Thursday, January 28, 2010

Montgomery Street in the Snow

Not everything has to have a specific purpose, or meaning. I just liked the way Montgomery Street looked in the snow, had to do some stuff down there in the morning, Exchange Place way. We’ve seen this thousands of time before, but not so often in the snow and I like the way it looks,

and I like the Flamingo Restaurant & Bar sign, always have, the tropical insinuation but the fact of the matter is, it’s one of the greatest Jersey Diners in the state of New Jersey. That’s the paradise. Snow falling instantly creates a stillness of time, space and mind. A diner at the end of the road, hot beverages on a cold morning, how do you want your eggs?

All Goes Back to Abraham, Anyway

I’ve always loved this building and thought it look pretty splendid during our morning snow storm. I could do the history thing, but I don’t quite have the time. It’s a synagogue, get yee to shul my Hebrew brethren, but is now a mosque. Praise Allah, friends of Allah. I believe it’s a Sufi mosque, catering to the Moslems from India and Pakistan. I went into the building once, they had just bought it or something, it was during the day and there were folks around and were more than happy to let me look about. A friend of mine, also a muslim but of another branch—A Fruit of Islam guy, African American buddy of mine, has actually went there to pray, as has another muslim buddy. Both of whom are not of the congregation, and I’m not quite up-to-speed with the different strains of Islam, but my friends have told me they’re really friendly here, inviting, everyone welcome for their call to prayer. I say, Mazel Tov! Why, this is a beautiful old synagogue, and I just love the fact that it is now the mosque, and I am willing to bet 100 shekels it’s the only Mosque with menorahs and the Stars of David. Dig the lions. Something very New Jersey about this irony.

Vending Machine

Although now, a former smoker, I have nothing against smoking and oppose all anti-smoking laws, but with all my work towards world peace, and helping mothers, orphans and puppies, I have little time to stand up for smoker’s rights. But in a certain diner in Jersey City, there still is a working Cigarette Vending machine. I love the design, mid-20th century, probably retrofitted to take dollars in the 80s. I get the hard boiled vibe. It’s late at night and all you can afford are smokes and a cup of joe and after the cup, you go home and smoke and fall asleep to the sound of the milkman. The cigarettes make you feel less alone. Actually, this vending machine may be against the law, a technical violation—or maybe the law is that you can’t have it accessible to minors—of course, it is illegal to sell “loosies” but that doesn’t stop our bodegas. By the way, $9.50 for a pack of smokes in this vending machine. You basically need a roll of quarters to go for a ride.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dog Fox Dancer Fence Cats

Dog. Fox. Which is the brown one, which is the lazy one. I forget. Wasn’t it the fox that was lazy? It’s the old typing exercise line, is that still used? Is that pre qwerty or post? I remember thinking, why not just type the alphabet? Saw this at the Brunswick Community Garden. You see random art in the secret corners of the neighborhood. I don’t always take a picture. I wonder what this is supposed to be saying. A resting dancer, is she the fox or the dog is there another irony here I’m missing? The dancer seems Degas via R. Crumb. I don’t quite get the juxtaposition about the lazy and/or brown canines. Is it a comment on the literal meaning of the phrase, or does this dancer—who looks kind of tired, if not, past her prime, is now considering secretarial work? Or maybe she's just doing yoga. Tell you one thing about the artists in this town, they’re some really talented illustrators here. Why this picture is on this fence, who knows. If you look through the fence you’ll see the glowing eyes of a cat. A few cats were in the garden, curious about why I was looking at them. It was one of the warm winter days, close to dusk. Sparse and bare, have the lots even been allotted? Jersey City cats remain on patrol; Jersey City art randomly hung.

New Facade: Safe & Tan

The Facade beat never ends. At least this story has a happy ending. They painted the tarpaper black under the facade a pleasing tan, or is that taupe or beige? Order returns to Newark Avenue, and although we lost that the 50s art deco facade, the building looks nicer and is at least, safe.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

restless farewell

Oh, ev'ry thought that's strung a knot in my mind,
I might go insane if it couldn't be sprung.
But it's not to stand naked under unknowin' eyes,
It's for myself and my friends my stories are sung.

From: Restless Farewell by Bob Dylan

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Farewell Facade

From the scaffolding, he yelled down to me. “The city is making us remove the facade, it started falling off.”

Happened right before the New Year holiday, as Dislocations readers know.

