The Shamokin Monologues' writer inspired by tales of the coal region
Anyone having read "The Shamokin Monologues" must think author Bernard Jankowski is a coal region native - the owner of an overcoat that gives off a whiff of grilled onions from Coney Island, with beer breath just as strong.
No, Jankowski is from the Washington, D.C. area, but his parents are from Northumberland County's coal towns and he spent many summers listening to the tales of his uncles and living out days that would be the basis for a few of his own.
Those stories inspired "The Shamokin Monologues," a collection of 20 free verse poems - no meter, no rhymes - that blend fact and fiction and read like they've been told to you straight from the mouths of any regulars inside any hole-in-the-wall around.
"They call me 'Shakes' / or cheap and available / living on the dole. / A fine pool player, / charming when on my way to getting drunk, / more than willing to be supported by a good strong woman / of Eastern European descent. / That's the clincher. / I need a certain 'kind' of woman. / She's gotta work / if she wants to run with me. / I've seen what full-time / can do to a man," Jankowski writes in "I've Never Been Much For Bosses."
There is no myth-making, no yearning for glories past. Instead, Jankowski offers humor and sadness both as dark as the inside of an abandoned row home.
His work is authentic, it's relatable, it's unapologetic, and it's worth the 10 bucks or so it'll take to buy a copy online.
"It's really just an appreciation of the people that I know from up there. Growing up in D.C., the coal region was somewhat an exotic location. It was so different from the D.C. area," Jankowski said last week.
"There's something about the Shamokin area. That's where I have roots. It has a real culture," he said.
Jankowski, 55, teaches fourth-graders at an inner city school in the nation's capital.
His father, Bernard, is from Mount Carmel and still lives in the Elysburg area. His mother, the former Peggy Povleski, a Shamokin native, passed away in 2008.
His parents moved away and raised he and his sister out of state. When they returned, it was to visit family. His grandfather on his father's side lived on Vine Street in Mount Carmel. His mother's parents lived in Kulpmont. He has a large extended family, a group he remembers fondly as giving and generous, and he listened closely when his uncles told stories. His mother's brothers were gifted at that and their personas were "larger than life."
"A lot of the core of the monologues, they're not facts by fact account. A big chunk are really like catching an oral history of the family," Jankowski said.
He recalled one such story involving his Uncle Eddie. There was a challenge, a beer drinking duel. Eddie versus a friend. The battleground was downtown Shamokin.
"It was like who could drink 100 beers," Jankowski said.
Asked who won, he laughed. "The word is he did it. That was just kind of how they rolled," he said.
Jankowski has a affection for Knoebels Amusement Park. He says he had the run of the place when he and his cousins or friends would go there. One trip to the park inspired "Loretta Lynn Struts Onto the Stage," where he writes of catching the country legend's performance at Knoebels, some part of it anyway.
"Loretta Lynn belts it out / across the gullies and gaps. / She's home here, / defiant, with her flashing eyes. / Song after song / brings a praise / I've never known, / to this life / I am lookin' to lose."
The last lines are a story all too familiar to anyone who dreamed of leaving the coal hills behind after high school. The book, on the acknowledgements page, is dedicated "For those who stayed ..."
Another poem tells of a pool hustler who flees his local haunts for a metro area and new marks. It doesn't go as planned, and it's based on a story from a cousin.
"They just got their clocks cleaned," Jankowski said, adding he took a bit of poetic license for his retelling. "They basically had to ride home with their tail between their legs."
"You Think This Town Looks Mean By Day" is an ode to the night.
"By the seventh bar, you run / into guys named Black. / Jack Black, Black Bart, Black Heart, / nicknames like tattoos. / Tonight it's Black Hawk - / a Pittsburgh-born, truck driving, / retread Hippie, quarter-Indian hard ass. ... By the seventh bar, it's time / to burn off some of this evil. ... You live the story like your uncles - / someone has to carry on this bad blood."
That poem kind of wrote itself, Jankowski said. He credits its dark humor as a gift from his family.
Reading that and other poems to himself after they'd been written, he wondered if he was really so dark. At public readings after his book was published, he said the audience would often laugh.
"It was enlightening to me. It made me see all that kind of darkness that I was carrying as a really redemptive quality of dealing with the many hardships of existence. I think that's a true gift of people up there," Jankowski said.
"The Shamokin Monologues was published in 2009. In includes a series of illustrations by artist Calvin Edward Ramsburg.
Jankowski has other works, "The Bullfrog Does Not Imagine New Towns" and "Radio in the Basement." They're all available online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
He and his wife, Kathy, have been married nearly 30 years. They have two children, Nick, 24, and Marie, 17.
He continues to visit the area to watch high school football games with his dad.