Transition Period – Five Miles of Jersey – The Invisible Line

Across the country, there is space between small towns, at least thirty miles of rural landscape. That chunk of travel is followed by a five-mile transition period, a buffer between all that space and some proper downtown. The first step of the transition is a strip mall followed by a development then another strip mall then a cute older neighborhood and finally the honey pot: five or six blocks of a few bars, a pharmacy, a florist, a couple restaurants, a coffee shop, etc. As you leave, it all appears in reverse, fading back into ‘the space’.

This is the way it is in most of the U.S. But as I left Linden, I remembered a conversation I had with a friend from New Jersey: ‘The thing about Jersey is, it’s not like the rest of the country. It’s five miles of awesome and then five miles of shit, then five miles of awesome then five miles of shit, and on and on and on. The entire state long. There’s million dollar houses and then just across some weird invisible line are, like, slums’.

Before I proceed, I want to clarify that (if not obvious already) I am not a professional hodologist doing accurate scientific research. I was in New Jersey to fulfill a few goals: find a show, go to the Edison Historic Site, find a matchbook restaurant in Sommerville and then visit a couple ‘memorials’. For two days, I drove around the north and northeast Newark areas. Naturally I made some anecdotal observations. Take what I write about NJ for what it’s worth.

On paper, New Jersey’s infrastructure is exactly like any other state: county roads connect plenty of small downtowns, medium sized cities are connected by state roads as two interstates cut through it all, leading to one big city, some Oz. In actuality, Jersey is structurally very unique. 

First off, the many, many small towns are not towns but townships.  

Another difference, County Roads throughout the U.S. look like ‘county roads’, miles and miles of double-yellow-line two-lanes that ease through farmland and other ruralness. They will not find you, rather you must seek them out. In NJ however, the County Roads are merely the streets that cut through the neighborhoods and the downtowns (what most everyone else in the country would recognize as their Main Street). County Roads in NJ are gratefully well-marked and everywhere.

Honestly, I don’t think I’ve seen many county road signs since I took my driver’s license test decades ago.

What is most unique about New Jersey however is the elimination of ‘the space’. The per capita is very high in this state and just as my Jersey friend described, there’s not much room for transitions between the townships, no buffer zone landscape surround any of them. I find myself in one downtown and then five or ten minutes later already in another. This aspect of Jersey was really interesting, a welcome relief significantly contrasting with the developments around the country, the strip malls and their Kohl’s/TJ Maxx/TGIF monoliths.

I didn’t have a ‘gut’ feeling about any place, any town or township or bar to play but the sightseeing was enjoyable. I kept driving, never seeing any of ‘the shit’ my Jersey friend talked about. Every five or ten miles, a new small town-esque downtown, unique in its own way. I was stunned at the gorgeous neighborhoods and turn-of-the-century houses with lots of red white and blue banners on their porches, prepping for the 4th of July. Lots of local businesses with names I didn’t recognize, lots of folks eating outside. Beautiful. 

I was pleasantly surprised to see such livelihood in all of the townships. This wasn’t small town America (I was only twenty miles of NYC). Yet there’s a sense of the best of what small towns offer, a feeling of local downtown pride, street wide signs draped overhead indicating where that particular township’s fireworks’d be set off, banners for when and where the farmer’s markets occurred (I made a note: Maplewood, every Monday). 

I was honestly stunned by the home-y feeling here in New Jersey, the lack of big chains and fast food stores, it gave me hope in a way that…

Whoa. What the hell just happened? This is from out of nowhere. I stopped the van, turned around, ran over a bottle resting on the street curb, prayed I didn’t have a flat (not here, please please not here) and skedaddled back to the heart of Maplewood. I stopped and examined the tire. Looks fine. 

I turned around again, aiming the hood of the van back to the business sucks sale. I cruised slowly out of Maplewood, trying to find the invisible line. Let’s see, there’s the banner, the group of joggers, the teenager pushing his grandma in her wheelchair, rah rah red white and blue, the kid with the balloon, his sister with the ice cream cone and then…boom, the smashed glass streets and abandoned homes and businesses of Irvington.

Though not as extreme, I had a similar feeling in West Orange vs. East Orange, Westfield vs. Plainfield, Middlesex vs. Bound Brook. As I drove back and forth from one nice neighborhood into one not so nice, I kept on thinking I shouldn’t even bother trying to find a venue to play in either of them. I don’t fit into any of these places, one Have and the other Have Not. 

Though eventually I did find many places for the Have Somes (the working-class or blue-collar townships), for a while it appeared there were only two kinds of places in Jersey: towns where I’d quickly go broke trying to live and the others where I’d get broken even quicker.

