Hitting the street (fair)

I’ll be at the Highland Park NJ street fair Sunday, Sept. 29, reading from my Washington Irving parody ‘Rip’ and maybe from a novel-in-progress. I’m scheduled at 4:30 pm at corner of Raritan and Third avenues at a performance space hosted by Main Street Highland Park. I take the stage, believe it or not, after a juggler who’s on from 4 to 4:30!

Hard times

It may be that the economy’s on the upswing, but New York City’s homeless people might argue with that analysis. So, too, might the folks I encounter nearly daily in central New Jersey.

As my son and I walked along Canal Street and up Second Avenue in lower Manhattan, a few days ago, we saw more homeless people than I remember seeing in NYC for a while, including a young couple camped out on a sidewalk in late morning, the girl sleeping on a pile of blankets while her companion stayed awake and kept watch.

Next day, early in the morning, at a park along the Raritan River in central New Jersey, I saw what has become a familiar sight: three homeless men, wearing all of their clothing (including winter parkas in 80 degree weather, as they left a small, wooded nature preserve in Highland Park where they apparently spend the night and then headed toward a long-established encampment along the riverside in the shadow of the New Brunswick-Highland Park bridge.

I believe that many of us these days are so distracted by our own lives and other issues — that the problem of poverty, both urban and rural, has faded from our view. There’s a feeling, I think, even among well-meaning and caring people, that food pantries and government programs and volunteerism have got the problem under control. But, just walk around Manhattan these days, just visit rural Virginia as I did last fall, and drive around the old section of my old hometown of Yonkers, New York, and it’s clear that as the rich are getting so much richer, the poor are getting so much poorer.

Here’s Woody singing his “Hobo’s Lullaby” –

Here’s Dylan, singing Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” –

And here’s John Prine, singing his classic song about being invisible and lonely, “Hello In There” –

To Be Continued…

Here's a photo -- from the outside looking in -- of To Be Continued Bookstore in Metuchen, N.J., where I'll be reading on Friday, June 28.

Here’s a photo — from the outside looking in — of To Be Continued Bookstore in Metuchen, N.J., where I’ll be reading on Friday, June 28.

I’ll be reading excerpts from my satirical novel “Rip” on Friday, June 28, at To Be Continued Bookstore, 431 Metuchen, N.J., as part of the town’s month-long “Junebug ArtFest.”


I’ll be appearing with two other authors — I’ll start reading sometime between 6:30 and 7 p.m. Store owners Sergio and Karen have copies of my book for sale — and I’ll happily sign any copies they sell. Admission is free. For more information about the event and/or the bookstore, call 917-686-6056.

King of the Jungle King

jungle king closeup

Sometime soon we’ll be heading down to the Silver Ball Museum in Asbury Park, N.J., which I just learned has an incredible collection of vintage pinball machines — including Jungle King (!), which devoured untold numbers of my precious quarters and God knows how many hours I should have spent studying at the small university I attended in western New York state.

Best of all, the museum isn’t really a museum! It’s open to the public. For an all-day admission fee of $20, pinball wizards such as myself get to play all day on machines, including the circa-1973 Jungle King!

During the somewhat hazy years I spent barely toiling in the fields of academe, my kingdom was the world of Jungle King. And I was the king of Jungle King.

Here’s what the Silver Ball Museum’s website has to say about Jungle King:

“The object of this game is to win extra balls. This is achieved each time the battery of 10 rollovers is made and then the free ball targets and rollovers light. Making the free ball resets the 10 rollovers once again. Doubling your bonus score when the ball drains is possible if the rollover at the top of the game is made. If you complete all four marked rollovers, the playfield opens the free ball gate and the kickback kicker lane to keep your current ball in play. Score, of course, is another variable in achieving a longer playing game.”

jungle king

Yes, indeed, the skills and thrills of Jungle King revolved around learning the tricks and moves necessary to win extra balls and extra games. I became remarkably adept, after investing many quarters in my Jungle King education and field training, at “catching” the silver balls with the flippers, waiting for the rollovers and targets to light up, and then unleashing a machine-gun-like barrage of pinballs at the free-ball and bonus score targets.

I got to the point where I could make one quarter and one game last for hours. Literally. Free ball after ball. Free game after free game. Setting the “New High Score” and then shattering my own world record (or at least the high-score record for the machine in the college student center).

