Saturday, February 27, 2010


Knowing can be a curse on a person’s life. I’d traded in a pack of lies for a pack of truth, and I didn’t know which one was heavier. Which one took the most strength to carry around? It was a ridiculous question, though, because once you know the truth, you can’t ever go back and pick up your suitcase of lies. Heavier or not, the truth is yours now.

From The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Soul of a Man - Post 300

tell me, what is the soul of a man
I read the bible often,
I tries to read it right
as far as I can understand,
a man is more than his mind

From Soul of a Man by Blind Willie Johnson

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Rain & Snow

I was out and about early today. Oh what fun there is to have in Jersey City at 7 AM. We’re getting hammered by some nasty precipitation this Winter, and today, a Thursday, the forecast was for a wintery mix all day of snow, rain, ice, sleet. Supposed to start with rain, get worse, last for 36 hours or something. The picture here is of the rain turning into snow, doesn’t quite do the transformation justice. You have to look at it closely to see the white slivers amongst the drop. Erie & First, the ivy covering the red brick, nice corner.
And, only a few minutes later, or maybe is this a half hour or so…later… oh, who can remember… the point is snow flakes. Big, wet snow flakes. Ready made slush on the pavement when this stuff makes landfall. Gobs of snow!

But the same time, in NYC, still rain. Cold rain, but not yet freezing rain. Different weather patterns for the island as opposed to our isthmus. I love minor variations and nothing is more minor or more various than weather. Sometimes weather is like the sales tax, things change when you cross state lines. Temperature is supposed to drop all day. We can contemplate the wetness of the snow; the chill isn’t something new.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Lot—With Snow/With Out

What is underneath that winter wonder land. This is in NYC, sort of near the day job. It’s closed off, locked up fence, I stick the lens through and you get a pretty good view. There’s not a lot of empty lots left in mid-town, there doesn’t seem to be any construction planned much less imminent. I took the pictures the other day, after the snow, but I couldn’t think of what to say. Then I saw it today, snow all melted. What a friggin mess, look at all this trash and debris just left here. It’s a nice contrast, the color of the snow versus the reddish dirt. I like all the backs of the building, you don’t really see this sort of thing so much, the backs of the buildings and when they eventually build a new building up to the sky on this ground, those backs will again be concealed.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Howlin Wolf Centennial

Howlin Wolf will be a century old this year. Chester Arthur Burnett was born June 10, 1910. This year is his Centennial. I’m not sure how we as a nation should commemorate this milestone, I just know that we, as a nation, must.

Howlin Wolf is called the greatest Blues singer and he is that. Yet, he is more than just the best the genre produced. He is more than the epitome of Blues Singing. He is one of the greatest singers ever, regardless of genre. The emotional expression, the phrasing, the robust power—Howlin has it all. But because the voice was not pretty, and because he used that voice to sing the Blues, he’s never given the appropriate credit, respect and appreciation.

That distinctive voice can also over shadow his other very considerable gifts. He was a great songwriter, a great guitar player, especially slide guitar and one of the best harmonica players in the history of that instrument.

If you know anything about Howlin Wolf then I’m probably telling you nothing you don’t already know.

I believe the greatness of Howlin Wolf transcends the Blues, transcends even music itself. He is one of the greatest artists this country—or any country—has ever produced. His songs are about deep and universal truths, they tell us what it means to be human. Howlin Wolf sings about the mystery of the human heart, about how sorrow accompanies romantic love.

There are as many and usually more moments of beauty—which is ultimately, truth—in the songs of Howlin Wolf as there are in any body you can name. Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Billy Holiday, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, James Brown...Elvis...and whoever else YOU want to add. Those names come to my mind because they instantly invoke respect. Scholars, critics, historians and aficionados have written reams of study, praise, and analysis showing how their music transcends not just their individual musical genre but even music itself. Those opinion makers and cultural judges appraise their work by the broader terms of art and civilization. Their contributions can be considered alongside say, Whitman, Melville, Hemmingway, Faulkner, Carver. Howlin Wolf must be placed in that pantheon of great American artists. In fact, he is already there and it’s up to the rest of us to realize that.

I may not hold the record but I remain in contention for biggest Dylan freak ever. I’ve had moments listening to Coltrane that nearly are as spiritual as anything my Faith bestows. Elvis is my King (and yours if you know which way is up Rock & Roll wise). But Howlin transcends them for me. Yes, he transcends even Dylan. His songs are more like the poems of William Blake. No, Howlin may be even more important than Blake. Psalms (yep, the ones in the bible, those Psalms), that’s the only adequate analogy. You read the Psalms your entire life, because no matter how familiar they may be to you, each time they inspire revelations anew.

