Wednesday, July 11, 2007

“Railroad Train to Heaven”, Part Seven: half a life


Arnold Schnabel closed out the first notebook of his memoir with this entry. He would still have been in Cape May at this time, with his mother, staying in the rickety Victorian boarding house of his three maiden aunts, the Misses Schneider. The year was 1963, the time of the year was summer.

(Click here to review our previous chapter.)

Since the previously-related incident I have had an interesting thought, i.e., what if I never go back to work? After all, I’ve been working full-time since I was fourteen, and except for my three years in the army I’ve been on the railroad since I was seventeen. What if I simply continue this indefinite leave-of-absence? I was a mere cog in the mighty machine that is the Reading Railroad, they won’t miss a pittance like the half-salary they’re giving me, and besides, I could take an early retirement anyway and get nearly as much for my pension. Is it wrong of me to think this way? Is it my duty as a Catholic to work, even if Mother and I can easily get by on my half-pay and my savings?     
Does writing this memoir count as work?     
To be honest the thought of working at any sort of job fills me with a sort of dread, whereas the thought of continuing my present idle existence fills me if not with joy then at least an almost complete absence of dread, if an absence of something can be said to be capable of filling something. And I think this can be said. I have filled most of my life with absences. The absence of friendship. The absence of romantic love. The absence of sex. The absence of marriage and children. The absence of meaning. I could go on all day adding to my litany of nothingnesses.     
But now I feel this something entering my life which before was not there. After the events of the past year I know well that this something could simply be another stage of insanity, perhaps one from which there is no return. But for some reason I am not afraid. Perhaps I am not afraid because I am already insane, or I should say insane again, although certainly nowhere nearly as far gone as when I had to be taken to Byberry.     
So, that’s settled, for now. Back to my memoir.     
I was born in a section of Philadelphia called Swampoodle, in the shade of Shibe Park. My parents were German immigrants, with little education. My earliest years were poor but bearable, but then came the Depression. My father lost his factory job. I had two brothers and a sister, all younger than me. For two years we were always hungry. Then at last my father got work at the Heintz metalworks in the Olney neighborhood. We moved into one of the plain new rowhomes right across the street from the factory. The area seemed positively bucolic after the grimy old streets of Swampoodle. This was a good move for my father because now he could simply walk across the street to work. My father was a stoker. All he did was shovel coal into an enormous hellish furnace, hour after hour, all day long. He was a bull, a beast of burden, and he knew it, and he accepted it. He found solace for this purgatory of a life in food, cigarettes, and beer, most importantly beer. He would inhale two quarts of Ortlieb’s beer on his lunch hour, and after work he would drink beer until he fell into his deep snoring sleep, only to wake up and do it all over again. One day in 1935 he didn’t wake up.     
I quit school and went to work. I helped the milkman deliver milk in the mornings in his horse-drawn wagon, then I sold newspapers on the street for the rest of the day. When I was seventeen my Uncle Hans got me onto the railroad, and there I stayed. In 1942 I volunteered for the army, even though my job on the railroad and my status as primary breadwinner for my siblings and mother exempted me from the draft. Because of my trade I was put into the engineers, and I never saw combat, although I served all through the long campaign from Normandy to Berlin. After the war I returned to my job as a brakeman for the Reading.     
My siblings got married and left home but I did not. I worked, I ushered at St. Helena’s church, I volunteered for parish and diocesan activities. I had taken up boxing in the army and for many years I coached a CYO boxing team.     
Oh, I forgot to mention the poems. In 1938, when I was eighteen or so I wrote a poem and sent it in to the Olney Times. It was a bad poem, but the Olney Times published it anyway, I suppose because it was very sentimental and simple, or maybe they just had space to fill. The next week I wrote another poem and sent it in, and they published it as well. And so on. I have published a poem a week in the Olney Times every week of my life since. That’s twenty-five years. That’s roughly 1,300 poems, nearly every one of them utter nonsense, but it’s a habit now, like my cigarettes and my Manhattans and beer, and I can’t quit.     
They call me the Rhyming Brakeman. There was an article about me a few years ago in the Philadelphia Bulletin. The article, like my poems, was nonsense, full of my dull platitudes, presenting myself as some sort of noble workingman artist, when the truth was that I was an odd fellow, living with his mother, fearful of life, living half a life or less while others all around him lived full lives.     
However, even into the dullest life a little luridness may fall, and so it has been with mine. I have had my shameful moments, just about all of them under the influence of alcohol, but I would be lying if I said these moments were solely due to the alcohol. Perhaps I will cover some of this swampy ground later. Perhaps not.     
Then I went insane, which was actually the most interesting thing I’ve ever done. Not that there was anything willful about it, so perhaps I should say it was the most interesting thing that ever “happened” to me. Leaving me having never done anything very interesting at all, unless you call the thirteen hundred poems interesting, and I suppose the fact that I wrote and published that many poems is slightly interesting even if the poems themselves were not, are not, will never be.     
So much for my memoir. I’ve now succeeded in boring even myself with my own story. But there must be something of interest I can relate from this lifetime of nothingness.     
There must be something.    
But nothing comes to mind right now.

(But you know Arnold will come up with something. Go to Part Eight to find out what. For links to the other episodes of Railroad Train to Heaven, and to his many wonderful poems, go to the right hand column of this page.)

And now a brief word from the Rooftop Singers. Please be sure to appreciate their groovy outfits and hairstyles:

3 comments:

Reggie said...

You go for it, Arnold.

Francis said...

Somehow I think that Arnold is headed for some new awful disaster.

Matt Menos said...

Half a life is better than none--or maybe not, I forget non-life, age related symptom I guess.