Sunday, March 29, 2015

The end of the world as we know it

March 29, 2015

It's not the end of the world, but there is a change in the air, and I'm not completely sure of what it means. A fire broke out in the east village yesterday, wiping out three buildings, more history vanishing before our eyes.
Certain eras breed this kind of change, where we see the face of the world we knew converted into something new, and many times, alien.
I spent well over two decades in Secaucus, first as a fotomac, and later as baker and finally as a journalist. But even prior to that, I passed through that town on my way to and from Manhattan. For the most part, the place remained unchanged except for moderate modifications. While the acme vanished from the center of town, the mark in its parking lot where the fotomat booth stood remains, as does the library building where I had to go to use the toilet when working there.
But even during that incarnation, I saw them raze the donut place and replace it will a string of stores.

The state, of course, made significant changes when they altered the path of Route 3, and so steered a course that avoided the center of town -- as was the case when I went to new york city in the late 1960s.
And the mayor at that time, bargained to rebuild this one time home of pig farms into an outlet and shopping mall mecca, but keeping these things on the perimeter of the town so that deceptively, this world never seemed to change.
Fundamentally it did. Tens of thousands of people came and went daily to and from the buildings that were not old Secaucus, while old Secaucus went on living with the illusion of sameness. They even installed a gate to block the only direct road from warehouse/outlet section to the residential section so as to maintain the fiction.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, I often drove down the western spur of the New Jersey Turnpike to see my family in Toms River, and so from a distance I saw the changes that could not be seen so easily close up, the rise of towers along the western border, the loss of icons like the drive in movie theater and the demolition of the Peter Pan Motel. I saw the last farm vanish as the city fathers grew ashamed of their past and sought to remodel their town as a bedroom community for New York – hating the distinction of two world wars when it supplied food to the troops world wide.
But eventually, the heart of the town would get affected, and for me, the loss of the Plaza Diner became symbolic of the lost heart of the Secaucus I knew. When the Acme closed, I knew Secaucus had changed so fundamentally, it wasn’t same place I had come to admire, despite all the political rhetoric about taking it back. Some things can’t be restored.
Recently I noticed that the old Ideal Bar had changed hands again – the one time last testament to the string of nightclubs and taverns that had once populated the town. The town closed down many of them over the years, but this one held on – finally, like a number of other even newer institutions, making its way into a history book of people’s memories.
I guess this is the way it is for every place.

And why people flee their homes sometimes to avoid seeing their world change.
Remarkably, little has actually changed where I grew up, although my family fled the old house fearing the worst.

A sad testament to our lives, when we do not know which is right, to stay or go, to embrace change or to resist it.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Nothing ever lasts

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

We made the trip south in the rain again, although not the deluge we faced in the fall trip where we had to stop along the side of the Parkway in order to let the downfall relent.
Rain accompanied a number of trips to Asbury Park, but did not keep us away until rain turned to snow and ice, and we hunkered down in Jersey City to wait it out, coming south the way the geese come north, as a spring ritual.

Not all the trips south over the last year had come with rain, but generally, the parkway became a madhouse filled with insane drivers in a rush to get somewhere fast. This trip was different with only one or two of the weaving idiots to make the trip uncomfortable, and fewer still of the panicked pedestrians that clogged middle lanes for fear of onramps. So we made good time even though we had chosen to leave later, doing our chores before we left – and arrived slightly over an hour after the 2 p.m. check in at the Neptune motel.

These roads always make me nostalgic for those days I was the backseat passenger in my grandfather’s car and made our way to some shore community where he or my uncles needed to work on somebody’s boat, or for our own annual summer trip to the beach – always pausing on the way to get a basket of fruit and vegetables from the inevitable roadside stands – those inexpensive summer icons since replaced in the city by the ludicrously labeled farmer’s markets at five times the price.

This time, I thought on my last trip wandering aimlessly along Route 35 when I still owned my silver Pinto, and I took my mother and my uncle for a ride, even then aware of the changing landscape and how intrusive development had become, and how we had struggled to find a still-in-business roadside stand for us to stop at.
Routinely, we take the same route in and out of Asbury Park – a route made into myth in a Bruce Springsteen story from his 1978 New York City concert – and we park in the same place near the intersection of Kingsley, Cookman and Asbury.

Once the hub of amusement activity, the place has become a graveyard of memories, a vacant lot along one side, two parking lots, and misconceived condo development. But on this day, with a steady rain after a weekend of snow, this world was nearly devoid of all life. Even our Christmas weekend trip had filled the boardwalk. But as we made our way up to the casino, life did not seem to exist even inside the bars along one side or in the abandoned cavern of the casino itself.

