~Memoir ~ Prose-Poem ~ Philosophy~
Copyright 2021, held by author
1993 Madison Square Garden
He was mayor when I lived in NYC.
I could finally say I lived in Manhattan. Even though it turned out to be another broken dream, you can never criticize someone for dreaming. Misguided, unrealistic even hopeless – are subjective criticisms at best. Whatever, you know. What works out fully as planned other than nothing … what can I say… I was burglarized twice in six weeks and that ended the Dinkins era dream for me. The dream had nothing to do with Dinkins and everything to do with Allen Ginsberg and Patti Smith, I just wasn’t able to make the dream a reality until I was 30.
Eventually I wound up in Jersey City, having rekindled the romance with Maureen. I was living on the Jersey Side when I witnessed the then Mayor Dinkins get booed by an arena filled with white police officers and their families and friends.
I should’ve blamed Dinkins for the robbery. I could’ve without being racist, at least by the mainstream standards permeating America. Racism was what appealed to people to vote Giuliani in the rematch against Dinkins. Everything bad about the city, like petty crime, he was going to fix by not kowtowing to liberals who hated Ronald Reagan and loved minorities more than America. Everybody in the suburbs and the offices I worked in shared this resentment – what the hell is wrong with you!
I had this fancy glass jar where I kept change and tokens. It had a lid with a tiny spire in the center, garage sale crystal, like the kind where an old woman stored her hard candies. To write up the report, two cops came to the apartment, two white guys, one was Irish and one was Italian, nice enough, thick accents, the Brooklyn brogue is a different accent than Paterson, Newark or Jersey City — but overall more similar than not to the police officers I interacted with during my stints as a local reporter for the Town News. They did their jobs. The robbers had emptied the jar, their fingerprints had to be on it. Any finger print that wasn’t mine had to be theirs, an easy dust job.
The Irish fellow, who was the designated speaker, writing in the clipboard. There would be too many fingerprints was the excuse even though the only person to touch the crystal candy dish besides them was me.
I guess the crime lab is backed up. Thinking back on it, perhaps my suggestion was naive and the officer while dismissing it, wasn’t rude or sneering. Gentrification had yet to come. But, I blame those cops more than I would ever think of blaming the Mayor. It’s their neighborhood too, why are you not preventing these crimes or supporting social programs and economic changes that would. We all know that the thieves were drug addicts caught up in a cycle made possible only because some drugs are illegal.
Patty McVeigh was fun to party with. Probably the most racist and homophobic person I’ve ever been friends with, which is say, there were and are far, far more racist people that I’ve known and talked with than Patty and they have never been my friends. We went to the same college, a comrade in adventure, so you overlook a lot, such as the level of racism that was still acceptable back then.
Patty was best friends with Maureen, the love of my life. I went to college in South Jersey, Richard Stockton University, and they were from Teaneck, which unlike Paramus was slightly integrated – they went to high school with Mark Knowles – his family were the first black family to move into Teaneck, welcomed by an unknown new neighbor writing the n-word on the street in front of their driveway.
We were all close friends for a while – 19, 20, 21… 22. I kept in touch with Patty and Mark after the breakup with Maureen. Patty kept in touch with Maureen – and when Patty was living in New York Maureen and I rekindled and lived together in Jersey City.
Patty studied Criminal Justice and her career path led it’s way to the NYPD. In college I was a heavier drug user but we all partied hardy. Patty never said no to booze or drugs, kept a weed and sometimes meth stash. The legendary Saint Patrick’s Day with the two Marks, we all had crank, drank a case of beer in the street, saw Bill Murray.
Nostalgia fooled us into thinking it could pass for real love or friendship, that was enough for a while, our twenties now in the rearview.
I brought NY Deli sandwiches, freshly roasted, hand carved turkey on crispy French Bread, arugula, provolone, a perfect dollop of mayonnaise. No security check of any kind, you had a ticket you were in, friendly, families and extended families, more than a few entire blocks. Jolly cops welcoming a new class into their ranks.
Patti had just passed through the academy. Truly a fun and impressive event, there were speeches and touching ceremonies and benediction by the-shucks-I’m-a-regular-priest-but-still-regal-eminence Archbishop John O’Conner and applause from different sections of the garden after each name was read and the new cadet walked to a dais and received a diploma and a shield, officially a cop with a license to kill.
What I remember most though – the news-making highpoint of the event – was David Dinkins, mayor of New York.
The most public group display of racism I’ve ever personally witnessed. The Mayor was introduced, a featured speaker at the induction of new cops as you would expect. I never saw him in person before, he was in the press a lot. Patty hated him, and him being black was one of the reasons why. The entire garden booed.
I remember no applause, not even polite and respectful applause in keeping with the unifying theme of the event. The volume of the boos grew in volume. The crowd wasn’t as large as a Knicks or Rangers game, much less a concert. But the unmistakable majority of everyone in the spectator seats let their distaste for New York first African American mayor be known.
The scale and gravitas of this ceremony made all other graduations pale in comparison. Just seeing a vast army of cops was intensely sobering. I have no compulsion to enforce the law, to say the least and state the over-obvious. I see authority, my impulse is to ignore or avoid and if possible, quietly disrespect. A bully with a badge is still a bully even when I’m not the one being bullied. But the pride these folks felt just being together filled me with awe. We all were witnessing something historic to be forever preserved in the official urban annals. I’ve never seen something so quintessentially New York, welcoming new essential cogs of the machinery of the city, an occasion fully deserving of formality.
Their boos shattered all honor and solemnity. Dinkins barely got out a sentence or two, the boos getting louder as he spoke. I remember a quick wave, maintaining his dignity and the event’s decorum. The booing was loud and the people who didn’t boo stayed silent. Dinkins seemed willing to take a punch, as if knowing that the cops were only embarrassing themselves. But the reality of history has shown racism has long been accepted and more often than not encouraged by all ranks of American and New York City law enforcement.
The incident dominated the news cycle. Giuliani had lost his first run at the office, but this time he reinvented himself as a tough on crime lawman. He expressed the toughness through racist innuendo. How can you expect a mayor like Dinkins to care about the danger we’re all in…( just look at the color of his skin, they’re not like us).
What a horrible human being— “America’s Mayor” – a real goon. Back then, Rudy revived Reagan’s racist policies, ranging from insensitivity to injustice. Clips of an arena of cops booing the city’s first black mayor were featured in his attack ads.
In the graduation parties that followed public treatment of Dinkins was discussed as having to do with some contract dispute. I only got the cops side – Patty and her law enforcement friends – it was about salaries, a contract dispute, the union organized the protest – and what I read in the New York Times, sometimes Daily News – no one mentioned the racism that was apparent to me.
An obvious load of horseshit. I am not arguing there wasn’t a legitimate contract negotiation or whatever conflict that’s now some footnote to police union contracting history. The rude behavior was more than just inappropriate because of how it undermined the importance of a public ceremony. It was racist, and because of the circumstances, the cops could freely express their racism and then congratulate each other for thickening the Blue Line.
Maybe the people booing the loudest, the men leading this anti-cheer, a divisive, public outcry, were the real racists— Maureen and I didn’t boo – but our silence made us complicit.
Everybody has it tough. For a cop, nothing is worse than crossing the blue line, showing disloyalty to the men and women in blue dishonors bravery and all that can make good possible in society.
That was Patty’s mentality, and it’s racist. But tolerating racism is a racist act. The anti-racist theories put forth by Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi establish racial guilt by association undeniable and irrefutable. Considering the hundreds of racist related murders of people of color by New York City police since they booed the mayor in Madison Square Garden three decades ago, how can one argue that racism in law enforcement is not systemic?
The fact the police felt that the need to make a public racist statement superseded the solemnity of honoring the newest members of what clearly they believe is a scared tradition only further shows the destructive power of delusion.
Because, at its core, racism however defined and to whatever degree – from pejorative comment to genocide – is based on and requires delusion. You have to believe something empirically untrue to be reality.
I grew up in an entirely white community, Paramus. There was no racism in our house, but it was more like there were no black people around to talk about. Everything else was just the counter culture music on the radio and magazines and books and some films sometimes even played on television – there was older stuff on radio and other magazines and books and films constantly played on television and then the rest of television. Other than Star Trek, nothing was really worth watching on television until Miami Vice.
But all that entertainment was for kids, secondary to sports or war or the stock market and real news. The counter culture component, the adult stuff that was new, even when entertaining also added to the miserable feelings parents and other members of the older generation had towards everyone younger. Sometimes in that stuff you saw black musicians and actors, and you’d hear equal rights and civil rights alongside stop the war give peace a chance rhetoric, which was the louder echo when I was preteen or tween.
Just television – there seemed always more sports on than anything – once you actually meet someone of color, it’s apparent that race has no determinative factor in their abilities or their humanity. Yes, this is obvious and trite, conclusions I reached that are only clear that I did indeed reach – or rather was reaching – them upon looking back.
To reach the different conclusion – that generalizations based on raced are obvious because some prejudices are common sense derived from experience or instilled in you by upbringing – that is delusion, and delusion makes you crazy and mean or mean and stupid – like the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis with his family and military entourage — was headed towards Mexico hoping for asylum after Richmond fell and Lee surrendered. But Davis wanted to stay and fight an unwinnable battle. His plan was to join with beaten troops in the trans-Mississippi. He sent a short telegram of encouragement, how the logic this new strategy was sound because they were liberated of the need to defend southern cities. Now that they had lost, they were bound to win.
I can think of few clearer examples of delusion and perhaps an owner of more than 1,000 slaves could have no other outlook. The war was never really over for Davis, he fanned flames of the lost cause for the rest of his very long life, the repercussions of which continue to harm. More than 600,000 people dead, the states he went to war devastated by destruction. Remorse? Davis voiced no such reflection. His two volume autobiography/history of the 4-year old Confederacy simply concludes that the war was “impracticable but not illegal.” A best seller, the book so impressed Oscar Wilde he met with the rebel president during one of his speaking tours of America.
Patty and Maureen were Irish, and Patty’s boyfriend during the Dinkins era, was Italian – Gary, a cop in Fort Lee, college dropout, Yankee fanatic. Feelings may be mixed, but warmth is intertwined. With Maureen and Patty, by the early 90s – a decade after college – they had become more racist as they matured. It’s a trial by fire, your 20s, and the survival techniques acquired includes wisdom, and what can seem like good sense. The risk of course is conformity, especially appealing in the 1980s.
Reagan had a stabilizing influence, the protestors and the blacks in the 60s, the economy in the 70s. In the early 90s, racial tensions reemerged as news, exploited by Republicans. All black leaders were suspect – and the few like Dinkins who held office, focal points – these days, with social media, there’s so much more coverage and it’s on everybody’s phone – back then, some news clip and soundbite would be all you had – Maureen, Patty and Gary did not read the New York Times – and the rounds of chatter with friends and coworkers was just a means to reinforce racism – and a modicum of racism was acceptable and never enough to form a line not to be crossed – and now as a responsible adult, some of that attitude is normal and logical.
The blacks are burning down Los Angeles just like they did Newark and the Bronx!
Mark Knowles, the only black student at Teaneck High School, was long out of our lives, absconded to Florida last anyone heard.
The racism of Patty, Maureen and Gary did not suddenly appear when they voted Republican. It was rooted in America, but with different delusions than those held by the white descendants of the confederacy. Their families moved here after the Civil War – we’re blame-free of the historical crime. Those Ellis Island European immigrants – mainly the Irish, Italian, Polish and Jewish groups that I’ve known so intimately during my decades – are as convinced by their own rationalization as southerners. The delusion they share is that the subjugation of a race is morally justifiable because skin color either intrinsically or symbolically determines inferiority or superiority.
If you’re ignorant of factual evidence, then maybe your delusion is understandable. Once you learn new facts, you change your way of thinking. I can’t think of any more demonstrably true than skin color, race, as having absolutely zero effect on intelligence or morality. If you believe otherwise, there are one of two possibilities – you have closed yourself off from social contact so you cannot notice the empirical evidence of equality or you have noticed this readily apparent evidence yet refuse to be an anti-racist.
But, really, the first category is just as deluded as the second category. The only reason you’re choosing to close yourself off to interaction with people of color is you don’t want to challenge your presumption they’re inferior, thus a threat. Either way you’re an individual who is willfully ignorant.
What is the psychological cost of knowing something is untrue yet acting on it anyway? To act requires a belief that’s so deep that you are willing to die or kill or otherwise do harm because of this conviction. In the confederacy and Jim Crow era, segregation was the organizing principal and in some form or another, segregation persists and can be still be found as organizing principal in parts of America and American society today.
Certainly back in my day, it determined how the suburbs were divided up, and me and Patty and Gary grew up in circles not just nearly, purely white, but thoroughly laced with racism.
Now as I said, as I aged and met black people, I saw that we are all just human beings sharing the burden of being born and living in New Jersey. It may have taken time and living and reading to really breakdown and unpack that idea and see the it in terms of degrees, and to see that tolerating racism is racist even if you believe in equality and have never said anything racist or harbor racist thoughts – but the ignorance of the idea – the sickening anti-intellectualism, America’s greatest social ill, at the root cause of all other injustices and dysfunctions in our society – appalls me. I knew this at a young age, long before I knew the words needed to explain.
Maureen, Patty and Gary would insist on no subtitles when we rented movies. I was always outvoted. They had become like the adults I remember, the neighbors and parents and older kids who basically blamed all the problems on the blacks. Back then, if there was no person of color within earshot – almost always the case anyway – they didn’t even bother to whisper the n-word.
I worked in Stop & Shop, a carriage boy then cashier and it was there I had my first conversations with black folks. I can’t recall their names, but both from Paterson, always friendly to me and I to them.
A rather large black woman, read a personal leather-bound bible on breaks. My catholic education made me very familiar with Jesus. We talked about gospel stories.
The other African American employee was a guy, Vietnam Veteran – he may have been the first Vietnam veteran I ever met. Very quiet man. One time I had probably smoked too much pot or stayed up all night but I was alone in the break room and fell asleep with my head in my arms leaning on the lunch table. I looked up deeply groggy. He was in the doorway.
It’s cool, rest. I’m keeping an eye out for any managers.
I was the youngest worker there, sixteen year old part timer. My older white colleagues – which was everybody else except the aforementioned Paterson residents – full timers, managers and assistant managers, produce, meat, deli, dairy, frozen – they acted differently when the black employees were in the breakroom.
Not tension, no… discomfort… because they were talking to black people, they had to go out of their way, make an effort, to sustain a conversation. They didn’t resent it exactly, but bridging a cultural divide it wasn’t either. Condescension always seemed present. I distinctly remember this one white guy would shift modes, using what passed for African American parlance of the time – learned by watching the Flip Wilson Show no doubt – out of sight, solid – Brother – no one at the table sure how much of the discomfort they felt could be revealed – then a minute or two after the black guy returned to work the white guy lost the lingo and whispered stupid [n-word].
I didn’t laugh, but didn’t know what to say. I felt this way often, growing up. Not knowing what to say – I was sixteen, introverted. Adults scared me. You never could tell when they’d start yelling. My parents or some teachers may not have been racist, but silent acceptance of other’s racism was the only acceptable reaction. The majority of adults were and the majority of kids repeated what they heard at home. Paramus had no black people, yet many white people seemed obsessed with African Americans, a constant compulsion to spew their negative opinions about them.
