Archive for ‘New Jersey’


“And it’s true, if all this around us is paradise…”

I don’t actively look for these things. No, sometimes I just happen to be visiting family in New Jersey when I pull off the highway to skirt some traffic, drive through an unfamiliar downtown, and HOLY CROW—

This glorious seventeen-minute Thompson Twins dance remix of a house was built in 1892 by the local mortician as a wedding gift for his bride. All of the other mansions on Stockton Street in Hightstown gaze on it in wonderment and envy, because even though the asymmetrical Elmer Rogers House isn’t really Gothic in design (it’s more of a Queen-Anne’s-flashy-American-cousin), check out what it does have.

Monsters on the roof!

Leering beasties on the highest peaks!

A wingèd sentinel eyeing intruders with eerie patience.

Every shingle, every tile, every baluster and brace sports a carefully chosen color, and other photos show that the flags and awnings change with the seasons. (The house is also festooned with little fleurs-de-lys.)

The front yard is a choreographed riot of medievalism: an angel, a saint…

…a gryphon…

…and dragons.

So why has the Rogers House spawned a quasi-medieval fantasy world? Maybe that round turret screams “castle” to the current owners, or perhaps the meticulous, old-fashioned care necessary to restore and curate such a monumental home feels “medieval” to Americans who are inclined to collapse the past into a blur of “olden times,” when skilled craftsmen begat gargoyles, dragons, angels, and saints.

Or maybe their motive is more timeless. People variously perceive the medieval world as teetering between austerity and chaos, ignorance and enlightenment, but the owners of the Rogers House endorse a different predilection, one that’s never as common as it ought to be but which does have its place in the Middle Ages, as long as you know where to look: a pure, prismatic delight.

“Look, a golden-winged ship is passing my way…”

My Garden State relatives and friends survived Hurricane Sandy with incredible stories to tell about living in darkness, dealing with looting and theft, and almost being flattened by trees. Over the weekend, while hanging out with family in my great homeland, I drove down the shore to see the worst of it for myself.

The ride along Route 35 was as heartbreaking as I expected, but Jersey attitude is a universal constant. On a sunny April weekend, one of the surviving chunks of the Seaside Heights boardwalk was so busy that a carny let down his guard to marvel at how “jumpin'” it was.

Folks were there to wander around, chow down on pizza and pork roll—and yes, to gawk. If you’re from New Jersey, then someplace you love was likely destroyed.

For example, beyond this sign, there used to be a 200-foot pier.

I’m not about to share gratuitous disaster photos; this blog is about finding medievalism. Even in the aftermath of Sandy, Dame Medievalism staggers drunkenly up and down the Jersey Shore—as long as you know where to look.

Although the storm wiped out Casino Pier in Seaside Heights, its jolly streetside facade survives, keeping out the curious…

…while across the street, a Viking watches and waits.

At Point Pleasant Beach, Jenkinson’s Boardwalk is mostly restored. The tiki bar is open, the zeppoles smell terrific, and the kiddie amusements are whirring away—including this iconic ride that invites you to fling yourself inside a dragon’s gaping chest cavity.

Up the road in Long Branch, my new favorite building defied Sandy: the Church of the Presidents, an 1879 masterpiece of carpenter Gothic that highlights what the Jersey Shore has always been known for: restraint and good taste.

Up in Rumson, on a charmingly landscaped plot around 1,500 feet from the beach, St. George’s-by-the-River looks like a nice, straightforward Episcopal church…

…until you realize that from one corner of its tower looms a gargoyle—the only such monster I can recall with an identifiable, even incontrovertible sex.

This weekend I saw awful sights: oceanside streets still buried in sand, bungalows tossed into piles and smashed, and one of my favorite childhood places destroyed. I also saw residents busy with shovels and saws, workers rebuilding boardwalks with heroic speed, and locals who want the world to know they’re very much open for business. At the risk of irreverence, all I can say is that if a topless gargoyle from 1908 can survive Sandy, the Jersey Shore will too, with the tenacity of medieval myth. It’s amazing what endures.

“On the back seat of the car, with Joseph and Emily…”

Fleeing a hot, crowded brownstone, Tom built his life on a dead-end lane: some trees, a brook, and extra land to parcel out to kids. For decades, he made the commute to the city, but most of his relatives followed him home. They were charmed by the place where he chose to raise chickens, plant string beans, and tinker with gadgets in peace.

