Google Maps image of Collings Lakes
303: A Laker's Miniature Memoir
by Chad Sainson
Studying up for death, I began to conduct interviews with my father in a room where we couldn't hear the oxygen machine. His memory works a little different from mine—instead of remembering exact dates and duration, he measures by presidential terms and the ebbing and flowing of progress. I try to ask questions that jar a recollection of small details. Tell me about three old women. Tell me about three diners. Where did you buy candy bars in 1960?
He also let me borrow the key to his old locked box and I discovered he had tried his hand at writing. One of the more interesting pieces was a cursive draft of Star Wars 7 penned in 1985 (I don't know whether to share with him the fact that his breathing apparatus sounds exactly like Vader's—the ramifications of that epiphany could be disastrous). There was also an attempt at our ancestral records. He had devoted an entire afternoon to the task and then given up. It had to be between 1979 and 1982 because I was listed as the recent addition to the family and my younger brother made no appearance. In the box I also found a pencil drawing of the 57 Avon Place house where we lived during our kindergarten years. This one was more recent and was inscribed in his cursive with the words "Going Home".
I can see how 57 Avon still holds his loyalty. He had come very close to happiness there. Vineland had developed as a halfway point to Cape May and is the closest thing to a real city in South Jersey. We had cool cars. Our property had its own fenced-in forest whose main feature was the moss patch we all liked to put our bare feet on occasionally. The forest was a hundred yards deep. By the time you reached the back fence you couldn't see the house. At the foot of the woods was a swing hanging from a cherry tree and one test of being six was to kick a branch at the very height of the swing's arch. In the garage, Hilaire (he goes by Hilaire now—back then he was Joe) began to build a stock car from scratch, but never got past the steel frame on account of everything going suddenly wrong. So in the fall of 1986 he packed up the kids and left 57 Avon Place and took us to the 303 house. The three of us had switched schools a few times since my parents' first divorce. My mother's second marriage had recently ended in a wild car accident and now my father was bringing her back to where they started.
My dad had just won a small state lottery so there was no real need to leave the yellow house in Vineland. But the money must have given him some perspective and the American dream was no longer a priority. It was only a few grand, but it could be spent in more interesting ways than mortgage payments. We owned 303 and this would give us all some much needed recovery time and breathing room to use our imaginations and buy things that would bring us back together again. Most of it would go toward rebuilding 303 and making it habitable. The Huntington years had taken a remarkable toll on the house.
At this point in 1986 my grandfather Hilaire—he had named all his sons Hilaire, so they all went by their middle names—was stuck bodily to a couch because his wife had died from Huntington's and had poisoned half her children with the disease. He met her in England during the war. She spoke with a Blackpool accent before she lost the ability to speak. Huntington's makes you a little weird before it kills you. At first, they misdiagnosed her condition as severe alcoholism and placed her in the asylum at Ancora. When the disease appeared in his first three children, Pop stopped moving and speaking, as if in concert with them.
Like Pop, we were about to stay geographically still for a long time, but we used drugs and books to move back then. Real education held no interest to any of us. We had inherited some particularly French madness that bears some explanation.
We come from a long line of disappearing men. It was under mysterious conditions that the first Hilaire Sainson disappeared from the French Revolution. His brother René stuck it out and had a street named after him in Nice. Our two generations in Kingston, Jamaica went completely unexplained on account of my great-grandfather's subsequent estrangement, but he was the one that brought the Sainsons to Philadelphia. Since then we seem to have specifically attracted people whose fathers went absolutely poof.
Pop stuck around but had clearly gone elsewhere in his mind. He expressed his strange disappearing lineage by his last wish, which was for no authorities to have a hand in his death. This even included the authorities who sell flowers. Nothing could be sold or changed by his death. No one could retrieve his ashes or do anything out of the ordinary—we had to let this one thing be. I like to think that his soul popped up drunk in the Florida Keys like so many of these lost dads seem to.
I think the men in my family have taken a similar attitude toward living as Pop did toward dying. We often feel as if there were strange instructions encoded into our DNA. Whatever they are we found the best way of obeying them is to keep moving. One of our later experiments was to actually escape 303. I went first, then my brother, then Dad. But we found you had to keep escaping it. 303 chases you to the world's end, where even the drugs don't work.
