Archive for ‘New Jersey’


“So I walk up on high, and I step to the edge…”

[Last year, when this blog was new and its readership was still rather small, I posted a story about the Twin Towers during better days. Here it is again, a small tribute to the connections we make with mere buildings.]

He told us about it our entire lives: the Hudson Toimnal, big as a city, born in Manhattan a year before he was. He could glimpse it by chance from his Gammontown stoop, or he could sneak to the rooftop for a better view, peering over three storeys of sooty clotheslines at the peaks of its twin towers. He later spent a decade there, twenty-six storeys up, crawling on beams over deep black shafts as he kept the elevators running.

“That was some building,” he’d say, wiring up a toaster at the kitchen table, cracking a dead can opener in two. “They don’t make ’em like that no more.”

Shuffling to the cellar to study his switches and knobs, he hummed old songs through the few teeth left in his head. We heard the clack of the latch as he passed through the double doors, twin relics of his long-gone career. They were part of a Hudson Toimnal phone booth; he had hauled them home on a commuter train long before the towers came down.

He showed us his past in one fading brown snapshot: It’s 1934, and a skinny mechanic swings from rope-and-rag stirrups; he’s painting the northmost flagpole, a massive “U D S” behind him in awesome reverse. He’s only 25, but his smile says he’s the happiest man in Manhattan, with good reason: He’s hundreds of feet above the busy sidewalks, earning a rare day off from the best job he’ll ever have.

Sixty years later, the man in that photo surprised me. For all his talk about the Hudson Toimnal, he never expressed much interest in seeing its replacement—until one autumn morning, when he said that we should go.

As skyscrapers loomed over the deck of the ferry, I wondered what was happening at work.

“In them days,” he told me, “you wouldn’t dare take a day off. You take too many, they figured they could do without you.”

At the Battery, he gave a punk a cigarette and stared at the piers in confusion. “I don’t recognize none of this,” he insisted, but I pushed him through crowds of commuters and straight into the tourists. They were waiting to take the same elevator we were.

“I sure hope the cable doesn’t snap,” some jerk said, earning rueful snickers on the long ride up.

“Cables don’t break,” came the quiet rebuttal after we reached the top, “but if they do, the brake jaws grab the guide rails. That keeps the car from falling.” He was at home here, and still on the job.

But when we took the final escalator to the observation deck, he was silent for far too long. He studied the skyline. We were now a thousand feet higher than the flagpoles he had painted; all of it had changed.

Sad and lost, he shuffled his way to the western side. There he stopped, and began scanning for landmarks across the river—until, amazed to have sighted a familiar face, he rushed to a viewfinder, stuck in a quarter, and spun it straight toward the street where his childhood was.

He talked for weeks about what he’d beheld. “I thought the Hudson Toimnal Building was something,” he said. “But them Twin Towers…”

We heard less about the Hudson Toimnal Building after that, and for a while I forgot about the fading old photo. Five years later, I saw it again, in an envelope he left with my name on it.

Today, I keep it with a snapshot of my own: An old man visits a famous building that stands on top of his past. His hands grip the railing, as if a good gust might blow him away—but then he smiles, turns his ballcap backwards, and peers through the viewer, squinting to see where he’s been.

“Try to stop my world from turning…”

Thanks for stopping by the site, despite its dormancy. For a few days, I skipped town to sojourn in the glorious motherland (New Jersey), where I gave up books, the Internet, and medievalism in exchange for adventures with family and friends.

But during vacations, the past stays in sight; you just have to find the right angle. Behold: the main intersection of New Brunswick, New Jersey, sometime before 1940.


Subjected to urban churn, New Brunswick has been continuously redeveloped, with entire blocks giving way to newer, larger buildings. Today, if your ultimate goal is to picture the past, the view from above is perplexing.

But float to the ground, and in just a few seconds…

…you’re 89 years in the past.

“Hey-ho, rock ‘n’ roll, deliver me from nowhere.”