Bottom line – Howlin Wolf is always riveting. I can play Smokestack Lighting ten times in a row and will still want to hear it an 11th time and that 11th time, not only will I not be tired of it, I will still get something new from it. A friend of mine said something along the lines, every time you hear Howlin Wolf you are immediately paying attention, you are immediately in his world. The Wee Small Hours of the Morning by Frank Sinatra is like that. Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan is like that. The Sun Sessions by Elvis... These recordings are perfect. They are always spellbinding and enthralling. No matter how many decades since they were made, the sound remains fresh and the meaning of the songs remain relevant. Every thing Howlin recorded is like that. Well, nearly every cut I’ve heard—and admittedly, mainly due to the haphazard way Howlin Wolf’s musical legacy has been handled, every track is not readily available.

Howlin Wolf is credited as the writer of Smokestack Lighting. He recorded a couple of early versions that only have snippets of the final classic and one line “shines like gold,” I’ve seen credited to a Charlie Patton song. It might be a mistake to think of some of the old Blues songs as carved out from whole cloth. They were not cranked out on demand like Brill Building hits. Many of the Blues songs began as a collection of lyrics and musical phrases that got kicked around for generations, sung by work crews in fields, by congregations Sunday Morning Celebrations and by belters in Juke Joints the night before. The lyrics may have been changed for the setting, and the sound of the song modified, depending on who was doing the singing. Referring to a train rolling through at night as Smokestack Lighting was probably not a phrase first coined by Mr. Charles Arthur Burnett. But he was able to take the melodies and themes that had somehow coalesced together, than with his distinctive vision, distilled them into an eternally haunting song by using the indelible, universal image of a train.

Aside from that distinct metaphor, I can’t quite hear every lyric in the Wolf recording. Even a google comes up with variances. There’s something about a baby sister—but it is it bit, hit or killed? You hear the line, Stop That Train pretty well but then the plea, let a poor boy ride, or is it a hobo ride? Something menacing is going on, some kind of escape is needed. Sometimes I hear this song and I think a broken hearted, rejected guy is hopping a train away from the woman he loved—or did the guy cheat with the baby sister? Or is something more sinister going on? Is it his baby sister? Why the urgency to get on the train? Has a murder occurred? In the end, it doesn’t matter. Facts alone will never be a substitute for truth.

In the film about Chess, Cadillac Records, there’s a scene about the recording of Smokestack Lighting. I loved this film, one of the better entries into the Musician-Bio genre. I don’t expect or really want accuracy from a docu-drama bio. Cadillac Records invokes the musicians, personalities and era in a compelling and believable fashion.
In the scene, the supposed rivalry between Muddy Waters and the Wolf—believably impersonated by Eamonn Walker—is exaggerated. The Wolf, as part of the competition with Waters, seductively sings Smokestack Lighting to Muddy’s girlfriend. He gives the song a threatening yet intensely alluring eroticism that never quite occurred to me before the film. Now I find overt sexuality to be another reasonable interpretation of the song. The film discovered another layer of meaning in Howlin’s locomotive metaphor.

In the reissue of Bear’s Choice, there’s an “alternate take” of the Grateful Dead’s version, sung by Pig Pen, from a series of 1971 Fillmore shows. Bear’s Choice is not a classic Grateful Dear Record; it’s really a record meant only for die-hard Dead Heads (I am quasi-die-hard). Their version of Smokestack is fascinating and compelling, but it probably will never appear on the list of top two dozen Dead Jams. The “alternate take” is even more sprawling than the official release. It lasts like 20 minutes — Wolf gets the job done in under three.

The performance showcases the under-appreciated vocal and harp skills of Pig Pen. The jam is also a nice snapshot of this period of the Dead, jamming their way out of trippy Acid Rock and into more straight forward (although still lengthy) Rock & Roll. In their version of Smokestack, the Dead explore the complexity of this unforgettable Blues riff. The musical partnership of Garcia, Weir and Lesh may have made a more distinctive mark in genres other than the Blues, but in this period, especially as led by the great Ron McKernan, the Grateful Dead could play and improvise the Blues with the best of them. They gave Cream (or the Dominoes), Hot Tuna and the Brothers Allman (as Scott Muni would bark), a run for their money.

The Dead’s Smokestack jam may be prolonged, dawdling and overly drawn out, but it also is that rare cover that makes you better understand the original. As Lesh goes through the Smokestack Lighting bass run and Weird strums the Smokestack chord changes, Garcia plays solo after solo. These solos, a rare exploration of Blues motifs by Garcia, typically seem endless. But as he takes his familiar trip to the stratosphere and back, he deconstructs the melody and illuminates the complexity of its structure. With Smokestack Lighting—particularly the alternate take on the expanded reissue of Bear’s Choice—the Grateful Dead do not just perform a cover of a Howlin Wolf classic. It isn’t just an homage either. The jam becomes a Talmudic musical commentary on the original text of Blues scripture.

