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Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir

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Chapter OneIn
nineteen question-mark question-mark my silent grandfather came to
the United States.
He
left the hot chatty island of Barbados and because he existed in
silence no one knows when he came. He came for shade. To drink
tea-colored liquor we poured out, that scoured the tin sink. To
watch every Saturday, as he did until he died, American cartoons
like Rocky & Bullwinkle. He came to father my silent
mother and find an America that seemed less like a place than an
anti-place, a not-Barbados, not-Europe, not Asia or Africa, not
meals of boiled monkey and coocoo or potatoes rotted bitter
and Argus-eyed in the ground. Not this, not that.
My
grandfather succeeded because silence succeeds. It can't be argued
against. It is the last word.
My
grandfather, Louis Cassill, came from an Anglophone island to an
English-speaking country, where people were like radios that
couldn't be turned off. I think he would have preferred a place
that babbled nonsense in his ears. He sat alone and kept his pale
amphibian eyes averted. He slammed the door in the faces of
solicitors and Jehovah's Witnesses and Latter-Day Saints. He
avoided even hellos and goodbyes, first cousins of
speech.
On
the other side of my family, the Antonettas, my greatgrandparents
came with no English and an Italian dialect only people from the
same group of villages could understand. They floated in the
bubbles of their own thought,leaving behind tenant farming,
earthquakes and cholera. They came because people in that part of
Italy had begun coming to the U.S. to work, sending money home,
planning to return to Italy, as the U.S. began pocking its face
with factories and blowing into its air the hard breath of day
labor.
My
grandfather on this side put the television on when he woke up in
the morning and didn't turn it off till he went to sleep. He didn't
change channels much and when I saw him the TV always followed a
natural and inevitable evolutionary path, daytime soaps to news to
sitcoms and talk shows. My grandfather, whose name was Rafael and
who everyone called Ralph, floated against a backdrop of daylit
people dramatically fighting and cheating and falling into each
other's arms again, and then bland, real murder and exploding
Vietnamese villages at twilight, and nervous taped bizarrely
repetitive laughter at night. Rafael called Ralph moved in front of
that like a character in an old movie pretending to drive in front
of a flat unrolling landscape. He only read papers like the
Weekly World News and the Star and never understood
much about what was going on in the world.
My
aunt Philomena told me once that when my greatgrandfather came here
he'd heard of the streets paved with gold and had no idea of the
metaphor involved; he took a boat, steerage on a steamer, and
emerged from the underdecks, from the Ellis Island ferry, to stare
horrified? disgruntled? unsurprised really? at the disappointing
asphalt of New York. He went, an older man, to Brooklyn, where my
West Indian grandfather would soon arrive. My Cassill grandfather
came with a mother who fled debt and a bad reputation. He talked
about this country, when he did, as open space.
"New
Jersey was a cow pasture then" he'd say irritatedly. "There was
nothing at Holly Park. Nothing."
He
had little feeling for nature—I never knew him to go outside
without a reason, like fixing the well—but he resented the
arrival to any place of human beings other than himself. In spite
of that he had children.
Neither man could pass up the chance to breed American
children, American progeny.




I
started keeping a diary when I was eleven. Someone had given me the
diary of Anne Frank, with its foreword by Eleanor Roosevelt, and
the book infected me with audience. I had always written for
myself, plays and poems and stories: a weakness bred into me by my
soft life in America. Now I pictured girls propped up with my book
in their lap. Presidents' wives, bored, crusading. This audience
changed my voice. I move from entries like


And
white lipstick is a must


to
what must have seemed the closest I could come to literary English,
the strained diction of my English grandmother, the woman who
married my West Indian grandfather.




My
aunt Philomena, my father's sister, tells a story about running up
to her grandmother's apartment, on the top floor of the brownstone
where three generations of the family lived in Brooklyn, to borrow
an onion. She asked for it in English.
"SHE-pole, SHE-pole," my greatgrandmother screamed
furiously—"onion" in their dialect—and flapped her
hands to indicate she didn't understand my aunt, didn't speak a
word of English.
"Oh,
you're a stupid old woman" my aunt said, in English, whereon my
greatgrandmother yelled downstairs in Italian that Philomena had
just called her a stupid old woman.
