Rose of my heart

jersey roses

Best e-mail I’ve received all day had this photo, with a note saying simply “Roses still in bloom!” I’ve had a great time during my residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and I’m going to hate leaving — it’s a beautiful place, and I’ve made great progress on a new novel — but I’m also looking forward to returning to New Jersey and my gardening correspondent.

Years before Bill Haley became a mediocre and unlikely rock-and-roll pioneer he billed himself as Yodelin’ Bill Haley, performing country swing with his band The Saddlemen. Here’s Yodelin’ Bill singin’ “Rose of My Heart” —

Even better, here’s the late, lamented Eva Cassidy doing a beautiful rendition of a song based on Robert Burns’ “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose” —


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” —

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.

“Rip” roaring along…more readings/book signings scheduled

Here’s an updated schedule of “Rip” readings and book-signings, all of them at public libraries in these towns:
This Saturday, Oct. 20, 3pm, Briarcliff Manor NY; Nov. 17, 1 p.m., Holland Township, NJ; Jan. 12, 2 pm, Irvington NY; Jan. 19, 1 pm, Peekskill, NY; Feb. 23, 1 pm, Beacon, NY; April 4, 5 pm, Port Jervis NY; April 22, 6 pm, Somers NY.

I’ll read excerpts from my satirical modern-day “retelling” of “Rip Van Winkle,” talk a little about my longtime affection for the works of Washington Irving, answer questions, and sign copies for people who buy the book, which will be available for purchase after the reading.

Summer arrives: Do druids drink gin-and-tonics?

Dark and mysterious Stonehenge…Where I won’t be as the summer solstice arrives. On the other hand, I bet the druids won’t be cooling off on this first sweltering night of official summer with a nice tall gin-and-tonic (with lime).

If I happened to be a druid, I suppose I’d be at Stonehenge, dancing and cavorting and chanting and just generally carrying on and making a happy ruckus as the sun set and rose over those magnificent and mysterious stones right at the moment when spring gives way to summer.

But I’m not a druid — and I’m not anywhere near Stonehenge — so I suppose today and tomorrow will be spent somewhere in the swamps of Jersey in hot pursuit of coolness and cold…as temperatures approach 100 degrees for the first time this year, just in time for the solstice and summer.

We’re talking gin-and-tonics (with lime) after dark on the porch. We’re talking not much more exertion than what’s required to turn on the air-conditioner and maybe turn the pages of whatever book we’re reading, which probably should be something like “The Iceman Cometh,”  or to turn on the DVD player to watch a movie, which probably should not be something like “In the Heat of the Night.”

Speaking of druids and mysterious stones, I made my way a few days ago to Ringing Rocks State Park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. There they were– not moved since that last time I was there, about fifteen years ago: an amazing field of large boulders covering at least a couple of acres. The boulders were deposited there, geologists say, by the leading edge of an ancient glacier.

Stone-cold truth: These boulders at Ringing Rocks in Upper Black Eddy, Pa., have been there ever since a glacier left them there millions of years ago,

I remember hearing through the years about strange nighttime gatherings at Ringing Rocks,  and I have vague memory of a big New Age gathering happening there a few years back when there was a lot of hoo-hah and ballyhoo over some cosmic event called the Harmonic Convergence.

More recently, the boulders were still an impressive sight and a great source of amusing, overheard comments from others who’d come to swing a hammer at the rocks to hear their unusual chime-like ring:

“I’ve never seen so many rocks!”

“Man, this would be a great place to come and get stoned!”

“Yeah. Or to have a ROCK concert!”

“This place ROCKS!”

You get the idea. I guess it’s Stone Age, Stonehenge, stoner humor.

One thing about heat. It’s made for some great music. Here are four of my favorite summertime songs by (in order) Sly Stone, Carole King, the Rascals and Bruce Springsteen:

Endless highway

I drive down the road frequently now, on my way to the bank or to the Asian supermarket (which sells delicious frozen dumplings and at least a dozen varieties of bok choy — who knew?).