I kept on thinking back to the business sucks sale. Maybe it was the particular route that I took but I gotta say, the contrast between Maplewood and Irvington was immediate and startling. It was strange, as if people had a picnic on a fine green lawn in one town, stood up and shook the trash of their tablecloth into the town on the other side of the street, just across the great divide.

I continued to the Edison Historic Site.

(Top photo: NJrealestate.com; Middle photo: Wikipedia)


July 25, 2015

Find a Grave – Rahway – The New Jersey Train of Death – Music Matters – The Music Matter

Besides playing shows and visiting the matchbook sites, I decided to seek out birthplaces or memorials or grave sites of people I’m interested in or admire. The drives would be long, lots of time to think about someone’s impact on me or the culture. Visiting sites also works as a way to propel myself forward. I’m afraid if I don’t have enough mile markers, I might wander too much around one city only to find myself suddenly driving 600 miles to make a gig. A few memorials or landmarks along the way’d keep me in line and on time.

So how does one find a gravesite or memorial of the famous or somewhat famous? Findagrave.com. Here’s one page:

After scanning through thousands of names, I noticed that every state seems to have a prominent Type of Occupation or Infamy. Some of these are obvious. Virginia has ‘Military’ types. New York, a lot of ‘Organized Crime’ members and ‘Stage Actors’. I found a lot of ‘Congressman’ or ‘Political Figure’ types in Pennsylvania and the Northeast with plenty of ‘Folk or Folklore Figures’. And what did New Jersey have a plethora of? ‘Famous Murder Victims’.

People, this is not an anecdote that will endear yourself to a New Jersey audience in Rahway. Not. At. All.

I tried to recover by telling the audience about graves I’m super excited to visit and then I immediately realized I gotta really work on the phrasing of this whole gravesite bit. ‘Hey there folks! I gotta say, I’m getting way jazzed about  __________’. I could fill in any state or person or contagious disease and probably make it work. The tsetse fly! Schenectady! The Sans-belt Dress Pant! Whooping cough!

Grave sites? You lost damn near everyone (though it would be the only time all night the goth dude working the door would smile).

From the beginning, I shit this gig sideways. I knew it when I walked in the door and saw the high-ceilings, the long ass room, the no stage. I told myself ‘Play unplugged. You have to. You can do it’. But eeesh, unplugged is very scary territory for me and I chose to do what I always do: go through the PA. Loud always wins, right?

Gotta work on that gravesite bit. Memorials? Can I say ‘memorials’ instead? Can I get away with that? Behind me, the kitchen door opens. A waiter walks by. Man, those mozzarella sticks smell good. Wow, I am totally distracted. I am not present at all. I start another song and close my eyes, not because I’m in the moment but rather I can’t tune out the hockey game or the baseball game or the draft analysis or the other baseball game on the four HD flat screens behind the bar.

I finish the song and a thousand thoughts are going through my head. I feel like I’m trying to count stacks of one dollar bills at an auction. Unfocused, flailing, I rattle off some names and cities to the crowd, trying to get my footing again. ‘Stephen Crane and Ben E. King are buried in Hillside! How about that? Micki Harris of The Shirells is buried nearby in Passaic!’

This sounds so creepy dude. I play another song. When I finish, my mind is blank, the quiet uncomfortable.

‘Marvin Isley and Clyde McPhatter are just north in Paramus!’

This is the longest set of my life.

‘Is that a long A in Paramus? How do you pronounce that?’

A plate drops. The place goes silent for three seconds. There’s a slurp of sucked chicken winged fingers, the universal ‘okay sign’ for everybody to get back to ignoring the morbid jerk with the guitar. I keep on naming names like a conductor on The New Jersey Train of Death: ‘Dave Prater in Totowa, last stop Joey Ramone and William Carlos Williams in Lyndhurst’.

Toot, toot. All aboard.

I packed up my gear and thought about the show. I knew from the start what I was up against, the challenges: long and generously lit room, high ceiling, food, sports, no stage. I also had an inkling of a possible path to a more fulfilling show: go unplugged. But there isn’t much more that terrifies me than to open up myself with no band, no electricity, no distortion, just me and my vulnerabilities. It would’ve worked here in Rahway, though. I know it. I had the gut-instinct but not the guts.

Afterwards, I noticed a fella with a Last Chance Records Music Matters shirt. We talked for a while about Jersey and NYC and The Clash and The Replacements. I was glad not to talk or think about the set, for a few hours anyways.

It was late when I left Rahway. On the drive out I thought about all the midnight shows on Saturdays, amped up and excited, the band is cooking, the crowd is way deep into it. Those were situations where the music was the absolute center of attention. But this trip is about something else. Forget about the crowd and what they pay attention to. Can I get my music to the same place when it is not the focus? Can I ignore all the distractions to really get it there? Even more of a challenge: can I ignore while still having awareness or the sense of what also matters, the energy lurking out there somewhere between me and the music and the crowd and the pool tables and the ESPN and the chili fries?