Caution tape was used to safeguard pedestrians but it seemed that every night, somebody tore it away and every morning, somebody from the city re-taped the scene in front of the store.

Before Saturday, guys came to put up scaffolding.

Then on this cold, windy Saturday morning—above street level, the gusts had to be frigid—they were removing the facade. They seemed to be cracking it with a hammer, then yanking it off, shard by shard. They placed the shards in thick plastic trunks. Hard, careful and cold work.

The facade had seen better days. I haven’t done the research, but my guess is that the facade was from the 1950s. It has that mid-century, post-WWII art deco glitz and from what I could tell, it seemed to be thick glass, like a cobalt. I imagine it was back before Malls dominated Jersey shopping, when people—even from the outlying, suburban towns—came to a downtown city to shop at nice stores. Obviously, I support the facade removal—I guess that was the only choice, there seems to be no other way to ensure public safety. But I’m going to miss that blue. The tar paper like surface that lay underneath the cobalt facade is pretty depressing. It’s damn unsightly, an ugly reminder of what used to be there. Guess we better get used to it. I can imagine somebody knocking down the building and erecting some new edifice before they install a more aesthetically pleasing facade. But I can’t imagine any sort of investment like that in the current economy, but I could be wrong. Construction seems a constant in this town.

Removing the facade eliminated the 50s era retro feel of downtown, replacing it with look reminiscent of another era—the urban decay of 70s & 80s. The price of safety? Architectural Preservation!

Matters of Time

The two downtown public clocks, on Newark & Jersey and Newark & Grove haven’t had the right time in a while, must be months. Maybe years ago, the clocks had a real purpose in the public space. Everybody could set their watch or timepiece to the same central, agreed upon, authority. More importantly back then, one imagines that not everybody could afford a time piece. They depended on the clock towers on Newark.

In our modern era, most everybody has a watch, usually more than one time piece—I hate wearing a watch, I rely on my cell-phone for the time. But during my near daily walk down Newark, like my fellow citizens and pedestrians, I experience a moment of unsettled confusion when I see the wrong time on the clock towers. More often than not, I immediately check my cell-phone to verify my current when. The Clock Tower time is not just an hour off, it’s several hours and minutes off. I can’t synchronize in my mind the correct time like I do with my Alarm Clock which I’ve always set 35 minutes ahead. It wouldn’t be so bad if the clocks were stopped—then at least they’d be right twice a day. The pictures I took here were about five after nine one chilly morning and as you can see, the clock says twelve seventeen. The clock towers disrupt our pedestrian synchronicity.
“You feel very uneasy when you see the wrong time,” said Robert Armstrong, Lawyer/Actor and long time Jersey City resident. “What does it say about a city when even its clocks can’t run on time.”

The clocks have run on time but I can’t remember when they last were correct. Seems like a very long time ago. Nobody notices when the clocks tell the right time. When they work, all appears normal with the public square. Correct time is taken for granted. But when the clocks are off, constantly, for weeks and months, you always feel unsettled. How can we be sure of the right time? Is anarchy looming in the horizon? Is that recession you read about in the newspaper affecting time? How come our city can afford fancy new double street lamps but not fix the clocks?

Actually, the downtown clock tower story seems interesting and still has some mystery. I did some investigating—I called the Verdin Company, who manufactured the clocks. On the clock is a metal emblem with their name and 800-number. They’ve been making public clocks and similar public objects since 1842. If you look at old pictures of Newark Avenue, you see the familiar clock towers. Have these clocks been in downtown since the 1890s. Well, yes and... no.In the Jersey Historic Room at the Main Branch of the Jersey City, the oldest evidence of clocks actually dates to a post card from what is believed to be 1910. But the clocks are on either side of Newark Avenue at the corners of Grove, not in the places they now are at Newark & Erie, and Newark & Grove—on the east side of Grove.

If you look very closely on the right, squint and follow the sidewalk, you will see the original, pre-1997 Erie Street clock.

According to the person I spoke with at Verdin—the clocks date back to 1997, and are Howard Replicas—Howard was another public clock manufacturer from the 19th century. The clock was ordered by the Jersey City Economic Development Corporation and there is paper work at Verdin dating back to 1993. They wanted to copy the existing clocks. I found pictures that included the clock from the 1950s and what I’m guessing is the 1930s. More recent images of Newark Avenue I couldn’t track down in the Historic Room. If you look at these pictures, on the right hand side, you will see the clock at Erie Street. The clocks on corners of Newark & Grove are obviously gone, I couldn’t find pictures of the spot on Grove where the clock is currently located—which means I can’t verify when that clock was first there.

