews went with them. The Irish hung
on with the police department, like they always do, but even they gave up when
the Crack Wars hit. The crack thing was like an affirmative action program for
the trade, it all went to the spics and the splibs. Then it settled down. Now
it’s gonna start up all over again over who’s gonna grab Rivera’s
trade, just watch."

"Where
does Milan figure in this?" I asked.

"Rivera’s
punk, he’s going down. It’s all coming out in the papers. Read the
Inquirer. He’s Rivera’s boy. Sure, it’s all ‘alleged’
this and ‘alleged’ that, but he’s going down. The word is Milan
started out on the street, selling rocks at 5th and York. Nothing’s changed
there. The street giveth and the street taketh away, as we used to say. You
know a lot of the blow in New York comes straight outta Camden. Your yuppie
Wall Street crowd sniffs urban decay. It’s just like Campbell’s soup,
it’s all that’s left. Comfort food."

The Flash
began to go a bit sentimental.

"You
know, you remember," he told me. "You were in the trade. We didn’t
kill people for sport, we didn’t kill people because they dissed us. I
can think of maybe three guys that got greased in the meth trade in Camden,
and two of them got whacked by the goddamned Warlocks. That wasn’t us,
that wasn’t our shit. We were hippies. We were just in business, having
fun. These guys today, they got a dick problem, they’re out to prove their
fuckin’ manhood or some shit."

This conversation
began to interfere with my digestion. I’m not accustomed to so much meat
in one sitting. I changed the subject to old associates as we finished our meal.
As we got up to leave, the Flash offered me some methedrine. I politely declined.
In the parking lot, I gave him my number in New York and watched as his pickup
roared east on Rte. 38.

3. The Cold, Cold Ground

Saturday
morning I was up at dawn, pulled on a pair of sweatpants and hauled ass off
to Dunkin’ Donuts for a cop breakfast–two huge hazelnut coffees and
a pair of crullers. It was bitter cold. I tore back to the motel, gulped down
the coffee and pastry, took a scalding shower, dressed and headed out to the
funeral home.

I was holding
up okay, satisfied with the knowledge that my mom didn’t suffer the indignity
of being ground down in a nursing home or some godawful hospital. She died in
the house she refused to surrender, on her own, proud and stubborn. I headed
north on Rte. 130 to Cove Rd., cut off at one point by some demented jackass
in an SUV blasting some hideous gangsta rap and pounding his idiot fist in the
air. That’s okay, I thought. Fuck you, I thought. I’m burying my mother
and you can have your goddamn town.

I got to
the funeral home before anybody else, at about 9:15 a.m. The funeral director
asked me to park my car up front with the keys in the ignition. I kind of snapped.

"I’m
a little too close to Camden to even consider leaving the keys in this
car," I told him. "I’ll just park in the back and catch up when
and where I have to, if that’s all the same to you."

He left
me to my own devices.

I walked
in from the bonebreaking cold to see my mother, this fragile little old lady,
laid out in Titanic splendor in the most ornate casket I could ever imagine,
surrounded with flowers. She looked better than she’s looked in years.
I spent a few minutes standing over her, stupefied by the finality of the event
and the conflicting emotions roiling within.

Viewings
are horrible. Everything is flattened by grief and pity. There is nowhere to
go but tears. I knew that if I started to cry, there’d be no end to it.
I tensed my right arm, my left leg, I transferred the tears into muscle tension,
shifting it around, tensing the muscles until they cramped.

Every face
you see was once a baby’s face. It was that innocent.

I went downstairs
to the smoking lounge and sucked up a half-dozen cigarettes while waiting for
the viewing to begin. I went back upstairs to stand by her coffin as the mourners
came to pay their respects. It was a blur of faintly familiar faces, older than
I remembered, drifting toward death themselves, reminding me of my own mortality.
Shaking hands and hugging people at a viewing is a duty that drives home the
true meaning of entropy. The core of romance is death, but there is no romance
in a funeral home.

I caved
in to the motion of the event, kissing her once on the forehead just before
they closed The Box. I told her I loved her and wished her goodnight. My cousins
carried her to the hearse, we took her out to Arlington Cemetery in Pennsauken,
where the rest of her family is buried. There, we showered her coffin with carnations
and laid her in the frozen earth.

We finally
got her out of Camden.

..