303 Sherwood was our longest family foothold since Baker Street in Kingston. This was a place that hugged the human grenade and absorbed him. A place can develop in your heart that remembers it worse than it was. You tell people you come from a ghetto just to circumnavigate the reality of the house. The house is like the top drawer of a heart. No one must utter a glimpse. The idea of a ghetto spreads the blame. But it wasn't a real ghetto. Let's put that idea to pasture. It was dirty and it was violent, but there were sanctuaries and escapes, and ghettos don't have those.
My father and brother and I, our nightly vivid dreams tend to still occur in that house. It has been over a dozen years since the last of us vacated, but in April 2018 my little brother Timothy is on one of his manic Journeys to get still further out of 303. This time it is a Hawaiian yoga retreat. I am not totally sure he's going to get out this time, but my thing is going back into it. Since the illness, I stay by my dad now and live how he lives. He tends to have parts of the past shipped directly to the house. I keep pieces in a secret spot in our Chicago attic.
My first memory of 303 Sherwood Drive is from the late 1980s. On the outside it was a funny little place—red, box-like. The houses were all the same short rancher with one big window and two little windows. Ours had white shutters with our family initials emblazoned in black metal. I still have them. The streets were narrow and without sidewalks. Most of the roads drifted randomly away from the center but ours ran parallel to the main north-south corridor, one block closer to Atlantic City. On the Philadelphia side was a nearly identical cluster of houses spreading toward the outer boundary. The boundaries of the small town are defined by a ring of lakes.
The yard was cluttered with junk—broken bricks where a sitting area used to be, leaning sheets of wet plywood, an old race car axle and some of those giant Indy car tires. Small signs of the 1950s were still laying around—metal trash cans and ancient basketballs, a dead car rotting out back. My dad's metallic silver DJ booth was in pieces on a pile of sticks in a pyre for a past profession. Gnats hovered in concentric swarms. A big old air conditioner hung out the side window and rattled the entire structure like the house was a giant harmonica.
On the inside of the house was an old man on a red couch watching Hawaii Five-O somewhat above the volume the old TV could handle. That was Pop. I like to hear the way other members of the family say Pop. They say it as if he is the easiest person to fathom, that we all know him exactly as he truly was. Sixteen hours a day he smoked some kind of filtered cigarillo and drank ABC vodka mixed with orange juice concentrate. I still keep cans of orange concentrate in the freezer, just to see them. He was the only person that called my dad Joey. He slept often. He never left the red plaid couch. Ten years later, I dragged it into my bedroom without properly cleaning it.
The center piece of the house was an ancient heater. In the winter this thing roared like a lion every half hour. The TV was always on. Pop would wake up to the sound of Philadelphia's Action News theme song. They still use that tune because everyone loves it. It sounds best through old television speakers. On our first visit—which is still what I am attempting to describe here—old Hilaire was roused by our intrusion, and a squirrel immediately produced itself from behind him and started running around the living room. There was some commotion. We would get used to the squirrels. They lived in the attic and scratched through the ceilings of every room to borrow some heat each winter. It was a constant, yet I had forgotten all about them until this Chicago mouse problem announced itself with the same scratching.
Either during or after the squirrel fiasco in the living room, I headed to the bathroom and there was no sink, just a bunch of pipe sticking out of the floor. Everything in the house was a little like that at first. It got like that again toward the end, but I had already split. Every house in Collings Lakes has the same floor plan and outside of every identical bathroom is a square hallway. And underneath every hallway in Collings Lakes there's a metal grate that you hear under foot and everyone who has lived in Collings Lakes knows that exact sound. At one corner of the hall there was a door with no knob and I pushed it open.
The room I was entering was going to be the scene of my adolescence and early twenties. My mother and father once shared this room, the second small window at the front of the house. My dad's brother, Bobby, and my mother's sister, Pam, once lived in the adjacent room and they actually produced sons with the same DNA as my brother and me. Both my parents come from humongous baby boom families, most of whom have scattered and died. Pam now lives in a waterless, unheated junkyard trailer and pisses in jars. Her kids saw her after their father's funeral and they told us.
In 1986 this was a sick room for my Aunt Constance who used to be a beauty queen, but now she had Huntington's in its late stages, and when I pressed the door open she looked just like my Uncle Allen, who was in its middle stages. Huntington's gives you a bug-eyed ghostly look and we are already a very large-eyed family. And you can't talk, or you talk in vowels, like a deaf person does. Connie looked terrible. She woke up and looked at her visitor with that horrified Huntington's mask. My mother rushed in and pulled me out, pushed the door with no knob shut, and told me never to go in there.