The clocks are serviced by the Public Works Department of Jersey City, and it appears the towers were recently painted. For some reason make-shift barriers have been erected around the clock towers. I haven’t contacted the PWD or the JCEDC—because, well life is short and I don’t have the time. Was there ever a time the clocks were not there? I don’t know. I can’t remember. Neither can Armstrong. Time is a mystery I’ve learned to endure. I hope you can do likewise.

What we do remember is that the time is always wrong—our now and the clock’s now are not the same present. Will we always be uncertain as to when is the right now?

Help is on the way. “The City can do routine and preventative maintenance, but for major work one of our regional technicians have to go onsite,” said the Verdin spokesperson. “You’re in luck, it looks like there is a work order from Jersey City for a major refurbishment of the clock. It will probably take two to four days, but we don’t send techs out in the cold weather. After the winter, the clock will be back on time.”

The spokesperson believed this would be the first time major maintenance will be conducted on the J.C. downtown clock towers since their 1997 installation.

All Bob-free images used in this blog post are courtesy of the Jersey City Free Public Library, the New Jersey Room.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Memorial Preview

For anyone who knew the World Trade Center buildings, going to the site post-9-11 is always discombobulating. We can never forget the tragedy of that awful day, but what I’m getting at is more than just remembering the buildings. I mean folks who were there often, commuting through or going to the stores and what not. I don’t go there often like I used to—my commutes to NYC are more on the 33rd Street PATH line. But I was down there the other day and I saw the 9-11 Memorial Preview Museum, and looked at the scale model of the proposed designed and was particularly struck with the reflecting pools of the actual foot prints of the buildings which are sad and poignant. The discombobulating part is that there is such an ongoing construction, make shift quality to the current site that it is hard to visualize the actual size of the model, where it would be. But it is hard to remember precisely where you are in the buildings you remember when you go into the WTC via PATH. I guess it would not be such a big deal if I worked on Wall Street, had to go there every day, but I like I said, I don’t. I haven’t been following the recent iterations of the 9-11 Memorial debate. Personally, I don’t believe it will be built in my life time. But I hope I’m wrong. They have a preview space built. Besides the model they were showing some video, people remembering the day, the tragedy, those lost. A gift shop was going—yes, there’s no memorial but there’s a memorial gift shop. I actually admire that. I never had a problem with 9-11 Souvenirs, which seemed to show up by 9-12. Crass, tasteless, exploitive—I suppose—on the other hand, it was enterprising and why not get a commemorative T-shirt or pictures of the towers. Something very American, very New York, about it, something hopeful. At the Memorial Preview Gift Shop they had classy looking t-shirts, some books, hard cover editions of the 9-11 Commission Report, a good read, a must read. Well written, thrilling and serious—the book details our flawed history with Islamic fundamentalist-based terrorism—lessons not to so well heeded, with the Christmas Day Detroit bound Underwear Bomber fresh in my mind. It was weird seeing that book for—I’m not suggesting inappropriate—I just kept thinking of preview, of implied coming attractions. I always get discombobulated down there.

Artie Lange—Appreciating a N.J. Original

I’ m a Jersey guy, born and raised. Went to Catholic Schools, most of my friends growing up were Italian or Irish. Artie Lange may be a few years younger than me, and a product of a different county (Essex), but I feel I know him. Not personally, he’s just familiar to me, from his book, Too Fat To Fish, which I recommend, his work on the Stern Show and his films. I’m not a television watcher or go to comedy clubs, so his stand up I’m not as familiar, but he’s damn funny. I felt surprisingly worried when I heard he had been hospitalized I posted a quote from his book, and then the next day the real story was released—a suicide attempt.

“...Lange's mother found him on the floor of his home on Saturday. Competello says the 42-year-old comedian was unconscious but breathing after stabbing himself with a 13-inch Wolfgang Puck kitchen knife. Doctors at Jersey City Medical Center cleaned nine abdominal knife wounds and operated. He says Lange has been released.”