People love the music of Howlin Wolf, and people love the Blues. What I find troubling is the all but nonexistent serious appreciation of the music and this transcendent master of the form. The Blues has a tougher row to hoe in the fields of recognition and appreciation compared with say, Jazz. That might be because the Blues has been around so long, and has gone through peaks and valleys of popularity and influence and it has acquired a lot of pop culture baggage, like the Blues Brothers, which maybe discourages serious appreciation.

Blues being some weird accident made by ex-slaves and idiot savants seems to be a pervasively persistent stereotype. Quite frankly, that’s the impression I got from that otherwise excellent PBS Blues series by Martin Scorsese.

We have a hard time accepting Golden Age Blues musicians as serious artists, as individuals who trained with mentors and who possess a serious vision for their music. Howlin Wolf (and Willie Dixon) songs are poetry, equal on that level to anything by Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Tom Waits and Dylan. Maybe they don’t name-check Rimbaud or Delmore Schwartz, and they may not have befriended famous Beat writers, but that doesn’t lessen the “literary” accomplishment of Classic Blues songs.

This bias against the Blues is not really about color either. Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley seem to get the critical credit they so richly deserve. Maybe the bias against Howlin Wolf is because like other Blues musicians from that era, he comes from the Rural South, growing up as the “other” in an Apartheid Society. Contemporary Cultures tends to depict Southern Artists, especially those from poor African American families, as artists in spite of themselves, as opposed to hard working visionaries who made sacrifices for their craft.

One of Howlin’s deceivingly simple songs is Natchez Mississippi Burning, and consists of Howlin asking, “did you hear about the burning, in Natchez Mississippi Town, and then proceeds to name the dead—Louise was there, Rita May was there.” The song builds its tragic drama with an emotional dialog between piano and guitar that is excruciatingly mournful, as Howlin intones the simple inquiry followed by name after name of the dead. People were burned alive, were burned to death, in an act that was likely Klan related terrorism. It’s up to the listener to figure it out, to realize that the names, followed by “was there,” that you are listening to a eulogy that resulted from a tragedy inflicted by evil men.

The best Blues songs never give the whole story away. They respect the intelligence of the listener—and expect that listener to in fact, hear all of the song. Natchez Burning is a devastating and personal eulogy relevant to anyone who has experienced tragic loss. Wolf and Willie Dixon never get recognized for this poetry. It pisses me off!!!

Many of the songs by Howlin revolve around his persona—the “wolf”—such as the “Mighty Wolf” in Trail Dragger—I’m a tail dragger, I’ll wipe out my tracks, when I get what I want, well I don’t come sneaking back. The essence of modern poetry—the I is Another dictum by Arthur Rimbaud or Whitman’s Song of the Self. The Wolf and these other Blues guys understood persona, used persona to make art that could be both personal and universal and yet for some reason, they are simply not given the credit that their songwriting peers in other genres receive. Too often, their use of persona is seen as instinctual, or a shtick, when in fact it was a deliberate artistic choice that fulfilled a songwriting vision.

Another great Howlin classic, “Who’ll be the Next One,” is about a cuckold lover who at one point tells the girlfriend, “blessed be your heart, cursed be your name, who’ll be the next one, darling, that you’ll put to shame.” Wolf closes the song, “Cheat if you want to darling', treat me unkind, Come back and love me, when you can find a little time.” We’re all victims of love sometimes, and it seems the narrator of this song resigns himself to living with her lies. This tragic, tortured tale of love, longing, and infidelity is told through unadorned lyrics. The apocryphal Hemmingway story, where he boasted he could write a short story in six words—Baby Shoes For Sale. Never Worn—that approach is at the core of Howlin’s Blues lyrics. It’s what he isn’t saying that tears the most at our hearts. Perceptive, clever and devestating, Howlin Wolf songs can be as weird and as moving as a Flannery O’Connor short story.

Howlin Wolf was taught guitar by Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson. Legend has it that Johnson played guitar while Howlin Wolf would sing. Sonny Boy Williamson II taught Howlin Wolf to play harmonica. Howlin was “discovered” by Sam Phillips, the same man who discovered Elvis Presley. Howlin Wolf was in his forties when Phillip produced his first record, but Howlin had been playing the Blues—and making a living doing so—for about 20 years, playing juke joints and the like, what would later become known as the Chitlin Circuit. His first audiences were working-class African Americans surviving in the Jim Crow south.