The van comes swerving toward me but misses the curb. The driver hits his horn, as if I hadn’t seen him—but where he’s from, they do things loud that way.

Squirrels scatter. Maintenance men stare. The wife rolls down her window and holds up a map. The husband leans across her lap to bark at me.

“Sir you know how t’gedteither of thesotels?”

I want to laugh at the sir. It’s not the gentle nicety of the Virginian, but the pained formality of a traveler in a foreign land. His question collapses by the end, but he doesn’t mean it to; he bites each word as it falls from his mouth, and he just gulps down too much.

“Watch wanna do is,” I begin, and then I poin him and his wife back thway they came, and tellm to make the firs right, and go awlway down, south on Cneticit, and make thright on Calvert—kyean missit.

“Jus likon’ map,” says the wife, enlightened.

“Jus likon’ map,” I agree.

No smiles, no thanks, not even eye contact—he’s on a mission, and his missions long ago became her missions—and the van spins around. They roll up their windows and roll down the street. Squinting at their license plate, I smile to see I was right.

You can’t go home; after a while, it’s foolish to try. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you receive a surprise, something worth more than a picture: the old sownds of home awl come cawlin f’you.

“So let the wind blow, carry me home…”

Congrats to Jen A. Miller, whose guide to the Jersey Shore was published ahead of schedule. Jen is asking readers to share their Jersey Shore memories. Here’s one from a few years back.

* * *

At a counter down the shore, three adults debate the necessity of fluff.

On fries? Stuff dries like Elmer’s Glue, for cryin’ out loud. We don’t need it, not if they put it on top

“Comes onna side,” mutters Lex Luthor, who gives us no choice. So we partake of the fluff, though it’s more than we need, and we continue to eat our way along the boardwalk. The rides are rolling, the rigged wheels are whirling, and strangely shaped people waddle past with pizza. Somewhere behind them is the ocean.

“Funny how little it changes,” says dad, getting philosophical. “Kids come here to goof around, and then they bring their own kids. It’s been that way for a hundred years.”

We browse: bandannas, frilly shirts, switchblade combs, and bowls of seashells shrink-wrapped for the shameless and the lazy. Everything reeks of sea salt and grease. Later, so will we, even when we’re hours away.

“If we bring your nephew up to visit,” mom says from behind her ice cream cone, “we’ll come here. They don’t have this in Louisiana.”

They sure don’t. I’ll show the boy his heritage: the tiki bar where his mom hung out and the skee-ball arcades where her boyfriends won a menagerie of stuffed animals, if not her heart. We’ll feed him real pizza and other native delicacies to teach the kid just why his uncle can stay here, scavenging like a seagull, watching metalheads-turned-family-men wander by, listening as old, familiar vowels rise and fall. Then maybe he’ll see what our home state can give him: his own rightful portion of fluff.

“Think of every town you’ve lived in…”

You’re not supposed to love a chain store—but in the autumn of 1992, no one had ever told me that. Earlier that year, sophisticated friends had taken me to the Strand in New York and Shakespeare & Company in Paris, and I marveled at what I beheld. Outside of libraries, I had never seen so many books, and I crept through the aisles with palpable glee. Even so, when they told me that both sites were cultural landmarks, I didn’t know how to respond. Although my purchases should have proven otherwise, those great, sprawling bookstores just didn’t exist. Like museums and cathedrals, they were mirages we gawked at on brief urban field trips; there’s no way such places were real.

That winter, I came home from college, and soon heard that people were talking: they’d put a new bookstore out on Route 18, and everyone said it was huge. Skeptical, I headed for the highway, expecting another mall store, some glorified hallway with only the latest bestsellers; but at the end of a half-dead strip-mall, less than a mile from the local landfill, in front of a parking lot pitted with potholes and crags, was an oasis I’d never imagined.