I didn’t say anything because this upset feeling made me too flustered. I went back to parking lot patrol in search of shopping carriages. I didn’t have the language or emotional infrastructure to express outrage.
Everything about black people seemed to be derogatory. What little they were on television seemed positive – Lieutenant Uhura! – but that’s just television, not the real world. I don’t remember the word racism or racist being the terms used – bigot and bigotry were the terms du jour – an unspecified hate, maybe makes it understandable. I got no problem with [n-word]s, they’d say. As proof, they’d offer their devotion to sports then praise the natural abilities of Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson. We don’t want them in Paramus, but they can be on my team.
I had no interest in sports, always finding them boring to watch and antagonizing to play. I skipped gym class every opportunity. I’ve worked years of blue collar then decades of white collar jobs. Inevitably, guys and many women, talk sports, the game the night before. Autumn Mondays were particularly dreary. That Stop & Shop was my first experience with this –the breakroom had a Daily News and/or Bergen Record and every male except me would flip through the pages when on break and comment on the Yankees or Giants or Knicks and on and on – discussions I’d be forced to eavesdrop on – and like a third of the time, the race angle was the subject under debate. Either joke or serious opinion – the same gravitas used when analyzing strategy or statistics – or a combination of both – race as a determining factor – slaves were bred for strength and agility – came up. Sports talk, even references, bored me immediately, then being asked to consider some inane racist theory. That’s why they can’t play hockey and I mean that as a compliment!
On a business trip circa 1992 to Dallas, the very successful owner of large Optical Laboratory during the small talk lull after whatever business at hand was completed seriously explaining why blacks are unable to be quarterbacks. There was no rancor in his heart, just proven science. Nobody in that room to offend, besides we’re talking football.
I Am Sick Of Hearing That Crap
Black people didn’t live in Paramus. You had to trust what people who knew better because they’re older said. Other fathers taught us the word Jungle Bunnies while driving through Hackensack and pointing out black people – don’t let their normal American clothes fool you these animals are the same Jigaboos you see in National Geographic or Tarzan movies.
Archie Bunker racism was funny, but never as thought provoking as intended, certainly not enough to redeem it. He might have suffered comeuppance at or just after an episode’s climax, but his racism never cost him anyone he loved. It never negatively affected – or inspired us to doubt – the goodness of the man.
One time I repeated an Archie Bunker line that had been echoing in the 7th grade classroom that day. I repeated it to dad later that night.
Kimball Herrick glared at me. I am sick of hearing that crap.
I can still see the seriousness of my father’s visage. Our relationship was rarely easy, or even friendly. This reprimand had a different tone, his voice remained unraised. The crap was racism. He never joined in with when the other fathers issued a slur or some piece of wisdom about agility or laziness or causing the majority of America’s problems. He would stay silent, but you have to understand this was the era. No matter how you felt about the war or civil rights – the protests were destabilizing our country, playing right into the hands of communist Russia and China. Those children of the depression who then fought WWII believed stability was morality. America right or wrong!
Dad was a man of action, never understood his introspective, dreamy son who never shared his enthusiasm for Scouting.
Was he aware that I was growing up in an all-white town with every other adult convincing others to share their prejudices? Did he see how racism was being instilled even if unintentionally by this good family man from Queens?
Mr. Flynn was a plumber, his son Kevin in the Panther Patrol, which I founded and was for a brief time, Patrol Leader. One time, we loaded used dental equipment – chair and rinse-and-spit sinks into a truck, then we piled into a station wagon and followed the truck into Paterson and attracted a small crowd of African-Americans mostly kids as we unloaded the equipment and hauled into this office building.
If any adult ever explained any reason why we were doing this act of kindness, I don’t remember. Children were told what to do and after they were done could engage in limited conversation until the next order was given. I have this memory of a bunch of us boy scouts moving dental equipment from Paramus deep into Paterson. Dozens of black kids were playing in the streets. The ruckus caused was minor, but noisy, mostly very friendly. We had never been to Paterson or anyplace like it before. Even Hackensack was mostly suburban and far less crowded.
That same summer, the second visit to Paterson was even more exciting. The Indian Lore Dance Team at Paterson Park. My favorite part of boy scouts was the Indian Lore Dance Team. My father was a genuine Native American buff. He loved boy scouts, hiking, camping, making Native American costumes. By his request, we buried him in his scout master uniform.
You earned the merit badge by making an authentic costume – you actually had to do some research and buy materials to make the customers from authorized dealers. For some reason I’m remembering The Gray Wolf Catalog. I made a Black Foot Medicine Man Headdress – fake fur and plastic bull or buffalo horns – I laced them to the fake fur with rawhide – and a Ghost Dance Shirt, where I painted this primitive Hawk, or was it felt and paint. Red or was it blue, but the beak was yellow.
Troop 138 Indian Lore Dance Team was famous, appearing at school fairs and boy scout events in Bergen County and perform our dances, Kiowa War Dance, a Cherokee Rain Dance – these were authentic tribal dances, the Indian Lore Merit Badge required cultural learning. We had a teepee and drums, danced with rattles – some costumes had bells and we shook toy guns and rubber tomahawks and let loose our inner savages. For July 4th we’d have a flat-bed truck where we set up the teepee and danced and hollered. Sure beat wearing Boy Scout uniform and marching up Fairview Avenue
This one hot summer night the Indian Lore Dance Team went to Paterson. It was a city park, and a crowded affair, not overwhelmingly, just a lot of kids, our age, younger, older, families. I distinctly remember it being outside, a park, more than two hundred people, by far our largest non-exclusively boy scout audience. Not one white face. None of the guys had never even been near a person of color, now we were vastly outnumbered. Dad wore his handmade Lakota Sioux Chief costume – full feathered headdress, bead work along his sleeves and shoulders – and we did our show. These kids were rowdy, very friendly but really loud and making fun of us but not meanly. Hoops and hollers and friendly jeers. It was the most fun I had in my twelfth year of life.
Kimball stayed scout master for years after I lost interest. He saw it as giving back to the community and he liked camping. I sometimes wonder if he idolized Teddy Roosevelt as a youth. Eventually he retired as scout master, actually mentored other fathers, many veterans of Korea and Vietnam. The Indian Lore Dance Team lived on – no one kept their merit badge costumes, they were donated to the troop – my headdress was still being used when I was in college. An African American father and his two sons – they lived in Englewood Cliffs – by the 80s, there were fewer kids and less interest in boy scouts – the Indian Lore Dance Team was made up of members from many troops, not just 138.
Really nice fellows, they came to my father’s funeral, still noteworthy in Paramus, still a white stronghold in 1988. I wonder how long into the 1990s my Blackfoot Medicine Man headdress lasted.
Running out of Bullets
For my birthday they surprised me with a visit to a shooting range in Hoboken. I hate surprises good or bad, but I easily relented. We had some good times, this was one most notable.
I fired his automatic hand gun, wore the ear mufflers, whole deal. The building was cinder block, basic, divided into lanes like a bowling alley. Gun powder permeated the air, America’s inescapable perfume. Targets were at the end of each lane, a full front silhouette in dark black ink. The shots were loud, unmistakable. My joke was I might have better aim if the picture was a woman.
It was great fun. At Boy Scout Summer camp I won a marksman patch, shot skeet. I like shooting but not enough to do it often, or even again. Gary was a nice guy to his friends, often thoughtful. I gained profound respect for the seriousness of firearms. Guns are cool, but when they’re not metaphors they’re a tool that requires maximum alertness.
Gary told me about a body he had to Identify. An ant infested corpse, died in a motel room, a few days before someone complained to the manager about an odor. The highway motels along those N.J. highways were depraved dens of prostitution, crack smoking. He had to tell somebody, his wince was painful the way he talked about the ants. The image was fresh in his mind, ants swarming into a bullet wound in his head. It would be there forever.
After Maureen broke it off and moved away, I never saw any one from that part of my life again. I never felt the need to stay in touch with any of them post this split, nor they I.
A few moments perhaps, now that I recall, were if not tense – nothing like yelling or arguing – just like pushing each other’s buttons just to laugh at our different outlooks and that I wasn’t a cop. Or maybe it was that I totally lacked an interest in sports or similar guy talk. We both loved going to mass. And, he needed a confidant for more important guy talk, Patty.
I always had a feeling she was probably a repressed lesbian – she retained tomboy mannerism well into her 20s. I had seen several boyfriends come and go, she could harp on them with the relentlessness of the rack or waterboarding. Gary got it the worse—he was from Fort Lee and lived in his parent’s house and wanted to – I swear to God – Paramus. This dude saw my hometown as the American Dream and I wanted to burn it down and salt the earth so nothing evil could grow there again but had to settle for recounting tales from the Borough to my psychoanalyst every Tuesday. Patty wasn’t focused on her biological clock, she had a Manhattan apartment and new on the job.
One time they flew to Florida, some surprise weekend getaway Gary funded. Patty refused to have sex with him. She had to talk to Maureen, who was a school psychologist. She discussed it in real time with Maureen, then Maureen asked my opinion. Life is short, Gary’s a nice guy, good looking too. Whether it’s mutual love or a mercy fuck, Patty should give it up and enjoy the beach.
Maureen was way more uptight sexually in her 30s than her early 20s. She never talked about her previous marriage. She once reprimanded her sister for having a one night stand on a single’s cruise. I don’t think she passed along my advice but mercy fuck made her laugh. Sometimes she even repeated it with a smirk before the good times stopped rolling.
Jersey City, pre-gentrified. More ghetto, to use common parlance. Newark Avenue had four dollar stores and a Woolworths and not a restaurant insight, other than Helen’s Pizza and a Burger King. During the subsequent decades, it’s not so much that waves of people of color were driven away. The ethnic cleansing occurred due to the white population growing much faster than black and Hispanic populations. I’m sure the lack of affordable housing has nothing to do with it. But it’s still more diverse, there’s more Asians –of all kinds – Arabs and Africans than there used to be – lots of Spanish from South and Central America – but back then, it was mainly African American and Puerto Rican – the remaining white population were aging. Maureen and I were among the first of the new pioneers, among the first wave of yuppies,
Gary always had a gun, a pistol in a holster he would keep on his ankle. He’d come over and just place it in the closet, out of sight, before sitting down. A quirk easy to get used to, but the first time I quipped, are you afraid of Jersey City?
No, I’m afraid of running out of bullets. I’ve seen your neighborhood. There was no doubt in which neighbors he’d be emptying the gun chamber.
This tragic shooting in Hackensack occupied several news cycles. A 16 year old black male was fatally shot by a police officer. Was there cause? Of course, other than skin color, there was no cause and as these things went, the cop was found not guilty. A major news story at the time, lines were drawn.
Come on Gary, I said 16? He was just a kid.
Maureen, now working in Jersey City schools for students she despised, said 16 year olds can look older than their age.
Then Gary said this cop knew something not released to the press. The kid had a record, but they’re sealed because he’s a juvenile. The family’s no good. The father was an armed drug dealer, in and out prison his whole life, like father like son.
Maureen would give me crap after they left. We were bickering more often anyway, me provoking Gary was a favorite topic. He hates black people, it’s obsessive. I hate that kind of crap.
Not all of Gary’s views are wrong, as a School Psychologist I see their kids, they’re animals.
It wasn’t that I shouldn’t give my opinion, but my opinion was warped, too liberal. I’ve only gotten more progressive, but the political stuff was tiresome, cable TV clips. Maureen and I fell apart – the arguments about money and the future and all the usual couple subjects – one other point of contention was her racism and tolerance of racism among her friends. I thought they were our friends, but love is war and collateral loyalties are battle dependent.
Reverend Al Sharpton was in the news a lot. He’s had a few incarnations, at this juncture he was in the velour outfits, wavy coiffure, medallion the size of a dinner plate. Sharpton protected James Brown when this great artist was dealing with a substance abuse problem and harassment from Tennessee law enforcement that was relentless and sadistic. Only the Rolling Stone seemed to cover this story, Sharpton has been a hero to me ever since. He selflessly enabled one of our great artists to have a finish his career with dignity and a few really fantastic tracks.
In soundbites, Sharpton could be goofy. But the interviews he was doing in the print media, New York Times, Village Voice, he honestly was a fresh voice on race, logical, intelligent, an original and compelling way with words. His honesty and morality self-evident, his Christianity genuine.
Still, a lightning rod. Less than two years after the breakup, mid-90s, the family across the street from us in Paramus suffered the passing of their son, Bobby Dressel, who was older than me but a major figure in my childhood, took his own life age 4s. An Italian family originally from Jersey City. At the wake one of his cousins seemed to take a liking to me, we talked and talked. She was sexy too, I liked her and she seemed very interested in Jersey City, how she would love to see it again.
Somehow she mentioned Al Sharpton. He was in the news, spokesperson of the moment, everywhere, Ocean Park, Crown Heights, that Hackensack shooting – Black Lives Matter is a link in a very long chain – she was one of these racists prone towards dangling bait to see if you share her belief that black people are ruining America. It’s not overt, or even some secret hand shake, in fact it was barely intentional. That’s racism’s delusion, a side effect, the obsessiveness. Smart small talk with someone you just met often dwells on news and Sharpton was in the news and her opinion of him she knew was clever, and correct.
I agreed with Sharpton, I said. I gave my opinion about Sharpton – his own worst enemy type of formulation – smarter than he appears on television, the how vast the gap between news coverage and likely reality was pretext. I didn’t go into the James Brown story.
She blinked, then squinted. Her ears now deaf. She was thinking either she had misheard me or heard correctly and could not believe her ears. My Paramus cousin’s neighbor just said he liked Al Sharpton. Did I hear right, you agree with the what-cha-ma-call-it – equal rights?
She didn’t flip out or anything, her shock eventually passed. She said a few polite but racist things that I didn’t bother to challenge. What seemed like a mutual attraction opportunity, greased by the aphrodisiacal impulses intrinsic to grief and funerals, faded away. Sharpton was a deal breaker, conversation killer. If you’re for him in any way, you’re against me, my family and everything I hold dear. Light brown hair, a hot body I would never see naked. Delusion is tragic.
Gary always had some story or another or an opinion to bestow about black people, whispering the n-word only when we were at a restaurant or bar. He interacted with a lot of African American men, mimicked their accents when told stories.
You just pulled me over and search my car because I’m black. Here’s a dime, I said, go call Al Sharpton.
A few months later, another couple’s date Another driver gave him crap about being pulled over. I won’t listen to them anymore, he said. I’m just doing my job. I tell this guy, here’s a dime go call Al Sharpton.
Hey Gary, you already told me that story.
Not this one, he said. This happened two nights ago.
How often do you make your Al Sharpton joke with the dime?
Two or three times a week at least. I say it all the time.
Red Striped Shirt
I remember wearing this red striped shirt and that I was driving the big green automobile, Grand Marquis 1979, which I bought used and was the last car I owned. I can’t remember if Mark and Maureen and I had one last time together as friends – we graduated in 1982 – I lived at home then with Donna – truly the love of my life if love is measured by visceral intensity. What the hell, survival is learning to cope with the wreckage of having lived.
It took me a while to get the career together. The 1980s as a period of sustained economic growth is utter bullshit. Reagan’s economic policies resulted in the highest inflation and unemployment rates in history, and a devastating stock market crash in 1987. Career building was one obstacle after another, no one had money to spend, no one was hiring and in my industry desktop publishing wasn’t affordable for most companies until the decade’s end.
