Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Woods

Got a nice jolt from the New York Sanitation Department yesterday. Monday (and Thursday) is garbage pick-up day in my area, and sure enough, on Friday I went out and swept up a shitload of leaves. I’m talking four garbage bags each over the past two weeks. (Before October, I usually fill up one bag every two weeks.) The garbage crew picked up last week’s bags, no problem. Yesterday, they just sat there. The landlord was freaking out: “A-Billy, why they no take the leaves? I pay my taxes. I pay A LOT of taxes. Why they no take the leaves?”

Of course, I didn’t know … until she showed me a flyer she had stuffed in her doorway from the week before. A notice from the NYC Department of Sanitation stating that for the next few weeks, through early December, there would only be two pick-up days for leaves, and the leaves had to be deposited in special biodegradable paper bags they were supposedly giving out (I haven’t seen any), or you could buy them at a designated list of hardware/department stores. Any leaves in any other type of bag (you know, like the black plastic kind that are sold as such in supermarkets all over the country and recognized as such by sanitation departments all over the country, too) would not be collected during this time period.

What a screw job. I’m bagging four loads every week the past few weeks – I’ll do roughly the same amount this weekend, as we had near tsunami conditions on Saturday that brought down another ton of leaves. Come their first pick up in mid-November, I’m going to have literally about 20 of those disposable paper bags of leaves. These assholes don’t seem to realize the sidewalk running along my landlord’s property is like some bizarre leaf graveyard. Must be the configuration of the buildings and the wind patterns, but it tends to collect a lot of leaves, and not just from her trees. And as she’s learned the hard way, if I don’t clean them up in a timely manner, she stands to be fined $100 for starters.

So, later today, I’ll check out K Mart in Manhattan and see if I can track down these assholic paper bags. Guess we’ll have to store them in her little tool shed, too, as I imagine the bags will come apart in the rain. What a load of shit. Really – the amount people pay in property taxes around here, and the city is pulling nonsense like this.

It’s a bit easier back in Pennsylvania. Last year, brother J, who had let the leaves go for a bit in November, simply got out a day or two before Thanksgiving, swept up what must have been about eight or nine pick-up truck loads of leaves (an unbelievable amount) and dumped them in a strange non-restricted area between the graveyard on the hill and the township building on the edge of the woods. Seeing as how we didn’t know if this was legal or not (we’ve since learned that it is), every time we saw a car anywhere near the cemetery, we held out breath. We shouldn’t have. If I’d seen two pissed-off looking guys in a pick-up truck engaged in what could have been a questionable dumping practice, I’d pretty much leave them alone and get the hell away from them.

I’m not complaining about the practice of raking up leaves – I love doing this. Any sort of finite manual labor that isn’t an every-day occurrence is really a pleasurable, zen-like experience. A job is put in front of you. You do it. You do it well. It keeps you occupied and gives your body a tolerable workout. And when you’re done, you can look back over what you’ve done and see you’ve made a huge difference. How many things in life are that straightforward? And with New York, it keeps me connected to the land in a very real way: I’m made privy to nature at work and have to clean up after it. I gather a lot of apartment dwellers here lose that association, if they ever had it, and if you ask me, it fucks up their heads (albeit just another bullet point on a very long list).

I’ve been reading a book recently on the West Memphis 3 – those poor-ass kids in Arkansas in the early 90s who got railroaded into child murder charges based on the fact that they were simply weird outsider kids toying with witchcraft and such, and paid a heavy price for not knowing their rights and dealing with what must be a truly foul judicial system in that state. I don’t like the author’s bent – from the get-go, she clearly positions the wacky father of one of the kids as a more deserving suspect, although from what I know of the case, there’s not much to suggest that he was guilty of anything either, save being weird, stupid and trashy. But the kids were clearly railroaded. It seems that the town they were killed in is a major crossroads in the south, with tons of interstate and drug traffic, the place the kids were killed just a few hundred yards from truck stops and such, so who knows what really happened.