I think I also remember cheering and adoring crowds, some of them holding up banners, and perhaps even the college’s marching band playing “Pinball Wizard” by The Who…

OK, wait…my college didn’t even have a marching band…maybe my memories have been magnified by the lens of time…On the other hand…

It is beyond dispute that I was the true king of Jungle King. I hereby decree and proclaim to my faithful subjects that sometime in the next few weeks I shall be traveling with the royal entourage to the Shores of Jersey to reclaim my pinball crown and, yes, to take back my rightful kingdom.

Pretenders to the crown, you have been warned.


On Sunday night, I found myself attending an interfaith Thanksgiving service held at a Protestant church in Central New Jersey.

There were Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Jews. There  was music, ranging from songs by an Indonesian Christian choir, to klezmer, to something called  the Dalai Lama Mantra. There were readings and prayers, from the Quran (in Arabic and then English), and from the Testaments (old and new).

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away,  bombs and missiles — fueled and propelled by ethnic hatred and religious intolerance — were destroying lives in Palestine and Israel.

As good as it felt to be in the midst of this Thanksgiving gathering, I found myself wondering if it truly offered reason for hope — or whether it was really cause for despair, an illusion of harmony, a cruel mockery,  a comfortable delusion.

My thoughts have settled somewhere in the middle.

Yes, it was a good thing that people could come together at a church in New Jersey in the name of brotherhood and peace, joining in a celebration of their shared belief in love and in joyous celebration of life.

Folksinger and activist Pete Seeger says it  will be small groups of people, not big organizations and governments, that will solve the problems of this world. Pete’s banjo is inscribed with these words: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

Well, I agree with the many people who believe Pete deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for all the good he’s done and the difference he’s made in this world, but Pete’s approaching his 95th year on this planet and when he goes to his grave there will still be wars raging and people dying and babies crying as bomb blasts rock their cradles.

My 80-year-old mother, who was a girl during World War II and had two older brothers see combat in Europe and the Pacific, was watching a news account of the recent violence in the Middle East, and said as she shook her head sadly: “Why can’t people just be nice to each other? Why can’t they just help each other?”

I’m afraid it’s the nature of the beast. This has been going on since the world began and will continue until the day a big meteor comes whizzing out from behind the sun and returns mankind to the cosmic dust.

I’m glad that Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians are able, sometimes, to come together in peace. But this time of year, a couple of weeks before the anniversary of his murder, I hear John Lennon’s challenge: “Imagine there’s no countries…No need for greed…No hunger…And no religion too.”

But even John Lennon, a man of peace and a man of dreams, could not escape the violence of hatred. Still, I believe his heart was in the right place. So is my mother’s. Why can’t people just be nice to each other? We need to keep trying to imagine, even when reality makes it very hard to do.

Quiet, please!

Quiet, please!

I remember, when I was a boy spending many hours at the main branch of the public library in my old hometown of Yonkers, New York.

Many QUIET hours. Signs around the library silently asked patrons to be quiet. If someone spoke too loudly, he or she was hushed by one of the ever-vigilant librarians.

There was a reason for this. People were doing things at the library which were easier to do in quiet surroundings — researching, writing,  reading, studying…thinking.

I’m sitting now in the reference area of a public library in New Jersey.

I can hardly hear myself think.

People  don’t seem in the least bit inclined to whisper or speak softly.  Teens and adults are answering phones. Babies are crying and children are talking loudly — while their mothers, apparently oblivious, carry on loud conversations of their own.

And one of the library staff is  carrying on a loud conversation with a patron who loudly asked her if the library has a certain book he wants to read.

Never mind the other question that popped into my mind: Don’t people know how to look up a book when they know the title and the author? They need to ask a librarian to find it?

Here’s my question: Can everyone please be quiet?

I’m not being old-fashioned. I’ve been in other libraries — recently — and every one of them was blissfully quiet and conducive to reading and writing and thinking.

I understand that people can be noisy. Sometimes a cell phone rings. Sometimes a baby will throw a tantrum. And I think it’s great when libraries are community gathering places, crowded with people of all ages and interests.

And I know libraries are now media centers and that there are no more card catalogs and that the time has long passed since librarians took a card out of the back of each book and stamped it with a due date.

