Jersey City Scenes: Anecdotes & Observations


A very random work in progress.


Apartment Building Fire

About 3:00AM the fire alarm is going off. Then from down the hall I hear a knocking,  knuckles on the metal front door of  a distant apartment.  I stick my head out my door, hear somebody yelling help and run to the neighbor. He was smelling smoke and I go to the apartment and I can smell smoke and see black singes near the edge of the door frame. I bang on the door and shout is anybody there and there’s no answer. The smell of smoke is intensifying. I run back to my apartment to get the cellphone, call security first to get them to open the apartment. Other people on the floor are up by now, calling 911 (the fire alarm is connected directly to the Jersey City Fire Department). Maintenance guy comes but his passkey doesn’t work. The apartment owner changed the lock without telling building maintenance. Firemen now are arriving, racing up the stair case and are directed to the apartment. Smoke is now visible around the apartment door.  They begin procedures to break down the door. Meanwhile, outside the hooks and ladders are up and a firefighter is  breaking in the window of the unit with an axe. We are told to evacuate. We’re knocking on all the doors of the floor, get out! Get out! Fire! JCFD are hooking up the fire hoses that are in the in case of emergency boxes on the floor. The resident was inside, collapsed in the hall by the front door. No one knows how the fire started, but she apparently passed out from smoke inhalation. She was taken to the hospital. Some outside saw flames flare out of the unit after the firemen broke the glass. I saw billowing smoke as thick streams of water shot out the hoses. The entire building – four floors – was evacuated. Everyone is watching the firemen do their jobs. We are allowed back in a little after four. The fire seemed contained to the one unit. Firemen entered the directly adjacent apartments, but only for investigation purposes. Fire did not spread to those units. A powerful smoke stench remains in in the hall. There’s no mistaking that a severe fire was nearby and only recently extinguished. The firemen said it was a two alarm fire. The fire alarms go off every few weeks here, but I have never been evacuated and there has never been any kind of severe fire… until now, in the wee wee hours before dawn. I hope my neighbor is okay, she’s a very nice woman. The fire trucks did not leave until 5:30 AM.


Wine Booth At The Feast

A teenaged daughter “unseen” by her parents and aunts pressures her older cousin to serve her a glass of wine. He finally relents, okay, but over ice he smiles  and surreptitiously gives her a plastic cup filled with ice and wine. I do not know what was funnier, the look of disappointment on her face when she saw all that ice or the way she concealed the cup behind a bag of zeppolees from the adults.


Monday Rosary

On Monday nights at Saint Mary’s  the Holy Rosary is recited.  A woman who is one of the leaders of this prayer group just lost her mother. Pancreatic cancer. One month and two days after the diagnosis her mom was gone. This was the first time she’s been back since her mother first fell ill. We haven’t seen her in weeks. She told me her mother was one of the founders of this Monday night rosary society, both of them had prayed together at Saint Mary’s for more than 20 years.  It’s a small group. People take turns leading a “decade” of Hail Marys, one for each “mystery”. With the rosary you say 10 Hail Marys after each Our Father. Leading the prayers means the leader says the first half, after which those gathered respond  in unison with the second half of the prayer. When it came her turn to lead, her voice cracked and she wept, but she continued. She didn’t fight the tears, she felt through them, wiping her eyes. The funeral was less than a week ago. She’s been crying a lot, getting back to her life, enduring the grief. Her voice trembled through the Our Father and was sobbing heavily as she led us in  2nd and 3rd Hail Mary, but by the 9th and 10th, her voice was clear and calm, and everyone else in the pews were shedding the tears.



Unpreventable Eavesdropping

I go down to the Exchange Place Starbucks to read and get quietly caffeinated. The place is crowded and the only available seat is right next to the only rest room.  The guy next to me is talking on his cellphone. He has a deep voice and is one of those guys whose voice gets twice as loud when he talks on a cellphone than his volume during a normal conversation. He begins to explicitly describe an act of fellatio involving a black man and a white woman, a porn clip he saw online. He is using the C-word, N-word, just wildly unrestrained vulgar verbiage. There are children with their mothers nearby. The details get increasingly graphic. It’s impossible to read and eventually I put down my book with an involuntary sigh and am about to say something. His voice gets softer, says good bye and hangs up, then apologizes to me. He’s profuse and sincere and even calls me sir. I wave it off and shrug. It’s fine. His phone rings again,  so he goes into the bathroom to talk; except the bathroom is small and his naturally booming baritone becomes amplified and echoing. Half the Starbucks can now hear him. “HE WAS A MANDINGO I THOUGHT SHE WAS GONNA CHOKE TO DEATH!”