We added a knob to that door, but later, after Pop and Connie died, I took it off the hinges so I could bring in the old man's couch. I left the door off the hinges and just leaned it shut. By then we were all batshit and the walls were all holes and graffiti. I had taken up all the carpeting in the house months earlier and revealed the ancient floorboards. We all liked it better. Toward the end I put down new carpet and we liked that better, too.
Most of the time it was just my dad and I going out of our minds after Mom left again. A long exposure photo from inside the house would look something like a cartoon dog fight. A lot of dust and yelling. But the cast at 303 changed often. At one point, there were eleven people in those five rooms. At another point, there were four dogs. Soon after that, there was one dog and eight cats. The McKenzie sisters lived with us while they were still in high school. Jessi Riley started college from that house. These girls had mothers and yet here they were. We also took in lost souls from the real ghetto. They mostly did us wrong and there had to be a kicking out scene. One day, Jessi Riley and I were on the receiving end of the kick-out. We spent two days at the Collings Lakes Motel, and then the next day we moved to New York City.
Things changed for my brother after I left 303. The town became too violent and he had to go find our mother. Both of us narrowly avoided the Oxycontin years of Collings Lakes. These led to the heroin years which led to the Fentanyl years. For a while, there was a constantly updating list of fresh deaths. My dad was there during the crisis and was sad to have to lock the doors at night. One day he paid an old friend of ours to rebuild the front steps and they just vanished with the dough. Now everyone is gone that we knew except for maybe some die-hard old heads who tell kids how great the Lakes were in their prime. My father used to tell me the same thing about the town's early years, but he liked it when it was clean, and I liked it when it was wild. People do the same thing with Times Square.
Collings Lakes was originally conjured by an actress—Joan Rivers's sister, Barbara Cushman—as a private lake community in the middle of nowhere. When the project went south, she sold the land to one E.Z. Collings, and he immediately built a thousand copies of the same house for the post WWII boom. The original lakes were cranberry bogs that composed three quarters of the water boundary. The town is essentially circular, and the main corridor, Cains Mill Road, divides the circle more or less into perfect east and west halves. At on end of Cains Mill is a bridge that leads to a highway. A right or a left turn leads to larger towns full of Italians. They owned all the farms and businesses. Migrant workers lived alongside them. Collings Lakes was for the non-Italian poor, and Newtonville was the black neighborhood. All of this segregation was fairly exact, with only a small margin of stragglers in the wrong place.
At the other end of Cains Mill is another bridge that leads to the Black Horse Pike. A left turn leads to Philly and a right leads to Atlantic City. Our little yin yang community is directly centered in the southern half of New Jersey. The Pine Barrens. As close to nowhere as you can get while still being a three-hour drive from any one of six major cities. I consider it a work of living poetry. The only thing we had was a Wawa, yet I can't think of a better thing for any town to have.
The lakes that later appeared between three o'clock and six o'clock on the map were built by a mining process in what is now called the Quarry or the Pits (once, when my father said we would be visiting the pits at an Indy Car race, I was disappointed that it wasn't a vast desert with blue water and giant dirt heaps, like the backyard of the only church in Collings Lakes). The mining company also introduced the first road out of Collings Lakes that didn't involve a bridge. This was only a few years late because in 1977 the Buena Vista borough decided to reconstruct the east end bridge at the same time as the Folsom borough decided to rebuild the west end bridge. They had to carve a transit route through the woods passed the topless dam that summer. The tiny town lives on some strange fault line and is divided into no less than four boroughs.
The lakes are divided by a set of dams, and no two dams are alike. The first dam is a trifle, and we discovered it immediately, as it is part of First Beach, right at the foot of town. The gigantic Cement Dam, visible from Second Beach, waited for me until I was a veteran. I found the Wooden Dam the summer after that, but the Topless Dam was still a revelation to me in my seventh year as a Laker. These became the scenes of our brushes with trouble. More wholesome children saw them as ideal fishing points, but those of us who had surrendered our wish to lead a bike gang to more formidable leaders like the Wunder brothers and the Hunts, we learned more about trouble than our imaginations and courage would allow if left to our own devices. We found ourselves to be mostly afraid during our weird missions, and not wholly understanding of criminal code. These missions almost always involved abandoned places that we never knew existed, and were almost always difficult to arrive at and gain entry to. These kids were fearless. We didn't fear them, but we did fear the mysterious characters beyond the Kevin Wunder fringe, such as the Stettlers, the Sellwoods, the kid who lived back at the old airport, and kids from the other side of the highway in Folsom who had mafia uncles. Anyone crazier than Kevin Wunder had our balls. A typical mission with the Folsom kids would start with a conversation like:
Mikey Ventura: "You think this is a game? How do I know you're not a rat? What are you gonna say ifs you get caught? What's his name?"