This very brief period – after my father passed in 1988 – after Donna, before moving to Manhattan, I was an editor of a magazine, finally making real money, and on the periphery of the fashion media world, had a happening wardrobe – narrow red stripes, cotton jacket – up casual was the then new category. Covering and writing about fashion trends honed my sense of style.
Psychoanalysis was also having a tremendous effect. I was a mess, but doing the best I could. The Donna cataclysm reigned terror, the vicious breakup and an emotional breakdown in Las Vegas. I was at a trade show in role as Editor of Army Navy Store & Outdoor Merchandiser –independent retailers of casual apparel, work clothes and camping equipment – an industry now dust, but then at a peak. She ended it without warning just after Valentine’s Day. I was still grieving my father, who passed November 14.
I had to share a room with Bob Keymer, dear friend, a kind of mentor, fifteen years my senior, he was on the business side and groomed me as a marketing editor. More of an older beatnik than hippie, born and raised and never lived anywhere else but New York City, and only Manhattan, working in trade magazine publishing since the late 1960s. I was drinking Vodka nonstop as we prepared for a Vegas night of black jack and lounge bars where tacky bands were human jukeboxes, you want oldies, new wave, they can play it, they play everything and it might be hackwork for these cats, but sometimes they would let inspired solo riff. I remember hearing a Can’t Hurry Love at the Sands – nobody paying attention but me— that was honestly some most brilliant pieces of music I ever witnessed live. What’s better than hearing a short set of music to pass the time after a day’s work but still not home.
Bob loved gambling, an activity that bores me but when in Rome. Working those conventions were hard – nonstop business talk and small talk, promoting the magazine, watching for trends, new products, story ideas, taking photographs for the story on the show — I was ready to blow off steam. Only a few days, Donna and I this sleepless night of argument – awful and tense – love, heartbreak breeds not healing, but the need to hurt. When I wasn’t working, I’m a devastated shell unable to read or watch movies or care about anything.
Bob and I had worked the Vegas show before. I never made it to the lounges that night. I was out of the tradeshow floor suit – in the straight leg black jeans and debuting this black silk shirt from Macy’s –smoking and drinking heavy. Then I got very quiet and could only stop the room from spinning by going to the bathroom and heaving out everything in my stomach. Bob woke me in the wee wee hours, assisted me off the tiled floor. Instead of going to his favorite Vegas hangs – he’d been going on business trips here for like 20 years, his kind of town – he only hit the Hilton tables, didn’t want to leave the hotel with me passed out, came up once or twice to check on me.
He gave me the name of her wife’s shrink. He explained that she was black, if you’re uncomfortable maybe she could refer you to someone else. It was as much as Dorothy being a woman as it was her not being white and Bob was only pointing this out because of the nature of the healthcare she was providing – counseling. He didn’t have to state the obvious, you will be getting personal.
I gave a thoughtful answer. An issue I was thinking about, and quite frankly still ponder, is the difference between racism and prejudice. Is there a certain point where racism only seems like racism, but is actually a cultural bias. I’m not saying it’s justified, a case-by-case scenario applies – but the opinion, thought or action is not derived from preconceptions about race (or religion, gender, sexual orientation, on and on…). As long as we’re aware of them, cultural biases can be acceptable behavior, perhaps something either we can’t much change or are not a danger to others so why even quibble?
Prejudice though, prejudging someone just because they are of a different race, or gender or religion or sexual orientation or culture is something that must be consciously avoided.
I’ve been using racism (and will be continuing to do so) in the way everybody uses it, which is fine and so what. My core peeve with the word, racism – a bigger problem than might be realized and sadly one that’s too late to much about – is that it covers the gamut, from a slight to a lynching – and when it’s just a slight the question of whether it was intended or unintended, the same word is really the answer for both – it doesn’t make the word racism meaningless, but it does make coming up with solutions– from the behavioral realm to the legislative – perplexing.
Prejudice though, that’s something you can do something about. I am not prejudice, everyone’s a child of God. It’s not that I like everybody, I’ve been fucked over plenty. I’m often judgmental, always with cause of course… but prejudging someone, never.
Anybody with training can do anything, I told Bob. I don’t care about race. If she’s good enough for Mary, she’s good enough for me.
Psychoanalysis worked wonders – I worked through the grief and Donna’s toxicity, transitioned from Paramus to Manhattan – and it was when the therapy was new that I wore the Red Striped Shirt to say farewell to Mark, and to meet with Maureen for the first time in well over five years.
I didn’t hang out regularly with Patty or Mark after college, every couple of months we’d check in, sometimes the three of us, but usually me with one or the other. Patty was a paralegal, worked in the legal system and Mark was a bartender. I probably saw Mark more often, but rarely more than once a month, gradually every other month, and so it went.
Maureen called me once to apologize. She’d gotten married less than a year after our split, which ended in a painful divorce. At what stage the divorce was at when she called I do not remember. She was drunk, her voice slurred. It was not a 9th or whatever step thing. I had gotten one of those, much later of course, from Donna when she was in rehab.
Spoiler alert: Maureen was an alcoholic. When we rekindled and moved into together, she was drinking every night. Actually, another serious love of my life, Nancy, now in AA. I attract alcoholic woman. I’m not an enabler, I’m just no enforcer. Drink, don’t drink, not for me to say. Alcohol is fun and drunk or sober, we all die…. I’m digressing.
Maureen had heard my father had passed, she liked him very much and wanted to express condolences. Her father died of brain cancer when we were still freshman, before the end of the second semester. We got serious in March, her dad was gone by May. His head was wrapped in bandages when I met him –nice to meet you he said, momentarily lucid.
In retrospect, his death – her grief, my consolation – forced us together in ways we were not ready for, accelerating and intensifying the relationship. So hot for each other, both inexperienced, burning with that insatiable lust only catholic guilt fosters. Once you start sinning might as well go through all the ones you can think of. Sometimes in deep reverie or while dreaming or just waking from a dream she’s in, I still taste that pussy. You’re only in love like that when you’re young like that.
Sophomore year she had an abortion, by Junior year I was cheating on her, most notably with Stephanie, the secret affair like a real writer or that girl I met at an economics seminar in Virginia. Lying about it was the destructive act, the sin if you will. The college years were well covered in my sessions with Dorothy. The new shirt signaled healing. An important step for you is to do something not Donna-related, the clinical psychologist advised.
It was not planned as a farewell to Mark. He had talked about moving to Florida for years, but recently spent an extended visit, the plans seemed more concrete. He seemed preoccupied, those sorts of gatherings are a bit forced. You’re glad to see each other, the friendship meant so much, but once the reminiscences run their course, you’re simply no longer part of each other’s lives and too many distractions will interfere with your present responsibilities.
Mark never graduated Stockton. He’d take classes, although many he dropped or took incompletes. Then he’d run out of money and go back home to Teaneck, take classes at Jersey City State College, which he went to after high school. He transferred to Stockton to be with Maureen and Lou, his closest high school friends.
Super talented artist, illustrator as I recall – he did this drawing once – we were on speed and I was typing and away at the kitchen table and he depicted the kitchen scene books and notebooks, ashtray and bong, but as a reflection the chrome of the toaster – it was actually a sketch of the toaster. But he was also taking business courses, couldn’t quite decide on a major and love to party more than study. He always got work as a waiter, now he was moving into restaurant management.
Maureen was working at group homes for the mentally challenged and might have or was about to start a graduate program to become a school psychologist. The fact I was seeing a woman shrink impressed her. We were wistful about aging – not that you’re old, but the youth is gone – funny how you feel older at 29 than at 39 or even 49 – afterwards, doesn’t matter how old you feel, you’re old.
Everyone was heading into white collar work, except for Mark. Mark, Patty, Maureen – went to the same high school, then college. Mark and I became deep buddies, had lots of adventures – basically, Maureen and I were the golden couple, deep love, especially in the semesters Mark was around. We saw all the big movies together – Caddy Shack, Indiana Jones. The memories we shared were warm, the sadness about youth being over, very sweet.
It was before the internet, so there was no staying in constant touch. I don’t know when Mark left. I wasn’t in contact with Maureen until after Patty and I were both living at opposite ends of Manhattan. No one heard from Mark again, although Maureen and I talked about him often. One of the few things we never fought about.
I never met Gary until after Patty was living in New York. Gary had met Mark, did not like him, which Patty told me in hushed tones. Apparently some sort of thing did not go well. Not because he was black, but because was gay, she insisted.
Two Marks, dark Mark and Mark from Fort Lee, Eisenberg. Patty dated Mark Eisenberg for a while, seemed to be serious. She liked men who grew up in Fort Lee. The famed Saint Patrick’s Day trip the two Marks, Patty Maureen and I – tweaked up and drunk, swearing allegiance and friendship forever – declaring how great people we all are.
At one point, white Mark asked me, can I kiss you. We were sitting away from each other. I said sure and he kissed me lovingly, no tongue, on the lips. One of my only gay moments, but apparently Mark had more to choose from.
Mark Knowles – honestly, Dark Mark was a term Patty came up and with used often, I didn’t bother – told me all about his gay life after graduation. He was out and about. He came out of that closet and never looked back.
Mark told me that he dated the other Mark. They drank together at Feathers, the notorious gay bar in River Edge New Jersey. It was notorious for more than just being the only gay bar in Bergen County.
Around this time or just before this time, I worked as a local reporter for the Sunday Post and Town News, local newspapers for towns, that included River Edge. Part of the beat was the Police Blotter, where every week I would visit each cop shop and report on the crimes, typically burglaries, shoplifting, major traffic violations. Once a man decapitated himself by laying down on the N.J. Transit tracks between Emerson and Oradell.
In River Edge, nearly every week, arrests in the Feathers parking lot for indecent exposure and lewd behavior. Cops busted men for getting too frisky in the privacy of their own automobiles. My joke was they had their hands on their felonies.
I had actually been to Feathers. So, one of the semesters Mark spent away living in Teaneck, he visited with his friend Chip. Nice fellow, short and thin and lush handlebar mustache. At one point he was us three, we were by this lake in Port Republic. Mark took me aside, Chip watching from a distance. He came out of the closet. Tim, I’m gay.
He came out to me because we were close friends, and comparatively, I was the most open minded. I loved Jean Genet and Allen Ginsberg, and I chatted with Chip about Confessions of a Mask. Also, my older sister had gay friends when she was in high school. I was around it a lot more than Patty or Maureen. It was my job to break Mark’s news to our circle after he left.
No one was surprised. Mark was effeminate, soulful but, not very manly. He hated sports as much as I. He had lots of women friends, and unlike the rest of us guys never talked about them sexually but our hormones were too loud for us to notice his lack of participation. His other guy friends, from outside the Bergen County expats circle, were really good looking too and always single.
It’s not the others in the circle were homophobic, it’s just that there hadn’t been an opportunity to express a lack of it. A visible gay community just wasn’t apparent on campus, certainly no one opposed such a thing. I’m sure that has long changed since then. I told Mark I was proud he trusted me enough to tell me and I said I don’t care about it, etc., etc., everything you’d expect.
To our credit, the circle of friends all welcomed it and life went on. We loved Mark. On a visit up north, as a sign of support of his new lifestyle, Maureen and I went with him to Feathers.
My first encounter with gay culture, disco music, a dance floor, loud, lots of good looking guys. It was summer and after we ran of money to buy drinks at the bar, we were hanging out in my parent’s backyard, smoking and talking.
Maureen and I went inside and we spontaneously and quietly fucked in the upstairs bathroom while my parents slept. So decadent. Was it some sort of involuntary heterosexual protest? Or was the sexual tension – this was pre-AIDS, college time – so pervasive that anyone within its realm were affected? Feathers was sweaty and erotic. The instant we had enough privacy for a deep kiss, she wanted me inside her.
I never went to Feathers again, but Mark always had stories about the place. Once he was naming guys we knew in college that he had seen there, one of them being Mark Eisenberg. We blew each other, he shrugged it off. Everybody’s gay Tim.
Which he said, not meaning I’m gay, but that now that he was out of the closet, he’s no longer astounded by how many men are gay.
This was before the Nirvana song, in fact it seemed to be a statement common in the culture well before Kurt Cobain copped it. Mark was telling me this in joy, basking in the thankful awe of someone fresh with the buzz of being sexually free and discovering a strange and growing culture that supported you for being yourself.
I envied homosexuals. Women are nothing but trouble.
I don’t remember how Mark Eisenberg came up again during one of the couples outing several years later.
We were somehow talking about Patty’s boyfriends, and there was this guy Eric – actually his name wasn’t Eric, I don’t remember his name – he was tall, strapping, very blonde. He may have taken a class or two, but he worked as a cab driver. Eric was a lug, had a mild Irish brogue.
Patty was telling us that he was gay. She had an encounter with him after they had dated and he came out to her.
That makes two I said, Eric and Mark Eisenberg.
He wasn’t gay, she said. He wasn’t like Eric.
Not then maybe, but Mark dated Mark.
Dark Mark? They didn’t date.
Maureen scoffed, how do you know that?
Mark Knowles told me.
He told you they dated?
He told me they gave each other blow jobs in the parking lot of Feathers. I don’t know anything else about their relationship, but one night they sucked each other’s cock.
What! yelped Gary. Wo-ho! That’s disgusting.
You’re kidding, said Patty, shocked.
We blew each other, that’s what Mark told me. They had some fun, found a moment of happiness in this suck shit world. Big deal.
This caused an even bigger outcry, an outrageous opinion to hold. Always the radical, the immature contrarian. Although blackness cannot be closeted, their homophobia similar to their racism – it’s not like they support public executions or legal discrimination – but keeping them out of sigh out of mind is the only acceptable social order.
7-A was the name of this diner in the East Village that I liked when I lived there. The menu was old school enough, yet the new age motifs reminded me of New Hope or Woodstock. Hippy, Country charm, wholesome, natural, same price as other diners… great breakfast sausage, miniature muffins… somebody told me that it was a Lesbian place. I think it was a situation where the owners were lesbians so gay women frequented there out of support. The friend who clued me in was a Lesbian and basically informed I had accidently stumbled into a den of gay culture. It was not a bar decorated with Sapphic bric-a-brac, just a diner with the best tiny muffins on the isle of Manhatto.
The vibe was hip yet kind and cozy. I went there more than once before I was informed me a Lesbian bar, except instead of booze they served brunch. The idea seemed silly – the place was a hole in the wall eatery with no counter, just tables and booths. How much networking gay or otherwise can be done at brunch? I had discovered this place on my own, it never seemed overly gay to me even I after knew.
We had finished eating, outside the restaurant, when Maureen snaps her head towards me and says in an angry whisper. Do you see those two women kissing, it just grosses me out. That place was filled with gays.
Who cares, I said, glancing in all directions wishing hoping for actual girl-on-girl action. I was being honest. I didn’t care, it wouldn’t occur me to care, especially at that age, 30, 31? How could you still be so homophobic?
Notice I said so, as if to indicate that an exaggerated level of bigotry exists and is agreed to be unacceptable by moral humans but even then, there’s a certain level at the very least discomfort and the very worst is considered a grave sin with eternal consequences. Forget so, how could you be homophobic at our age and our time and we are in the East village and had a hearty, handcrafted breakfast and the entire city to be here just for us and two strangers expressing affection ruins your day.