Right Hook Practice

Only his right hand wore a boxing glove. He kept punching the bag with his right hand. Again and again, fast enough for his arm to blur as I watched, the time between  thuds of glove against bag seem to dwindle down a few more  fractions of a second with each blow. Sweat covered his face and arms and soaked through his gym clothes. Finally winded, he took a break. Why are you only wearing a glove on your right hand, I asked. I’m practicing my right hook. If I put on the left glove, I’ll want to start adding left jabs, and that will take my focus away. I’m focusing on my hook; I’m only exercising my right arm today.


Phone Harassment

The Chinese woman who works at my main Chinese place – they do the steamed broccoli and roast chicken – is screaming into the phone: Stop calling here, stop! You stop calling here or I’ll call the police!  She was being phone harassed. I have never seen her this upset. I’ve been going there for years and once helped her write an application letter to Hudson County Community College. She tells me that this harassment had been going on for a more than a week. She answers the phone, takes delivery orders and some guy is calling the take-out restaurant and saying nasty and vile crap to her. He lives on Varick, she tells me. She filed a police complaint, she said, but they can’t do nothing. She knows where he lives but cannot stop the calls. She has a really thick accent, so I can’t quite understand everything. She sometimes parks near my apartment and I happened to see her two days later walking towards her job. She looked exhausted, and immediately resumed complaining about this guy who was still calling her. It was all she could talk about. He calls all night, I can’t take orders.  She said she was getting ready to go to court. A few days later,  when I went to get my usual again, the rings under her eyes are gone. She was rested and relieved. She said she found out how to block his number. Apparently that was the solution, via the phone company. He can no longer get through. What a nightmare, I replied. I was ready to go to court, but that costs money and they were not going to be able to do anything to him. The police could do nothing. In my country it would be so much easier. How would it be easier in China, I asked. In China I would just pay somebody to beat him up, no more calls.


Paco & Taco

Paco passed away. She was a street person and girlfriend of Taco and they hung around Newark Avenue in the spots where the local winos and junkies congregate and aside from the occasional panhandle, or even rarer moments of rowdiness, they kept to themselves. They are easy to avoid, which is what I do. They may be tragic but they are not a nuisance on any serious level. It is clear that Taco and Paco loved each other, and there were days they looked awful, the toll of substance abuse and whatever else had gone or was going on in their lives. Some days they loudly argued and Taco would get abusive. Many days, they were just having fun, getting wasted in the heat. I have this Paco story though that I’ve thought about quite often. I avoid engaging on any level with the street folks, so I have to say I generally ignore them and go about my business. But I wonder if that is generational. A centerpiece of the substance abuse, poverty stricken life of Taco and Paco seemed to be this shopping cart and Taco often pushed Paco around downtown in the shopping cart. The shopping cart has sometimes appeared on the social media among local hipsters. So one time I saw this young woman, gen-y, millennial, 20 something, go all social worker on Taco and Paco. “Why is she in the shopping cart, are you hurting her?”  She asked Taco, who looked down, embarrassed. “Are you all right?” She spoke directly to Paco – “Do you want to be in this shopping cart? Is he abusing you?” I’ll never forget the smirk on Paco’s face, it was mischievous. This young white woman was performing a fearless intervention and Taco was basically getting shit. Taco actually cowered. Paco could have ended it immediately but she let it go on, her grin gradually increasing. She was enjoying getting attention and Taco getting grief. The young woman’s concern was eventually allayed, and Taco and Paco returned to whatever inebriated adventure they were on. They did love each other, it was plain to see. That young woman was all about feminism and sisterhood and not self-conscious at all about crossing some racial/social line. The most I ever said to them was I don’t have any change when they panhandled, which wasn’t often and sometimes they would just say hey how you doing and I would reply have a good night. I realized the younger generation rolls differently. But the best part was Paco’s smile. Taco was getting shit from a hipster and did not know how to react. I never saw something like that before either.

Smoke Break

I saw the legless and armless woman who rides in the mechanized wheel chair walking a dog and smoking a cigarette. The dogs leash was tied to her vehicle. She has no legs or arms, I have no idea how she operates the chair, but she zips up and down Newark Avenue  When she got to her friend, the panhandler by the Paradise bodega, he takes the cigarette out and she exhales smoke, then she puts the cigarette back in between her lips and she’s on her way, the small dog trotting alongside



Accidental Poignancy

I’m at a funeral mass this morning. The departed was elderly so while still very sorrowful, the grief was understandably composed. She had a vast family. I was sitting near the back of the church. A mom and her newborn sat in front of me. While the organ and choir struck up In the Garden, the mother covers her neck and shoulder with an apron and begins to breastfeed her child. It’s not like her bosom could be seen,  but it was obvious what she was nonchalantly doing. My sightline was the mom and draped apron, the backs of people’s heads,  and the gleaming mahogany coffin. It didn’t make me feel death was something happier than it is, nor did I see this nurturing as a balm for grief. Instead this glimpse of a simple and natural  act was emotionally poignant and I thought about how our journey between eternities is a more reasonable transition than I often believe. We tarry there, with our joy to share.