The grisly details enhance the shock value. Stabbed himself nine times. Wolfgang Puck knife? Pretty close to home, not just geographically. Too Fat To Fish, an autobiography, details his life growing up in New Jersey, a blue collar middle class, classically Italian-American. He likes to party, loves sports, loves to gamble on sports, is good naturedly arrogant and loves to busts chops and happily endures getting his chops busted in return. But, like many cats, he has a compulsion to be the life of the party, at the heart of and the impetus of the action. Even when you’re laughing with your friend, you want to tell him, stop pushing it, stop denying that you’re a nice guy, a sensitive, thoughtful human being.

In the book, Lange openly idolizes his parents, especially his father, who when Lange is in his late teens, becomes a quadriplegic after falling from the roof of a house. Artie witnesses the decay of this beloved authority figure, obviously a factor as his bad habits start to show signs of growing out of control. There are chapters working as a long shore man in Port Newark, a good paying job that he quits to pursue a career in comedy. The chapters about working on MADTV, Dirty Work and Beer League I don’t like as much—they’re not as unique. Several of his cocaine stories are familiar to Stern listeners. The book concludes in triumph—Lange is on the Stern show, achieves success in show business, kicks heroin, clean and sober and brings his comedy act on a USO tour to the troops in Afghanistan. Lange's adoration of the soldiers he meets is sincere and moving. This final note of redemption resonates. Many comics and comic writers and directors follow the dictum that nothing is funnier than real life. Lange, like Stern, and other contemporary comic artists like Kevin Smith, take it another step further—always go for real even when it is more real than funny. They will go for the joke, eventually but not incessantly. There is comedy to be found in tragedy—in fact, in real life, humor helps us survive tragedy. Life is funnier than jokes, and Lange’s book, similar to Stern’s book Private Parts (much better than the movie, which I liked), follows this philosphy and though genuinely amusing, it’s an overall satisfying read because authenticity is never sacrificed for a quick or obvious laugh.

The New Jersey stories are the most fascinating. I lived in Elizabeth for a while there in the 80s. I’m not sure if it was the era or the area, but there was criminal activity—drugs, bookies, prostitution, stolen goods for sale—readily available and taking place, hiding in plain sight, of what passed for respectable middle class life. Lange’s story occurs within the context of that familiar place. One chapter in explicitly sordid detail recounts a bachelor party which will ring true for any guy who has ever had the misfortune of attending an anything goes, coke and booze fueled bachelor party in North Jersey. Lange has a way of making us laugh at the fact that what makes such an event appealing also makes it appalling.

At the core of the book is a poignant, very dramatic confession. Lange’s very real suicide attempt. That chapter ends:

“...Thank God I didn’t succeed, because I think that it’s a terribly selfish act for anyone who has people that love them in their life.

This hasn’t been easy for me to get out, and I’m still ashamed of my actions that night. I can’t believe I’m putting this out into the world, but I made a promise to myself to do it and I’m going to keep it. I don’t think admitting my suicide attempt publicly is going to help me as a talent or as a performer, and I don’t want to be any kind of role model, model, but I do hope that this story helps somebody else. There is one thing I’ve learned the hard way in this life: If you can’t help making stupid mistakes yourself, you can try to stop other people from making them.”

Lange’s comic persona is coarse—just like a lot of blue collar guys, but he has a self awareness that is honest and self deprecating, even when it is filled with prideful arrogance. His over looked film, Beer League—which has the best comic performance by Seymour Cassell in his long and stellar career—is both an honest look at Guido Culture, celebrating it but also criticizing it. The film has a convincing realism to the story that say, Moonstruck lacks. Beer League is like Dodge Ball directed by Kevin Smith.

Everybody has demons, the cliché goes. Lange though has a natural talent, intelligence and insight. A guy I grew up with, a several years older than me, Italian dude, committed suicide in the 90s, like Lange, in his early 40s. I was reminded of him reading Too Fat To Fish. He had substance abuse issues, owed money to bookies in Paterson. Worked crappy jobs most of his life, yet could quote Eugene O’Neal. Something about New Jersey can turn us into our own worst enemies.

Suicide may be romantic and looks like a way to escape pain, but what it does to the family—I’ve seen this first hand—it’s just devastating. Utterly horrible. He is right about the selfishness of the act. In Too Fat To Fish—and on the Stern show—Lange has been quite honest about his devotion to his mother and sister, which is what made the news about the suicide attempt so astonishing. The book came out in 2008, I thought he was over that dark side. But, like most everybody, healing your soul takes a life time. I just hope he can stop himself from making this stupid mistake again.