As routine, we made our way to the other end of the boardwalk to the still occupied Convention Hall, where we hoped to get coffee, and found the place as vacant as the boardwalk had been with a few employees of the pub preparing for some wedding, and an occasional jogger or dog walker passing through. The coffee was closed tight for lack of interest. Apparently, people had not yet gotten over the impact of the snow and so did not believe the world would thaw as quickly as it had.
We made our way back towards the Casino, seeing a few more brave souls appear as darkness came. Wesley Lake glowed with the warmed reflections remaining buildings as we walked up the Ocean Grove side and crossed one of the bridges to access the eateries near Cookman. The beer garden had opened, but we avoided it in favor of the small pizzeria we had eaten at previously, and then made our way back down Cookman to the boardwalk again to wait out the hour or so before we could go to the Stone Pony.

A few more people moved along near Madam Maries. The wedding party we had seen earlier posing for pictures in the convention center was gone, and only a few regulars occupied the pub. We sat at the tables near the closed coffee shop and took warmth under the ceiling level heaters we alone appreciated at that moment.
Outside, darkness grew more intense with the gray rain, and before long, we were out again, moving towards the Stone Pony in the rain.
Later, after the music was over, we made our way back to the motel.
By morning, it was cold, but clear, demonstrating that winter still clung even if the snow did not.

As with previous weekends, we packed up, put our stuff in the car, and then walked to nearby Perkins for breakfast, before checking out, and making our way back to Asbury Park.
Since our purpose this trip was to see the Bruce Springsteen tribute band we did not linger long in the cold, but took a brief stroll along the boardwalk from convention center to the pier in Ocean Grove. Someone had replaced the little sailor doll at the end of the pier and so all seemed well with the world again, although when we got to Main Street in Ocean Grove, we discovered a pile of sticks where three stores had been gutted by fire in January – one more injury to a memory, although not as horrible as the one that leveled Sea Side Park.

Memories are meant to fade, not go up in smoke, or get bulldozed by greedy developers. But then, the important lesson in all this is that nothing ever lasts, nor should it, a memory is precious partly because it holds on to the residue of something important long after the reality.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Lovefest at the Stone Pony


Monday, March 16, 2015

I hadn’t expected to walk into a lovefest for white men, young and old, when I booked the tickets for Tramps Like Us at The Stone Pony.
We had heard the Springsteen tribute band sound check last fall just after finding Clarence Clemons’s memorial bench on the boardwalk, and took it as a sign that we ought to catch the act the next time it came to Asbury Park.
We missed Springsteen himself due to a severe ice storm that kept us prisoners in Jersey City while he did a 90 minute set with some old friends at the Paramount Theater a month ago.
So a tribute band was the best we could accomplish with the first warm day after the frost had passed.
Like our first time hearing the tribute band, it rained the whole day of our coming.
“How come every time we play here it rains?” said founding member and Springsteen-tribute-artist Mark Salore from the stage that night.
The rain casts Asbury Park into a gray haze. This was no deluge like one visit we made here, but a heavy mist to light rain that helped sweep the last of the previous snow storm out to sea.
By lovefest, I don’t mean “gay,” like you would find up the street at the Empress Motel.
This was a lovefest of mostly white men of every age, weight, fully-haired or balding, macho or not, gathered on the dance floor before the stage with wives, girlfriends, or in packs of friends, mostly working class, many wearing t-shirts and baseball hats, work boots, or thin leather jackets trying to look cool.
Yet for all the gathered testosterone, these men were infinitely polite (unlike the unruly packs that had gathered in the same space like fall for the Grateful Dead tribute band). These men moved with the grace of alter boys, and for good reason, because the Stone Pony for them had become a church, and their was a not-so-quiet reverence we felt the moment we came through the door, but which become all too evident the moment the music started, and these men began to sway – some raising fists in the air in tribute to the some unseen god evoked in this place by this band, some even casting “the finger” to one of the many oppressors that they face in their lives – here finding a hero (I’m no hero that’s understood) of a working class, New Jersey life that they could find in no other performer, songs filling the room with tales of their own lives and struggles, their voices chanting out words they knew as well as the singer did, having lived with them for decades – especially those icon tunes from the early albums such as “Born to Run” or “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”
This band and the singer their paid tribute to sang songs about what it is like to live and die as ordinary people in a place as ordinary as New Jersey – songs filled with angst of growing up in a place that other placed mocked, songs filled with every day issues that seemed unworthy of other singers, but had been made into myth by a man who had started his career out, not just in New Jersey, but in here, in Asbury Park, and had played on this stage for people just like these people.
In a year in which “black lives matter” became something of a theme, this moment in The Stone Pony took on ironic proportions since in some ways Springsteen’s songs are about how much white lives also matter, and how unheralded most lives are, white or black, man or woman.
But it is true that most of the men in that room – except for the staff – were white, but that’s where the similarities stopped, old and young chanting the same religious theme of their own lives as the musicians landed on touch stones of songs they knew would evoke the most reaction.
This was the 25th anniversary of the band, and some of the older members got up to play a few songs, too. And since this year was also our 25th anniversary – recalling a wedding filled with white men and women, and a rock band filled with friends who had accompanied me through this long perilous journey of being white, working class and from New Jersey – I felt the pang of this performance, too.

