Interviewsand Articles


Upward Mobility

by Ron Hobbs, Jul 7, 2012



Timothy grew up on the wrong side of the railroad tracks; he lived on the West side, which was the wrong side of town because it was where the prevailing winds dumped the black sooty smoke of passing locomotives. The way the wind blew also determined certain prevailing socio-economic attitudes: there were the clean, country-clubbing, martini-sipping High Caucasians on the East side, and the dirty lot of beer-guzzling, fist-fighting mongrels breaking chairs over heads at the Blue Goose Tavern on the West side.
      On the West side, the railroads directly affected daily life. On Monday, which was wash day, the women knew when old number 8, "The Creole," would blow its stack and they hung no white sheets on the clothesline until the cloud had passed. The men awakened at 6:05 every morning to go to work, thanks to the proud, sharp wail of "The Panama Limited" as it split the town in two at a fabulous sixty miles an hour.
      From the old railroaders, Tim and the other west-side kids learned "whistle talk," the secret language of trains, spoken by blasts short and long, or by a dramatic whine—so bold at first and then thinning to a thread in the frosty, starry night.

In hard times, which were frequent, whole families walked down to the switching yards with buckets in their hands. As the boxcars bumped together, chunks of coal spilled from the gondolas. One had to move quickly and pay attention. If you think that five miles an hour isn't fast, wait until you're thirty feet away from 20 tons of coal rolling toward you in a big steel wagon. There was risk involved, but if you kept your head there was also reward. Of course, it was something that East-siders wouldn’t ever do. If they pilfered, it was by cleaner means—by fountain pen, one of the old railroaders had said, though Tim wasn’t sure what that meant.
      Tim became friends with two boys his age who lived on the East side, Kip Cohen and Alonzo Bardolino. The Cohens lived in a large Colonial Revival manse set on a five-acre lot. Lonnie Bardolino lived with his parents and two older sisters in a sprawling American Ranch Style house. The grounds were not ostentatious like the Cohens’, but they had a swimming pool and a tennis court.
      Tim recognized then, at the age of nine, that more than train tracks separated them. The distance was wider than the Mississippi, maybe two Mississippis.
      Kip's father barely acknowledged Tim; the few times that he did he was cool and dismissive. Clearly he preferred that his refined and pampered son should not associate with ragamuffins.
      Mrs. Bardolino was conciliatory and once went so far as to say to Tim, "You know, the people who live a mile east of us consider us to be west-siders." But Tim found little consolation in words that dangled from a diamond tennis bracelet.
      Tim's grandmother strongly disapproved of the boys running together. "One is a Jew and Jews don't even believe in God. The other one is an I-talian Catholic and they pray to statues and are run by the pope."
Tim liked to go downtown on Saturdays and watch people, but his favorite thing was to go to the First National Bank building. It was an astonishing six stories high, the tallest in all the towns around—and it was the only one that had an elevator.
      Miss Brenda, an old bent, brown woman, was the attendant. She wore a red hat with a fake yellow flower in it, a blue, white-aproned dress and black patent leather shoes. When Tim came to the elevator, he always waited until she said, "Going up" before he entered the car, and then he would say, "Six, please."
      Miss Brenda had two lines in the play: "Going up" and "Going down." She delivered them without flaw and on cue, and Tim rehearsed his lines, "Six, please" and "Thank you."
      Arriving at the sixth floor, Tim would walk the flights down to One and repeat the process until Miss Brenda ran him off or locked her cage and went on break. Tim enjoyed the interplay, but mostly he liked that first lurch of the car, and that whooshy feeling that comes to the stomach on the upward rush.
Visiting the Cohens and the Bardolinos was exciting for Tim; he had never seen such things as they owned. One of the things at the Cohens’ was a pair of silver grape scissors.
     "Grape scissors?"
     He swished the words around in his mouth a few times. Grape scissors were beyond his comprehension. The idea that such an object existed in this world seemed absurd, let alone that it should be made of silver. When he noticed the strange device on Mrs. Cohen's table and asked her what it was and she told him, he burst right out laughing! Mrs. Cohen and the boys stared and shared quick glances, as if the lad had gone suddenly mad.
Tim was walking home, and for the first time ever, he felt shame about the house where he grew up. It was shabby even by west-side standards where the bar was set low. He had been wowed by the Cohens and the Bardolinos, by their art-work, fine silver, swimming pool, their German cars and even by their silver grape scissors.
      Turning the corner on Old Kell Road, he could see the old unpainted house, the broken front-porch banister and the sad yellowing evergreens that they had set out just last year to dress the old place up. But the trees couldn't take the soil; they sickened and came down with bagworms. The crisp green branches that his mother had been so proud of on planting day drooped now.
      As he looked at the shambled house he felt shamed, and lapsed into comparisons: the Cohens have this, the Bardolinos have that. A monstrous envy was building, like a lump of lead lodging in his throat.
      Then he remembered something else. He felt how warm it would be inside the house, how there would be biscuits and gravy and a pork chop waiting. He wiped his hands on the corduroy vest his mother had made, and it came to him that Kip’s mother had never cut from a pattern or made him a vest. All of Kip’s clothes came from a store. Lonnie's mother didn't know a clothesline from an ironing board and never even listened when the trains passed through town.
      Their dads, well maybe they did have some piece of the world by the tail that they could wave around. Maybe they could pull a string of endless colored scarves from their sleeves and amaze their guests.
      Standing right in front of the house, the house whose mortgage was less than the price of a brand new Oldsmobile, Tim tucked in his shirt and buttoned his vest.
      When he opened the door, he went directly to his room. Opening the closet and hanging up his vest, he realized how similar in shape and size the little room was to Miss Brenda's elevator car. Shifting a few things around, putting some old clothes and toys into boxes, he transformed the closet into an elevator.
      He stood in the doorway feeling the suspense. It was like watching a play when you have no idea of what is coming next. Then he took his vest off the hanger and put it on again, closed the door, drew a pretend cage gate from left to right, moved an imaginary lever.
      The closet lurched and that whooshy feeling that comes to the stomach on the upward rush returned. Both above and below the scabbed old house, invisible to everyone but Tim, there were floors, levels, palaces, hovels, countries, worlds and universes waiting to be explored.

About the Author

Ron Hobbs, now a San Francisco poet, was active in the New York poetry scene in the 1960s.


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