Lange is more than a celebrity, he is an original talent who universalizes the Jersey Experience.

We need him.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Ghosts of Ma’ & Tom Joad

Tom laughed uneasily. “Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one—an’ then—”

“Then what, Tom?”

“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where—where you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat. I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the house they build, why I’ll be there. See?”

From The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

PATH Signal Problems

Most Wednesdays mornings I’m on the PATH train between 8:50 and 9:10. I do 45 minutes of cardio, shower at the gym. My day job office moved to the border of Murray Hill—about a seven minute walk from the 33rd Street PATH station. I usually have tea—I’m a big tea drinker, I hate the taste of coffee—egg whites on whole wheat toast and a yogurt at my desk and begin my day.

“10 minute delays in both directions...” said the familiar announcements as the turnstile read by metro card and deducted the fare. The platform was filled with commuters and the WTC PATH was on the track, doors open, not moving. A train came by to NWK or JSQ, I forget which, picked up and discharged passengers. A few minutes later, another NWK of JSQ bound train arrives, but this stops as well, stays there with the doors open. The crowd on the platform thickens. I’m there about fifteen minutes and another announcement—“20 minute delays in both directions.”

Now, I didn’t hear them say Hoboken and since I couldn’t blow off the day in the office, I had to get into Manhattan. The way things usually go, there is a delay and they resolve it—Signal Problems said the announcement, which is almost always the case—sometimes it takes a while, usually less than an hour in most worst case scenarios. Doesn’t happen often. Why not get an Awake Tea Latté and one of them whole wheat English muffin egg white with turkey bacon at the Star Bucks, hang out there. There was still a line of taxis across Columbus, maybe no need to go to Hoboken.

The line is out the door at Star Bucks. I guess I’m not the only one with the waiting idea. There are seats at the bodega/deli on Grove & Columbus. They make a good egg sandwich there, but I’m on a health kick so I can do yolks or bacon—well, I could, but I would feel guilty and fret all morning about it. No commuters are in—there are only one or two customers—no other white people. Keep in mind, the Star Bucks is packed, there, people are milling about the Grove Street station. No one is going anywhere, and I’m the only commuter going to this bodega/deli. I don’t even know the name of it, there doesn’t seem to be any sign over the entrance. The only sign is probably an old one—Star Bucks served here. Even though they don’t have it listed on their breakfast menu, they do serve egg whites. I get my usual breakfast and wait with a decent—though non latté—English Breakfast.

Takes about 20 minutes. No other commuters come in. I get another cup of tea—to go—and I notice there’s a cop car parked at the station, cops inside. I sit on one of the new benches. More people are leaving the station than going in—PATH Trains still messed up. The cabs across Christopher Columbus are gone and there appears to be a line, waiting for them. You rarely ever see this, especially on a weekday morning.

The cops get out of the car by the time I’m done with the tea. I get up and to scope things out. PATH trains are suspended, cops are directing people to walk to Exchange Place and take the Light Rail into Hoboken.

What do you do? The way I looked at, the PATH train is usually very reliable. It’s probably one of the best Mass Transit Systems in the Country, so when there’s a delay you take in stride.

I get out on the other side of Grove, thinking I might get a group cab ride. Again, other people are thinking the same thing—people are calling cabs. Now, cabs in Jersey City are more art than science. I take the Christopher Columbus white cabs often—I take a train from Hoboken to visit mom, and I pick up flowers and it’s easier to take a cab there after I pick up flowers—I don’t risk missing the train and the flowers stay fresh. The fares to Hoboken range from $10 to $15 dollars, depending on the mood of the drivers. They never turn on the meter. I also know that getting a cab into New York can range from $25 to $65, again depending on the mood of the driver. It’s just the way it is, more art than science. I had a suspicion that the cab rate from Jersey City to Hoboken when the PATH cancels services is probably triple or higher. Even ten bucks is ludicrous, that’s more than five bucks per mile. Besides, lines twenty people long were waiting for cabs that weren’t there.

A Jitney bus shows up, bound for Newport Mall. Perfect—I’ll pick up the Light Rail and Newport. Other people are afraid. Newport Mall? They don’t go to Hoboken. I’m the only person who gets on. In about five minutes I’m at Newport Mall, and I walk to the light rail. It was probably only a little shorter than walking to the Exchange Place Light Rail station. but I didn’t feel like hiking to Exchange Place. I don’t really like going down there all that much. There was no optimal choice though. You had to get to Hoboken and I hate getting ripped off by the cab and when there’s no cab, you got no choice anyway.

