Monday, July 7, 2014

A mystic heart

July 10, 1980

Wicca George was so good a liar, he made you ache to believe him even when you knew nothing he said was true.
He affected everyone he knew that way, and latched onto anybody who stopped long enough for him to sink his teeth into.
I met him for the first time on the corner of Madison Avenue and 21 St Street in Paterson when I was a wild 14-year-old street kid.
Dave knew him and introduced me, and George looked up at the sky and pointed at a red star.
“You see that?” he asked.
I nodded; Dave – wise to him laughed and asked, “Don’t tell me you own it?”
“No,” George said so earnestly I felt embarrassed by Dave’s skepticism. “That’s where I come from.”
With that as a backdrop, I didn’t think George’s stories could get any more exaggerated, but they did.
He later told me while walking across the Route 46 Bridge from the foot of Cedar Lawn Cemetery and into Garfield how he’d become the witch of witches, similar to what a bishop is to priests.
He claimed to be the seventh son of the seventh son and the last witch to be burned in Salem. I learned later that he was of Dutch decent, and related to some of the founding families of Paterson.
“And this is my ring of power,” he said, holding up his hand upon which he bore a large ring that had seven small black stones.
He even took it off and handed it to me so I could have a better look, and for some reason, touching it chilled me even through it was still warm from his hand.
“My mother gave it to me,” he said. “She said a great witch in France once wore it and now it’s mine.”
I don’t know why I did what I did next, impulse perhaps, or maybe just fear or my Catholic upbringing.
I tossed the ring into the river and watched it plop in the water in the middle near where the stream ran the fastest.
Then, laughing – cruelly no doubt – I ran back towards my house on the Paterson side as George stood indignant with his hands on his hips – but silent, glaring at me as if I had committed a mortal sin.
But the next time I saw him on Main Street in Paterson, he seemed friendly again, waving to me, that same ring (or one just like it) once more on the forefinger of his left hand.
Over the years, George became a fixture in Paterson, someone who did just about everything.
In 1968, I saw him for a while where he worked at “Stop the World,” headshop near the corner of Broadway and Main Street, selling black light posters (and possibly something else) to all us weird hippie-like people who gravitated to this bit of Greenwich Village in our own back yard.
It was our haven against the ravages of the world, the right wing old school whites from South Paterson, and Irish, Latino and black street gangs everywhere else, and George took on the role of guru – his dark black light world seeming to emphasize his strangeness, revealing some powerful inner being the way the light brought out the translucence of color in the posters around him.
When the place closed, George haunted Paterson like the spirit he claimed to be, a regular at the public library on Broadway or in front of City Hall on Market Street, or even floating around Garret Mountain Park where his presence near the castle and tower there seemed most apt.
Recently, I heard a bit more about George from a kid on the college newspaper, who had a loft on Main Street and had taken in George for a while.
Despite ambitious dreams, George never left Paterson – and did not move out of his 21st Street house until his paranoid mother died. She had lived her life glaring out over the white picket fence at the changing nature and color of the city, not quite able to come to terms with what she saw. That house was the last house on block that had been taken over by factories and discount stores.
She had hated me and Dave and the rest of us who knocked around the streets and the then still under construction section of Route 80. She called us “hopeless bums.”
We laughed each time we saw her peering out from behind her perfect lace curtains, the only pure thing left on a block that became loaded down with prostitutes and street gangs at night. We ran through her back yard just for spite, our sneakers leaving their mark across her perfectly tailored plants and lawn.
She screamed at us through the back screen door calling us “little devils,” and we responded in language much more colorful and which turned her pale cheeks white.
George tried to rein us in, coming around the house or into the front, only to have his mother shout for him to come back. But he came with us anyway during those early years, up to the mountain or down to the river. Eventually, Dave and I grew apart and the old gang broke up, and I saw George infrequently when I passed through Paterson on my way elsewhere. In some ways, he was to me the spiritual heart of Paterson, the mystic who gave us all a vision we could never had gotten on our own.

(UPDATE  July 7, 2014 – Just prior to my writing this piece in July 1980, George got work as a tour guide for the Great Falls Historic District in Paterson, part of a plan to draw tourists into the city. His salary was funded by federal CETA money that Republicans poured into Paterson in order to bolster the efforts of a Republican mayor. When Ronald Reagan became president in January, 1981, he systematically cut CETA funding to Eastern Cities, and George among many others lost his job. What happened after that, I can’t say. I never saw him again.”

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