The Piscataway soil will never be known for producing fine wines, but the tangle of vines on the side of the house was Tom’s own little piece of Provence. On the morning he never grew tired of griping about, he was tending his few feeble grapes. The sun was high, and the only sounds were birds and barking dogs. Perhaps he stopped to wipe his brow; he surely snuck a sip of beer and dreamed about the homemade wine to come. Then a stranger slipped into the garden.

Dapper but fat, the stranger was speckled with dust from the road. He fanned his spiny jowls with his hat, introduced himself without a handshake, and eyed the gawky farmer. Uncreative, as all of them are, he asked about the clump of vines. He expressed delight, this bringer of mighty compliments, for who was nearer to God, who better understood the common good, than a man who coaxed life from the earth?

The vines gave the stranger a sudden idea: He knew a nearby farmer whose cows were a sight to behold. Their output, he said, was impressive—no, not impressive: magical. This farmer had worked miracles with manure, and the kicker was, he always had a little dung to spare. Picture it: these grapes here growing and thriving, while neighbors and family toasted each other’s health with the sweetest wine in town. A diligent public servant, he said, might easily procure a bag of this miracle fertilizer and bestow it upon a neighbor in need. Delivery would be quick, and it wouldn’t cost a penny—as long as that public servant knew he could count on a vote or two come November. Speaking of which, was the lady of the house at home?

The two men exchanged promises. Weeks passed, and then months. Only one man kept his promise. Tom remembered; fifty years later, it still made him angry.

By the time we were children, the suburbs had grown up around us, and Chaucerian frauds were sprouting like mushrooms: Combed-over charlatans who failed to hide their disdain as they loped up our porch steps to beg for support. The part-time mayor who never had time for parades or graduations. The priest who crept through the halls at the old folks’ home, buying cheap votes for his patron by handing out kitchen sponges. The sheriff’s sergeant who stole from the pension fund. Judges who snorted cocaine with their staff. Real-estate developers who hand-fed their pet creatures from town hall to Trenton. We were taught to laugh at them; only as an adult did I learn that “freeloader” was not, in fact, a valid civic office.

But sometimes, on a Tuesday, the grown-ups gathered at the kitchen table and unfolded an arcane sheet filled with drawings of dozens of levers. They studied it, they agreed on a time, and then, dressed as if going to church, they herded us into the Pinto. Sometimes we did go to a church; more often, we drove to a school, or the nearby college campus. Old ladies waited in line, as somber as schoolgirls in black-and-white photos, and old men talked in tones we never heard around the house. No one introduced us to any adults—we were small, badly dressed, and invisible—but we knew to behave while our elders, one by one, stepped behind a curtain. When they emerged, looking mostly unchanged, we all drove home, with no speeches about privileges or duties. The whole of the ritual spoke for itself.

The earth never shook, and our street still went unnoticed, and nobody told me which outcome was worse: the leader who promised a sack full of crap or the leader who failed to provide it. But we learned to detect its distinctive bouquet, that whiff of impending election. My grandfather taught me the grown-up response: get up, and go, and vote—but hold your nose.

“I had to run away high, so I wouldn’t come home low…”

As a kid, I believed in the Jersey Devil. As an adult, I was surprised to spot him at the cathedral, but maybe I shouldn’t be. In our minds, most of us are rarely far from home.

GARDEN STATE LOVE SONG

Repent your flailing forkèd tail and brush
The wingbit crumbs, rewandring why you fled.
The must of menus nemdays made you flush
The tinct of Taylor ham, and wonder bred
A boldened kobold, who for lusher state
Regressed abroad to bask in devlish blight.
But now the mayfield double-garden-gate
That welked you wide, is barr’d. Thus ends your flight.
So must you bitter pandaemony sip,
And dine on lines of dower Greek alone?
“There is no road for you, there is no ship—”
Baloney. Lonely imps may yet atone
In vented verse: Old cauls, like murdrous birds,
Arise, as g’s fawl off the ends of words.


(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tab, or read the gargoyle FAQ.)

“….and it’s true, if all this around us is paradise.”

“Excuse me, sir?”

He’s probably ten, but he’s small for his age. His purple ball has rolled into unbusy State Street, and while he’s forbidden to step off the curb, apparently he is allowed to talk to strangers.

“Can you please throw me that ball?”