I drove to the Linden Airport, parked the van in a lot and fell asleep.


July 21, 2015

107.9 – Whitman – Levittown – The Myers – Another Walt

Throughout the trip, most good radio stations come and go too quickly. Out of Philly, I found a good one on 107.9. Good tunes, deep cuts. The signal lasted for a half hour on Route 13, heading to New Jersey. If I would’ve planned my outward bound a little better, I could’ve taken the Walt Whitman Bridge over to Camden and got a gander at the Walt Whitman House. Though I missed out on both of them, I was at least able to have a moment of reflection at the famous Whitman Square:

The Philly/NJ/NYC area is a tough one to get into a road trip state of mind. Lots of stops. Lots of starts. But what it lacks in meditative drives and highway scenery, it more than makes up for with cultural richness. And though there’s many many treats of historical and cultural significance, I decided to skip it all to instead see the sidewalks where baby boomers learned to play hopscotch, the most famous of American suburbs, Levittown.

William Levitt and his company Levitt & Sons envisioned a place for returning World War II vets, a nice alternative to cramped city living. A small town, a planned community. Over the course of sixteen years, they built four different Levittowns. Construction on the first Levittown, in New York, began in 1947. To keep construction costs low, the houses were built assembly line style. The VA and FHA helped with financing. Houses came with all modern amenities, a driveway and a fine green lawn. When they were first put on the market, 1400 homes sold within the first three hours.

I’m close to the second Levittown, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. North of Philadelphia. Exit 44 off of 95. I take a right on Veterans Highway.

In this development, six models were offered: the Colonial, the Country Clubber, the Jubilee, Levittowner, the Pennsylvanian, and the Rancher. Construction began in 1952 and ended in 1958. Over 17,000 homes were built. 

Not sure which this is:


The town had almost everything: pools, parks, baseball fields, churches, supermarkets. One of the few things it didn’t have, however, was black people. Levitt & Sons would not sell homes to black folks. William Levitt apparently did not consider himself a racist, he merely thought of housing and racial relations as two separate matters. They are not.

Though the Levitts would not sell to blacks, they had no control as to whether or not the houses could be resold to blacks. In 1957, Levittown’s first black family moved to Deepgreen Lane. Daisy Myers was a teacher and her husband William a heating and A/C engineer. At the time of the move, they had two children and a third on the way. From the moment they moved in, there were demonstrations, mob gatherings, burning crosses. From an unoccupied house next door, a Confederate flag waved and music blared around the clock. The Myers refused to move. They asked for help. The Governor sent in state police to protect the family. A judge ordered an injunction. The neighbors eased off. For the family, the good times finally had a chance to outweigh the bad.

In five years, William changed jobs and the family relocated to Harrisburg.


These are pictures of random homes:

Sixty years after they were built, the developments at Levittown don’t seem any worse or better than the thousands of other suburbs spawned across the country. It feels like just another working class ‘Burb. Kids playing. Different ethnicities.

I was expecting the homes to have a more pronounced uniformity but that was a ridiculous presumption. Over the years they’ve obviously changed hands many times, every owner making their own customizations to their ‘Country Clubber’.

I cruise down Clover, Coral, Charity, Chesnut and Crimson King. I think of the original people who bought into the idea of Levittown, the vets who fought in a war of unimaginable horror. The war ends. They come home. Babies booming. Newborns everywhere. The tenement suddenly becomes a lot smaller. Screaming all the time. Above, below, outside. Pick up the newspaper. Front page. The city is getting more dangerous every day. Open up the newspaper. An advertisement. Smiles. Space. Levittown.

I drive up Pinewood, down Pensive, up Palm, down Peartree, up Primrose, down Poplar. I think about post-WWII America. The model homes. The fast food joints. The mighty interstate connecting all of the Levittowns with ease. It’s a strange thing to consider. In those years, the country once known for its rugged individualism chose to define and brand itself as the exact opposite. 

I used to look at the pictures of Levittown and smirk at the cultural landmark of conformity. But I suppose I could point to plenty of brand new downtown condos anywhere and say the same thing. More efficient? Sure. I imagine some condos must name their wings or floors with generic home-y sounding words. A soothing voice in the elevator: ‘First Floor – Pinewood. Second Floor – Pensive.  Third Floor – Palm. Primrose Wing is to the left, Poplar to the right’.

Incidentally, the third Levittown is in New Jersey. The fourth, in Puerto Rico.

On the way out, I met my second monument to a Walt.


July 17, 2015