Perhaps the inclination to consider Howlin Wolf purely a “natural” talent—as opposed to a serious and accomplished artist driven by a personal vision—is the fact he was functionally illiterate for most of his adult life. Although he always made a living from his art, the big success—hit records and big venues—came when he was well into his 50s. Keep in mind, in the late 1960s, the Doors, Cream, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix made the Blues immensely popular, they put the Blues onto the top 40. That was probably the peak of Blues popularity. Interest in Blues was also part of the folk music movement a few years earlier. In fact, Howlin Wolf played electric earlier in the day of the same night at Newport that Dylan plugged in. He also was backed by many of the same musicians, including Mike Bloomfield.

Howlin, who died in 1976, may not have been a Jimi, Mick or Eric, but he had become a star of some note. During these same years, Wolf was taking Continuing Education classes for adults at Chicago High Schools. In late middle-age, he learned how to read and eventually earned his GED. Some of the motivation was to sue Chess records for royalties and indeed, they were in litigation at the time of his death.

How frustrating that must have been for this man, not being able to read yet at the same time, thinking up lyrics, or interpreting the lyrics of artists like Willie Dixon with such feeling. Not being able to read yet knowing what words worked and how to give them power with his monumental voice. You can’t sing and use words to capture feelings and accompany music the way Wolf does and not love words. At the same time, he was unable to read words. How an individual endures that contradiction is unfathomable.

What a total and utter lack of hubris—that well into middle age—and let’s face it, most people hit 40 and switch on the auto-pilot for the rest of the haul—Chester Arthur Burnett learned how to read. An international star, beloved throughout Europe and still filling the black clubs of Chicago and the Chitlin circuit, playing the same festivals as the Butterfield Blues Band and Bob Dylan, Howlin Wolf secretly takes night courses to learn how to read. I can think of few better examples of courage than Howlin’s humble and private effort to learn a skill that racism deprived him of.

There is a well-done documentary on the Wolf that came out a few years ago—The Howlin Wolf Story—which has some fantastic footage of him in concert and especially rehearsing, where you can really see how deliberate he was. It wasn’t coasting on his immense talent, he worked hard with his musicians to get the sound he heard in his head.

Among his many talents was his being a band leader. He seems to control the arrangements. Both Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf recorded what were known as the London Sessions. The legends were backed by the British mega-star musicians of the era whom they inspired. The results, though compelling, are decidedly mixed, with the expected outcry from the purists. Nobody argues that the London cuts are as good as the original in either Muddy’s or Howlin’s case. But, the Wolf’s London Session album is far superior, more true to the man’s talent and vision. One reason is that the great Hubert Sumlin sits in, which is really just proving my larger point—that the Wolf was a band leader and as such, also an arranger. In fact, Muddy Waters was better served by his work with the Band and Johnny Winter a few years after the London gigs, a telling fact. He succeeded when working with established units of musicians where the Band Leader was already secured. In the Chess Records film, at one point Wolf—looking directly at Muddy—chides Leonard Chess for talking directly to Hubert, instead of to Howlin. “Don’t talk to him no more. You talk to me and I’ll tell him. I’m the Band Leader, I reckon you never worked with one before.”

Hubert Sumlin is revered by guitarists, credited as an influence to dozens of the greats. The core of Howlin’s classics—and for 20 years or so—Sumlin innovative guitar playing is heard. This dude picks a riff like it’s nobody’s business, enhancing the complexity of emotion in Wolf’s voice. His riffs—and the way he plays those riffs—resound to this day in rock & roll, jam-bands, and heavy metal. But even Hubert credits The Wolf for helping him find his guitar voice. Howlin told him to throw away the pick—Sumlin plays with his thumb, with his naked hand, uncommon for the guitarists in the genre. The Wolf’s mentoring of a good guitarist that transformed him into one of the all-time masters of the instrument is not some happy accident or a bewildering act of genius from a musical Rain Man. No, it is another example of a highly skilled artist, whose many talents also included band leader and arranger,

Besides the documentary, there is an excellent biography of Chester Arthur Burnett, Moanin' at Midnight, The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf, by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman (it’s available at the Main Branch of the Jersey City Public Library, which houses an excellent collection of musical history). There’s one scene in that book that is truly unforgettable and reveals the underlying pathos of the difficult life Howlin Wolf endured. After recording for Chess, having Blues hits and making a very comfortable living, Howlin is back near his delta home in rural Mississippi, seeking out his mother. Wolf came from a broken family and his childhood was one of work, abuse and severe poverty. He had long been estranged from his mother, a religious fanatic. Howlin met her and tried to give her money, a $500 bill according to some. Real money at the time. She just threw the cash on the ground, accused her son of playing the devil’s music. Never talked to him again.

You don’t have to be a psychologist—or Joseph Campbell—to understand how approval from parental role models is critical to the well-being of the human psyche. The description of this incident in the book is stunning. How this kind of anguish—a son’s love rejected by his own mother—affects someone is frightening to ponder. The stuff you must need to not just overcome this pain but turn it into art. That’s awe-inspiring. That’s the stuff of Greatness!

