Sunday, June 18, 2006

the new jersey coast line leaves hourly from penn station

On the way home yesterday evening, riding the train, I passed first through Elizabeth and shortly thereafter, through Newark. This seemed oddly meaningful because of the book that I was reading, the writer that I was reading, and I put that book aside for a while as I passed through this part of New Jersey, looked closely out the window, at the decaying buildings and the newer ones put up, thinking about these layers of history, and Philip Roth growing up here, his father growing up here. I was, and am still, reading Philip Roth's Patrimony, a memoir written after the death of his father, about his relationship with his father.

It would have been like traveling through Oxford, Mississippi while reading Faulkner, or through Dublin reading Joyce.

I had gotten the book earlier in the day at a thrift store in Atlantic Highlands along with a couple of other books for really cheap. The day was spent perusing these books, trying to set up my mom's wireless network, watching cable, eating food, and drinking coffee - a fairly lazy day spent in the company of my family, including my sister who is now back home from her sojourn abroad.

My mom and Kent left to go see some Motown concert and so it was my sister's responsibility to drive me back to the train station and also to drive there to pick up my aunt. We ended up leaving for the station about an hour earlier than we needed to because my sister wanted to get an icee, and so off we went. We passed one roadside icee place and my sister asked if I wanted to stop at this one, and since it was her that wanted the icee and not me, I said Not really, Keep driving. And so we passed this quaint little roadside icee place and my sister commented on it in a weird way - weird because it recalled similar observations I thought a week or so earlier about an icee place on Graham Avenue, not too far from my house in Brooklyn.

She said it was weird living in this town, Atlantic Highlands, that compared to suburban Northern Virginia, there was something really Americana-ish about this town and this icee stand. She said that the icee stand seemed like some relic of mid-century Americana. And it did, but I wondered what it is about icee stands with walk-up windows, how these had become points of nostalgia for both my sister and I. Earlier in the week, I had gone to the icee stand on Graham Avenue with Ben and Solomon and also remarked on the Americana qualities of that icee stand. So to hear my sister making very similar observations made me think that it must be something in either our blood, or more likely, our experience that led both of us to state these things. Thinking of this connection though, I also recalled my mom earlier in the day talking about how excited she was about this new homemade ice-cream shop in her town, and also traced that in this line of familial regard for non-chain stores selling frozen desserts.

But this search for icees turned sour as we passed two places without stopping and didn't encounter any others, and as my sister continued to miss turns we were supposed to take and drove like a little old lady. She insisted she was driving safely, but I told her there was a difference between safe and overly cautious, that the difference was that being overly cautious is not safe, that it is dangerous, and often results in accidents. As we approached the train station, the road had a speed limit of 30 and my sister was driving at close to 20 with a line of cars growing behind her, angry. Then she stops, even though there is not a stop sign because she sees some pedestrians on the side of the road who were going to cross when the traffic had passed. I asked, "What are you doing?" And the cars behind us asked the same with their horns. And of course, my sister blew up at me and said that I was harassing her, and told me I could get out of the car. Another lovely trip home.

And so, now, at the train station way earlier than I needed to be, still hungry, and nothing close by, I got out the book I had just got for fifty cents, Patrimony and started reading it.

This morning as I was shopping at the bargain clothes stores on Graham Avenue, I saw an ad encouraging customers to buy Father's Day gifts. And I realized that it was Father's Day, and also realized that this is the first time this day has come around that I am sans father; the first Father's Day since mine died last November. And I thought to Philip Roth since the book concerns his father and his death and thought it very odd, very coincidental that I would come across this book and start reading it this weekend.

This afternoon, after tanning on my roof, drunk off the sun, sausage, and Coors Light I had drank, I read on my couch more of this book and came across this passage that I think synched up well with the thoughts I had been having, that perhaps there is meaning in my seemingly unconscious decision to read this book this weekend. The passage is Philip Roth talking about how while on the way to tell his father that his father has a brain tumor, he absentmindedly gets off at the wrong exit and ends up on the road leading to the cemetery where his mother is buried, and where soon his father will also be buried; he talks about what this means:

"This time when I left the turnpike, I concentrated on my driving to be sure that I didn't mistakenly get on the road to the cemetery. There was nothing to be gained by making a habit of that, though I wasn't sorry that the day before I had taken the wrong turn. I couldn't have explained what good it had done - it hadn't been a comfort or a consolation; if anything it had only confirmed my sense of his doom - but I was still glad that I had wound up there. I wondered if my satisfaction didn't come down to the fact that the cemetery visit was narratively right: paradoxically, it had the feel of an event not entirely random and unpredictable and, in that way at least, offered a sort of strange relief from the impact of all that was frighteningly unforeseen." (74)

That is the sentiment that I found myself saying Yes, yes to - that these chance things that acquire meaning, or that had it in the first place and make you wonder if the event, if the thing really was by chance, or if it was not somehow self-willed, that it does have a nice narrative flow. That narrative flow of picking up a book by my favorite writer on Father's Day weekend about the death of his father, this on the first Father's Day after my father's death. And the act of reading this book as I ride a train through his eulogized cities, that all of this seems too perfect to be chance, that there is some order to this universe. I am not sure what that order is or how it is achieved, but its effects seem to occasionally crop up so strikingly as to make that order beyond dispute. And my sister commented on the Americana aspects of roadside icee stands and that sentiment was in my head today as I bought an icee from a Latina woman in a Spanish speaking neighborhood in Brooklyn today. She scraped the block of ice on her cart enough so to fill up a plastic cup, and poured grape syrup all over that shaved ice. I paid her a dollar and she handed me the cup with a straw, and the sweetness of that grape syrup and the coldness of that shaved ice felt so fucking good, so fucking right.

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