We used to go fishing on the Shinnycock Canal. That's how Uncle Buddy pronounced it. On the piers there my old man taught me a lesson, that music comes out of silence and returns to silence. Silence is another part of music. Just like his anger when it burst out of a seeming calm and returned to it once he'd finished flexing his jaw around his tongue. When the vein in his temple throbbed it looked like a worm was wriggling around inside his head.
In school, we would read about such things in science textbooks, how lava cools into magma. There were many memorable words in those books, I liked the sounds of them, words like feldspar, porphyry, and schist, even if I forgot exactly what they meant, or how they were formed.
Our science teacher was a lifeguard in the summer, a short tough guy we all looked up to. He'd seen a shark take a man's leg, he told us, and pulled too many drunks out of the sea to count. He may have been an adult but he still got as excited as a kid when we went hunting mineral specimens on class field trips to Wading River and Oyster Bay. It was pathetic the way we followed him around like goslings, boys and girls alike, single file, over the moraine down to the beach.
My father was indifferent to geology. Rocks were inert. Sometimes in the fall we'd watch storms battle to the southeast, over the roiled-up Atlantic, and decide to stay on the bay. He'd reach into a pail of live bait and put on a grimace, pretending he'd been bitten or had caught a hook in his hand. He took pleasure in scaring my friends and me. It was a lesson -- boys weren't allowed to be frightened of worms or a pail full of fish guts in front of their fathers. Mostly it was boring, standing around waiting for the fish to bite, watching him and his cronies horse around.
These days rich people live on the bluffs above the beach west of the canal. Their money makes so much money that they can buy culture readymade. And, being cultured people, they crave an authentic taste of the lost local folkways, romanticizing the lives of the fishermen who used to cast for stripers and blues in the surf beneath the dunes that now hide their mansions. They really don't give a shite what happened to those guys. The fishermen were too busy to claim a lifestyle for themselves. They had a way of making a living, and now it's gone. Buddy's long dead and his sons have moved away. As they themselves would've said, fuck it.
We clambered around glacial deposits and barrier islands with our rucksacks, picks and shovels. Even back then, the effin Island was disappearing under development, its ticky-tack suburbs advertised as a good place to raise middle-class children, the ocean and the sound always nearby, the traffic on Moses' parkways not yet murderous. In my teens I lost interest, thinking that the Island was nowhere near as exciting as the big city it was attached to. That's where real culture existed, folk music and poetry readings, museum exhibitions and concert halls. And that big library on Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street, even more impressive than the Main Branch of the Queens Library in Jamaica. A building that solid, that important, had to house important things. Protected by lions no less.
I had crossed the border into a different country, riding the Bee Line from Stop Twenty to the 179th Street subway station. The Belt Parkway divided the two countries -- the flat Kingdom of Sand from the towering Republic of Concrete. Once you entered Queens Village your life was in your hands, ripe for reinvention. Or so I thought. I had entered multiplicity, the seat of Whitman's democracy, a place I could be more alone than anywhere else in the world, built on granite, of seeming permanence, where silence existed only as a part of music. That was forty effin years ago and I'm still here.