What does this have to do with leaves? Well, not much, save the kids were killed in one of those odd wooded areas sandwiched between rural development and an interstate highway, called Robin Hood’s woods by the kids. And I can deeply relate to how those kids who were killed must have felt about that place, even though on a map it appears to take up less than a quarter of mile. This was the place where young kids would play army, or cowboys and indians, or hide-and-seek, or simply sit around telling ghost stories. It was far enough away from home that they felt isolated, and close enough that they could run through the woods and be home in a matter of minutes. I’m sure older kids would congregate there, too, late at night, to drink in the woods, get high, construct the legend of their teenage outlaw world, revel in that sense of being alone in the woods at night. Pretty damn convenient, too – as stated, far enough away to feel isolated from the adult world, close enough to make a mad dash and be back in civilization.

I liked growing up with that sense of woods. We always played there as kids, just seemed like more of an adventure. The few times we’d see adults in those woods, it always felt odd. If they weren’t hunters, the immediate thought was, “What the hell are you doing in here?” Only kids went into the woods, where they’d engage in some fantastical world, or at least revel in the fact that we were far away from the watchful eyes of adults. Of course, we’d never go into the woods at night – it just seemed too frightening and risky. Even now I’d have to ask myself what anyone is doing in the woods at night – unless they're camping, there’s just no reason to be there that can be any good.

One set of woods we had (it’s still there) was surrounding the cemeteries on the hill, leading into a very large ridge – that part of Pennsylvania is all ridges and valleys, the ridges not quite high enough to be mountains, but high enough to be a daunting hike. We’d climb “the mountain” usually about once a year, and it was always a thrill to stand at the top of the ridge and look down on our small town. The climb generally took about an hour – I know guys who hunt who make these sort of climbs all the time, and I gather part of the attraction of hunting is simply getting out in the woods like kids do and enjoying that same sense of liberation. We’d find weird shit up there – kites we had lost the previous spring, organized rock formations that looked like barriers from the civil war, etc. It was taboo to head down the other side, which contained mined coal veins, thus the potential to fall into deep pits and holes that could be deadly. Besides which, and this always freaked me out, a town that we had to take a fairly serpentine route to via the highway was just over the opposite side of our ridge. It didn’t make any sense in my child’s mind, although a simple look at a map would have shown me this. This is where the phrase “as the crow flies” started making sense to me. Although the only time I saw crows, they were sitting on wooden-post fences or eating roadkill on the highway.

The other woods were on the other side of town: Scoutland. Named so because it had once been a wooded area that the Boy Scouts used for their training. (Never went for the Boy Scouts – seemed kind of pointless, and we all thought the uniforms were gay. By the same token, kids who did go for the Scouts had a mind-blowing sense of how to survive in the woods that most of us never really had as country kids.) This area was enormous, at least a few square miles, filled with bicycle and mini-bike trails, with a few decrepit log cabins and a water house over a spring pouring fresh water into a stream. Really a fantastical place for kids – we’d spend a lot of time there riding bikes and such. I gather kids, for the most part, are rarely allowed to roam that free these days. But our parents were glad to get us out of their hair for a good few hours, and if they needed us, they knew they could drive over to Scoutland, park at the entrance, yell out our names, and we’d come riding out on our 21-inch, banana-seat Huffies.

I can only imagine how devastating it would have been to have one or a few of us molested and/or killed in a place like Scoutland – and it would have been easy enough to have happened. Again, kids go to these places for that sense of isolation from adults, to create their own world in the woods. Most of this involved bicycles. I can still recall Brother J and I, and a few other kids, playing Evil Knievel on the porch of one of those abandoned cabins. The idea was to pedal like crazy down the 30-foot long porch, ride off the edge and gracefully glide down to the flat drop-off gully about eight feet below, landing perfectly like Evil would in his Elvis-style jumpsuit and cape. Well, J was the first go. I’ll never forget the site of him on his bike, careening off the edge of the porch, suspended in mid-air momentarily, then him and the bike dropping like a rock out of sight, the sound of a huge crash and grunt, running over, and seeing J on his back, bike on top of him in a tangled wreck. Needless to say, no one ever tried that again.