I know these things and they’re beside the point.

A library should be an oasis of serenity. It shouldn’t feel like the Dewey decimal system has been replaced by the decibel system.

Quiet, please!

Going wild

Is civilization going wild? Or are wild things gettng civilized?

I’ve been aware that certain wild animals — black bears, coyotes, foxes, bald eagles — have proliferated and spread into places where they were rarely seen even twenty years ago.

For some reason, though, I still tend to think of aquatic birds as rara avis, which I suppose is why I’ve been startled to see a great white egret making itself at home at a park along the Raritan River in Central New Jersey, at a spot where the endless hum of traffic on Route 1, the New Jersey Turnpike and other busy highways is endlessly heard.

Within smelling distance of exhaust fumes and Superfund dumps, within walking distance of a gritty city, here’s this lovely peaceful green oasis where I’ve also seen deer, and a red fox, and at least two resident blue herons, where turtles sunbathe on logs on the edge of a placid pond, and where I fully expect to someday see a brashly rambling bruin crashing through the brambles and to awaken in the Jersey night to the barks and yips  of wily coyotes.

“Rip” tide?

Three more readings and book-signings have been scheduled for “Rip,” my spoof of  Washington Irving’s classic “Rip Van Winkle.”

As previously announced, I’ll be appearing Saturday, Oct. 20, at 3 p.m., at the Briarcliff Manor (N.Y.) Library.

Now I’ve been scheduled for a reading and book-signing on Friday, Oct. 19, at 3 p.m., at the public library in Orangeburg, N.Y. -

In the springtime, I’ve been scheduled to appear on Thursday, April 4, at 5 p.m., at the Port Jervis (N.Y.) Public Library and on Monday, April 22, at 6 p.m., at the public library in Somers, N.Y.

Briarcliff is in Westchester County, N.Y., and is also well within range of Rockland County, Putnam County and southwest Connecticut. Orangeburg is off the Palisades Parkway between the northern border of New Jersey and the western side of the Tappan Zee Bridge, in the vicinity of Nyack and Nanuet, south of the Tappan Zee and north of the GW Bridge. Port Jervis is up near the Delaware Water Gap, sort of at the confluence of New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Somers is in northern Westschester County.

At all four free events, I’ll talk a bit about my longtime affection for Washington Irving’s writing, I’ll chat a little about how I came to write my modern-day parody of “Rip Van Winkle,” I’ll read sample chapters from the book, I’ll take questions from the audience, and I’ll sign copies of the book, which will be available for purchase at each event.

More readings/signings are in the works. Details will be posted here (as well on Facebook and on my author page at amazon.com) as dates, times and locations are confirmed.

Caveman cuisine

Pondering the “paleo” diet?

It’s time to hog the spotlight, to cast swine before pearls, to wallow in a swill-filled existential sty as I contemplate the backyard pig roast I attended last weekend in New Jersey.

I am rendered nearly inarticulate. Why? I think it mostly has to do with my love for the bus-driving and steam shovel-operating animals who populate Richard Scarry’s Busytown, where I’ve wanted to live since I was four years old and where, other Busytown devotees may recall, the traffic cop blowing his whistle and directing Busytown’s traffic was a jolly, friendly pig.

Add in several readings of “Charlotte’s Web,” several viewings of those movies about Babe the Gallant Pig, and countless hours of wasted youth spent watching Porky Pig cartoons (and listening to Porky sing his version of “Blue Christmas”), not to mention a recent weekend spent at a country fair where we saw lots of portly but pulchritudinous prize-winning pigs, and it’s a wonder that I managed to even look at that poor 80-pound porker with its cute little snout and its curly little tail and its innocent half-smile as it sat there all brown and crispy on that big platter, never mind how I managed to take part (along with several-dozen other carnivores) in quickly devouring that poor beast.

Perhaps I was distracted by a conversation I had with a fellow carnivore who, as we stood there waiting for our chance to wiggle our way into the feeding trough, revealed to me with great enthusiasm that he’d embarked about a month before on the so-called “paleo” diet, which basically involves eating no foods and drinking no beverages unless they were available to Fred Flintstone, Barney Rubble and all of the other cave people.