Plenty of women accompanied the men in his room, but they seemed just a little baffled by the mood, as these men gathered in this primitive ritual, thrusting fists, fingers even beer bottles in the air in their defiance of the hard life they have lived – especially during songs like “Bad Lands,” while the women seemed equally confused as men rocked them during the ballads, men singing to their women words that were not their own, but seemed to sum up their lives better than words they could come up with on their own,. And few moments in my life made me understand what the attraction was, how Springsteen had captured more than just a moment in time, or a place, or even a feeling, he had captured a way of life that was rapidly evaporating. New Jersey would never be the same. These working class men were of an era that was vanishing before our eyes, and the men in that room, old or young, fat or muscular, rich or poor, all connected to that last string of words that kept the memory of theirs lives alive, giving them immortality that they knew they could not achieve for themselves.

Friday, March 13, 2015

My fate

Friday, March 13, 2015

No black cats have crossed my path; so I feel lucky.
Except the black cat I keep at home and who likes to listen to me when I play guitar and sing; he doesn’t count. He obviously doesn’t have any taste.
I’m not really superstitious; I just like the idea that we live in a world of uncertainty and wish that luck played as big a part in determining where we go and what we do as we pretend it does.
This was a rough week though, filled with the yearly ritual of a progress report – that extra bit of madness that we engage in for advertising purposes.
I was so far behind on my regular copy all week that I could not walk into Hoboken from the heights like I have done most of the winter, even through spring has finally sprung and the weather is the kind of weather perfect for such a trek.
Having two Friday the Thirteenths in a row – last month and this – of course, doubles the paranoia.
But even without the so-called bad luck days, change is in the air, and it is more than spring.
It is more than the change that I see ongoing when I look out the second floor window from my desk in Hoboken.
I’ve been through this enough to feel it in my bones months before it happens.
This is not good or bad, it just is.
Once done with work today – while waiting to make corrections on the copy – I took a walk through the streets of Hoboken, a place that alters with the change of day, night being so starkly different than day that to stroll through one is to miss the other.
This is not the same Hoboken I moved into in 1992, and won’t be the same Hoboken when I finally leave this job two years from now.
And yet through its streets, old ghosts still wander.
I passed the stoop where my mother used to sit, and felt her presence, even though she is more than a decade deceased. I walked down Sinatra Drive aware of the fact that his ghost will always be here, even though his family doesn’t want to acknowledge us anymore. I walked down the alley way where On the Waterfront was filmed and felt not just the ghosts of the actors, but of a whole way of life that has vanished and will never return.
I know I will miss this place for all of its memories when I move on. But I also know it will not miss me.
We are but spirits passing through a place that is more significant than we are, and history is not meant to record the small people of the world, those of us who work or play, but rather to record the actions – good or bad – of those whose lives rise above the ordinary.
I will always be ordinary, even if and when I do something extraordinary. It is my fate.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The release of spring

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The weather turns.
The way we turned ahead the clocks, a leap of faith, imposing ourselves into this new warm, moist season, our hands still frigid from being so long exposed.
I can barely move my fingers or feel the softness that this new season brings, my soul aching for the touch of leaf again after so many months of stark icicles, this stiff embrace painful with each bend of finger.
I learn to walk again, needing not to fear falling from some slip on ice, solid ground that my footsteps can follow with more certainty as I stride back into the wider world.
I am renewed on the inside and out, though I still stir with the need of release, the desperate struggle to unsheathe what winter had forced me to hide.
The breeze is not yet warm enough for me to run unclothed through woods or fields, though that ache rises up with the promise of release, of free air, and the kiss of something tender on my upturned lips.
Even the rain, as cold as it is, renews me, and I choose to walk without hood or hat to allow it to wash down over my face, this grace of changing, this rebirth out of which I find hope of release, this change of season that brings me back to life, and makes me ache in better way, in a way that promises some greater reward.