I never participated in the following, because my parents (wisely) never allowed me to have a BB gun, but a bunch of the kids in our neighborhood growing up got in the habit of having killing contests in Scoutland with birds and squirrels – simply who could shoot the most with their BB guns. This was pretty reprehensible stuff, and even if I had BB gun, I don’t think I would have gone for this, as my parents taught me never to kill anything unless you were going to eat it. But that’s how kids were back then, and a lot of the guys had kill counts in the dozens. I’m surprised none of them have gone onto Jeffrey Dahmer-style infamy, as killing small animals in this fashion is one of those hallmarks used to identify psycho killers.

Teenagers have a much more devious view of the woods, but I think the concept of escape is still the same. I think one of the biggest differences between child and adulthood is that sense of escape. As an adult, you ask yourself, where am I escaping to – there really is nowhere to escape, whatever I’m doing with my life, it’s going to follow me to whatever or wherever I escape to, and chances are, this new place might not be any better than where I’m at now. But as a kid, you escape all the time, and that sense of leaving behind the world you’d known is very real and seems like a logical choice. The simple act of running when you’ve done something wrong. We broke the window. Run! They’ll never know it was us if we run away! We can escape our fate! (Of course, who the fuck else is going to be responsible for a broken window when minutes earlier there was a bunch of kids playing baseball, and there’s a baseball in the living room that just came through the window. But kids don’t possess that sort of rational view of the world.)

I’ve been to a few drinking parties in the woods, but avoided them for the most part, because they were easy targets for the cops to bust. One, some kid would be blasting, say AC/DC or Ozzy, from his car stereo, two, you’d have a lot of drunk and/or stoned kids yelling and making way too much noise. Again, kids seem to think they’ve escaped the world, not realizing they’re only a few hundred yards from someone’s backyard, and that someone is getting pissed off that kids are partying at midnight in the woods again. I never knew if it was a case that the kids were so dumb they didn’t realize they were being so loud and obvious, or if they secretly wanted to be caught by the cops.

And strange shit would sometimes happen in the woods. There’s the oft-told story of a high-school acquaintance of mine, KN, who killed himself at a party in the woods. He had been depressed over losing his girlfriend, was at this party in the woods, uttered was then the enigmatic word“Cheeseballs,” then shot himself in the head with a handgun. (Please note: lots of kids who partied in the woods when I was growing up came from families of hunters and would have easy access to all sort of firearms, which they’d sometimes take with them to parties in the woods. Last people on earth I’d want to deal with are stoned teenagers with guns.) I learned recently that “cheeseballs” was a pet name he used for his ex-girlfriend, thus the last word out of his mouth. Like finding out what Citizen Kane meant with “rosebud.” For years, very few people knew that about KN, and thought the guy had simply lost his mind. Now we know it was a broken heart, and bad combination of alcohol and a loaded gun.

A girl a few grades behind me got run over when she was stoned and lying behind a car that accidentally backed up over her. Popped her eyes out and broke her legs.

Neighbor JB got shot in the neck as a teenager while hunting with a bunch of friends, apparently all drunk, one of them mistaking him for a deer. I can still recall my mother telling me this and immediately assuming he was dead. But he lived, very luckily did not bleed to death, and has lifelong stitches on his neck to remind him of this strange, unfortunate event.

Brother M got shot on the back of hand while walking in the woods in broad daylight during small-game season in the fall. I can still recall the large red, bloody lump – it appeared he has just been grazed. But you have to wonder what kind of asshole would shoot at a sound in the woods, and not an actual form of an animal he should have in his sights – but these are the perils of being in the woods during hunting season.

Another kid, this a former classmate in his mid-20s, was partying with a bunch of teenagers in coal-hole stretch of woods, much like the dangerous other side of the ridge in my town, fell down a hole when the cops came to chase him and the gang, broke his neck and died. I remember reading this and thinking, “Buddy, what were you doing in the woods getting drunk with a bunch of teenagers?” At that age, it made no sense to me, and makes even less sense now, when the guy should have been in any number of local bars legally drinking with adults.

There are plenty more stories like this involving the woods, and none of them are told with any sense of macho pride or world weariness. I know what it’s like now to bury loved ones, and that’s a different set of very real emotions as compared to these wayward stories of youthful indiscretions that end up in close calls or sometimes even death. The woods. Even when I’m sweeping up leaves in Queens, I can still feel them around me.

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