People like that come here to get away from people like you. I came here to be away from people like you.
Where is your heart, Maureen and Patty and Gary? Are you the boos Dinkins heard?
In fact, yes. People can get less bigoted, but not them or at least then. They were aging to the right.
Adulthood, embrace it. You had reached an age of stability, achieved some degree of self-knowledge. You know you who are and what you like and live up to your responsibility. It took hard work, and our families had nearly no money, and not having the proper attitude towards the blacks is as irresponsible as not knowing your credit rating.
No one helped you and look where you are. Assume African Americans are criminals until proven otherwise. Better safe than sorry. Martin Luther King might have made some good points, for back then, but they got what they wanted, they can vote and they get all that welfare, and Sharpton is no MLK. The 1960s are over.
He’s Taking From Those With The Least
All this bullshit about smaller governments, cut everything. To the best of my recollection this is an example of my opinion about Reagan back in the 80s. What I hate is they cut everything but the Military budget.
You are taking away what little people have, some people that’s all they have, said Mark. He’s taking from those with the least
I forget where along the Reagan administration we were at but right then and there, I formed a plank in my permanent political platform.
I hadn’t thought of it like that before. I hated Reagan, but mostly in an anti-establishment way. We talked about a hell of a lot more other things than politics as we always did. His parents had died suddenly, he lived in the basement, I never got the full story. My own life was crappy cars and stupid jobs, accumulating clips dutifully photocopying them and resumes and applying for any writer or editor job I could.
College was the best time of my life, Mark once told me. Recalling the glory days, finding little current in common. In the 80s when we’d meet, uncomfortable lulls in conversation appeared, which never happened back in the day.
A depressing time, those Reagan years. Our lives were drifting apart, adulthood sucked. Hope’s pretty much impossible when your pay is shit and you’re stuck living in the house you grew up in.
Echoing in the back was the whole Welfare Queen rancidness, this political suspicion that black people were getting away with something. The backlash decade.
How could baby boomers vote in droves for Ronald Reagan, the right wing governor who tormented that state, ordering a blood bath to stop people from their legal right to assemble and speak. One argument is that by this time, the revolution was over with the ending of the war. The counter culture won the culture, no one is censoring Allen Ginsberg, but the economy is a market driven system and the corporations weren’t signing the draft cards, that was LBJ, a Democrat. Regan takes care of the corporations, and the corporations take care of America.
Do you know how much more of your money would be taken if you had to pay the price for an American made products. That’s a tax too! Your money!
I wasn’t thinking as deeply then, politically so with the historical perspective. I’d studied economics, capitalism wasn’t going away. I was still punk, and that’s a rejection of all sides. I always voted, but never trusted and never expected more freedom or justice. Not cutting defense while cutting welfare sounded like a clever insight, but it was someone still enthralled by neoclassical economic thought. Reporting on businesses and industries certainly reinforced that.
His remark halted me. Taking from the people who have the least. When you think about it, you wonder what good would that serve – a profoundly revelatory moment for me. In college, you consider these issues in the abstract. I had gotten food stamps as a student and some financial aid. My political outlook would be forever changed.
Concepts aren’t real – they’re true, even factual – but systems enable us to understand some aspects of wealth and value, designating some money as private and other funds public – what was that one professor said – people starve in the short term – smaller government made sense, less taxes meant more money in the public sphere – except most of that unleashed money goes to the 1 percent, a process bolstered by Reagan – it only makes sense in the abstract and even then, only to someone ignorant of the Great Depression and the New Deal, which at the time I was. I no longer hold any such delusions about over taxing the wealthy or the ability of government policy to be effective.
Tim, he was saying, which side on you’re on? You may now own suits, but you’re not rich, and that’s who prospers under republicans?
Who are you seeing first, why believe in the lie, the lie my friendship with Mark absolutely disproved. I hadn’t thought in terms of safety net yet. Government spending and taxes just some story in the news, relevant if peripheral to the work I was doing, the writing for money. Indirectly my dear friend made me realize that by not taking into the account everyone, especially the least among us, what the rich want us to ignore, that I am not being the objective poet that is my true self. If the purpose of an economy is to distribute scarce resources and if the objective of society is to establish justice and enable the pursuit of happiness, than welfare needs to be expanded.
I’m a Marxist it, no pun intended, now, but that’s just a silly joke for all sides of the entendre. Capitalism, Socialism, the economy has always been a mix of private and public money.
I believe in infrastructure, a human infrastructure just as necessary as water, energy, roads and bridges and railroads and all the other systems on which commerce and human activity rely. Food, shelter, healthcare, and education are individual rights and the government, federal government my fellow Americans, must ensure these rights.
The government must do for the people what the people can’t do for themselves.
Trite political dictums, truths for me. I studied philosophy deeply, I mean… it was a weird college, you were adrift and on your own and it was always like why are you studying something that will never get you a job… we must work, we’re taking out loans, financial aid, food stamps… versus I’m a writer and I know nothing and philosophy I loved studying, had a great professor… so that was the mindset when Mark and I became friends and our conversations were deep and eventually the abstractions evolved into ideas that could be applied.
Mark’s insight was a seed of wisdom that sprouted. I am the rare one. I’ve become more radical with age. My drift has always been leftward, guided by my personal experience, vast reading and extensive contemplation.
What is life but stretches of reverie interrupted by biology and social responsibilities required to sustain that biology. Sooner or later, that reverie must address issues in the social realm, thus a political philosophy is formed and sometimes you must apply this ideology by casting a vote.
More often than election day is every day, where it’s the formation that occurs, fed by information and the now. Radicalization, it was always there and while I’ve only publically demonstrated about a dozen times – increasingly with age, come to think of it – one remains informed and a consistent voter. How will this issue affect the least among us, answer that and you know my opinion.
Never as simple as it sounds, I grant you.
But I have Mark to thank for crystallizing this idea for me in a way that has been a driving force my entire life, politically speaking. I like to say that my political philosophy is based on the Sermon on the Mount and the songs of Woody Guthrie, but that’s how the ideology developed. Mark was the first to help me see why.
You’re Black, But You’re Not A [N-Word]
Tammi was the hottest chick in college and she dated Lou Julien, Mark’s best friend from Teaneck High School. He was a fellow philosophy student and we became buddies. He was a weight lifter and martial arts guy.
We were in classes together. He loved Eastern Philosophy and I, obviously, Western Philosophy, and this rivalry led to such wonderful discussions between us, dichotomies, dualism, parallels between Zen and Existentialism.
He and Mark Eisenberg were body builders – never missed an episode of The Incredible Hulk. Lou took me to the gym and gave me a weight lifting routine, showed me all the techniques and for a while there, I was in great shape. One semester where I studied Shakespeare and had a fiction writing workshop and had a girlfriend and a fun loving circle, a consistent routine, musculature, fall semester Junior year.
Lou being 19, rode his motorcycle without a helmet and wound up in a coma. I wasn’t at this party, but the story was retold with the seriousness of a New Testament parable. Nobody stopping him from getting on the bike or knew how many beers he had or that he taken acid. The party was on the beach, alongside a long stretch of desolate, empty highway. The revelers watched Lou ride towards the horizon then flip over, skid for more than 20 feet, head and body bumping against the pavement. Tammi saw the whole thing – they’d had a fight and he was leaving in anger – she was so traumatized she dropped out of school.
Hottest couple at Stockton. Lou was handsome, swarthy with jet-black hair, ripped. Tammi was from well south of Perth Amboy. Long, brown, wavy hair, incandescent tan, total playmate body. She radiated sex, appointed by nature as an object of desire. Mark and Lou roomed together and Mark said to me once, guess what I found in the garbage in the bathroom, an empty can of cool whip.
They’re too perfect not to fuck beautifully, I said. It’s like Hercules and Aphrodite.
Tammy’s south jersey town was more isolated than Teaneck. Mark was the first black person she ever was friends with, something she mentioned more than once.
I’ve only seen black people in Philadelphia before I met you Mark.
She was driving, Lou in the front, Mark and I in the back. Weed was being smoked. White horse pike, the black horse pike – one of those – landscapes green but barren – tiny towns still semi-rural populated by hicks and rednecks with as narrow a mind as anyone from the former confederacy possesses.
Tammi proclaimed: Mark, you may be black, but you’re not a [n-word].
Now, you have to understand, casual racism was an acceptable norm, but usually the n-word wasn’t used in the presence of a black person, unless maybe a fight. When only whites were present, the n-word was used freely, often referring to the black person who had just left the room.
She said the word matter-of-factly, it didn’t quite have the same shock value then as it does now, but close enough that one is either an idiot or insensitive to use it with no hesitation, and Tammy deeply cared about people she liked.
Mark was a really an outcast – at Stockton, the African American students were either from Atlantic City or Philadelphia or some New Jersey suburb of the city of brotherly love. Mark was from North Jersey. A significant cultural divide, often a source of tension as well. He only had white friends.
Tammi was a sexy piney into Yes and the Eagles and Lou a North Jersey Guido who loved the Ramones, David Johannsen and Robert Gordon. Their hotness transcended any differences. When Tammy said the n-word, it was used as a compliment to her lover’s best friend. What she said to Mark was nicest she thing she had ever said to a black person in her life.
Mark shook his head, said that is so racist. He was offended, but he wasn’t mad, just eye rolling.
I was in stoned hysterics. Tammi had no idea she was being racist. That always astounds me, how people can be ignorant of their own hate. Could she have been this hot without being this stupid, was that the tradeoff?
Like Hadji, From Johnny Quest
The Freshmen year summer, I worked unloading trucks and stocking shelves. This Route 17 store sold discounted bread, cookies, crackers, chips… nothing canned or refrigerated. Well-known brands found in any supermarket Entenmann cakes and donuts. Everything was half price, but closer to the expiration date than what you get at Stop & Shop or Pathmark.
I lied to work there. I rode my bicycle there and said I had dropped out of college and would not leave at the end of the summer. It was the only job I could find. Mid-August, I said I changed my mind and gave two weeks’ notice.
Maureen and I hadn’t seen each other often and when we did Mark was never there. She was working a cashier job, we were both carless. We talked on the phone and I mailed her occasional love letters.
Mark was the only black guy in school, he’s really cool, he’s an artist. She was excited he was transferring to Stockton.
Maureen said to meet him at this orientation meeting. He had campus housing, we lived off campus, Brigantine.
He was the only black guy there. I introduced myself as Tim, Maureen’s boyfriend. His eyes had an almond shape, his hair curly – an afro – he used a hair product I can’t remember which and a pick and when he combed his hair tiny ringlets soon coated the sink. His bright coffee complexion glowed.
Maureen and I didn’t live together. I rented a house far dingier than the blue house across from the dock on the bay. The ocean was blocks away now, me in this horrible roommate situation with two South Jersey guys, Pete and Andy. They were friends from Vineland or some such town deep in the expanse separating South Jersey from Philadelphia.
Andy beat me up once. My two body builder friends — Lou and Mark from Fort Lee, confronted him the next day and convinced Andy to apologize to me. Intimidating one of our redneck classmates was something these two North Jersey gym rats relished.
Andy was a surfer, would don a wetsuit and go in the ocean in the winter, take road trips to Cape Hatteras with other hometown rednecks. He had surfed in Australia and never stopped talking about the waves or how the girls were all skanks with fat asses. He’d actually show slides of surfing – no pictures of anything Australia, just pacific beaches and a faraway white body on a surfboard – he had no telephoto lens, photography was not even a hobby – and making sure to let everybody know he’d been to Australia The only interest all the girls Maureen and I knew had in Andy was hate. Well, not the first and far from the last New Jersey douche bag I’d encounter, just one of the biggest.
Pete was okay, nice kid. Told me he lost a ball to testicular cancer. One time his sister called, I’d never met her. I need to talk to my brother, now. He’s at work, a restaurant. She asked me what the number was, I didn’t know. Her voice was so tense, each word a struggle. I need to talk to him now. I fetched the phone book and looked up the restaurant and gave her the number and told her I would call and tell him to call you. Tell him to call home she said. Within the hour Pete was in the house, his face a blank. My mother died, then he went to his room to get some stuff and was out of the house five minutes later.
Mark and I were hanging with Pete one smoke filled night and Pete said something mildly racist. A “but” kind of thing as I recall, you know the prompt – I have nothing against black people, but this [n-word] did such and such… He was friends with Mark, I think they had a marketing class together.
Pete, Mark said, I’m black.
We were shocked, never expecting Pete would say something racist. We weren’t shocked he was racist, those rednecks from below Perth Amboy were unabashed honkies. But he was too nice a guy to so personally disrespect Mark.
Pete didn’t believe him. You’re black?
Mark nodded at the obvious.
I thought you were Indian.
Indian? I said. From India or like an Apache?
India! You don’t act black or talk black.
Even Mark hadn’t heard this logic before. We both were puzzled, until Pete explained.
I thought you were like Hadji, you know from Johnny Quest.
I was too incredulous to laugh or joke for at least five minutes.
Pete was dimwitted. He didn’t understand his intro to film class. He was puzzled that the professor called the movie they screened a black comedy even though all the actors were white. He had no idea what the teacher meant. It took a few explanations before he grasped the concept of dark humor and how it differed from Sanford & Son
Do Some Philosophizing
I can still feel the late summer sun that shone on our faces as Mark and I walked back to the campus housing where Mark now lived. A conversation that we kept going for a few years had begun. We instantly were friends, it’s the last time that kind of thing happened. My two oldest friends, Danny and Tony, we became instant friends too, mainly due to adjacent desks in 6th grade homeroom and High School Freshman Year History respectively. The same occurrence with Mark, the last time that happened, a sudden fact of fate. Friendships as deep occur throughout adulthood, but never as rapidly again.
That campus was like a terrarium with the manmade bodies of water encircled by paved paths and an evergreen wilderness but even this far inland, you always sensed the Atlantic and its not-so-distant salt. The actual biosphere was far more immense than we imagined.
Port Republic where I now lived had a tributary, where the Atlantic mixed with the Mullica River forming a large, three-sided pond of brackish water – two sides pineland forests and between the horizon and the caramel colored beach – greenish surf always contained a whiff of sewage. Less than a mile away Stockton’s landscaped lakes were surrounded by evergreens and beyond those trunks and branches the dark shingles of the student housing.
I had bad luck with cars, the worst being the Vega. I bought a used sliver functional vehicle, — a miniaturized station wagon – from Charlie Wilson, a classmate from Our Lady of Visitation Sophomore Summer, the only car I could afford. Mark and I drove down the parkway and somewhere south of Toms River the engine blew, issuing mechanical flatulence before dying completely. It never started again. My other car the Volkswagen met its demise in a New Year’s Eve collision. Carless life in New Jersey was a vagabond existence, hitch-hiking, buses and the often thin kindness of friends and family.
Vehicle removal from the major highway is a Garden State is a Triple-A scam. Most of my friends drove used cars manufactured in the Nixon or Johnson administration and getting towed was a common nightmare. You just hoped you broke down near a payphone.
Mark and I had no other choice but to hitchhike. No bus stations on the parkway. We were the last hitch hiking generation. Stick out your thumb, you get a ride. Stockton State College sold notebooks with black letters SSC on the cover so hitchhiking students could be identified easily by motorists, but that was when you were within that sphere of influence. On the garden state parkway you only had your thumb.