My
Cassill grandfather would have done the same thing, if he could
possibly have pretended that Barbados was a non-English-speaking
island. As it was, he had a field around him that bounced off
conversation.
A
photographed fish: crystal. A choice phone. A fish made of crystal
listing with love. Beauty breasted. Hopeful.
O
rose thou are sweet, charmed, soft.
O
rose thou art pawed.
My
earliest diary, from the year I turned eleven, has a cover of
plastic faux leopard skin, very 1960s. I must have had a strong
sense of my words as type, because I wrote for a while in the
closest writing I could manage to a plain typeface like
Universe—the uncoordinated eleven-year-old version—even
slanting some words very far to the right, one letter at a time, to
indicate I wanted them to be italic.
My
leopard diary had a key. I remember it: tiny and delicate and
lovely slipping the little tumblers of its lock. I kept it in a
place so secret I can't remember, and when I found the diary a
quarter century later (stuffed in some old boxes) I had to cut the
strap binding it shut with scissors. I'd kept it locked against my
parents—who would have read it and seen no irony in punishing
me for invasions of their privacy—and my brother and my
friends. Nervous of the Word. So I carefully turned the little lock
every night and hid both key and diary though I clearly saw the
diary as in some ways a public thing. I wrote from both angles: the
fiction that I wrote for myself only
It
may have been the fantasy that I had a friend desperate to
understand me. Or maybe I'd already learned to split myself off
into the self and the critic—the one who acts and the one who
watches, giving no quarter, too indifferent even to
remember.
Both
sides of my family had elaborate silences, mantras of unspeech:
You don't talk about it. You didn't talk about it then.
Disease. Death. Wrongdoing. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
could hoof us under without our protest. My uncle Vito, an
ex-prizefighter with a sixth-grade education, bought an old garbage
truck and arranged a route on Long Island where garbage collection
was a Mob business.
"First comes the phone calls," my aunt remembers. This voice:
`They'll find you face down in the East River.'
"Then they started to talk about the kids. Then comes this big
black car, parked in front of the house, just sittin there, every
morning."
My
uncle sold the truck. I heard the story thirty years later, my aunt
Phil (my beloved aunt) susurrating in my ear. You don't talk
about it, not those things
. My father's uncle Manfredo with the
Shylocks and the both-somethings broken. My English grandmother
with her dilly-dallying, her cabbage patches and her people no
better than they ought to be who'd been born under the rose. Her
husband who never told anyone how many siblings he'd had, where
they were or how the dead had died. Barbados, which we never talked
about except to say: it was British.
Both
families, asked direct questions, often respond with ludicrous
invention.
"We're kin to the Lord Carrington of the House of Lords," my
grandmother would say.
"I'm
in with the Rackets," my uncle Tony said. "What do you want? I can
get you anything you want."
I
know my father's family came through Ellis Island, maybe my
mother's father too, though not my socially pretentious English
grandmother, who came in as war bride to a then-naturalized
citizen. I remember my relatives talking about Ellis Island, the
torpid, raw, bored officials with shirt buttons open in the heat,
who sat with half-eaten sandwiches and wanted you to answer their
questions fast and easy, no matter what you said. I think it set a
tone: the first they saw of the rules and opportunities of their
new home. Along with sidewalks that could tarnish into asphalt from
squares of pure value—the mutability, the alchemy, the lie of
the place.
I
asked my father why our people moved here and he said, "It's the
land of opportunity."
Where it's clear that anything you don't want to say doesn't
need to be said.
To
my mother and father and their mothers and fathers the wonder of
this country stayed a given. An anxious thing, to live within the
object of desire. It became a national passion in the fifties: how
we were coveted from the outside. We poured money into an air
defense network, developing missiles and planes (secretly), arming
many of them with nuclear weapons. Our intelligence reported a
"missile gap"—Russian missiles, more missiles than we had,
pointed at key targets in the United States. No more Washington
Monument, Bloomingdale's, Times Square and the ball that plummets
to make each new year. So we rushed to catch up. One promising
nuclear missile designed by Boeing and Michigan Aerospace Research
Center, called BOMARC, looked like a well-licked paintbrush with
dorsal fins. Concrete bunkers flexed out of the ground in a remote
part of New Jersey called New Egypt (in the middle of a sandy pine
forest, where no one could see) in southern Ocean County, where the
BOMARCs could stand launch-ready to intercept Soviet bombers.