A brisk winter wind was blowing, but it wasn’t as gelid as it had been. The sun was bright. The light rail is fun. I rarely have an opportunity to take it and I always enjoy the experience and the ride into Hoboken I find beautiful. I love industrial city scapes and even if most of the Hudson River factories are gone, the feel is still there—part On The Waterfront, part Blade Runner and the web of Train tracks funneling into the always marvelous Erie Lackawanna station—just like the Hand of Man photograph by Stiegletz.

I’ve gotten to Hoboken in less than 15 minutes for a cost of three dollars and fifteen cents--$1.25 for the Jitney and $1.90 for the Light Rail. I’m going to be in the office by 11:00. Only 90 minutes late, not that bad, it happens. Besides, the Hoboken 33rd Street PATH is at least seven minutes quicker. Of course, as soon as I am at the turnstile, the announcement comes on. “PATH train service has been restored....”

I could have waited fifteen minutes but shoot, I already had two cups of tea! At 23rd Street, a crew of PATH workers get into my car. I talk with them a big about the signal problems.

“It could be anywhere on the line, it’s from the cold weather. When you have a couple of days in a row of freezing weather, you get signal problems,” said one guy.

I tell them abut the trains at Grove, not moving. I had never seen that.

“They can’t move them because you don’t know where the signal problems are.”

I said, “I’d rather have the problem in the morning than at night. It’s a lot easier getting into New York than getting out.”

They nodded in agreement. Nice guys.

I would have taken pictures, since I had my camera—but lets face it, people waiting for the PATH train are going to look like they’re waiting for the PATH whether the trains are on time or not.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Artie Lange Quote

...I met plenty of people who grew up wealthy. These people came from families that had several homes a staff of servants, and took vacations in beautiful, exotic locations all around the world. My family had one house, and my sister, Stacey and I had a maid—we called her “Ma.” When we vacationed, there wasn’t much of a debate between Fiji and Bora Bora—we relaxed strictly at the Jersey Shore. When I encountered rich people for the first time, I discovered that not only do they holiday in places that are hard to find on a map, they also use the names of seasons as verbs. When they asked me, “Where did you summer and winter growing up?” I would usually say, “As a child? The same place I springed and autumned.”

Rich people know how to relax. That’s all they do growing up. I wish my mother knew how to relax because now I have the money to let her take it easy. I wish she liked tennis or golf. Maybe skiing or world travel. Unfortunately, she doesn’t. My mother likes cleaning tables with pledge. If I’m ever blessed with a child, I’m going to encourage that child to take it slow.

From Too Fat To fish, by Artie Lange (with Anthony Bozza).

Get well soon, Artie. One of the better New Jersey memoirs, Too Fat To Fish is a funny, fascinating read. Artie Lange is an original, genuine comic talent and wrote a book well worth reading.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Jersey City – Now a City Without a Bookstore

On January 16th Jersey City will no longer have a bookstore. Well—technically, there’s a Hudson Community College bookstore with limited hours and selection and I imagine St. Peter’s College and Jersey City State—a-hem, I mean Jersey City University—have bookstores, but I've never been to those. I’m not sure if college bookstores count, with their emphasis on text books and sweat shirts. B. Dalton Bookstore at Newport Mall is closing, part of the final phasing out of the B. Dalton brand and chain by the parent company Barnes & Noble. I remember reading that one on 6th avenue by the path station was remaining opened although renamed Barnes & Noble.
I assumed the Jersey City outlet would stay open. I hadn’t read anything about it closing in our local newspapers. I don’t recall seeing any signs in the window during the couple of times I did some Christmas shopping at the Newport Mall, until yesterday, Sunday. I saw the clearance banner. Everything on Sale! 50 percent off. I bought a novel by Jim Harrison—as usual, there were not a lot of titles that appealed to be in the selection. My impression that it was a profitable bookstore was not incorrect. “I don’t think the profitability mattered,” one soon-to-join the ranks of the unemployed employee told me. “Keeping us opened never entered into the company’s plans. They just want B. Dalton gone.”