Ah, life.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A walk through the past

Monday, March 09, 2015

This is always the time of  year that hits me hardest – this time when the world melts and reemerges as something new, when warmth finally gets its grip and strips off the chill so that we might run naked again like children (or at least underdressed).
Everything drips from the just over freezing temperatures even at night.
Lately, I’ve gone back to doing my laundry on Sunday’s in Secaucus – not so much out of need but out of nostalgia for that more innocent time when my eyes remained closed to the worst abuses of the world, and I could still pretend to be unstained by the vulgar realities that make up our existence.
Perhaps in some ways, I still haven’t come to grips with all that, even through like a tour guide I wandered around the edges of the dark world, watching but largely untouched with its reality.
Drying the drying cycle I took the ten block walk from the Plaza section of Secaucus to Trolley Park and back, snow melting into oozing pools with each footstep. For the most part, the heart of Secaucus remained unchanged from the day I first stepped foot into it during the early 1980s when I came to work in the Fotomat  booth in the parking lot across from what was then the town library.
Along this route, you have to look hard for the changes – although the most obvious is the new library constructed slightly over a decade ago. The rest is like a stroll through memory lane – with even some of the same faces in cars familiar.
Thomas Wolfe was right when he said you can’t go home. Someone else pointed out that time shifts things so that even a river that looks exactly as it once did is not the same, and when you step onto it, you are sailing on different water. The only things that remain the same are those which you carry with you, and even that is an illusion.
I always think of people and places in time like photographs. If you keep in touch with them, you barely notice the changes. But if you are away for a while, the vision you have is only a mental photograph that doesn’t match up later when you get back.
So that even this stretch of landscape doesn’t quite fit with the place I have kept inside my head. Trolley Park is loaded with playground equipment. Huber Street School has a new face. Even in the heart of the town I remember, the library isn’t the library any more, the Acme is a CVS, the Plaza Diner is a bank, the New Jersey Bank and other banks that previously occupied this town square have different names if not different looks.
But as I walked I searched out for those elements that had not changed, things that cling to our reality, and beckon back to a past we remember, but cannot replicate.
Even the bar across the street from the laundry has changed, losing its rooftop icons such as the full sized fishing boat, for a more modern look – so that I know I will feel less comfortable inside if I chose to pull up to the bar for a beer.
And yet, coming back, walking this route, looking at these things feels right. For some reason, this part of the world will change less quickly than other places such as Jersey City – destined to become for some ungodly reason – the most populated city in the state, filled with phallic towers and smelling of too much testosterone.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

This tiny bit of warmth

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The ice drips off my front porch awning; but with no real relief
Spring hasn’t arrived and seems at times it never will.
This is less a complaint than an observation, and a need to renew, as if age makes healing from old wounds more difficult; this season projecting on the outside world, how I feel inside.
This dripping a lot like dripping tears as we embrace new storms that seem to stretch out ahead of us for the rest of our lives, this winter like few other winters clinging to our heals like a rabid dog, snarling and biting, but never so deeply as to inflict a fatal wound.
Forecasters looking back claim this has been one of the coldest winters in recorded history, and refer back to the winters of 1985 and 1979 as examples, those years when I still lived in a cold water flat in Passaic and watched the river there fill with chunks of ice – just as I watched the Hudson fill with ice this year, emotional-filled years of change that I still recall with the vivid sting that winter’s kiss brings.
This inside/outside weather forecast never predictable except in hindsight when we look back and see how these chunks of ice clogged our arteries and created havoc with the slow thaw of approaching spring.
Winters like this make us ache all the more for spring, even though such wishful thinking also eats up time we otherwise wish would tarry, as we rush ahead to the worst of all winters when there will be no thaw.
All this morbid thinking comes at a time when we get a temporary thaw ahead of yet another predicted snow storm, and we try to cling to that small vestige of warmth the thaw has given us until we can bask in the real thaw, if and when it arrives.

I used to stand on a bus stop in the early 1970s clinging to a cup of coffee as I waited for my ride to work, this small bit of heat allowing me to thaw inside while winter raged outside. Sometimes, this is all we have, this cup of coffee, this tiny bit of warmth that keeps our veins from turning to ice, this idea that we shall soon see spring, and renewed hope.