The Forgotten Four: An American Retrospective (Pt.4)
"It was mid-August, and the static heat of the earlier months had turned into a balmy breeze. In two short weeks, I would begin living in Poughkeepsie. Soon I would be trading beach days for books and seafood for studies. Though I always found the end of summer a depressing notion, at least in my early adulthood I could begin to accept it. My last day at the Jersey Shore was spent in Collingswood, the home of the greatest little flea market in the state. Refurbished from an old drive-in, this place was a Mos Eisley Cantina of characters. There were veterans, elderly gay couples, Chinese healers, old men who never grew out of the 1950’s, immigrants and more. It was a melting pot of all types of people, all bound in the same goal of making a quick buck. Race, religion, and creed didn’t matter, everyone was equal in the eyes of their mission" ~Doerr
Part 4: The Veteran
Sometimes you just see something unforgettable. Something that, if you were to close your eyes, you could see perfectly every single time. It never leaves your mind. It stays with you for what seems like an eternity. Sadly, this is the last part of my series, the last story of diversity. My previous works all kept within a similar theme, with each person expanding on the struggles and adversity they faced due to their color or creed. This is not one of those stories, rather, it’s the story of a world beyond. It’s a story of old white men, of Hispanic immigrants, of black families. Of harmony.
“It’s seven bucks, but if you take Tunnel of Love I’ll make it ten for both.”
I hesitated, I was barely listening. After all, this was Bruce Springsteen on vinyl.
Finally, I turned around to the man who was speaking to me. He was roughly thirty years old. He wore a long beard but no mustache. He had dreadlocks but was balding in the front. His thick, horn-rimmed glasses only served to highlight the paleness of his blue eyes, contrasting from the grey Metallica shirt he wore, stained with what was presumably that morning’s breakfast.
Instinctually, my hand went for my brown Superman wallet. Say what you will about being impulsive, sometimes it pays off. Sometimes you find something special and have to buy it. Tunnel of Love was just an add-on. What I really wanted was The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle vinyl, which I gladly would have paid ten dollars for, with or without the other disc. This album had always had a special place in my heart, highlighting the beach and cruise culture that I was exposed to as a kid spending his summers at the Jersey Shore. It made me feel close to Bruce, it made me feel close the highway side heroes, all in their fifties and sixties now, who used to cruise up and down the strips that span between the beaches and lines of surf shops and restaurants.
But from the Sunset Strip to the streets of Asbury, cruise culture had gone by the wayside. Even George Lucas’ American Graffiti, the end-all-be-all tribute to cruise and racing, was past its time when it hit screens back in ’73.
Where at one point the night air was filled with the screams of modified engines and the hollers of teens who’d come for miles to watch two-lane street races, there now was nothing to fill the deafening silence in the beach air. The last true generation of cruisers still exists, but they’re aging now. But in some shoddy bars, old drive-ins, and flea markets, these people still exist, simply waiting for their times to come again. Waiting for what seemed like endless summer nights to return their youth.
So yes, The Wild was more than just a record to me.
“Do you want anything else? Comic books? Wrestling memorabilia? Star Wars TV guides? I can give you a ton of the ones from ’99 for real cheap.”
I shook my head and thanked him, I had what I wanted. Slowly I made my way out of the little stall, through waves and waves of curiosity after curiosity. Textiles, guitars, African sculpture, Nazi uniforms recovered from the Second World War, if there was something that a person could want, it was at Collingswood. The difficulty was wading through seas of junk to find it.
Finally, I made it to the little food shack in the center of the indoor section and sat down at the bar. In the 1950s, the seats and furniture would have cost a fortune.
But there I was, happy as could be, taking an inventory of my haul. In one hour and roughly forty dollars, I had found a medley of treasures.
There was an old stage combat rapier, its handle barely connected to the rotting wood of its pommel. There was a stack of silver aged comic books about a foot high. There was a handful of old cigarette lighters I planned on restoring, all with different themes such as hot rods or pin-up girls. There was a Polaroid photo of an old man and young child that I had found on the ground, I couldn’t help but feel obliged to pick it up.
But the most important thing was the record in my hands. Straight off the presses from September of 1973. I had to look at it, check it for cracks. As I slipped it out of its casing, a wrinkled hand came from behind me and gently felt the grooves of the ebony disc.
“He was wiping crumbs, ya know.”
I just turned around and looked at the man in silence for a moment, thinking that he was talking to somebody else at the little bar.
“From the side of his mouth, he was wiping crumbs. Do you understand what I am saying to you boy?”
I finally put it all together when he pointed to my vinyl, the cover of the album was Bruce Springsteen touching his mustache.
“It ain’t no photoshoot or set up thing, somebody just snapped a photograph of him at a diner.”
Now I could get a good look at the man. He had to be at least ninety years old, short and frail. On his head was a cap that said, “WWII Veteran.” His brown suspenders were loose over his red flannel shirt, tucked into a pair of cheap slacks.
“Boy, I know everything about every record ever. That how I stopped being called Blackie. I didn’t mind the name, suited me fine. But you’re not the first kid to walk around this dump buying up records. Seems I know a fact about every single one.”
He said this with a puffed up pride in his chest as if he was telling me about some award he had won.
I finally built up the courage to open my mouth and speak to him. In my defense, it was a lot to take in. I asked him what his name was now, and why it stopped being “Blackie.”
“Well, a couple of the good ole boys outside noticed how I walk around here and point out things on all the covers. Then one of them says, ‘hey there Blackie, you know so much ‘bout records cause ya be lookin’ like one?’ So I said alright.”
I knew where he was going with this. During our encounter, I had noticed how the wrinkles on his face seemed to curve in a circle around his mouth. As if he had been perpetually smiling or perpetually frowning. No middle ground.
“So, I said to the boys, ‘shit you damn right. I’m black and full of lines.’ And from then, my name was LP.”
He then let out a breathy chuckle. I asked him if he was fine with this. Fine with being known (twice) solely by the color of his skin.
“Look around you dummy. There ain’t no ni**as and crackers here. No s***k or c***k. We’re all one race here, and that race is dirt poor, tryna make a dollar quick.”
With that, he hobbled off and began to talk to other people walking up and down the corridors of the market. It’s February now, and I haven’t seen him in six months. Hopefully, when the summer sun is high over Collingswood, I’ll see him hobbling from table to table. In hindsight, he was right. Sometimes desperation and marginalization create its own race of people. A race of people who don’t have much but make the best of what they have. Each other.