I never had a bad experience hitch hiking. We hitched hiked throughout Bergen County growing up. Kerouac didn’t invent hitch hiking, but he popularized the notion that discovering America was the individuals you meet on the road. Hitching back and forth to Stockton was convenient, never had to leave the Parkway.
The Paramus exit was at few blocks away from the 672 Terrace Drive homestead and the Port Republic House (junior & senior year) was next to an embankment. A car pulled over to the shoulder, you stepped over the knee-high railing and went down an ever so slightly steep hill.
You couldn’t just walk down, you had to keep moving, stumbling but rarely falling.
Salesmen picked you up the most often. They transverse the parkway and talking to a stranger more interesting than listening to the radio. I also remember a priest who only wanted to talk about sports and how they build character. Another guy, long haired and enthusiastic about his truck, which had an enclosed truck-bed, telling me how he was driving while his buddy was fucking a girl right behind us, right there in the back, as much space as any van. Then he drove I took my turn.
I never missed the hitchhiking days, never was very much inspired by the road experiences. The more an adventure can be planned the more interesting it proves to be. By my hitching era this means of transport seemed already on the wane. But you did meet characters, they usually wanted to talk or wanted to listen to you and that’s something that seems will never return. Two strangers trusting each other enough to travel together and share what’s on their minds.
We had our thumbs out more than two hours, nobody stopping. It’s because I’m black, said Mark, who I don’t think ever hitchhiked. They’re not stopping because I’m black.
It was well past midnight, the cars were fewer, one car stopped and before we get to it drove away. They had seen the color of Mark’s skin.
Finally… that was another hitchhiking cliché reenacted again and again… just when all hope is lost and you’re about to stop hitching and start hiking a driver takes pity on you. A Plymouth Fury stopped, one of those eight cylinder pre energy crisis automobiles only slightly smaller than a parade float. Two African American women, afros three times the size of Mark’s, the back seat entirely free. They were in a happy mood, on their way to gamble in Atlantic City’s new casinos.
We saw the soul brother and had to give him a ride. This admission was said with such glee. They were making each other laugh, enjoying each other’s company and picking up a hitchhiker was a good deed that could only bring good luck at the blackjack tables. I’ve never seen two people in a better mood.
He was just saying that people weren’t stopping because he was black, I said in good natured jocularity and it was taken as such. Now that I’m thinking about it, I was never picked up by a black person before and it would have been very dangerous for a black man to hitchhike the Parkway back then.
They were asking us about what we were studying. They asked Mark questions first, I remember that, like a real interview. Then they asked me and I said philosophy.
Do some philosophizing, said the driver, the same woman who called Mark soul brother.
I hesitated, but she was persistent.
I always thought in terms of philosophy as a noun, not a verb. I went back to Plato. Pure virtue, how it can never be reached because the truths we know are mere shadows on a cave wall, but why we must strive for it.
It’s 3:00 AM. I spent the summer unloading trucks so I could buy a car and now that automobile is kaput. My life has never made sense. I just begin spieling forth Plato. I still contemplate Plato’s ideas, but back then all the reading and papers and lectures were fresh in the mind. I philosophized my heart out. They had turned a switch that I never knew was there. Mark stared astonished. This was new.
We all felt sorry to part each other’s company. The luck at the tables we wished them could not of been more sincere. We clambered over the railing and trotted down the hill finally free of the Parkway.
Salt & Pepper
Lou was in his coma, or just getting out of his coma and Mark and I were visiting him in the hospital. He had bruises on his face and a cast on his leg. Other people were visiting or whatever and Mark and I sat in the dreary Holy Name Hospital ICU waiting area, a cramped space no bigger than a custodial closet. The only other people were two black girls, our age or slightly younger.
One of them interrupted us to tell Mark, you’re a faggot.
You’re not a black man, you’re a faggot. Listen to the way you talk.
Are we talking to you, I said. Mark kept silent. You know everything? You’re so perfect? Mind your own business.
You’re probably a faggot too.
Tim, please be quiet, said Mark.
I wasn’t going back to down, but the interchange wasn’t that extensive, the tension never escalated. No voices were raised. The hospital hushed and serious tones were never disturbed.
Either the girls or us got called into their visit and we departed company mere minutes after her verbal attack. It was just so strange. A black woman taunting Mark – not yelled at, not to provoke – just to demean. She saw Mark’s sexuality as an affront to racial pride, a disgrace to their people. She was angry, but eerily calm. Why wasn’t she like Mark and I, our minds on the loved one fighting for their life in the rooms down the hall. Maybe her compulsion to insult a stranger was an outlet for the emotional grief she was suffering, likely soon to become survivor’s guilt.
It was surreal, defending Mark’s honor to someone black. Until then, our interracial friendship was only a statement to white people, when it was a statement at all. And, to be honest, I wasn’t as upset about her use of the F-word as I was the horrifying accusation of being queer. I appreciated The Wild Boys – I wanted to write like Burroughs but not be in his novels – but admittedly, I had homophobia I still had to get over. At that age too, the rapid fire of hormones was constant, gayness the go to insult. Mark’s voice was a high-pitched falsetto and he could gesticulate madly, with yes, loose wrists. Putting two and two together I had not just yet to do, but it seemed to be an unfair presumption. I was angry more at the accusation than her gay bigotry.
You see, then and now, I opposed stereotypes. Friendship matters most. Friend of my girlfriend – the golden couple of our school – tells us again about feeding seagulls together – I had no other choice from the outset. He didn’t look or talk like anybody I ever met. That only made him more interesting.
Homophobia is not the same as gay bigotry, especially when fragments loiter in stealth mode but when spotted you can discard. I was focused on my sexuality and asking Mark about his was something that simply didn’t occur to me, or to our circle of friends. We were busy fucking to care about who Mark or anyone was fucking or not fucking.
Sure, the times weren’t as political as they are now – and revisiting these memories makes it seem his friends were oblivious to his plight – and, unintentionally we were – but the lack of echo and technology of the era enhanced our obliviousness. Openness and honesty now so permeates 21st century culture that it’s difficult to comprehend not making the personal public – and with every post reaching everyone you know and everyone who knows them and potentially everyone on planet earth – the fact that many are still alive who still remember what life was like in those before times bewilders most not born in the 20th century.
Mark was always getting crap. Salt and Pepper was a frequent term of endearment when Mark was out with Maureen or her twin sister.
At one of the rougher Margate bars, no people of color in sight, this oaf in a leather jacket halted in front of Mark. We were in a dimly lit, uncrowded parking lot, gravel and sandy dirt no grass.
He towered over us. He was leaving and we had just arrived. His frat boy companions stopped a few steps later and turned around and immediately exhibited their strength-in-privilege solidarity. The guy stared into Mark’s eyes, leaning into his face. Cowering only as much as needed, Mark backed away then moved to the right and we walked very quickly into the bar, ignoring a chorus of invective. I can still see their green Penn State jackets and hoodies.
River Edge Town Meeting
White flight is the trite phrase to explain population shifts in mid-20th century America. Cities and suburbs and de-industrialization and highways linking us. Integration was not as much interconnected as side by side. But on the frontlines, being amid whatever stage of this change was occurring, all you could do was get through each day. A different way to be is just Hollywood or novels. Stop reading the Village Voice, you’re already spending too much time there.
I live in Jersey City now, and many of the families living in Paramus came from Jersey City or places like that. They were children or grandchildren of immigrants whose American story originated in a city.
I was made even more aware of this phenomenon after I was living here and would visit Mom and talk with the neighbors. They knew the factory that was turned into apartments that I call home when it made pencils. When we left, the neighborhood was becoming all black or Puerto Rican.
They moved away for a better life. They had to, the city was now ruined.
Even Paramus wasn’t safe. Black families moving here was a worry, a frequent topic among adults. A black family was rumored to be living in our bordering borough, the just-as-all-white River Edge. That was the mentality. That’s what parents saw in Jersey City, it never stops at one family. We could be overrun, like Hackensack. It’s not just the bucks dating of our daughters making us shudder, but the value of our homes – everything we own – will be erased.
In my neighborhood of Terrace Drive there was a park and a patch of woods we called The Woods, basically New Jersey swampland too impacted by the residential construction that surrounded it to be considered a marsh – scrawny trees crowded into a patch of mud and skunk cabbage. It’s at the bottom of the hill, flooded basements was the curse of every house in Paramus. Every hard rain turned every cellar into a wading pool as water flowed downward to The Woods, where it accumulated into a permanent patch of mud and trees.
Geo-forming The Woods from an open cesspool to a stable foundational ground for residential construction was too expensive to be taken seriously by developers, until this new housing law, some byproduct of the Great Society passed on the state level, intended to foment integration by building affordable housing in white communities.
One of the proposed sites was The Woods. The neighbors, especially those backyards bordering this green space, rather liked having a semi-rural frontier on the other side of the fence. The only way that land could be developed is by a state-financed housing project. The state wanted to finance the necessary engineering to turn mud into bedrock.
It caused much hoopla in town when I was a teenager. Fellow students and playmates repeated their father’s opinions.
So the people who burned out Newark and chased us out of Jersey City are going to be lowering the value of my G.I. bill-financed house? You want my tax money to finance the black invasion destroying my dreams and threatening my family?
The housing was never built. Ongoing legal battles seem to run out the clock until less disruptive housing legislation was enacted.
Later, just after college, as reporter for the Town News, I was covering a River Edge town meeting. Usually there were maybe two dozen attending a town meeting, tonight two hundred people at least, standing room only.
A bland municipal building, the mayor and council awaited the citizens to come up to take their turn at the microphone and speak. One was about parking on the street between the wee hours. So, this custom in the suburbs is that you can be ticketed if your car is parked on the residential street between like 2:00am to 6:00am or something like that, a law widely ignored by me, but driveways were widened as children got licenses.
The most frequent political discussions held with people in New Jersey come under the subject of parking. In Jersey City, forget about it as we like to say – even when you are lucky to find a space, without the right sticker you could be towed. I haven’t owned a car since Reagan, I don’t care yet that rarely prevents anyone from giving me their parking opinion.
This meeting happened around 1983. The exact way this subject arose evades my recollection, but it was the first time someone explained the reasoning behind this ultra-restrictive parking ordinance. You let people park on the street all night the town will look like Jersey City.
Invoking the city we fled was met with gaps of anguished fear. The racial implication was clear, as if cars on streets in front of lawns would lead to urban decay. Fear was one with hate, but the object of that hate dare not speak its name. Not one word specifying race was uttered for the record, but everybody there knew. It was why so many were there.
Another guy, my parent’s age, homeowner, went up to the microphone. His two complaints were related but separate issues and both signs of serious threats to River Edge and the Suburban lifestyle we all wanted for our kids.
Point one was accepting county funding for River Edge Park, a smelly patch of grass that had a baseball field and playground and benches and tables. The park was between NJ transit railroad tracks and the Hackensack River, a minor tributary that also served as a drainage ditch. The slow-moving, algae covered waters had a rank stench you could smell a block away.
The citizen proclaimed: if we accept this county money we will have to let anybody into the park.
The mayor calmly explained that we cannot stop somebody from coming to River Edge Park with or without county money.
It will get just as bad as Van Saun Park.
My favorite place in Paramus! Van Saun had a zoo with turtles in a clean, flowing pond and chickens, peacocks and an emu and later, actual bison. A flower garden enshrined a spring, actually a drainage ditch with a constant flow, where George Washington washed his hands. No battles were fought in Paramus so blood didn’t consecrate its grounds but surely the father of our nation cleansing himself between battles was worthy of commemoration.
What could be bad about Van Saun Park? Our grammar school had an annual field trip there, in high school we tripped there. Cops never hassled… nature… a shrine to the father of our country who never told a lie? In the heart of my inner child, Van Saun represented the best of Bergen County.
Oh… wait… Mr. River Edge… is it because besides the malls it’s the only other place to spot black people roaming freely within a five mile radius of River Edge?
But he was on to point two. Seething, his face crimson, he loudly explained that on the same street that he lived a home owner is renting to one of those families. Careful not to shout or use the n-word or even any racial identifier in public — a sign at least that by the 80s outright racial hatred could not be expressed in public, even in a crowd of supportive white people –
… those families. Where does it end, Mr. Mayor?
I know I was just fresh out of college, but discrimination had already been outlawed, at least the outright and most obvious kind, like using race as a reason to deny someone housing or entry to a public park.
When the angry white man who now lived at Ground Zero: River Edge – a block in Bergen County that was not Hackensack or Englewood Cliffs where a family of blacks inexplicably lived – expressed the outrage and fear this threat posed, people cheered. He had a lot of friends there, the future of the beloved park whose stench could sometimes make you gag, and perhaps the entire town was threatened. Our way of life was under attack.
There were other speakers – all opposing taking county money based the threat of it becoming a multicultural Gomorrah like Van Saun Park. They could do nothing about the cars being parked on the street instead of the driveway except give out more tickets. Soft spoken, calm and elderly, the mayor explained again how River Edge park needed repair and the state was giving away this money and whether or not it is called a county park anyone could use it, whether or not they lived in River Edge.
Sometime after midnight, the town council voted down the measure to accept state funding for River Edge Park. After, I asked a councilman he was a republican or democrat. I was going to use a quote of his in my story and needed that info for the attribution. He said a democrat, but only locally.
At the dawn of the ninth decade of the twentieth century, Maureen and I got serious again. She was working at group homes for the mentally challenged and might have or was about to start a graduate program to become a school psychologist.
The fact I was seeing a woman shrink impressed her, although after we were living together she insulted the practice, refused to do a couple’s session when we were having problems. I hope you’re not telling Dorothy all about me, she said during one of the drunken tirades.
Who else am I going to talk to her about? She’s heard all my mother stories.
I have this knack, when trying to cool down the rhetoric and resolve the argument, of saying something that accomplishes the complete opposite.
I’m ahead of myself now.
When I extricated myself from New Jersey and settled in the lower east side, corner of Norfolk and Stanton, Patty had moved into New York, way the hell up town but still south of Harlem. She was a paralegal, hadn’t applied to the New York Police Academy.
Everybody was drug free, well they were and I mainly stuck to marijuana, occasionally mushrooms, once in a while blow. Just because our oats had been sowed and the wild times in the rearview didn’t mean we couldn’t have fun, responsibility is survival. Let’s stick to the bars and besides, Patty’s on the side of the law and that doesn’t just mean official justice, but her work, her job, her livelihood.
I gladly kept the stash at home.
Mark was in Florida, never to be heard from again. At the house warming party in Patty’s cramped but cozy upper west side apartment – ironically somewhere between Bob – my dear friend and marijuana dealer and my shrink – yes, Dorothy, the African American psychoanalyst Bob referred to me – I invited Maureen our for an East Village drink. She knew this was my dream, a writer living in New York.
Over dinner, I finally admitted to Maureen the big lie. I slept with Stephanie.
She rolled her eyes, duh. How could you be with somebody like her.
Stephanie’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. We dated for a little while after we broke up. I still consider a friend. I hated lying. I never lie anymore.
Which was true – Donna was a compulsive liar, and then I recounted what I learned the past few years of weekly psychoanalysis. She knew my family and what I had gone through growing up. I poured out my heart and was finally after these many years of multilayered guilt, I was unburdened.