Me: "That's Steve Davis."
Mikey: "Just like I thought, and what's my name?"
Me: "Y...you're Mikey Ventura."
Mikey: "No, dipshit. His name is you don't know, and my name is you don't know. Get it?"
Me: "Oh, I thought you meant—"
Mikey: "Oh, I taut you meant I taut you meant. Come on, man, it's fuckin cold as shit."
Some of our missions were to gather supplies for explosives. You can put two cans of Ajax under your arms and still empty your pockets if they ask. Mix that with balls of foil in a three-liter bottle and shake it. It will get warm. Throw it right then. One time we thought we had a dud and it blew up at our feet a few minutes later. One time, Jeff Sellwood thought he had a dud pipe bomb and sat next to it smoking a cigarette. It blew his face off right in front of some old heads. Billy Marr's left eye was a victim of another stray explosion. The first time Billy took acid, it was raining and he thought the baseball game was canceled. His brother came looking for us because the sun came out and the game was on. Billy pitched seven innings of two-hit ball his first time on LSD.
I don't know what was with all the explosives. It wasn't anything nefarious. I think the Pits just offered a place to experiment with fire. The Pits also made our town a destination for dirt bikes and ATVs and there is a joke about that.
How many Lakers does it take to change a lightbulb?
Two. One to change the bulb, and one to steal your four-wheeler.
Our friend Lionel died stealing a four-wheeler. It was a two-stroke engine and he didn't know. By the time he figured out how to start it, the owner had killed him with his truck.
There is another joke. It goes:
How many Lakers does it take to eat a sheet of acid?
Two. Chad and Timmy Sainson.
The acid I think was a way that we intended to explain ourselves. It is easy to say you are an orphan, or a victim of something that everyone remembers happening, but we weren't sure what the deal was with our family, and LSD went a long way in explaining how we felt and where we were trying to go. You take someone like my dad, he thinks he is pissed off that his mother died, but it was really Allen and Connie. It was the death of his siblings that really got to him and he doesn't know it. It is just easier to say your mom died when you were young. For us, it is easier to say we are on one of those permanent bad trips.
In Collings Lakes in the 1980s everyone was either dirt biking, fishing, worshipping Satan, smoking dope, or blowing things up. We didn't do anything, really. We had something to offer though, and it was a house with no rules. Anyone could come and soak up air-conditioning and freeze pops and Nintendo until their parents left or came home, or whatever they were waiting for. 303 eventually became an abandoned house that kids broke into and tore down from the inside, just like all the houses we busted up when we were kids.
In the summer of 2008, my brother and I were wandering around the country again and our final destination was the 303 Sherwood house. My dad had just abandoned it and there was a small window of time to get in there and retrieve as much as we could before it went to hell. Dad had married a Ukrainian woman in Chicago with a big bungalow with a yard for his dogs. We were coming from California. There was a deadline of August 1, when the insurance ran out on Tim's vehicle.
That summer the theme was going all in. We had been ordinary citizens for a moment there, but suddenly Tim decided to stop payments on the new truck, run to where no one could find him, and pick me up along the way. There was a kid with us that my brother had found in Florida. Dave. He was also from South Jersey and part of our mission was to get him home. He wandered off again later and eventually died at the bottom of a ravine in North Carolina.
When we got to 303 after eight weeks of driving, the place was surrounded in high grass and strange new trees. The door was locked but the window was open. Another few weeks and someone else would have figured that out. But we were the first ones, judging by the lack of fire spots on the floor. We wandered the house mumbling in the stale heat.
The amount of stuff my dad had left behind was disturbing to a sentimental bastard like myself. It was all in the shed out back. Lottery money bought that shed and now it was a treasure chest waiting at the end of a long journey. We pried the door off and filled the SUV to overflowing. The precious life-boxes of my dad's siblings were finally culled from the dark corners of this all-weather casket. The first things in were the last things out. We finished our summer by going to Chicago to find Dad and surrender the Chevy.