Is there room for another head on Mount Rushmore? Can we fit another throne in the Lincoln Monument? I think that’s what we should be thinking about when it comes to celebrating the Howlin Wolf Centennial. I might settle for a making readily available everything this man recorded... and a Presidential Proclamation.

The Howlin Wolf Centennial should be the beginning and not the end of the rediscovery of his music. That discovery is up to you. I promise you this. The songs of Howlin Wolf reveal the mysteries of the heart. They will make you a better human being.

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Monday, February 22, 2010

With Malice Toward None

Can’t think too much or too often about Lincoln. Here is the Great Man in the aptly named Union Square Park. It was actually one of the first statues of Abraham Lincoln, cast in 1868, and dedicated September 16, 1870, and according to a website, “combines a classically styled pose with a perceptive naturalism, uniting realistic detail with an idealistic stance.” The sculptor, Henry Kirke Brown created several Lincoln likenesses, including one in Prospect and his nephew crafted the bronze bust for Gettysburg’s Lincoln Memorial. An irony of course is that New York City hated Lincoln, always voted against him and except for his famous Cooper Union speech, he rarely visited the city. Upstate New York considered itself more New England back then and loved Lincoln and was strongly abolitionist,. New York City, especially Manhattan strongly supported the confederacy, mainly because plantation money was an investment resource for Wall Street. Many New York City politicians wanted the city to secede with the confederate states. Of course, the city changed its tune after the war and this statue was commissioned by the city’s Union League Club. Here’s a longer quote from the quote the base quotes, The Second Inaugural — “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Building Building

The bribes have long been paid. This building nears completion down there by Newport Pavonia way. They build a few floors, then go back, and add stuff under those floors. I guess it will be interesting to see what it will look like, then compare it to this, the underneath. I liked the guys working on that floor. Are those new guys or have they been with the building all this time. Construction is a constant in our town.

Melted Muck

I’ve written about our private pool of fetid muck before. Nothing new, except that the weather gets warm and the ice melts some, more debris piles up. Six months from now when you have to put on insect repellent just to walk to the PATH train, remember this image. How did you spend your winter, Downtown J.C.? By tending to our pool of pestilence so it will be ready for Summer!

Graffiti Art

I have mixed feelings about Graffiti. Now, I think Urban Planners who promote the Broken Window philosophy exaggerate greatly the pervasively negative social impact of graffiti. On the other hand, art and art only theorists overlook the fact it is a defacement of public property. I was a wandering by Journal Square and came to this empty lot and took this picture and when I cropped up close to the lettering, it’s obvious that a real talent is at work here. I guess this is tagged. I don’t know what the answer is, but I hope that answer is a way to make use of this form of expression—obviously, it’s art—instead of just handing out sentences.

Jersey City Reflection

Barely a day has gone by that I don’t pass this mural. I remember when it first went up. If you look at the clock in the left hand corner, can you figure out the time it says? And, if you do, what is the meaning of the time in the picture? I have yet to solve that mystery. The other night around dusk I was a wandering down that way and noticed for the first time the reflection of Jersey City in the water, the words on the ferry boat shimmer in the water. Was that a function of the light, that it is most apparent when the sun sets in a clear blue winter sky? No, I guess not. I was just in a mood I suppose that I saw this detail in the mural, and the light of this time of day enhanced what has always been there.

Coming Soon to a Former Bookstore Near You

In January, Jersey City lost its one and only bookstore, a B. Dalton’s. The community outrage echoed for nearly a nanosecond, consisting mainly of a blog item here. Booksellers have abandoned our city and what could possibility fill that void? There’s no new neon in the blank spot where the B. Dalton’s sign used to hang, so I don’t know what this store will be called, but apparently the people have spoken, and by people, I mean, the Newport Mall. You might not be able to buy books here, but you can buy Lingerie or is it women’s underwear. These undergarments—Bombshells! Extreme Cleavage!—may be dangerous and could require a permit. Could I have misunderstood the sign, maybe it’s not female underwear but the Fem-Bots the store is selling. Cyborgs… Sexy, but Deadly!