Woody Allen was happily married to Mia Farrow and living in New York. Seeing a shrink was both trendy and sexy, especially to a psychologist. Yes, she came up to my apartment and we wound up naked together in bed that night, even though her period limited activity, it was intense. She returned Friday and we fucked immediately, no date bullshit. The anticipation bordered on obsessive, just hunger and lust, instinctual lovemaking. A reunion of bodies, a force beyond us and we mere spectators to the pleasure we needed to feel, and give.
Something I sure hadn’t planned for when I moved to New York was the rekindling. Museums and galleries – I was a regular at Max Fish, the first Art Bar, and the staff would have shown at the galleries then sprouting below 14th an exciting and original date – and tons of movies, she lived in Paramus now ironically left, a dingy house rented with her twin sister literally a dead end street I had never been before. Each encounter narrated and analyzed with Dorothy the shrink, a new project for the team.
Love, I live alone now but still know that I have lived for love. Bury me on the battlefield, impaled by own sword. Maureen introduced me to a true romance.
I was with a group of friends, circle from Bergen Catholic where I had been unjustly expelled from, but of which my best friend Tony was a central figure. Before Stockton, like the summer before. I had taken a year off where I worked in a warehouse and took forlorn classes at Bergen Community College. These guys were now veterans, they’d been among the life of the mind and accessible women with lust on the brain.
I want to sleep with this one or that one, names of actual girls, fleshy objects of desire.
I proclaimed, I want to fall in love.
Which got a laugh, nobody debated. I want that total feeling to really know a woman.
Tim’s a poet, Tony good naturedly jeered. I was looking at the sky, my deepest hope in front of witnesses. Chop busting and ball breaking – as one might expect – didn’t follow, at all. We were at a picnic table in some suburban park in Riverdale or Westwood. I had given the guys something to ponder.
I believed that, about love. I wanted to feel love, true love. Even though the second break with Maureen still can sting – I resent the surprise and the ultra-inconvenience most – and after college I wasn’t as naïve about the saving grace of love, rudely awakening to the fact romance alone cannot pay the bills. But I still love love. I always have and will, even though my heart’s broken and the wounds the women I’ve loved caused me can bleed without warning, but even persistent sorrow never completely overpowers this ideal. The only tangible transcendence I’ve known was in the presence of she.
Maureen was the most beautiful anything I had ever seen. One of my freshmen year roommates, Andy and Brad, real South Jersey guys, Brad from the shore town of Freehold and Andy from some place called Salem which had a nuclear power plant where he would drop out of school to work at mid-semester. He owned his own hunting rifle. One time he came back with fresh venison and I made a stew. We rented a small blue house facing a dock, a beach down the block and the pines far away, across the saltmarsh lowlands and at the college we trekked to everyday.
One morning or early afternoon I first glimpsed Maureen. The why I was not in my bedroom is lost to history, but I was waking up all groggy on the shag carpet. A guy was likewise lying across the room, another on the couch. One of the roommates had brought over the neighbors he’d just met. My mother was a redhead, a fact that would only occur to me later and I might still attempt to convince you is entirely coincidental. Brad was the one who brought them over because Maureen’s first words to me were you must be the one with the rifle who hunts. I was the guy she wanted to talk to.
The two other guys in the room were Andy’s friends from Salem, redneck guys who hunt and fish and worked good jobs at the nuclear plant, making more money than any of their friends. I played them Television, and they played me Toto and we had a great time indulging in two delights specific to South Jersey: Stroh’s Beer and Salem Angel Dust. So great a time I wound up on the rug.
I never killed anything in my life, I’m from Paramus. She loved animals and opposed hunting.
That was more February than January. We slept together on March 5th – the date is indisputable, we celebrated every year, our anniversary – significant time – measured in semester weeks – passed – Maureen first kindly rebuffed Brad’s advances – between that glimpse of her coming into the little blue house – the first thing I saw that morning was the most beautiful sight I’d had yet to behold.
We hadn’t actually dated, just had gone to parties and bars together. One drunken ride back to Brigantine we were in the back seat and she lay her head on my lap, I’m tired she said drowsily before pressing her head against my hard on as I caressed the red hair that obsessed my thoughts. We slept together the next day. I think it was the first time we kissed, or maybe the day after. No courtship really. We were obviously attracted to each other, and where was there to go but school and the bars and we had done that already with our friends and classmates and we always wound up talking to each other alone, oblivious to the collegiate din.
Maureen’s breasts were a joyous handful, full c-cup. The egg split in the womb and she was a twin, a bonus baby she was called – the 8th and 9th of the Mulligan brood – and she had a tumor that was removed but left a permanent scar on her left tit, the size of large Band-Aid. Back in them days, the usual order was heavy petting then going all the away, two separate occasions. Maureen needed to show me her scar, her most intimate secret, because doing so was the same expression of trust as intercourse.
After the rekindling she once said to me, you know that I’m uncomfortable with my body. We both knew what scar she wasn’t mentioning, and my protests to the contrary went unheeded.
That first time, I think we were each other’s second lovers, was one of those nights were we undressed and talked and did things and talked then did more things and forever singed into my memories eye is her, riding me and her luminescent freckled flesh glowing in the light of dawn.
Can we be blamed for thinking we could return to that moment? Seemed after we started dating, New York City turned against me. My apartment was burglarized twice in six weeks and I moved into a roommate situation that I hated and had to get out of immediately after the holidays. Maureen’s lease was ending and I told her, we can move in together or I can find my own apartment, but whatever I’m not moving again for a long time. I hate moving. We wound up together in the Pencil Factory where there was a new apartment complex that had cheap rents, still a city for Tim and still in New Jersey for Maureen.
And, we had love… the memory of love – love is pure, love is in this world yet above the world, God is love. I thought it strange, but I didn’t push, that after moving in together we didn’t immediately fuck to anoint the momentousness. I patiently waited two nights, until she relaxed enough to make love. She didn’t want to talk about why she didn’t want to get down, symbolically seal deal. She never talked about sex or intimacy of feelings. That’s the way our parents were, even the early baby boomers. But society had changed, we were becoming more open and sharing. You would think a psychologist might insist on honesty, not be hung up about talking through problems. We were the same age, lived in the same culture. How could you chose to get more repressed with age, as if honesty was irresponsible, as if wanting change to end was more mature than supporting more freedom and less judgement.
I was relieved that the ordeal of moving across the Hudson was over. The building had security guards and a coded passkey system and I was confident I would never be burglarized again. The city was indeed sometimes a 15 minute subway ride away and my magazine job in SoHo paid well.
Maureen was having buyer’s remorse.
I fell in love with Jersey City – it was dingy, lots of old factories and warehouses and industrial looking buildings – concrete and steel, neighborhood parks and great pizza. She never felt anything other than derision.
A city may be fun to visit, but my heart is suburban and I want to have a backyard and children. I didn’t want kids. She wanted to be like our parents, which shocked but did not surprise. She always wanted that, was incapable of considering some other American variation. What shocked me was that she still expected me to want a life anything like my parents.
I moved to New York City because after working and career building I knew what sort of life I wanted, a city life. I had no interest in parenting. I’m a reader, not a television watcher.
Just as Maureen never was as sexual as she was in college – and far less than I had become – learned a few good moves along the way but also understood the positive repercussions uninhibited sexuality was having on my adult life – she was also far more narrow minded. The multiculturalism in Jersey City was even more diverse than the Lower East Side. I found this new, exciting and liberating. She did not. People of color annoyed her.
A colleague of mine was a lesbian and was holding a partnership party with her live-in same sex partner and Maureen wouldn’t even consider going. Gary and I never got into anything tense, nothing even close to a shouting match, and I was understated in my very leftist views, but never did an evening end without Maureen chiding me for how I was talking to Gary and Patty.
I can’t take their racism.
You don’t know what those people are like and they do.
Even saying those people is racist, it’s like Ross Perot.
I am not racist. I see them all the time at work too. It’s just true.
The Jersey City School System had hired her as a school psychologist, first job after completing the Rutgers Masters Program. I had typed her papers – preferable to have her work on my computer – she had come a little infatuated with Tetris and after she played I had to call my computer wiz brother so he could help me find the First Choice files. The only thing more fragile than MS-DOS was its backup systems. As a birthday gift I had bought her first suit, jacket and skirt.
We went shopping for it at Nostrums. I reenacted the scene from 9 ½ Weeks where they’re shopping and Kim Bassinger is trying on dresses, showing them to Mickey Rourke and when he sees the one he likes, he just buys it, not asking her opinion.
A dark blue pinstripe, optimal contrast with her hair, lush and ruddy. I was in the white collar world every weekday, had been since graduation, not gallivanting around Britain, getting married and divorced without anything more than a thought about career. My eye for attire had earned respect.
As well it should, the Jersey City job was one of her first interviews and they gave her an offer worth taking right away. She soon hated it, one of the few white people working there.
White Students? I believe there were none, if not none than close to none and if some, none were ever cases for the new school psychologist. One time she told me about this Afghan family, refugees. They barely spoke English, the kid was autistic, and they smelt. We were in the living room, she was laying on the couch drinking beer.
I liked to have beer on hand. Unless it’s a weekend, one or two a week was fine. No one ever dropped by, but at least you keep beer on hand you are at least prepared for cordiality. Beer was for drinking as far as Maureen was concerned. She could not go to sleep until all the beer in the fridge was swallowed.
Honey, these people only have you. I’m writing about eyeglasses and studying market reports. You have a chance to really help people who need it. You’re all they have. You can make a real difference. That’s God’s work.
The side of her mouth opened and a robust belch echoed forth. She had older brothers, good natured jocks who taught her how to burp. She would out-burp the guys at college. I was never one of those guys. I’m only earthy in private. She liked the Three Stooges; Me the Marx Brothers. It’s a miracle we lasted as long as we did.
I can still smell them and I showered when I got home. I can’t take the people I have to work with. Jersey City is an old-boys network. My Rutgers advisors always said as soon as you get your first job start looking for your next move. The first job is always a rut. I’m going to get resume out there. I heard I can make twice as much in Montvale than I can in Jersey City. White kids have problems too.
We watched the Los Angeles Riots on the cable television. I had a little black and white television that NYC burglars didn’t both taking – I sometimes watched Star Trek or David Letterman. I didn’t even own a VCR at this point. Maureen was cable-TV addled, but at least liked movies and had a VCR and it was easy to get used to – the uprisings following the verdict acquitting the four cops of excessive force – they arrested King for speeding then were filmed using a stun gun and beating him with batons so severely he was hospitalized with broken bones – watching the rioting was the first major news story we experienced as a couple.
Friends phoned from the city, they were freaking out. Blacks are marching across the Brooklyn Bridge.
Do you see any white faces, Maureen sneered, beer in hand.
Gary and Patty supported the cops all the way and Maureen never disagreed with her friends, except for me. Gary: Rodney King had a rap sheet a mile long. Why don’t the news people talk about that, the cops knew that. They were protecting themselves, but you can’t tell from just the clip they show.
People are rioting just to get free stuff, said Maureen. That’s all that this is about.
America hadn’t seen rioting like this since the 1960s. A protest turned violent, people breaking down store windows, leaving with stuff.
This is the result of racism and poverty I said. Those cops beat that guy because they’re sadists. They don’t care about the law or rights.
Neither do they, they just care about looting. They cracked the skull of some bystander just because he was white.
I was a flaming liberal. But I think in terms of systems and connections. The blatantly biased court decision – the instigating incident of police brutality one of the first to be videoed by a citizens – the burning and looting which was minimal and far outweighed by thousands of righteous protesters – Los Angeles is America and racism has been entrenched since before the Civil War
I had this theory about Reagan and Civil Rights. Civil Rights must move forward – the attitude that Maureen and the suburbs epitomized was that yes, the civil rights act was necessary and Martin Luther King had a vision for us all, but the work had been done. The crime and poverty was all on them. That was the core of the backlash Reagan exploited. My theory was that by doing nothing to further civil rights, he eroded them. Standing still is the same as moving backwards. What I’ve come to understand is that it’s the legislation cannot work alone – culture and attitude and introspection – it’s more than just using or not using the n-word.
The progressive conundrum has been sifting through the interconnectivity of racial and economic injustice in order to find a legislative solution that doesn’t undermine either set of issues, but I digress.
We’ve been living on this powder keg and Rodney King lit the fuse, I said People are rising up. Not just the police brutality, the wealthy have all the power in the country. They’re sick of living in despair.
Despair is bullshit, the Italians and the Irish had as much right to despair at the blacks but you don’t see them burning down their own neighborhoods.
Well, you have a point…. No I did not say that, nor did I think it… but I said nothing instead. Yes, I avoided having another argument with her, but also I tend to not taking anything political or on the news so seriously it would affect a friendship, and we were still friends.
Back then was different, acceptable level of racism was not considered a social affront. That is the way it was my entire life, so the fact it was still that way in the early 1990s was not a shock. But culture was evolving. Patty, Gary and Maureen’s racism was getting harder and harder to not be bothered by.
The complexity of bigotry and how this parasitical thought pattern ingratiates itself can seem unfathomable.
It’s not that they should be denied rights, but they have to deserve those rights. Does not freedom require responsibility?
An assumption of guilt based on race was considered a legitimate concern in any social discourse whether it was pointed out or not. Many reading this now might conclude that not speaking more forcefully against even the suggestion of what we now understand as racism is as despicable as having racist views. In the early 90s, it was just another view, you have yours, cops have theirs and our jobs are harder and we risk our lives every day to catch bad people.
The silent majority of the 1960s kept alive the racist views of their ancestors and were emboldened again in the 1980s.
Always the qualifier – I’m not racist or I support civil rights – but then the but – as in, but at the very least you can’t trust them when everyone in the family’s a criminal like the shooting of the teenager in Hackensack. The subject would change, keep the peace with Maureen. I did not state what now would be obvious to all: New Jersey police have been harassing the family for generations because they’re black and you’re a racist. Every day you’re strengthening systemic racism throughout America.
We lacked these words back then. Her sister’s car was broken when visiting once. Jersey City’s as bad as the East Village. In the wrong neighborhood, like Jersey City, ideals can get you killed.
My ideals were ruinous anyway. Not the political, the love.
When Maureen and I made love for the first time after so long, after all the lies admitted to and forgiveness bestowed – we embodied an ideal of love. Falling in love and being and experiencing that intensity of adoration and affection that became a fixed notion, what I was really looking for.
Sex was still sin of course and even though I insisted God is Dead in college, deep down I knew sin to be real and consequential, nor was I fully convinced sex wasn’t sinful. I just wasn’t having any luck. I was afraid to try too hard, starting compelling banter was a skill still unattained – am I flirting now? – and the sex I was getting was with women whose bodies I wanted to feel and please but after we get through the awkwardness and did a somewhat tawdry version of the dirty deed I found the individuals vapid.
I wanted love and found that love and memory had enshrined that love as an ultimate. The highest ideal. True love. We were into our 30s and no love had felt better than the first dawning when we were 19. It couldn’t be recreated, no matter how hard we believed.
Time away from you is time wasted I told her at 19 when we were new together and I was writing her long lost love notes and before the abortion. But when we were living together in early 90s, the more time apart the happier we were. No sentiments were expressed on the pad magnetically affixed to the refrigerator door …just… need milk, water, beer.
We loved the love we had, the youths we were, but memories no matter how gilded cannot transform the present into something that it’s not.
How much of that love was objective, pure and absolute, and how much just a figment of youth. Knowing that answer ceased to matter.