I do. He’s polite enough not to tell me I’m a strange sight on a Sunday afternoon. Subdued salsa from Puerto Rican cookouts drowns out the car noise. People are chatting; it’s too hot to dance.

“Takin’ pictures, huh?” He holds his ball under one arm and glances at the sky. “You know what would make a good picture? Those gargoyles up there. They’re awesome.”

He’s right. They see everything in Perth Amboy.

Built in 1919 by and for the Polish Catholics of Perth Amboy, St. Stephen’s Church is a fine example of American neo-Gothic, but despite its intricacy, it’s bereft of grotesques—except for the huge faux-gargoyles below the spire.

Weirdly, I can’t find any public information about the architect, but whoever he was, he didn’t Americanize this church, nor did he grant its parishoners (who still run a Polish CCD) a speck of Slavic idiom. No, the mind behind St. Stephen’s adored Western Europe; those gargoyles would be right at home on a cathedral like Bayeux.

Though these gargoyles seem like relics of the city’s better days, prosperity alone doesn’t explain them. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when neo-Gothic building was rampant, Perth Amboy was a gargoyle breeding ground. A local abundance of rich clay here and in nearby Woodbridge and New Brunswick meant that Perth Amboy firms like A. Hall and Sons (later the Perth Amboy Terra Cotta Company, later Atlantic Terra Cotta) made grotesques and ornamentation for buildings across the United States, providing decorations for the Woolworth Building, exterior details for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the entire roof of the U.S. Supreme Court.

So whose idea were the gargoyles of St. Stephen’s? A 1906 Architectural Record article shows similarly slender beasties made by the Perth Amboy Terra Cotta Company on the first City College of New York building, a neo-Gothic landmark by architect George B. Post.

Then again, Charles Follen McKim of the legendary firm McKim, Mead, and White had attended school in Perth Amboy, and he partnered with the Perth Amboy Terra Cotta Company to make multicolored brick when brownstone and red brick fell out of fashion. It’s tempting to see St. Stephen’s as a “forgotten” work by MM&W or one of the many architects associated with them, but then what if it’s a great Gothic sob by the fanatically medievalist church designer Ralph Adams Cram? Or maybe it’s a monument to the faith of an architect no one has thought to remember.

I asked the folks at St. Stephen’s if they know who built their church; I’ve yet to hear back. Regardless, I’ll bet that like the kid who pointed them out to me, the gargoyles of Perth Amboy were locally born—a hundred years distant, but raised in an age that perceives the medieval wherever you look.

“…all the best freaks are here, please stop staring at me…”

Lately, people point me to gargoylish doings wherever I go—including my home state. While rushing across Princeton last week, I learned that since the university’s guide to gargoyles (grotesques, to be accurate) is far from complete, hunting for neo-Gothic doodads still leads to charming surprises.

At McCosh Hall, I might have missed this erudite goat.

Or this monk. (“Prends moi—je suis a toi—mea culpa!”)

Or this macabre baker making Taylor ham the traditional way.

On 1879 Hall (built in 1904), monsters howl silent o’er summer lawns…

…monkeys tear apart a human face…

…and despite what a few lines of poetry claim…


…those “unseen things” may be studying you.

“Got your number from a friend of mine who lives in your hometown…”

Life was funny, growing up around characters but not inside a story. I’m not complaining; it was simply true that stories happened in New York or in California, on the shores of Earthsea or the plains of Krull, but never in central New Jersey. We didn’t have major radio or TV stations, so the news showed us Brooklyn and the movies showed us suburban Chicago, and I think we knew the wider world better than our own. Later, expat filmmakers flirted with caricature or danced around the edges of the odd, and sometimes a novelist knew the state well, but most wrote New Jerseys that didn’t ring true.

I mean, I didn’t find it strange that we rode sleds into traffic, that my friends stole software from Finland, that our principal hijacked a bus so fourth-graders could see Ronald Reagan, that escaped mental patients slept on our lawn, that we buried our dead in coffins stuffed with beer cans, that the girl next door walked a rabbit on a leash, that my uncle kept sheep in his suburban backyard (and wrapped the old ewe’s legs in duct tape to keep her from falling over)—but I knew these lives weren’t fit for proper fiction.