Early Woman

Her face was puffy, especially around the eyes, like she had been outside in the sun all day for days. She was youngish and even pretty, but desperately in need of sleep and a shower.  I don’t know if she was homeless or a suffering from addiction or mental illness or some kind of combination or just enduring a really bad patch. Something was going in her life and that something had not been good and put her here looking like this very early on a late summer morning.  She was not one of the familiar neighborhood street people, not one of our regulars, but 7:30 AM is way too early for them anyway.  Her clothes weren’t dingy, they looked sort of new, but  grimy.  She wore nice sandals, had pedicured toes but her feet were shockingly filthy. She had been sitting on the bench outside,  but  then came into bodega and after buying a vanilla cigar, she lingers, looking at the sign with the pictures of various breakfast sandwiches. She orders an egg and cheese – asking how much it is first – her voice is quiet, polite, sweet. The bodega owner nods to the guy cooking to make the sandwich –  they speak to each other in Arabic – the guy rushes her sandwich, making hers before he completes mine –  and when it’s ready the owner gives it to her, waving away her attempt to pay, it’s okay, it’s okay. He’s nice about it, respecting her.  She thanks him and leaves and when I go outside I notice she is no longer sitting on the bench, she is gone.


Begging For Water

This guy on the PATH, he was asking for anything.

Money, food, water, a job, said he needed to pay for a hospice. He was carrying a half a sandwich from Subway. It was all he had. People are ignoring him, which I was tying to do. I’ll take anything you can spare.

I always look at the shoes. Not only was this guy’s rap less practiced and more convincing than the regular panhandlers on this route home, his sneakers were beat up bad. He did not seem to be on any substances, was not unruly or in your face, just very meek and obviously harmless.  There was nothing belligerent about him, only down on his luck in America.

He unwraps the sandwich and before he bites into it, he apologizes for eating on the PATH train. There are no food allowed signs in full view.  I’m sorry, I’m just so hungry.

I give to him the small bottle of water I carry in my bag. I just couldn’t stand to watch somebody eat a sandwich without a beverage.

There’s been a noticeable uptick in panhandler activity and apparent homelessness.  Panhandling, whether you give or not, is always antagonistic. Your compassion is tested, but you can only conclude our civilization is failing and giving may provide temporary comfort but only perpetuates the social decay.  The idea that someone is without water – which is a more symbolic than factual interpretation of the man eating a dry sandwich – bothered me. It’s appalling.  I solved an immediate problem. I didn’t feel better, I felt worse. I live in the richest country in the world and on my way home I encountered a man begging for water.



Jersey Onto Columbus

A thin drizzle shrouded by a chilly fog falls.

At a red-light on Jersey Avenue, the corner of Christopher Columbus Drive, a Toyota and a Mini-van pull up side by side. The horns of both vehicles wildly honk at each other. A man drives the mini-van, which has New York plates. A young woman is in the Toyota’s  passenger seat, the driver is older. She looks like her mother.

The mini-van is less than a year old, the Toyota must be more than five.

The guy is screaming, enraged the woman is still honking at him. He opens the driver’s side window, flings his beverage, a large-sized soda from a fast food joint. Ice cubes, plastic straw and lid, flutter into the steady rain towards the Toyota’s passenger side window.

The young woman opens her window.

“How dare you throw something at me! You ran the stop sign. You had a stop sign. You were the one who is supposed to stop.”

“You cut me off, you bitch.”

Her eyes widen.  “I’m a bitch? You run a stop sign and I’m the bitch.”

She spits at him. The guy is stunned, his mouth agape. Her mother now honks her horn with her elbows while giving him the finger with both hands. The young woman cranks her neck, like a pitcher in a wind up, sucking any available mucus projectile from her sinus cavity into her mouth and with much more gusto, gobs a second time.

He furiously pumps his  fists and elbows up and down. He looks like he is jogging in place. He shouts indecipherable syllables as loud as he can.

The light turns green. The cars behind them honk.

She spews another salvia ball at him. He calms down enough to press the window button  as he begins turning right. Her shoulders are now outside the frame of the passenger side window and she’s nearly puking spit towards him while he waits for the electronic window to close. Her mother continues honking, giving him the finger while illegally turning from Jersey onto Columbus in unison with the mini-van so her daughter can keep spitting.

She spits through the rain for all she’s worth.