Secret bunkers for secret bombs: not many people knew we put
nuclear warheads on anti-aircraft missiles. Though it turned out
Russia didn't have many missiles after all. Still, the BOMARCs had
been built, at a cost of $1 million apiece. They were hauled in
caravan to New Egypt and frozen in their attitudes of
contemplation.
World War I had just guns and cannons and tear gas and mustard
gas. My Cassill grandfather fought in it under two different flags
and met my grandmother when he got wounded, in the neck and in the
fingers, and shipped to London, where she nursed him. She never
loved him, she told me, or liked him (she hinted) but she loved the
idea of America. Their marriage was a long affair of politesse,
diplomacy and avoidance. They had four children. In 1932, when his
children were young, my grandfather decided to buy some land in a
part of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, on the coast, and build them a
cabin.
He
arrived as he tended to do on the heels of disaster. The Barrens
had always been poor, a million acres of unproductive land both
boggy and sandy: a place for people hiding out. It had a brief
boom, though, in the start of the twentieth century. Something
about belief in the healing powers of pinesmell and seabrine. In
the twenties slappedup buildings held balls and the Astors came, in
fox fur (those rich enough to wear eternity around their necks,
uroboros, head eating tail) and their own beautiful rich skin. In
1926 a developer built a subdivision of small cottages on a
peduncle of coast land, a subdivision designed to be summer homes
for up-and-coming New Yorkers. He named it Holly Park. In 1929 the
stock market crashed and those New Yorkers ceased to exist (as the
developer knew them) and the property reverted to its pre-boom
values of $20 or $30 a lot.
Nearby this subdivision, a symbol of enduring poverty brushed
up against, transformed by and then dropped from the coattails of
greatness, my Cassill grandfather chose our land. When he finished
jury-rigging up our cottages (there were two) my grandmother took
the children and rewarded him by spending summers there, leaving
him in the north, to make it down on weekends when he
could.
(Every morning first thing my grandmother crossed the gravel
road. As she crossed the road her spirit rose and kited out of her
life. She threw off her cotton shift and the hydraulic system that
was 1930s women's underwear, and skinnydipped for a long time in
Barnegat Bay. Still her children weren't allowed to use the words
"pregnant" or "God.")
Separation and separation and separation.Ocean County eats into the hourglass of New Jersey in a
triangular bite, smooth on the land sides and rough on the third
that fronts the water. Down the Atlantic side runs a long
peninsula, akimbo like an arm but too skinny: a humerus and radial
of peninsula. This peninsula cuts off the Atlantic and forms our
bay, Barnegat. Because of its position Island Beach holds the
county's valuable property—good surf, sand beaches,
boardwalks—though it makes up a tiny percentage of the land.
Our bay tends to stagnate and grow what look like floating molds
and mildews. Rather than sand beaches we have marshes and weeds
spreading up to the water. Swimming's lackluster as is fishing;
crabbing's good. We always had the things that needed cover and
barrier to grow: crabs, cranberries, blackberries, the secret
pleasures. Most people in New Jersey considered the Barrens ugly,
with its monotonous landscape of sparsely needled pitch and scrub
pines, cattails and bogs.
When
my grandfather came to this area, Holly Park in Berkeley Township
in south Ocean County, only a few thousand people lived there.
Island Beach hadn't been developed much. There were very few jobs
and people often lived in ways inconceivable in the rest of the
state, catching and picking their food, making charcoal and
gathering cranberries, slapping together their shelter. As my
grandfather did.
The
bungalows my grandfather built faced a small inlet of Barnegat Bay
and backed onto a large lagoon that kept the plain rooms awhine
with mosquitoes.
My
family and my aunts and uncles and cousins spent most of our
summers there. We still go, now and then. I feel that place in my
ear, in a spot where it cannot be slapped.