A while back, at least a decade probably, there was a used book store that opened up on Grove street. It was run an elderly fellow who told me he wanted to spend his retirement running a bookstore. That store lasted a year, maybe. The space has been several establishments since, but right now it is still vacant with a for rent sign. Now that I think about it, I seem to recall a Walden Bookstore in Newport Mall that was still around when I got here in the early 90s. Yes, Jersey City had two bookstores towards the end of the last century. I remember Walden closing. Well, at least I remember it was a while ago.

I thought it was bad enough that Jersey City could only support one book store. And, I thought it was worse that the only book store that Jersey City could support was a B. Dalton. Now, we don’t even have one. True, a path train ride away there’s some of the greatest bookstores in the world—well, there used to be—but there are still some of the greatest Barnes & Noble stores in the country! B. Dalton was a bookstore chained that opened mainly mall locations. —long before the spread of Barnes & Noble superstores. In fact, the chain was purchased by Barnes and Noble so it would have a mall presence.

I would love to make some snide jokes about how ill read our population is, but the closing of B. Dalton in Jersey City has more to do with trends in the current manifestation of post-industrial capitalism than most Americans desire not to read. Not only am I a voracious—some might say compulsive—reader—I know a little bit about the bookstore business. As a freelance writer in the 90s, I did some work for the trade publications then put out by the American Booksellers Association. The circulation for the magazines was bookstores. At the time, Barnes & Noble had like one location, on 19th and 5th avenue—in the 80s, I would make pilgrimages there. By the mid-90s, the Barnes & Noble superstore concept became popular with investors.

Though I hate chains, B&Ns are great book stores—they do have depth of inventory. The stores are designed to be a destination—chairs and tables for lounging, a star bucks in most of the stores. Black Water Books in Hoboken, Scribner’s on 5th Avenue, Cooper Square Books, Spring Street Books. All those great independent bookstores, gone The American Booksellers Association folded a bunch of magazines. There are no trade magazines for bookstores anymore because 90 percent or so it seems of all the brick and mortar bookstores are chains, a Barnes & Noble or a Borders. It happened in New York, a Mecca for bookstores and at one time, book lovers—imagine what has taken place across the land. B. Dalton never had the depth, wasn’t a superstore or a destination. There were like five hundred or so by the end of the 90s, and the company steadily closed them until 2009, when they decided to close the remaining 50 or so, our profitable J.C. outlet being one of the last to survive.

Seems B&N wants to better compete with Amazon. They are promoting their online sales more than the actual stores and they have some kind of e-reader, their version of The Kindle.These days you don’t have to needlessly visit a bookstore. Go the B&N website, you can see if a book is available at a specific store and if not—just order it online. Who wants to browse? Why waste time wasting time? That is, if thinking about what you want to read is a waste of time.

I’m not really complaining as much as I am observing. I buy things online, I just don’t really like to and have only done so a few times with books because it was the only way to get a hard to find rare one. I might even get a Kindle or Kindle like device, since reading a page on a screen is still reading and books take up space and collect dust! But, a city without a bookstore—a “downtown” where a bookstore can’t be supported. That is depressing.

In 2002, I worked at the Jersey City B. Dalton, for the Christmas season, part time. I was a freelance writer and because of an unfortunate series of events, I was having a tough autumn that year and I needed extra money. I was glad to get the job. It was an interesting experience—crappy money but I was able to make ends meet and by February things picked up for me.

There was some training—I had worked retail and a cash register in college and high school. We watched a video about Christmas Sales by Barnes and Noble—“hand-selling a book.” The gift items to push—a bonsai tree, a complete Shakespeare set were emphasized that year. One time the regional vice president was coming and everybody was there to clean up the place. The woman breezed it, about as self important as anybody I’ve ever met. She gave one employee a 25 dollar gift certificate because of his attitude. He was a born again Christian and bought a bible.

B. Dalton served what seemed like an essential role to our community. Students and teachers ordered books for school, mainly high-school. I was gratified to see that The Great Gatsby and The Awakening were still being assigned. Then there these—Study Guides. Not just for SATs, but for Security Guards, Truck Drivers, Medical Technicians, all sorts of fields to pass the various licensure and certification type exams. Even with all the Christmas sales, people came in for those manuals. They needed those books for their jobs, publications they both read and used. Yes, bookstores were not just for literary geeks like me.