We had become so disappointed with each other the anger may have ebbed and flowed, but ceased fading. The love we had could not be reconstructed or even translated so that just some of that pure joy of being could be felt once again made us come to resent what that first March 5th promised.
We feared to acknowledge the limits of love’s power. Survival in America and the tedious fight to remain middle class makes love irrelevant.
You’re the one who cheated on me, remember.
That was ten years ago and you knew all about it and I apologized sincerely and you said you accepted and that was before we even slept together again. Who is this Fort Lee number on the phone bill.
I can no longer force myself to love you.
I finally blurted out: You are boring to be around. You are boring in bed. You’ve wasted my precious time. Good riddance.
The truth was now unsuppressed. She packed her things and moved most of them out of the apartment when I was away on a business trip. She already signed a lease to some place in Ridgefield Park.
When I got back, I lay on the bed chain smoking as she took the last of her clothes out of the closet. Nobody said good bye.
I kept Paglia (the youngest of the two cats, the one we got as a kitten from the Jersey City Humane Society). He died in 2008.
Even when we want to deny it, with heartbreak there’s always a sense of relief. Not making you happy is the same as making you unhappy – who is to blame, who is at fault, is it just the cruel precariousness of life itself – the orgasm may be the most intense pleasure our bodies can feel, surely the goal of our closeness, our attraction, our intimacy… but it’s also a masquerade we want to believe because how close and how attracted the other person is can only be known by that person, never you.
All we can do is hope that the love is true – but intimacy’s inherent illusions removes any doubt of the trueness of love and in our defense, when it comes to romantic, Eros-laden love – what other proof is there to have? Kindness? Generosity? Proper etiquette?
Those come naturally, they’re always the case, whether it’s just another moment together or a façade being maintained. Intimacy only leads to more mystery, knowledge even learned first hand we always deny.
Jersey City was the final chapter of our love story. She moved out and I moved to a smaller apartment, a floor below the luxury duplex with the outdoor porch where we would listen to music and have cocktails enjoying the night air as the lights of Manhattan shimmered like a dream for only us to see.
Time is the Adversary
A tragedy of life I’ve always obsessed on is our adversarial relationship with time. Memory is essential to existence – for instance, in order for you to tell me something new I’ve had to not forget the mutual language we’ve learned – memory itself then is varied, be it understanding the difference between subject, predicate and clauses or some other productive habit requiring an acquired skill.
But memory is also the everlasting, shimmering image of her body in the moonlight – memory taunts us with time. Memory reminds us that it’s not now and memory is never always about a now that no longer is and when it is, we’re never fully sure that’s what that memory is, at best an informed guess. We reminisce with others about something experienced together, compare scars or explain tattoos. The ever-expanding past not only accumulates more memories, inspires more reminiscences but the moments when we look back at the same things also change.
We not only remember the moment, but eventually how we remembered it at 50 and it was not the way we remembered it at 30 or 20 or 10 or 5 – what we thought we remember or the lesson even the briefest instance can teach is different at every stage of life – how do we truly know that the memory is the same?
Those memories, they were and are your life. But life they are not, because the only crucial heart beat is the one thumping now. Life as experienced is each moment, most are dull and routine, some are spectacular –their memory alone makes life worth living, enabling us to overlook the pain, suffering and tragedy that is the human condition – and it’s those moments of sadness that may not outnumber the tedious and long stretches of monotony – the duty to living regardless of what purpose you strive for – soon as you’re out of diapers you learn what are responsibilities and some you’ll dislike less than others but they change if not every day every month and the biggest change is you get more than you lose and sometimes those you lose leave an emptiness never to be filled again – the necessary incremental fulfillment of responsibility accounts for the vast majority of moments and are the memories least worth recalling.
Life is not the recollection or just the responsibilities – it’s the quiet wonder of everyday beauty – moments that may far outnumber the spectacular – but without knowing the minor how will we recognize much less truly appreciate what moment is major?
With Maureen – it was the ideal of love I wanted – young, writer or poet take your pick – somehow God is Love and a beautiful woman – or better said, a woman who conforms to your subjective view of beauty – embodies a love that transcends all of life’s pettiness, soothes all apprehension – heals wounds, scabbed or still wet with blood – and it felt like a wonderful dream then, a happiness of just being with each other. Eventually there were fights, after the abortion, before graduation, but we held it together, mainly by my insistence and implied or articulated argument of love, the realness of that ideal love we lived and knew… oh how ancient this lament: why can’t life be as good as it was?
I suggested couple counseling, Maureen wasn’t interest. Dorothy frowned when I told her that. The sessions petered out after the move to Jersey City. My shrink proclaimed I was cured, either right before or soon after.
I had gotten it together, I was a new man. I recognized the genuine breakthroughs she pointed out. Come back for a tune up – her word but common parlance in the world of psychotherapy – work colleagues and other New York friends saw shrinks and we talked about psychotherapy, framework and minutia mainly – but you’re doing great.
The Dorothy visits returned to semi-regular basis during the period preceding the sorrow and disunion, but the sessions were lethargic. The situation across the river was inevitable. The toxic office culture that metastasized after the company moved from Park Avenue to SoHo was utterly out of my control. My life no longer sparked Dorothy’s clinical interest.
I don’t think I can help you anymore, Tim. Maybe it’s time for you to see a male therapist.
Sometimes the fates only give you the opposite of what you asked for. The psychologist had helped me a lot, but clearly the move in with Maureen she encouraged had not turned out as she expected.
Maureen wasn’t as interesting as the Donna –grief-anxiety matrix when Dorothy and I were weekly. Dysfunctional domesticity can’t compete with sexual pathos of an abusive relationship. (She emotionally abused me, Dorothy explained many times).
The male therapist comment bothered me. Are you blowing me off or are you suggesting I need a more serious treatment plan? It’s not like she gave me a referral.
Therapy was the last thing on my mind. I had gotten so much more than what I anticipated from Dorothy, truly saved the rest of my life. But I honestly felt there was nothing more to be gotten at this juncture. Therapy as a catalyst for cure didn’t seem as applicable to the current scenario. I had other worries more pressing than psychological wellness – finding an apartment and moving – i.e. survival by responsibility – topped the list. A few months later, resettled in Jersey City, the company downsized and I lost my health insurance.
When she stated – as a non-sequitur, unrelated to the conversation – that your next therapist won’t be me but should be male, I lost some but far from all respect for her. What did you miss? Was it something you didn’t know or something you just now found out?
Lou told me that Mark’s father worked at the airport. Buying the Teaneck house may have been a real accomplishment, but it was like any of the boxes people lived in. I seem to remember Lou talking about how the furniture was run down, with more empathy than snobbery but I remember more him saying it to me than me observing a distance between my life and Mark’s based on comparing the furniture tastes of our parents.
Dan lived in Dumont, the blonde chubby son of a Presbyterian minister. He was close friends with my roommate Drew, both being poly-sci majors, but we were part of the Bergen County Stockton gang, graduated together. It was the summer after graduation and he had a pool party, one more go for the swear-this-feels-like-forever college comrades.
He’s fucking rich said Mark, we left the pool party together. I’m not sure if Mark was too black or too gay or too poor for Dan, but they didn’t get along.
I had seen houses as nice in Paramus, been inside them and yes, the first giveaway of class distinction was the built-in pool out back. Everyone’s middle class in the suburbs, but that upper-middle class stratosphere was unreachable for Mark or I, far above our sky. No sliding glass doors opening up to a vast backyard with a deck and pool and patio.
I knew a family rumored to be Mafia who had a built-in pool the size of Sea World. Angela DeSimone’s 8th grade graduation party had the best food.
A mix of astonishment, envy and resentment, Mark could not forgive Dan’s wealth. It was the final time, or one of the memorable final times, the gang was all together, but now permanently removed from the pine barrens and the bottom edge of the Jersey Shore and that forever time of discovery and foundation formation, growth now maturation.
Over before the blink ends, this is the mind and body that must meet the world, ready or not. The haves were waving goodbye to the have nots. We are not interested in dwelling on the obvious – we had it easier than you could ever know and even though life is hard and getting harder having it easier than you will always be true, now and forever.
Don’t worry, we’ll see each other always in our memories.
North Jersey is inherently deceptive. Industrial web emanating with steel and concrete, refineries and skeletal towers, Sears & Roebuck versions of the Eiffel, gifting our society electricity, another wonder we now take for granted, like freedom of speech. You follow the right exit and it’s malls and highways and strip malls, islands of forests or single rows of tree, the front lines of the towns, the lawns and the single family dwellings. Any wonder why we identify with the Flintstones and the Brady Bunch?
We are goodness or as good as America can get, perpetuating a way of life that saved Europe twice. The means of our victory lay not in the ideals or whatever in the constitution or declaration – good sounding lip-service so as not to scare children – no, it was America’s prowess in the other revolution, the Industrial Revolution.
Industry gave us the car and the highways, the stark engine of capital and transaction that gave us the heavy metal maw, the airplanes above and cars and trucks and buses below. Wealth is generated – no control over how its proportioned – but it’s because of industry and its harshness, rigidly defined system of production that the forests were cleared and Lenape ethnically cleansed and the houses with driveways and garages and lawns as proof the American dream can be realized – and how well you dreamt and to whom you were born determined the size and location of those lawns, how verdant the grass, if there’s a pool or not and if yes is it built-in and how large?
They get high on your resentment, why be here at all if you cannot afford what we can. The shame of being inadequate is no sin, as life moved forward, with the next jobs and careers and whatnot, you’ll meet many who have even less than you. Maybe they’ll make you feel better.
Mark’s family were blockbusters. They were the first black family in Teaneck. For whatever reason, this contingent from Teaneck High School had low enough grades and poor enough families to get into Stockton. It was the state college furthest away from Bergen County and those families yet you were still in New Jersey.
As far as I recall, Maureen, Patty and Lou his only friends from high school. He didn’t seem to have any black friends, at least none when I went to the Teaneck homestead.
Coming out changed all that for him. Sometimes when we met for drinks, he bring this friend, a Puerto Rican fellow. I can’t remember his name, he was a nice guy… he had this Feathers story about a fight where their friend’s nose got bit. We met like this a few times, touching base but drifting apart.
This one time in Port Republic, Mark and I got into insulting each other’s towns, Teaneck sucks, Paramus sucks and so on and so forth and then Mark jibes Paramus is Lily White.
I can’t argue with that. I still remember this moment and laugh. I had never considered Paramus Lily White because I was within the snow globe. All I knew it wasn’t Paterson. I could never see it as anything other than always there. I never thought of it was something not to be proud of – a silly notion, I’m not proud of anything, especially place – but Mark was pointing out something else, that it may seem like others see things different but they’re just seeing what you have not yet noticed.
If you see only what you want to see or have been made to see than you will fail to see truth. Decades later, I would read about red lining. Paramus was one of the last Bergen County suburbs – a tiny town that grew celery – until after World War II when the most of the remaining family farms of the garden state sold their land to real estate developers. Paramus being Lily White was deliberate.
Mark was the only African American kid the previously all white Teaneck High School. That’s why up until he blossomed into an active homosexual and networked into this now above ground community he had no black friends. I worked at a warehouse after working at the grocery store and my fellow workers who were African American were very likeable, but they were a little rough around the edges. The black guy who unloaded trucks at the warehouse – he was a high school dropout – he said, I didn’t see the sense in graduating.
Mark was gentle, but flamboyant. He had a charisma I had never seen before. I’ve never met anybody like a beautiful guy, we loved each other’s company.
He was always moving, twitchy like Merry Pranksters say about Neal Cassidy, but without even a molecule of macho. True, we were all doing speed. It was the end of the black beauties, crossroads and greenies era and the dawn of the Biker Meth era. Mark’s energy came from somewhere else, he would dance all the time, just start dancing while we’re hanging out and listening to music, at a party, forget about it. He loved those Margate Shore bars, Southside Johnny – All I want is everything.
Stockton’s campus is placid. The school had a large environmental sciences program and the grounds benefitted. The land is as flat as a prairie, the soil sandy and thick pine tree forests surrounding a cluster of buildings, contemporary and bland and efficient. Then there were the lakes, named lakes, Lake Pam and Lake Fred, man-made, greenish but clean. At night, when the weather was hot, even just warm, the frogs and toads sang symphonies with crickets and cicadas.
The abundance of pine trees and perpetually lush green laden branches, swaying, silent curtains as far as the eye could see. You’d go home for the holidays, where there was always more snow – rarely a white Christmas but always soon after New Year’s, a weather pattern now erased by Climate Change, when winters are warmer and later. The winter experience was stark, coatings of snow that stayed white longer, gelid air pinching your face, but shorter, as if all the young bodies compulsively fucking forced the spring just as they seemed to bolster summer well into October.
Brigantine was a shore community where students rented vacation homes, the second homes of mainly Philadelphians who rented the beach houses to students. The population turned over Memorial Day and Labor Day. Then I lived in Port Republic, starting Junior Year, a mile or so from Campus, in the thick of the Pine Barrens. Blueberry Hill campgrounds.
The best off-campus housing deal. Students rented the ground floor of the house where the owners of the campgrounds lived, two brothers, Bob the bachelor and Barry, who was a father with a daughter who was a tween and lived with her mother, his wife. The single brother lived nearby, the family in the second floor of the house. The rule was no big parties, which was fine with us. We were serious students, and besides, plenty of places to party in South Jersey, Port Republic was our secret oasis, smaller parties, a den of creativity.
Drew and I first lived with two South Jersey guys, Dean who was from Riverside and Tom, who was from Pennsauken. Tom had graduated from Stockton, business degree, and had some dreary real estate job. What a dullard.
Drew was a political science major, burdened with an antic gift of gab, a compulsive talker, Jewish, an a genuinely talented guitar player. The living room had become a salon – we would chill and chat and play music and smoke bongs and joints and endless cigarettes that cost sixty cents a pack. Every so often and always unwelcomed, Tom would come hang out, overweight with the signs of what I now know was alcoholism, a hovering black cloud prone to gusts of antagonism.
Yes, other records were played but the big thing was Punk. New York, London, Los Angeles – that’s as far as it had reached in terms of creative centers, and technically Akron should be acknowledged. That first Devo album exemplified that cultural moment with an exactitude that accentuates the premonition of everlasting social damage we never fully grasped until it was too late.
Dean, tall, thin, big curly outburst of hair like the Freak Brothers – drummer, professional, played went back home to play wedding band gigs, a gun for hire. Incredible musician, as was Drew. Drew was one step away from master – he was as good a guitarist as Dean was a drummer. He had innate technique, instinctively knew the center of song. He sang competently, in the tenor bordered by baritone register.
Dean and Drew jammed for hours. I listened to them play through my bedroom walls while I wrote or fucked Maureen or read. I often would go into the makeshift rehearsal space try to play with them, I had no sense of rhythm – well, I had an ability to know what a sense of rhythm was and smart enough to know it was something I wasn’t born with or could ever attain – but I knew some chords and could strum. I took lessons, like four or so, a guitarist who lived in my neighborhood. My mother reluctantly got me a guitar with green stamps, below a certain fret the strings were dead the teacher pointed out. I taught myself Mr. Tambourine Man, One of More Cup of Coffee, and Santo Domingo (Ochs) but could never get beyond strumming chords or adequately relating the note I was reading to the note I was playing and most frustrating of all, never was able to tune the instrument.