Then along came The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the story of a Dominican-American misfit who’s too obsessed with science fiction and fantasy to realize he’s living in a magical-realist novel. Readers love the geeky obsessions of Oscar de León, and Junot Díaz’s take on Dominican history is vital to his story, but I was drawn to the book by something else: Díaz went to Rutgers and Kean, and Oscar Wao is very Central Jersey.

At first I thought he’d whiffed it. Díaz names New Brunswick streets but barely shows or describes them. He mentions Amboy Cinemas, but the adventure of seeing movies there is a tale he doesn’t tell. He knows the late-’80s “nerd circuit” at Woodbridge Center (comic shop, gaming shop, Waldenbooks), but he won’t stop to linger and make the place real.

Then a landmark looms from the pages:

What he did was this: drank a third bottle of Cisco and then walked unsteadily down to the New Brunswick train station. With its crumbling facade and a long curve of track that shoots high over the Raritan. Even in the middle of the night, doesn’t take much to get into the station or to walk out onto the tracks, which is exactly what he did. Stumbled out toward the river, toward Route 18. New Brunswick falling away beneath him until he was seventy-seven feet in the air. Seventy-seven feet precisely. From what he would later recall, he stood on that bridge for a good long time. Watching the streaking lights of the traffic below. Reviewing his miserable life. Wishing he’d been born in a different body. Regretting all the books he would never write. Maybe trying to get himself to reconsider. And then the 4:12 express to Washington blew in the distance. By then he was barely able to stand. Closed his eyes (or maybe he didn’t) and when he opened them there was something straight out of Ursula Le Guin standing by his side…

I’ve been to the top of that train bridge—not for the same reason as Oscar, but compelled, as he was, by something other than reason. How did no one notice a teenage, microscopic me scaling a scrubby slope along a highway? For years I was sure I was all on my own—but then I learned that in the 1930s, the cops caught my grandfather trying to cut an hour off his commute by using that same viaduct as his personal footbridge. That was a very Junot Díaz discovery: places run in families.

It’s not a bad bridge to have climbed at least once. Glance down, and you will get dizzy; a train flies past and blows you to the edge, and you wince through a hideous gust. But when calm settles in and the tracks are all clear, there are weird sights to see up there, stories to spot, if you just know the right way to look.

(Photo © Gerald Oliveto. Used with permission.)

“On the back seat of the car, with Joseph and Emily…”

Fleeing a hot, crowded brownstone, Tom built his life on a dead-end lane: some trees, a brook, and extra land to parcel out to kids. For decades, he made the commute to the city, but most of his relatives followed him home. They were charmed by the place where he chose to raise chickens, plant string beans, and tinker with gadgets in peace.

The Piscataway soil will never be known for producing fine wines, but the tangle of vines on the side of the house was Tom’s own little piece of Provence. On the morning he never grew tired of griping about, he was tending his few feeble grapes. The sun was high, and the only sounds were birds and barking dogs. Perhaps he stopped to wipe his brow; he surely sneaked a sip of beer and dreamed about the homemade wine to come. Then a stranger slipped into the garden.

Dapper but fat, the stranger was speckled with dust from the road. He fanned his spiny jowls with his hat, introduced himself without a handshake, and eyed the gawky farmer. Uncreative, as all of them are, he asked about the clump of vines. He expressed delight, this bringer of mighty compliments, for who was nearer to God, and who better understood the common good, than a man who coaxed life from the earth?

The vines gave the stranger a sudden idea: He knew a nearby farmer whose cows were a sight to behold. Their output, he said, was impressive—no, not impressive: magical. This farmer had worked miracles with manure, and the kicker was, he always had a little dung to spare. Picture it: these grapes here growing and thriving, while neighbors and family toasted to each other’s health with the sweetest wine in town. A diligent public servant, he said, might easily procure a bag of this miracle fertilizer and bestow it upon a neighbor in need. Delivery would be quick, and it wouldn’t cost a penny—as long as that public servant knew he could count on a vote or two come November. Speaking of which, was the lady of the house at home?

The two men exchanged promises. Weeks passed, and then months. Only one man kept his promise. Tom remembered; fifty years later, it still made him angry.