But the first time I made my way down Route 27, traveling the few miles from Highland Park, N.J., to Edison, N.J. (yes, Edison as in Thomas Edison, as in Wizard of Menlo Park, which is a section of Edison where the inventor had his famous lab), what I noticed at was first was the many businesses with Chinese lettering on their outdoor signs, everything from beauty parlors to auto-repair garages catering to the area’s thriving Asian population.

I was on my way, I confess, to the locally legendary Tastee Sub Shop, where President Obama actually made a stop back in July 2010 to promote a proposed small-business tax break.

Tastee Sub Shop in Edison, N.J.

I figured a sub that was good enough for the president was good enough for me. For the record, the tuna sub with onions, tomato and lettuce was really good.

As I left Tastee Sub Shop, I noticed signs designating Route 27 — which is actually the Main street of the town where I now live — as the Lincoln Highway. The famous Lincoln Highway! Decades older than Route 66! The first real cross-country road!

A winter scene in downtown Highland Park, N.J. The main street, visible at right, is part of the old cross-country incoln Highway

It was the brainchild of a man named Carl G. Fisher. It began in Times Square and ended in San Francisco, passing through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. Later, the route was changed to bypass Colorado and include a sliver of West Virginia. It was dedicated in 1913.

Opening of the road led to economic prosperity for the hundreds of cities and towns along the route. In fact, the Lincoln Highway was dubbed the “Main Street of America.” Today, after many roads were assigned numbers in the 1950s, most of the route is designated as Route 30, with sections of it designated as Route 1 in the East and routes 40 and 50 in the West. Much of its runs roughly parallel to Interstate 80. When I traveled through Pennsylvania and Ohio a few months ago, I drove on a long stretch of I-80 and a section of the Lincoln Highway ran through the town I was visiting, Richmond, Indiana. And, of course, with tha advent of the Eisenhower era national system of interstate highways, which transformed this nation, many of those same Lincoln Highway towns encountered economic hard times as time — and hurrying motorists — passed them by.

So it’s a wistful but wonderful thing to watch cars roll through town on the old Lincoln Highway and to imagine that I could get into my car, take my sweet time, and drive on that one road straight across the country, from the New York island to the redwood forest, driving through the here and now right into America’s faded past.

Journey through the past

The two of us were driving through the streets of Trenton, New Jersey, traveling back in time. In the state capital’s once-thriving shopping district, what were once busy and popular department stores were now cut-rate dollar stores catering to the city’s poor population. Many of the stores were closed or even boarded-up. Many of the buildings were in disrepair but some retained the fading aura of past glories, which my companion recalled vividly and fondly. The afternoon sun glinted off the state Capitol’s golden dome and reflected on the scene below.

Where you came from is just as important as where you are and where you’re going — maybe more important.

The year I was born, my young father was serving in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at Maguire AFB adjacent to Fort Dix. I was born at the base hospital. My father and mother brought me home to their first apartment together, on the third floor of a house on what was then a nice street in a nice neighborhood, West State Street.

I’d never seen the house. My mother still remembered the address. Here’s the house on West State Street:

My first home on West State Street, Trenton, N.J.

When I telephoned my mother that day she recalled taking a bus from this house to a downtown department store to buy her young husband a Christmas gift — a rod and reel! She even remembered that the reel was green — for what’s truly important can always be seen, clear as clear can be, even through the foggy ruins of time.

After a few months of hearing my “I’m hungry!” crying and “”Change me!” wailing, the homeowners asked my young parents to find other accomodations. So they moved to the second floor of a four-apartment building on Greenwood Avenue just over the Trenton border in Hamilton:

My second home on Greenwood Avenue near Trenton

My mother remembered that two women of questionable morals lived in a downstairs apartment. It was and still is a busy avenue in a not-very glamorous neighborhood. There was a gas station across the street; now there’s a laundromat. But there is where my young mother and father celebrated their first Thanksgiving and first Christmas.

Both places are now in crumbling or already crumbled neighborhoods. The streets are dangerous at night. The people who live there are poor. But I hope and believe that in those homes love and dreams still abide.

Where you came from can determine where you’re going. It’s important to go back there once in a while.