But I had a knowledge other than skill the two musicians needed and that was evident by my record collection, Village Voice subscription and general attitude. I knew punk. I had been to CBGs and the smaller makeshift places in New York were the up and coming garage bands played. Punk Rock had been popularized and commodified sufficiently at this point to be widely adapted and considered cool but my generation, who had heretofore had only known hippy, heavy metal or the short lived glam rock, whose antecedent credibility was always in question. Still, it was just before or right around Heart of Glass, the disco-charged Blondie ditty that caught on with as well as redefined what could be considered mainstream. Punk had yet to go full New Wave, much less post-New Wave schools like Hard Core, Grunge and Alt-Rock.
I had been to The Village more than once – best friend going to NYU and all – and loved Patty Smith and could honestly attest to the fact that lack of talent or ability was necessary. Might even be an impediment. The Urgency was our first name, but was eventually changed to the Altered Boys, but that never took and the one or two parties we played we always referred to as the Urgency shows. Drew was sort of obsessed with Nazis and death camps, an understandable outgrowth of the massive influence World War II had on the world of childhoods and one of the songs we wrote was Naughty Nazi. One of my lyrics was Nazi flag unfurled, going to take over the world. One of Drew’s was my mother’s a bar of soap, but father’s got no hope.
So, maybe you had to be there. The Urgency was the most joyful fun I ever had. Pure alertness to inspiration and ideas. If we lived in a different era – or a not in the middle of the evergreen wilderness – maybe we would played other spaces than the Port Republic studio, or one or two parties, where I would wind up mesmerized with everyone else by Drew and Dean getting down. These guys had genuine chops, and if there was any justice in the world they would have made a few serious records.
The Urgency might’ve made a demo. Probably not further than that or even do that, because then we’d have lost the aesthetic of our creativity. Punk esteemed the Amateur. No adornment of any kind, raw is honesty and truth seemed the only credible aspiration and measure. We made true punk, great punk, the punk the myth of punk demands – that exact moment is forever gone except for some dusty cassettes in a trunk somewhere and the fading memories of the aging participants and witnesses – but never before or since, was art or punk so pure.
Dean was not interested in schoolwork. Other than music theory, the rest of it was an irrelevant interference to our sex, drugs and Rock & Roll lifestyle. It was raining pussy. Drew and Dean got a respectable amount of action. Tom’s girlfriend had dumped him, adding to his woes, belligerent behavior and what seemed to us a nowhere life.
Tom’s room was right next to the studio, can you keep it down guys he would complain, never anything from the landlord upstairs, and we rarely were stopped playing before dawn. Dean would step away from the kit, but he had bongos, cartons and a collection of antique bottles. He bought them for tone. A wide assortment of shapes, sizes, colors and thicknesses of glass – miniature blue perfume bottles to algae-green wine jugs – two dozen at least – chosen for the variety of tones made by tapping them with a drumstick – adding to the patter possibilities of the other found instruments – but the larger ones also made the whistles, whose pitches Dean altered by changing his breathing pattern or the position of his thumbs over the mouth of the vessel. Dean found rhythm everywhere.
He was taking a sociology class and hated it. He wanted to drum. The music classes he liked, but you couldn’t take just what you liked. I was made to take a remedial math class, the school was weird like that, loose enough for you to “create” a major, but some of the requirements seemed arbitrary. I think it was about the time Danny & The Juniors hired him for a national tour. Fifties nostalgia was very popular. It was before those who actually experienced the 50s – who knew that decade’s music when it was new – had become senior citizens. So, he moved back home but visited often, would still bring his drum kit and bags of crystal meth from Vineland, after going to student housing on-and-off campus to distribute crank, the Urgency would reunite.
Drew recruited the new roommate, Dave from New Milford, another guitarist and committed stoner. Dean would visit and for while The Urgency was now a quartet. Actually, the Urgency was whoever in the room that night.
Drew wrote a new song. I Hate You, whose refrain, if Tom wasn’t home, was sometimes changed to I Hate Tom.. but mostly I hate you, I hate you, was the chorus we would all sing together over a repetitive punk groove that even I could strum.
The lyrics never quite got beyond the chorus. The purpose of the song was to vent off the smoldering anger in the house. Drew and Tom did not get along, they would argue a lot, although it started friendly enough, a sniping whose good nature was a fast fading façade. He hates me because I’m Jewish, and Drew was absolutely right. Tom was anti-Semitic, and a racist. I remember him staring at Mark, with a derisive bewilderment.
Tom was three years older but completely removed from the college scene. The previous roommates, who had long graduated and abandon him, majored in business or environmental science. They weren’t creative musicians. He hated punk, loved James Taylor, this subpar musical taste duly noted alongside his drunken slovenliness and general stupidity in the litany of veiled attributes in the lyrics of the newest work in progress by The Urgency, I Hate You.
Jim Carroll was huge at the time, Dean had gotten the nickname Dino Drano from People Who Died, with Drano being code for Crank. Tom read my copy of Basketball Diaries, and was upset. Why should I care about a junky doing fucked up shit on drugs. Having gay sex for money just to get drugs.
Do you think it’s well written?
Being a junky is not a story worth telling.
James Taylor was the biggest heroin junky in the world, he’s been honest about it. Why don’t you criticize him if you’re dismissing Jim Carroll?
He doesn’t write songs about it, Tom chuckled like the world was his locker room.
One of the many New Jersey obtuse fools I’d meet during this journey we call life. Not all prejudices are racial, but if you have one – like a mindset that disables your ability to objectively read anything – you have them all, just like Tom.
Why bother, you know. It was weird at the time, weird to remember it now. He read the book just to hate it. We’d be blasting Catholic Boy – which along with the first two Psychedelic Fur albums and everything Clash was the music of the moment – and Tom would be alone in his room, singing along to Fire & Rain.
I helped with some lyrics, but I Hate You was all Drew. It mainly was the three syllable chorus, I hate you… I hate you… the other lyrics were also simple… I hate the way you smell, your mind is boring as hell… I don’t remember developing them like some other songs, just repeating I hate you, I hate you seemed sufficient, like a drone or chant, sped up it had a distinctive Ramones flavor.
Tom never bothered to ask if I Hate You was about him. He had his own music.
One morning… few memories are as vivid– Drew and Tom were bickering and Drew seemed to have the last word. Dave and I were on the couch ripping our morning bong hits. Tom was halfway down the hall heading to his room. The exact wording is lost to history, but it wasn’t a fresh or particularly insulting strong nothing that hadn’t been said. But Tom heard something else, or maybe finally the last straw materialized.
Suddenly Tom was marching across the living room. He leaned over the coffee table and punched Drew’s head. Several South Jersey haymakers followed. Crimson face, mouth frothing. Shut up! Shut Up! I got over my shock quickly and helped Drew block the blows. Tom was at least a foot taller than Drew, weighed at least a hundred more pounds.
The pummeling ceased, the yelling subsided, Tom stalked away. Dave drove us to campus, news of the incident spread among the intertwining circles. Everything was discussed in grand and universal terms, we were at an age where we looked and often found meaning everywhere, both in the classes we were taking and the lives we were leading.
Tom’s attack on Drew was major. Short but intense, left a red mark on his temple but nothing black or blue appeared. Dean had left by this time, and he acted as an accidental mediator between the south and north, Pennsauken and Bergenfield. He kept the peace, grew up with guys like Tom. I was sarcastic to everybody, especially Tom. But Tom didn’t punch me, I wasn’t Jewish.
Squelching the anti-Semitism bred into him since birth could no longer be sustained. Everything about his life that gave Tom emotional pain had become focused on the subhuman whose insults were as relentless as they were clever. For that moment, there was nothing more satisfying than cold-cocking Drew. Drew wasn’t a fighter, or a jock. Tom was a high school jock and former captain of the Lacrosse team or Rowing Team. He tacked pennants to the plywood walls of his man cave.
Tom always kidded Drew about his Jewishness and to be fair, Drew talked about it constantly. Drew was always making Jewish jokes and was the first to call me quarter Jew, because of my Jewish grandfather. Drew also acted as the main liaison with the Landlord brothers. He collected the monthly checks then paid the rent, a process Tom always made uncomfortable. He worked on commissions.
Using his fists was the best way Tom knew to express this hatred and fully realize his delusion. Tom certainly had gotten into fights before and undoubtedly won most of them. It’s hard to physically hurt a big fat bully.
Peace in Port Republic was finally restored. If this was a later decade, lawsuits or restraining orders would have resulted. Since it was off campus housing, the school had no authority. But soon Tom moved away, his fists improved nothing in his life and other roommates, one of whom was Maureen for a bit, the first we cohabitated. We had lived without a television, which Maureen refused to do. She found some cheap black and white TV, and she plugged it in the living room.
Soon enough, we were watching television instead of jamming or creating Urgency music. A year or so before, Tom in his bedroom watching Monday Night Football, came into the living room where Drew and I were hanging and told us Howard Cosell just announced John Lennon’s been shot. Now Tom was gone and we were getting stoned to Mary Tyler Moore reruns and the Tomorrow Show.
The other residents of Port Republic, some rumored to be teachers, others were millionaires whose identities were secret and lived for most of the year in far off cities where they increased their wealth. Nothing that resembled a neighborhood, all the houses were far away from us. They seemed larger and older than homes in Absecon or Pomona, surrounded by the eternal pines, with scant lawns and far enough away from each other and the narrow road where the long driveways extended to that even waving would be superfluous.
The only structure of any kind closest to the Blueberry Hill Campgrounds was a gas station and convenience store. It was a family owned, teenaged sisters seem were always behind the counter. They were funny, as happy to see us as we were to see them. It truly felt like the middle of nowhere, an outpost at the edges of the frontier.
We weren’t buying gas, just soda and munchies. My favorite was this clear cream soda that came in a 10-oz. bottle. Vanilla Cream Soda, Clear beverages are commonplace in in the highly competitive and constantly innovating beverage marketplace of the 21st century, but in the first year of the Reagan presidency this Port Republic cream soda appeared like magic causing an obsession – I have never seen this beverage again.
The gas station also had the only pay phone between the house and the college campus. One of the most romantic things I’ve ever done was call Stephanie. She and Drew had broken up, I saw her phone number written down in his notebook or some other piece of paper and memorized in that very glance, got my pocket change together and walked to the gas station alone and went into the phone both and I told Stephanie that I couldn’t stop thinking about her.
After Tom, Maureen took the room and Mark was over all the time, then he moved back to Teaneck. He hadn’t officially dropped out, he was working and taking an art classes up north and starting to live his gay life. The separate communities knew of each other and had peaceful relations but if you’re not in college, college stuff holds little interest and by the fourth year at college it’s impossible to be interested in anything other than school.
Drew and Maureen and Patty and Dan and I were graduating – class of 1982 – the classwork tripled, editor of the Literary Magazine – I had classes with Stephanie – the methamphetamine and high-powered caffeine and ephedrine pills you could only buy in Wildwood that we lived on to keep up with the schoolwork as well the beer drinking and marijuana smoking. The anxiety seemed relentless. Even when you’re able to ease the pressure, it only returned re-intensified.
Senior year was the serious year, the main resume year, and Mark was out-of-synch. I had more studying than ever, I had to be clear headed. The speed sobered us up so I could work. For Mark it was to continue the party. We all had complained to him, gently, apologetically. The friction was minimal. Every semester begun with a new leaf vow by the final month he seemed disinterested in the classes that he hadn’t dropped. You can do what you want Mark, but we have to study.
It was down to me, Drew and Dave. Tom’s old room needed an occupant.. Bob and Barry sat us down in the kitchen table, a film of grime covered the walls and counter. The flower-printed vinyl cushions of the chairs were faded, cracked and peeling.
They knew we needed a new roommate and had one thing to tell us… you’re friend Mark, he cannot live here. The Grand Wizard of the KKK lives in Port Republic and I am not going to put my family at risk.
Port Republic being where the Grand Wizard of the New Jersey KKK had his home was common knowledge. Nobody knew who he was or where he lived. But it was well-established hearsay especially among the locals – the inland South Jersians as opposed to the shore dwellers – and Bob and Barry used this fact as their opening statement.
The only KKK activity I knew about in New Jersey where stories the nuns told us of men dressing up in sheets and throwing rocks at buses of children attending Catholic Schools, not today or now, but not that long ago either. They’re why Al Smith lost.
I doubted the veracity of the KKK leader story, seemed legend, like the Jersey Devil in the pine barrens. But KKK was known to have a New Jersey presence.
Not exactly impossible to imagine. The majority of whites were racist and those who weren’t said nothing to those who were. The surprising thing is that there wasn’t more visible KKK activity. I never met any suppliers to dealers, just the dealers, but among the speed community, the scuttlebutt was always that New Jersey Biker Gangs were making and supplying meth to the suppliers who supplied my dealers and those gangs were members of the Aryan Brotherhood, the first time I ever heard that term used.
Mark can come over when you’re home but we can’t rent to his kind. We don’t want any trouble.
After the brothers left, we discussed it. Mark was our brother, but him living with us for senior year was not an idea we liked at all. Our Mark issue was unrelated to race.
I don’t want to jeopardize my grade point average, said Drew. Besides, it’s their property. They have a right to do with it whatever they want.
Dave agreed. There’s nothing we can do.
This absolved us of guilt. I tried to convince my conscience. I didn’t say anything, my usual pattern. More often than not, when someone said something racist I didn’t approve or join, but rarely protested. I avoided fights by nature especially the verbal conflicts with the potential to turn physical. Yes, maybe they can eventually cease being racist, but I rarely felt capable – or responsible – of convincing someone to change their opinions.
What the Landlord Brothers were doing was making us accomplices in their racism. What we should be doing is exposing the shame of Port Republic. What we should be doing is saying that housing discrimination is against the law – which I think it was by then – but I was unequipped with this knowledge. Philosophy Major, economics minor, concentration in writing – that’s what I knew. In the decades that followed I gained the knowledge and learned the language, expansiveness evolved my personal political philosophy.
We were serious students. Reagan’s election and his policies of socialism for the rich and austerity for the rest of us that finally deteriorated into Trumpism initially led to severe stagflation, record levels of unemployment and inflation. Pre-Reagan, when one rose the other fell but the world we were graduating into had them soaring together.
Mark said he couldn’t afford Stockton. We were off the hook. All we had to do was not tell him that we were looking for a roommate.
Being accomplices to racism is being racist. You’re accepting a belief system based on an empirically proven falsehood. That’s what the Landlord Brothers forced upon us. We let them, yes because times were different and we were young and well, stupid – far from the sophisticated and enlightened intellectuals we thought we had become – but we also let them out of sheer self-interest. Mark is not a serious student. We don’t always have the willpower to not party with him. The stakes are too high!
The moral choice I made was wrong. I couldn’t take it back but the guilt eventually led to something constructive. Soon after college, in fact, one of the first times after graduation Mark and I were hanging out, I confessed to Mark, told him about the Landlord Brothers ordering us not to rent to him and his friends not standing up to them or by him.
I have to tell you this, I feel really bad about this. I am really sorry to have done this, and I swear to you, I will never do anything like that ever again in my life.
I swear, that’s what I said, words to that effect. I swore to him I would never do anything like that again in my life. I don’t remember him saying anything and the few times we got together in the following years, it was never again mentioned between us.
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