By
the time I existed and had memory, someone had taken the
unpromising curve of land along our side of the inlet and built a
wooden bulkhead along it, with a few piers for crabbing. A piece of
land the size of a housing lot in a subdivision tolerated the
dumping of much clayey sand and served as a beach. It had steps
leading into the water. Ostensibly this was a private
beach—nearby families gave a few dollars a year and got
badges my mother and my aunts fussed about but nobody remembered to
wear. An old wooden building had been thrown up by the gate, where
someone had the job of beachkeeper, always somebody old and sagging
and bristly in a bathing suit: tensed to run my cousins and my
brother and me off. We were bad children, and flooded the beach by
damming the baby pool drain with carefully packed layers of clay
and rocks.
We
loved things that soaked and flooded, or seared and burned and
wizened. Firecrackers. Matchbombs. And the bleached remarkably
infertile soil of the Barrens, like sand but close enough to clay
to clump in your hands; we could (and did) sit at the beach and
construct elaborate cities. Next to our house was a field of
cattails, with maybe a red-winged blackbird or two bobbing on a
tassel. Smallish and spindly needled pines, white cedars here and
there, ash; a sparse tree line and brackish water, so weedy it
looked like a cauldron of wigs.
I
loved to be there, loved the greens and blues and the sense of open
space, even as it all filled me with a desire to tear
apart.
My
grandfather built the larger house on concrete blocks like stilts,
with a three feet high space under the house, damp and dark and
stinking: mud, brine, septic system. We kids played there. It
always seemed to be housing the feral: a wild cat we called Mama
Cat because she had kittens there every year, a muskrat I fed that
dragged back one day with a bullet in its gut.
Lots
of local people hunted muskrat for pelts and meat.
* * *We
call the houses the Big Bungalow and the Little Bungalow, or the
Little Cottage and Big Cottage. They have no heat and had no hot
water until I was out of childhood, when we put hot water and a
shower into the Little Bungalow. Before then we took cold showers
at the beach, along the side of the beachhouse, or sponged off from
the sink. We boiled teakettles of water for dishwashing. The Little
Bungalow, basically two tiny bedrooms and a toilet, has a flat roof
that always had a wooden ladder leaning against it and made a
favorite play area, especially at night, when you could see stars
and stay slightly above the densest layer of mosquitoes.
The
Big Bungalow has a galley kitchen, a living room/dining room space:
big table covered with oilcloth, a woodframe sofa with mildewy
whiskeycolored cushions. Two bedrooms lie in the back, one with two
sets of bunkbeds and the blue table that is possessed. In the
forties or fifties my grandfather added a porch in front to provide
extra sleeping space.
The
houses stand one behind the other, painted the green of pea soup or
old khaki.
Here
are sounds: the thrush of wind in the cattails, the shredding
American flag snapping on the beach, sounding like a solemn
flagellation. There might be swings instead of empty chains on the
decrepit swing set and if so, they skreek by themselves.
Odors: two notes of bay and lagoon. Around the inlet in the
half-circle the bulkhead doesn't reach cattails grow to the ruff of
washedup seaweed at the edge of the water, several feet of it knit
with dead and dying fish and shellfish, moss bunkers, blueclaws,
horseshoe crabs in the old days, maybe flipped over and straining
their ladders of little claws. The lagoon's black stagnant mosquito
trenches and greasy gunmetal soil. Marshgas, brine, dead things,
too much breeding.
* * *In
1960 (June), a tank in a BOMARC bunker caught fire, in New Egypt,
fifteen miles or so from our houses. The fire fed on the TNT in the
missile detonators and burned out of control and the nuclear
warhead dropped into the molten mass of the rest, which flamed for
nearly an hour. Radioactive particles spread over the ground and
the groundwater. Firefighters' hoses rained pools of
plutonium-laced water. About a pound of plutonium was left there,
too radioactive to move. In 1972 the government, answering cries
for protection, installed a chainlink fence to protect
civilians.
Psycho had been released that summer—my parents
and aunts and uncles went to see it. The movie posters featured
Janet Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock and, especially, Alfred
Hitchcock's finger, pointing upward to the title, or held in a
silencing gesture to his lips. Nobody was supposed to talk about
Psycho. My parents came home unable to sleep. Hitchcock had
decided to make the cheapest movie he could make, black-and-white,
no special props, and my elders came home terrified, possessed by
visions of Janet Leigh pretending to die in a puddle of chocolate
syrup.