Sidewalk Symmetry

Be careful walking, Mandala in progress. Encountered this in Union Square Park, always something going on there it seems. Joe Mangrum, an international artist, “paints” these installations with colored sand on sidewalks across the world. I don’t know what you have to imbibe, but with the right combination of natural substances and sweat lodge chanting, you will actually be able to hop-scotch. The hard part is trying to figure out where to toss your pebble. Do not be alarmed if the hop-scotch hopping resembles a whirling dervish.
It was interesting to see him work, stepping from spot to spot, and realizing the symmetry of the images in his mind upon the concrete .The symmetry is incredible, especially when you consider Mangrum created the picture in a rather crowded and busy public space. The image is as much a diagram as a complete picture. The sum and the parts are in a constant yet subtle conversation. We’re drawn to symmetry because if we can perceive an order, we can realize purpose. When we make sense of our world—see a system within nature—we then can organize our own mind with our personal mess of thoughts, ideas, beliefs and emotions. Mandalas resolve internal conflicts.. There is something electric—psychedelic in the best sense of the word—in the colors he uses. Catch it soon, rain’s coming tomorrow.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Dilapidated Sign

Have you ever seen a store front sign so dilapidated. What can you say about a neighborhood when a goodwill drop off dumpster is the only positive? Welcome to the darkness on the edge of Downtown. We didn’t see this building in the condo brochure, but there it is... or is that there it was? It used to be a deli, it used to be a car wash, it used to be a discount store. I think I knew somebody who worked there. I’ve walked by there for years, I can’t remember when it was opened last. I remember it being closed before 9-11 (that date is a useful marker to delineate a when). There’s a whole patch of abandoned buildings over there by Grand Street, west of the Pathmark. Debris is scattered about, don’t go there at night, broken windows, real estate broker signs. Someday I guess, development money will find this nook in our neighborhood for the cycle of demolition and rebirth. Seems kind of weird though, that there are empty, abandoned buildings in a neighborhood less than a quarter of a mile away from those bucking-the-recession trend condominium developments. Profitable buildings are being re-purposed for condos because developers can make a bigger profit. Why leave these spaces fallow? Why not first try to make some profit from these buildings? Well, I don’t run the world and life is too short to make sense of Jersey City logic. I like old buildings. This once warehouse type district, industrial park neighborhood—basically this whole part of the town was much like this. Before it closed, it was a discount store. This building looks older than 50 years and I doubt it was a store when the Colgate Factory was making soap. The dilapidated sign is a remnant of just one past—one more than ten years ago—the building itself is a remnant of another dream long ago lost and forgotten. The past before that past, way before our past.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fence Art

Graffiti art, illustrations. Call it what you will. Look at the fence there, riveting and remarkable. I guess I should have talked to whomever, but nobody was around. Besides, discover this stuff about Jersey City on your own. Take a walk without preconditions. The colors, the lettering, the linear imagery—I swear it’s pulsating. Might not want to walk around here at night, the razor wire looks pretty intimidating and I think I saw a pit bull guard dog, not a place you would think art would be. Talent gets displayed in spite of it all.

Infrastructure Increments

Men dig ditch in road, men get in ditch, men fix problem. Always some new pipe then new asphalt to be poured on the new pipe or whatever it is, underground. One sees it, passes by and trusts in their work. I like to pause and watch, usually, often enough, observing our infrastructure by increments.

NYPD/Federal Office

I just liked the way this looked, you pass it at the WTC Path Station. I guess the police can maintain surveillance on the commuter crowds. I try to remember to wave.

Snow Hill

Snow Hill as seen in the Pathmark Lot, a few days after the latest fall. Snow is so fun when it falls, so pristine and all Currier & Ives on the ground undisturbed. Only a couple days later, we see the crusty film of carbon monoxide and other toxins. It gets pretty yucky, but winter technically has another month and while it hasn’t been frigid, can’t quite say there’s a thaw going on, so we will have this Snow Hill for a while. But today the hill doesn’t look like yesterday, and yesterday’s doesn’t look like the day… well you get my drift, no pun intended.

Ice Cream Ride

Climb aboard the Ice Cream Ride kids. Ice Cream is your best friend. Ice Cream always makes you happy. I’ll take you to Obesity Land. Watch cartoons and play computer games and eat ice cream all day long. Everybody’s happy in Obesity Land. Swim in the magic lake of Diabetes and get lost in the Tooth Decay caverns. Tell your mommy and daddy to take you to the mall so you can climb aboard the Ice Cream Ride and be happy too!

Ash Wednesday Conversation Snippet

Today’s Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.

What do you do for Lent?

I don’t eat meat on Fridays and I don’t sin for 40 days and 40 nights. What do you do?

I also don’t eat meat on Fridays, but I don’t sin for 80 days. That way I keep my nights free.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tony Visits His Roots

Tony came to town.

We’ve been buddies for a very long time, since Freshman year of high school. He lives in Los Angeles now, we grew up together in the Bergen County Suburbs.

He’s from Westwood, but was born in Jersey City. His mom still lives in Westwood. He comes to visit several times a year, more than every other month. Usually business of some sort necessitates the trip, we get together for a meal or a drink, often with other friends. We’ve been having a continuing conversation since about 1974. This trip he was mainly visiting mom, and getting re-acquainted with relatives for reasons that remain unclear to me, but he was staying in Westwood with his mother and came to Hoboken via the Pascack Valley Line. Runs on the weekend.
I want to go to Jersey City, he tells me.