By the time we were children, the suburbs had grown up around us, and Chaucerian frauds were sprouting like mushrooms: Combed-over charlatans who failed to hide their disdain as they loped up our porch steps to beg for support. The part-time mayor who never had time for parades or graduations. The priest who crept through the halls at the old folks’ home, buying cheap votes for his patron by handing out kitchen sponges. The sheriff’s sergeant who stole from the pension fund. Judges who snorted cocaine with their staff. Real-estate developers who hand-fed their pet creatures from town hall to Trenton. We were taught to laugh at them; only as an adult did I learn that “freeloader” was not, in fact, a valid civic office.

But sometimes, on a Tuesday, the grown-ups gathered at the kitchen table and unfolded an arcane sheet filled with drawings of dozens of levers. They studied it, they agreed on a time, and then, dressed as if going to church, they herded us into the Pinto. Sometimes we did go to a church; often we drove to a school, or to a building on the nearby college campus. Old ladies waited in line, as somber as schoolgirls in black-and-white photos, and old men talked in tones we never heard around the house. No one introduced us to any adults—we were small, badly dressed, and invisible—but we knew to behave while our elders, one by one, stepped behind a curtain. When they emerged, looking mostly unchanged, we all drove home, with no speeches about privileges or duties. The whole of the ritual spoke for itself.

The earth never shook, and our street still went unnoticed, and nobody told me which outcome was worse: the leader who promised a sack full of crap or the leader who failed to provide it. But we learned to detect its distinctive bouquet, that whiff of impending election. My grandfather taught me the grown-up response: get up, and go, and vote—but hold your nose.

“…and I bought us two tickets on that Coast City bus.”

If you’re a bookish sort, and if you find yourself near Philadelphia this Saturday, be sure to swing by the Collingswood Book Festival. The good people of Collingswood, N.J., work all year to put together a terrific day that includes six blocks of author talks, writing workshops, children’s programs, and booths for local writers, booksellers, and artists—and all events are free.

I spoke at Collingswood last year and had a great time. (A memorable time, too: I had to follow sports legend Pat Croce and compete with an Elvis impersonator down the block.) This year, keep an eye out for Steven Hart, a friend of this blog and, more importantly, the author of The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. Steven has written a fine book, but don’t take my word for it; check out the effusive praise it’s recieved. When you buy the book at the festival, ask Steven for the “Quid Plura?” discount. He’ll give you a confused look, but don’t be fooled; that’s how New Jersey authors always look…

“A built-in remedy for Kruschev and Kennedy…”

Growing up in Central Jersey, I never thought to pause and ponder quasi-medieval statuary, mostly because we didn’t have any—or so I thought until this weekend, when I drove through Bound Brook and decided, on a whim, to check out a monument that’s landed in my peripheral vision on and off for more than 20 years.

That’s St. Olga, seated in majesty. Behind her is a memorial church for the victims of Stalin’s famines; behind that is a lovely, tree-lined cemetery; and the entire area is part of the larger headquarters of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, otherwise known as the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

So who was St. Olga? Before her death in A.D. 969, Olga was the first ruler of the Rus to convert to Orthodox Christianity. Baptized in Constantinople, she ruled Kiev on behalf of her son and sent an embassy westward to Emperor Otto I. She was the grandmother of Prince Volodymyr—Vladimir—who proclaimed Orthodox Christianity the official religion of Rus-Ukraine. You know those emissaries who came back from Constantinople and famously said of Hagia Sofia, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth”? Those were Vladimir’s men.

Olga was not a nice lady. True to her Viking roots, she avenged her husband by burying his killers alive in a ship. She also sent smoldering doves to alight on the thatched roofs of an enemy town, which then burned down.

In Bound Brook, sculptor Petro Kapschutschenko has made a remarkable monument to the Kievan Rus regent. Olga is elevated, as an enthroned Byzantine empress would have been, reminding visitors of her superiority and making it impossible for anyone to look her in the eye. Viewed straight on, Olga seems remote but amused, as if she just condemned the director of a TaTu video—but in profile, her face is a mixture of dignity and visible cruelty.


Next to the church is another striking Kapschutschenko sculpture of a 20th-century archbishop raising his hand heavenward. Also on the grounds are the home and resting place of the local Dutch Reformed dignitary who witnessed the signing of the Declaration of Independence and then returned home to read it aloud to the people of Bound Brook.

But there, reigning at the gates, is Olga. As she deigns to rest her royal gaze on the run-down repair shop across the street, she’s a reminder of the Vikings who lent their name to Russia—and one reason why Russia, a thousand years later, still glares possessively at the Ukraine.