I
ask my parents if they remember the BOMARC fire and they don't. I
ask them if they remember Psycho and they do.
"That bastard movie," says my dad, who loves to
swear.
I
almost never wrote diary entries at the shore—I have just
three or four, so my summer days ruffle on, blank, as if they never
happened. I brought a diary with me everywhere else but sleeping in
my place—the bottom lefthand bunk in the back bedroom of the
Big House—I probably had nowhere to hide it. My cousins would
have taken it, or my brother, or my parents and uncles and
aunts.
By
my twelfth year my diary changes a lot, losing the fantasy of
audience. No print, just furious rolling littlegirl script, and no
internal references. No Cindy, just "Dear Diary," though I included
the salutation and signed my name no matter how little I had to
say.
No
matter how moody—I feel a ful. Today has totally confirmed
yesterday's lamentations. Right now I feel as if I'm leading such a
happy life!—my entries still maintain that formality, always
on the page under the right date, abruptly cut off if I ran out of
room. I felt a responsibility. A sense of purpose. I apologized on
and on for my silences, as if someone would be hurt by the
blankness of August 6, 1969. I wrote detailed descriptions of
practically nothing, grass or cattails or
—someone chokeholding her existence, finding it
improbable, vital in its parts and slipping.
When
I asked my mother how long the DDT trucks had driven past our
cottages she said since she was a girl, which shows the
obsessiveness of memory mingled with repetition; after a certain
number of times seeing a thing the image reproduces in your head,
wildly, like cells in a cancer. My mother was twelve in 1932 when
her father built the cottages. DDT arrived commercially in 1942,
making my mother at least twenty-two. I don't blame her usually dry
and precise memory. I feel like those trucks powdered me in the
womb.
They
came once a week or so, supplemented by planes: a spume, a round
gray meteorological event of pesticide. The trucks stopped only
when the United States banned DDT in the seventies. A local man, an
environmentalist named Willie DeCamp, remembers a lamewinged robin
touched down on his front steps in Mantoloking when the truck went
by, the bird twittering, dead after.
In
1952, four years before the year at the end of which I squeezed
into the world, the Ciba-Geigy Chemical Corporation bought 1,400
acres along Toms River, a nearby river feeding into Barnegat Bay.
Ciba-Geigy chose this land, marshy, scrubbily woodsy with
longtailed grass, for an operations site, as distinct from its
corporate headquarters in New York. Cheap, eager labor, lots of
useless land for landfill. The low buildings churned out commercial
dyes and epoxy resins and plastics, and chemical waste byproducts.
These last were disposed of in various ways: in 14,000 drums buried
and stored in nonhazardous waste landfills lined with plastic wrap;
in a pipeline that a former employee said led from one building
straight into the woods, dumping cyanide in the ground; in liquid
waste pumped in an underground pipeline built beneath Barnegat Bay
into the Atlantic Ocean, a mile from a public beach.
In
1984, armed with search warrants, the New Jersey Division of
Criminal Justice raided the Ciba-Geigy plant and spent two days
collecting samples and searching.
A
long investigation concluded that Ciba-Geigy left a plume of
contamination in the aquifer, the natural underground water system
that provided drinking water: a poison plume a mile square and
dozens of feet deep, containing ninety-five different chemicals. A
migratory plume. A strange new life like a huge amoeba. The
Environmental Protection Agency is trying to pump it out but
estimates it will be there another thirty to fifty
years.
Ciba-Geigy also used its pipeline to transport military waste,
including nuclear waste, for a base in nearby Lakehurst. The
pipeline ruptured in April 1984 at the intersection of residential
Bay and Vaughn Avenues in Toms River, spewing out a puddle of
toxins.
Excerpted from BODY TOXIC © Copyright 2001 by Susanne
Antonetta. Reprinted with permission by Counterpoint, an imprint of
Perseus Book. All rights reserved.

Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir
by by Susanne Antonetta

  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Counterpoint Press
  • ISBN-10: 1582431167
  • ISBN-13: 9781582431161