Turns out he’s on a genealogy kick of some kind, a cousin of his on his mother’s side has done research. They’re Italian. Tracing the original, pre-anglicized versions of the spellings of the names, finding out the towns in Italy—in this case, Naples—the family hails from. It’s pretty common. The nexus point for Tony is Jersey City. The families spent two or three generations here until moving to the suburbs in the early 60s. His mom gave him addresses of some houses where they lived and we were to walk around and take pictures of them. Well he took pictures of them, I took pictures of him taking pictures of them because I thought it would be a funny blog.

It was a warm winter day, not too warm, not spring like but at least, there was little to no wind. A nice day to walk around. We took the light rail to the Jersey Avenue Stop, the Brownstone Diner had a line so we just walked towards Brunswick street. On the way there, we passed St. Bridget’s Church, where his parents were married and he was baptized. I thought it looked nice behind this gray hill snow. By the way, it was 81 degrees in La-La-Land. Tony likes getting his fix of winter, as he says. Everybody is interested in identity and part of identity is the past of your blood before you existed. Two of the addresses were in the old Italian Neighborhood, basically around Brunswick Street, First street and Third street on Brunswick. This was where his father lived, I think, or that side of the family.

This is familiar to me, said Tony.

Familiar to you, you left here in diapers.

Yes, but you forget, for years we visited my grand parents. I remember coming here every Sunday.

I did remember that. In fact, one time when we were kids I slept over his house and his mom made us breakfast. Eggs and sausage and she told me that the sausage was home made. That fascinated me. His grandfather made the sausage in the basement in Jersey City. She had a lot of stories about Jersey City. I wonder if I first heard about Jersey City from Tony’s mother?

My great great Grandfather was a horse cart merchant. Every day he would take his cart and horse on the ferry to Manhattan, get his fruits and vegetables, and come to Jersey City and sell the produce. My cousin said that the family has been here since 1859, in Jersey City.

The big mystery was Central Street.

I told Tony that my sense of direction was like my hair line, not getting better with age.

After Brunswick Street we had lunch at the Lamp Post. The bartender there knew the street, gave us directions. Now, my buddy, Mustafah, born and bred Jersey guy, gave me directions. It’s near Siperstein Paint Store. I had called him after trying to google Center Street.

The google map made no sense to me, there were these little blocks with street names that I never heard of, I’ve never been to that nook of Jersey City, which is basically right up against an exit from the Turnpike. The bartender turned out, was a paper boy, which of course made me dream of the kid delivering papers to my friend’s grandparent’s house, although they were gone by the 80s which was when he was the paper boy.

The directions he gave us sent us up Newark Avenue to the Heights, away from Sipersteins. I can’t really follow directions anyway. Turns out the bartender was thinking of Central Avenue, not Center Street.

Central Avenue is only a few blocks too, not many houses. What an excellent walk by the way, from Brunswick up to Newark Avenue. I passed a very interesting statue and I thought the sign by the Court House Drive was cool—Authorized Cars—ominous.

By this time, we are near Journal Square. I get the bright idea, let’s get in a cab and just ask for Center Street.

The cab driver says he doesn’t know where it is. We tell him, just go down Montgomery. Montgomery is the only other landmark his mother told him. It was her house. She grew up there and apparently passed down for a couple of generations before being sold. We get to Siperstein’s and what do we see but Center Street, just as Mustafah told me, near the Turnpike.

It’s a nice enough house, indeed, across the street from the turnpike exit.

Maybe the Turnpike wasn’t here when Tony’s mom was. Maybe Tony is older than the Turnpike, well this exit ramp at least, maybe.

Here’s one thing about Jersey City folks, past and present. Tony’s mom, Mustafah, the bartender—ask them, North of this, do we head east or west—nobody has a clue, the compass references are not given credence in Jersey City. My sense of direction is pitiful, but I do know the difference between North and South, East and West—I use New York as my guide—we’re west of Manhattan.

But it’s not that big a thoroughfare, so these mistakes are expected. Besides, it was fun seeing parts of Jersey City. And, it makes sense, the houses so close together. Basically, his life was made by two Italian-Americans who grew up within four or five blocks of each other, and their church.

He’s been my buddy since Freshman year of high school, and now I live in those same shadows.

We walked back to the Jersey Avenue stop of the Light Rail.

Here’s a sample of our conversation, which is sort of typical of our oddly senses of humor.

The authorities made them change their names. My cousin told me it should be an “i” not an “e”.

What a shande. Had to change a vowel. I’m sure they were more than happy to change a vowel to live here. In Italy they were peasants, crushed under the brutal heel of Italian royalty.
I agree they were much better off here. I don’t think they cared one way or another. It was the first I heard of it, from my cousin.