I stood there and gazed at the barbecued pig and pondered the relative merits of eating what cavemen and cavewomen ate. On the one hand, those early people were the forebears of humankind. On the other hand (or so I pondered as I enjoyed my second or third helping of pulled pork), cavemen hit each other over the heads with clubs; they weren’t exactly Rhodes scholars, if you get my drift; and they were considered really old if they lived to be about nineteen years old, which was their normal life span unless they died young because they’d encountered an Ice Age or a saber-toothed tiger.

No, I decided as I also enjoyed a glass of non-primitive white wine and some delicious non-paleo pasta salad, I’ll lay off the brontosaurus burgers and continue to eat modern food — pausing occasionally as I travel life’s path to stay in touch with my caveman roots by munching on some poor not-as-evolved-as-me animal cooked primitively but to crispy perfection over sizzling hot coals (thank goodness Fred and Barney discovered fire!)

The culture of sculpture

The photo above? I call it “Large Head of Woman Appears to Float in the Mist in Replica of Japanese Garden Near Lovely But Expensive Restaurant.” The location? I took it yesterday at the Grounds for Sculpture located in Hamilton Township, N.J.

Don’t get me wrong. The Grounds for Sculpture is a stunning place, with hundreds of striking and creative outdoor sculptures, beautiful landscaping and pathways that beckon with a mantra hum …like the one in this photo, also taken yesterday:

It’s a place filled with wit and wisdom and wonder, with the beauty of spirit and the spirit of beauty. I intend to go back some glorious morning in spring and I want to walk there in silent winter snow and I want to hear the soft crackle of leaves beneath my feet as I get lost in autmn on the perfectly unpredictable paths.

Yesterday was a hot day, with thunderstorms rumbling and dark clouds looking so biblical that the experience was nearly humbling…but not enough to resist the temptation to say “Visit the Grounds for Sculpture. But don’t bother sitting through the introductory film  in which someone rambles very seriously about experiencing the wonder of art and making it one’s own and other very pretentious prattle that the narrator with her very British accent manages to read without even one little proper giggle.

Here’s the link to the Grounds for Sculpture.

Get past the fact that these folks take themselves just a little too seriously and definitely need a new scriptwriter — and you’ll find it to be a place you’ll want to visit again and again.

P.S. At the entrance to one of the indoor exhibits I found a plaque bearing the best poem I’ve ever read or heard about the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001. It was written by my friend BJ Ward just days after the tragedy. BJ read this powerful poem just a few weeks later at one of the readings in the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival series I’d started just a few years before. I remember saying to people at the time that the poets and I had discussed whether it was right to hold the reading series that awful autumn. BJ’s stunning poem made it clear that proceeding with the event wasn’t just right – it was necessary:

For the Children of the World Trade Center Victims

Nothing could have prepared you—

Note: Every poem I have ever written

is not as important as this one.

Note: This poem says nothing important.

Clarification of last note:

This poem cannot save 3,000 lives.

Note: This poem is attempting to pull your father

out of the rubble, still living and glowing

and enjoying football on Sunday.

Note: This poem is trying to reach your mother

in her business skirt, and get her home

to Ridgewood where she can change

to her robe and sip Chamomile tea

as she looks through the bay window at the old,

untouched New York City skyline.

Note: This poem is aiming its guns at the sky

to shoot down the terrorists and might

hit God if He let this happen.

Note: This poem is trying to turn

that blooming of orange and black

of the impact into nothing

more than a sudden tiger-lily

whose petals your mother and father

could use as parachutes, float down

to the streets below, a million

dandelion seeds drifting off

to the untrafficked sky above them.

Note: This poem is still doing nothing.

Note: Somewhere in this poem there may be people alive,

and I’m trying like mad to reach them.

Note: I need to get back to writing the poem to reach them

instead of dwelling on these matters, but how

can any of us get back to writing poems?

Note: The sound of this poem: the sound

of a scream in 200 different languages

that outshouts the sounds of sirens and

airliners and glass shattering and

concrete crumbling as steel is bending and

the orchestral tympani of our American hearts

when the second plane hit.

Note: The sound of a scream in 200 languages

is the same sound.

It is the sound of a scream.

Note: In New Jersey over the next four days,

over thirty people asked me

if I knew anyone in the catastrophe.

Yes, I said.

I knew every single one of them.

BJ Ward

from Gravedigger’s Birthday(North Atlantic Books)