We arrived in Chicago on a hot first day of August. I emptied the Trailblazer into the cellar door and turned their basement into a kind of museum of our past. My dad was breeding tropical fish in the basement back then. He had just returned from Brazil with a fruit called cupuaçu and he wanted to become an ice cream maker. He had been trying to discern his ancestry again, and with modern tools he was able to find something that only added to his confusion.
Whichever side the original Hilaire Sainson had been on in the French Revolution, he felt forced to seek sanctuary in the Caribbean. He had a son by a Jamaican native and named the boy Saint Hilaire Noya Fabian. Noya only exists on paper as the young companion of a woman on a train from Miami to Philadelphia. But someone named St. Hilaire Sainson was listed deceased along with his wife in Philadelphia, 1986. They would have both been 99 years old. Dad never met them and had always believed they died long before his birth. He was also starting to wonder if we were the descendants of slave owners.
The memory of this conversation smells like dog hair and cigarettes in the hot Chicago kitchen, mixed with good beer and a thing called Gypsy ham, which was something our sister had told us would be in the fridge. She had visited right before our arrival. All of Hilaire's children were pouring into his wife's house. We could fit our entire childhood house into the living room, I told her. That is the night I learned how to drink Scotch, and her book collection kept me there an extra month. She warned me that her mother had recently passed in the guest bedroom. I call that the blue room and it still smells like Ukrainian perfume to this day. It is my fourth favorite room in the house.
It was good to see my dad happy. The Chicago house has been the central resting place during our figure-eights around the United States. When the house turned into hospice, I became a more or less constant fixture in the house. Dad went downhill in the summer of 2010. He stopped smoking too late and his condition became the first time my existence felt necessary. Sometimes I live there for months, sometimes years. Sometimes things stabilize and I can leave for a while but when I come back the place is a disaster. This time I can tell I am here to stay and that another season of death is upon the family, beginning with yesterday. This was the first one I ever saw with my own eyes.
A week ago, when I began writing this memoir, Jasmine could have lived another year, and my brother was arriving full of hope in Hawaii. Since then, a volcano has wiped out the Buddhist retreat and sent him wandering, as ever, to the other side of the island. A day later we discovered Jasmine's cancer was behaving not unlike the ground beneath Leilani Estates.
Although she grew up in Chicago, Jasmine was born into 303. She doesn't know it, but some of aspects of her character were shaped by the house. The tin roof over her first room gave her a fear of rain, thunder, and lightning. Her fear of lightning gave her a fear of cameras. The shutter sound alone will make her leave a room.
Jasmine was a force of nature and lived long for a tall dog. She had the posture of a horse and the gaze of a statue. She knew where I was taking her, I think. This was a dog that barked at me every time I entered my father's house, the bark of a shotgun blast, one for every visitor and foreign noise, yet she didn't make a sound when half a dozen EMT workers rumbled through the dining room to save my dad. This was also a dog who hated baths but would jump in on her own when she knew it was time. She knows and understands everything. She knew why she had to get out of the car and she knew why the nurses were shaving her arm.
The injection happened faster than I could comprehend. I wanted them to slow down. They held up Jasmine's chin until I took over. We all froze and the dog stared at me intensely until her light went out. Her eyebrow twitched at the end. Someone was yelling. It had to be me. I was outside my body. After hearing her pulse pronounced nil, I said her name and was surprised when she didn't respond. Then when I stood up it was another shock that she didn't stand with me. Her eyes were open. I stared quizzically, lagging behind reality, not groping how death works. I told the nurse that I couldn't understand what I was seeing here. I felt far away and bubble headed. They mumbled some condolences on their way out the door. I knelt back down and spent the next few minutes on the floor of the doctor's office where the German Shepard lay with her front feet apart. I crossed them. I lifted her limp head and put it the way I remember her liking to lay. They left us alone a long time and I said her name at intervals to keep making sure. I wondered if there were cameras in this room, if they would laugh at my hysterics later. I left before the girls returned and Jasmine was alone on the floor for a moment, eyes still open, paws crossed.
Jasmine was the last of a long line of 303 pets, unless by some chance my runaway tomcat Taito has lived to be eighteen. Here's to him and to that gorgeous possibility. My dad handled the loss of his dog like I wish I did. If anything, I am less ready for any more death. Sometimes I just want to go first but there is just too much to do and to think about.
Originally published May 10, 2018
Chad Sainson is a musician who has lived in New York and California five times and Chicago ten times because it is in the middle and he only travels by car.