Nonfiction

How It Is


In fifth grade I took up the trumpet through our school’s music program. Since only group lessons were offered, my parents signed me up for private lessons as well, with Fred McKenna at the Stratford Music Shop on Barnum Avenue. My older brother was already taking guitar lessons there, from the local equivalent of Django Reinhardt. Fred McKenna, in contrast, was no Harry James—just a journeyman sax player who had taught himself the trumpet and enough other instruments to offer instruction at two dollars per half hour.

Each Saturday morning at eight o’clock I would enter the little room at the rear of the dingy store to toot on my rented trumpet. The room was no larger than a small walk-in closet, and not at all soundproof. You could put a fist through the wallboard. My main concern was to get the lesson over with in time to ride my bicycle to Raybestos Field by ten o’clock, when the Saturday morning Knothole Club baseball games began. But I never got very far each week before the telephone would ring, and Fred McKenna—a slightly stooped man with sad eyes—would leave the practice room, his own trumpet in hand, to answer it. Or a customer would come in, ringing the little bell attached to the front door, and Fred (as we called him) would go out to attend to business, leaving the door to the practice room wide open so I was quite conspicuous in there, feeling naked with my trumpet across my lap, like someone caught in the outhouse.

But I soon came to enjoy these interruptions because of the variety of people that came into the shop. Some wanted sheet music to the latest popular songs: “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window” or “The Lichtensteiner Polka”. Others came in to see Fred himself.

I recall one fellow in particular, a short man in shabby clothing. I remember him because of something he said. He had been to Yonkers Raceway on Thursday evening and had done so well that he had stayed the night, skipping work the next day (he worked at a factory in Bridgeport) in order to continue playing the horses. On Friday he hadn’t fared so well, but still cleared about two hundred dollars—far more than he would have earned in a week at the factory—money he admittedly blew on a black onyx ring with a diamond in the center.

“You know how it is,” he said to Fred, and Fred nodded, turning for the practice room, trumpet in hand.

You know how it is. That’s what the man said, and Fred McKenna understood. But I was perplexed, at an age when I was looking for clues—for immutable laws—as to how the larger world worked, for the knowledge that these men seemed to share. What did that mean—you know how it is? That you skip work when you can make more money doing something else? Or that a man will throw away his money on something like a black onyx ring with a diamond in the center?

Often on these Saturday mornings Fred’s wife would wedge herself into one of the worn-out chairs at the front of the shop, squeezing the air out of the split vinyl cushion as she sat down. A buxom woman, she was herself squeezed into black toreador pants and a striped knit jersey that hugged her large breasts. Mrs. McKenna (I don’t recall her first name) never tended the shop but simply sat in her chair, filing her nails then painting them red and blowing on them, a tedious process that totally absorbed her and
took most of the morning.

Occasionally the McKennas’ teenaged daughter would duck into the shop just long enough to ask her mother for money. Then Mrs. McKenna would extricate herself from her chair, waddle over to the cash register, help herself to a few bills, and hand them over. Her daughter spoke with a juicy lisp, was built much like her mother, and was the subject of rumors regarding certain members of the local high school football team. I often wondered about those McKenna women. Did they, like Fred, know how it is? They certainly acted as if they did, ignoring me with a tawdry air of absolute disdain . . .

Fast-forward eleven years, when I turned twenty-one during the spring of my junior year in college and spent the summer in England on a program called The Experiment in International Living. Our group leader was approaching thirty, a dangerous age back then, and I recall his sharp reaction to an offhand comment made by another experimenter, an undergraduate from Yale. The Yale man had said something like this: When I graduate, I’m going to travel a bit, get some experience, then go into business with my father. There we were in London and here was this guy sounding for all the world like Herbert Pocket in Dickens’ Great Expectations—Herbert, who was always looking about, whereas I felt much like young Pip. So that’s how it is, I told myself: One graduates, one travels, gets experience, then goes into business with one’s father. But my own father had no business to go into. This newfound knowledge, however, was immediately cancelled when our group leader, in an offhand comment of his own, dismissed the young Yale man as a walking cliché.

Back at college for my senior year, I was visited one weekend by a friend from Stratford. He had just dropped out of Dartmouth following the death of his father and was bumming around the country on a motorcycle.

“So what are you going to do after graduation?” he asked me. (We were both quite drunk.)

“Teach,” I responded. “Gonna teach.”

Teach?” He seemed genuinely surprised. “What do you have to say?”

”Plenny,” I said. “Plenny things.”

“Name one,” he said.

And I couldn’t. So that’s how it is, I remember telling myself when I sobered up: In order to teach you must have something to say.

A year later I was in graduate school at Yale (the “walking cliché” of yesteryear presumably off on his travels) where I gleaned another insight as to how it is, this time from my Philosophy of Education professor—a radical long-hair who had us reading Herbert Marcuse instead of Alfred North Whitehead. One day during class he offered the following anecdote: He had been walking to the post office at Yale Station with an armload of packages piled so high against his chest that he was unable to negotiate the door. A friend spotted him at the crucial moment but was in too much of a hurry to stop and help. You know how it is, the friend had said, smiling briefly and continuing on his way.

“Why,” our radical professor wanted to know, “must that be how it is?”

I couldn’t answer him, but I did add another item to my growing list of how-it-isms: One looks out for one’s self, for numero uno.

During the summer following my first year of teaching high school, one of my colleagues went to Rome on a tour. When in Rome, of course, do as the Romans do. Now here was a notion that suggested a certain relativity as to how it is. But while all roads lead to Rome, the places they come from are not Rome, and so what does one do, for example, in Potomac, Maryland, where I was stuck for the summer? A year later I left teaching and went off to the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa—a bold move in retrospect, because as a teacher I hadn’t figured out what I had to say. Yet now I was determined to write it down.

In one of several unpublished manuscripts that preceded my first book—manuscripts with more guts than grace—I have a character that tries to make a list of all the things he knows to be true—a list, in essence, of how it is. But he doesn’t get very far:

1. Things differ in degree and kind.
2. Everybody wants to get laid.

Today, my reaction to the first item is so what? But at the time I considered it a clever distinction. The second item seems to have been a projection of my own wishes, or the result of a reductionist tendency I had developed from reading too much Freud.

And today, more than four decades after leaving Iowa, I still have no idea whatsoever as to how it is, although I continue to seek clues to immutable laws. In retrospect, the best one I’ve encountered comes from the lyrics of a rock ’n’ roll song that was popular a few years after I quit taking trumpet lessons from Fred McKenna:

I’m gonna tell ya how it’s gonna be:
You’re gonna give your love to me.

That is: It is how you make it. Or, for those who lack the courage: It is how it is.

CCSfoto2 Claude Clayton Smith is Professor Emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University. He is the author of seven books and co-editor/translator of an eighth. He holds a BA from Wesleyan, an MAT from Yale, an MFA in fiction from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, and a DA from Carnegie-Mellon. His latest books are Ohio Outback: Learning to Love the Great Black Swamp (Kent State University Press, 2010) and, with Alexander Vaschenko, The Way of Kinship: An Anthology of Native Siberian Literature (University of Minnesota, 2010).