You know what we called the Italians who didn’t change their names? Sacco and Vanzetti. Nuff said

They were guilty, by the way.

Guilty of something.

We had a drink, walked around the Train Station before his train left. Sort of an interesting day, everything comes back to Jersey City, every one at least, in some form or another. Something about this city leaves an impression and it’s pretty easy to imagine the horse drawn cart going down Brunswick Street.

Desolate Building

A little more than a real fixer-upper, perhaps…desolate, stark, you wonder how many years those windows have been broken. I like the Christmas Tree. See it on the sidewalk? You almost have to admire the complete and absolute disregard for any Christmas Tree disposal regulations our city has enacted. I wonder how far away from this desolate building the home is this tree was in, what sort of Christmas did they have? I wonder how long the tree will stay there.

Gazebo in the Snow

Hamilton Park is still closed. I took this picture with the lens through the fence, two or three days after the big blizzard. It was apparent nobody has worked on the park after the snowfall, which was significant. Apparently it’s now considered urban legend that Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, but they probably have more than one, they deal with snow a lot. We have snow as well as sleet and slush. The snow here is undisturbed, still pristine, unlike most of the snow now around town, which is frozen gray and black muck mostly. Nonetheless, it melts in the afternoon, re-freezes again come nightfall. So it looks different than freshly fallen, or the day after freshly fallen, different enough for a different word and if the park remains closed long enough maybe we’ll have to invent one. But why keep complaining, this is quite pretty, gazebo in the snow.

Bagman Pays Off

Today would set me right, today was the pay off. Mid-morning, about the time my hangover was half way gone, I came into Carmine’s Gym to meet The Bagman. A couple of punks were working speed bags, some kid in the corner jumped roped in front of a mirror and watched his biceps shiver. Carmine leaned against the wall, spat into a bucket. There was nothing he could do with these bums, except set them up as tomatoes for up-and-comers from Greenville. He waves at me, then points to the locker-room room door. He’s inside there, drinking coffee. The Bagman’s always early and is always drinking coffee. He routes his rounds so his scheduled stops are always close to a Dunkins. He likes the hazelnut. The Giants was out of it early this season, then a lot of folks with high hopes lost money on the Jets, which meant the Big Man didn’t mind so much making the pay off for the low buy-in, high-risk, big bucks Super Bowl Pool. The union toughs didn’t like me winning so big, but the Big Man put the chill on their gripes. A bet’s a bet, he says, youse pays your money and youse take your chances. Big Man plays it fair and what he says is the final word. There'll be no trouble for this score. In tough times like this recession of ours, more people bet, they bet big, they bet their last two bits. Everybody in this town plays a Sap at least once in their life, and for more than many, it’s a life-long job. Saps always have a dream. Their dreams make the Big Man rich. The Bagman takes a sip off the coffee, said this is what’s left after the vig is paid off. The jump-rope jumping punk comes in, heads right for the pisser. We ignore him. I give the Bagman a fin for the kick back and pocketed the see-bees. He nods, leaves. Never leave together. Never let anybody see money exchange hands. Never engage in useless chit-chat. Those are the rules. I don’t know what the punishment for breaking them is, and I don’t want to know. When I finally hit the sidewalk, the Bagman was already across the street at Dunkins ordering a Hazelnut extra-large and reading the J.C. Independent. Sports section, always the sports section. Spring training starts in two weeks. It was going to be a good day.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

J.C. Snow Signs

This bodega owner keeps the sidewalk somewhat clear and salted during the morning blizzard. Clearing the sign for the specials though, that’s a little harder. He could just not put the sign out on a snow day, but no, keep the sidewalk clear for the sign, but don’t keep the sign clear—it’s more important to know we have specials rather than what the specific specials are.
I can’t quite make out this sign, something about No Parking, when road is snow covered—like say, in a blizzard—and if you park there, the car will be towed? But if the sign is covered with snow, do you have to obey or if they do tow don’t authorities have an obligation to maintain sign legibility? Has anybody ever seen a car being towed away in a snow storm, that actually may be interesting to see. I hope that posting this picture won’t cause folks outside of Hudson county to think that Jersey City parking laws are not being followed or enforced, especially the no parking in front of fire hydrants, or no parking here to corner, or the no parking here to corner when it blocks both the corner and the fire hydrant.

Filling & Cleaning

I’m all for filling in pot holes but that one was my favorite, it was so gaping that it slowed down cars speeding through the intersection. I whipped out the camera for this seemingly mundane image of typical roadwork because of the street sweeper machine on the left. A big snow storm was predicted for the next day, so maybe that’s why there was so much street repair activity, making it smooth for the plows, all in one day. Just saying, I’ve seen both these things take place in our fair city but never at the same time.