Another memory: a fellow buys a book titled “Restoring Your Credit.” He didn’t have a wallet, paid for it in cash. I gave him the change—only coins. I’ll never forget his expression of anguish and embarrassment. I didn’t have a cell phone at the time, but I did encounter several folks—I remember one woman in particular—who conducted her entire purchase while gabbing away, one of the rudest things I have ever witnessed. I made sure to announce how much the book was and to wish her a nice day loudly so her conversation was interrupted. I got a cell phone soon there after and have never talked on the phone when it is my turn with the clerk at the counter.

The other strange discovery—books make you thirsty. Pages parch you. My job was to help customers find books, stock books, or work the cash register. You would get really thirsty, your mouth dry as salt. There was a water cooler in the back. Everybody had constant (though quenchable) thirst.

Surprising to me as well, people asked for book recommendations—at the time, Empire Falls had just came out in paperback and it was the best new novel I had read. I hand sold Richard Russo more than once for my brief time there. A lot of people still bought a good literary contemporary novel for Christmas presents. A lot of people needed something to write term papers with—Elements of Style.

The shelves near the register for Spanish Language and African American literature—a broadly defined category that include Zane, an excuse the pun, Hot author at the time. The Spanish texts I understood, but talking to the manager who hired me, and who was African American, I mentioned that while it might make them easier to find, I didn’t like the idea that African American writers where ghettoized—Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston should be with "all" Fiction & Literature. “Unfortunately,” she explained. “The black authors get shoplifted the most. We keep them here so we can keep an eye on them. And, they still get stolen the most.”

I felt both appalled and impressed. Of course—now the secret can be told—the security system at the Newport Mall B. Dalton was all a sham. The monitors did not function, the books had no security tags. A security guard worked there, but all the electronic stuff was just for show.

Working there was actually fun in some ways, enlightening in others. One day, I interviewed the Surgeon General of the United States for an article mainly about esoteric health policy in the afternoon than worked at the Newport Mall that night. That was a life lesson I still think about.

I saw sides of Newport Mall unnoticed by many, for instance, really scary teenagers hang out there at closing time, especially on the weekends. It was fun to watch the atmosphere go from slow in the morning then Mardi Gras crazy, with long lines and happy but hyper crowds. Everything a-buzz, Christmas Shopping at its peak. And, the managers of the stores trade merchandise with each other. I watched the then store manager do some real interesting negotiating that got her a fine leather jacket. I never found out how many books that jacket amounted to in the Newport Mall manager-to-manager exchange rate.

On Sunday, I wandered around the half empty store, remembering that Christmas so long ago now it seemed, and thinking about how my city no has no bookstore—even though I rarely ever bought anything there. I chatted with a guy who I know very slightly. He worked there when I was there, a senior employee. I feel bad he won’t have a job in ten days. Maybe bookstores are destined to go the way of record stores. I seemed to recall when the regional vice president—the title may have been regional manager—visited, she said this location was one of the more profitable B. Dalton. I guess they weren’t profitable enough. Let’s face it; no one will be opening any new bookstore any time soon, not even Barnes & Noble. What replaces the B. Daltons at the Newport Mall—a high end or low end store—and for how long the space remains vacant—will be quite indicative of the current state of the economy.

Even though as bookstores go—at least for my literary needs—the Newport Mall B. Dalton was pretty lame—working there showed me how a community actually uses a bookstore. It’s great for gifts, better magazines than you find at most newsstands here, the Awakening and the Great Gatsby, the Elements of Style, Study Guides for Air Conditioning Repair Certification. Maybe all that stuff is online, maybe you can get it on your Kindle or iPhone. And if not now, certainly eventually.

Of course, between now and eventually, Jersey City is left in a lurch. B. Dalton served a utilitarian purpose to Jersey City. Now it is gone, a store is empty, less sales tax revenue is collected and a few more people are out of work… and there’s one less place to browse and think about what you want to read next.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Welcome 2010

Mom’s 90. She’s healthy and sharp and as many folks needlessly remind me, her being here is a blessing. I never tire of being reminded of that. I’m not much for making resolutions, but New Years Day is conducive to reflecting on your life and making plans for the near future and identifying hope. I don’t know anybody who is sorry about saying good bye to 2009 or a decade with pervasive disappointment, frustration and despair. Welcome 2010! Thank you for reading Dislocations. May you have health and long life and authentic hope. Sincerely to all, Happy New Year.