Tables by subject, comfortable seating, intimate aisles with rich wooden shelves—I was overwhelmed. My small college town offered nothing like this, and I was doubly amazed to discover a “medieval studies” section, several shelves of books that I simply hadn’t known I could own. In the months that followed, I often returned, making many impulse purchases—The Kalevala, Njal’s Saga, The Poetic Edda, the works of Sir Thomas Malory—without foreseeing that one day I’d be teaching most of these books, sharing them with students who otherwise wouldn’t have known them.

I also didn’t foresee that after fifteen years, this bookstore, destined to be dubbed “underperforming,” would quietly go out of business.

On Sunday, shoppers lamented the store’s final week. “I’m so sorry you’re closing,” wailed one woman, accosting a startled clerk. “It’s going to kill me!” As I wandered the aisles the very last time, I was hardly as histrionic, because I couldn’t help noticing that where once there were no mega-bookstores within half an hour of where I grew up, now there are nearly twenty. The closing of one store may be worthy of wistfulness, but in our era of Amazon.com and convenient, coffee-mad superstores, the idea that such places can “underperform” should be cause for a satisfied smile.

We’re spoiled; we quickly forgot that on the eve of the invention of the first Web browser, a Borders store was such a big deal that we dragged out-of-towners to see it. Those big-city bookstores were somebody else’s; this box, full of futures, was ours.

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This post has nothing to do with the Middle Ages, but I hope my regular readers will indulge me as I join CNN in celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Commodore 64. So many readers responded to their story that the network published a follow-up article full of fond remembrances from the era of frizzy hair and stonewashed denim jackets.

I’m amused, but hardly surprised, to see that many of those readers cite the C-64 as their initiation into the life of the techie. Most of my computer-owning friends did go on to prosper as engineers and programmers, but let me raise a minority voice: for some of us, that computer was also our gateway to the humanities.

Oh, it would be easy for me to cite the influence of computerized fantasy games, or the ways that programming made me appreciate the versatile applications of symbolic logic, or the software-pirate friend whose excursions into international trade prompted me to find out exactly where Finland was on a map. No, much more important was the fact that with the addition of a simple $60 cartridge, that ugly brown machine whisked us into an entirely new dimension nearly a decade before the rest of the world discovered it: an online cosmos of discussion and debate.

Today, most of my old techie friends are sharper, livelier writers than many of the humanities types I meet. I don’t wonder why. Logged into single-line bulletin boards, reveling in a crudeness I’m glad the world has forgotten, we learned how to craft an argument for a particular audience; we discovered, through trial and error, the tricks of persuasive writing; and we learned, eventually, the art of conveying tone. All of this experimentation occurred in one of the few non-academic environments that encouraged our flailing attempts at coherent, articulate writing, an entirely online milieu that would later take the rest of the world by surprise—and which most of us never imagined would someday go mainstream.

In the past decade, I’ve kept a roof over my head by cranking out a million words of uncredited copy. Freelance gigs have given me an excuse to romp across England and Wales; subsequent paychecks have funded adventures in the Balkans and South Korea. Five feet from where I’m typing this, a carton of trade paperbacks with my name on each cover amuses me to no end, because I know there’d be no little Charlemagne book had I not owned that dumpy computer.

Twenty-five years later, my programming skills, which were never formidable, are finally rusted and gone. Other people troubleshoot my technical problems, and I consider it a triumph when I fiddle with blog templates and manage not to break anything. By contrast, most of my fellow Commodore owners pursued careers that capitalized on those early encounters with personal computers. They stayed current; I spun off in a wildly different direction. Regardless, I’m pleased to claim at least honorary membership in the online generation falsely accused of “changing the positions of satellites up in the blue heavens”—even if all I did on my home computer was simply learn how to write.

“So I walk up on high, and I step to the edge…”

He told us about it our entire lives: the Hudson Toimnal, big as a city, born in Manhattan a year before he was. He could glimpse it by chance from his Gammontown stoop, or he could sneak to the rooftop for a better view, peering over three storeys of sooty clotheslines at the peaks of its twin towers. He later spent a decade there, twenty-six storeys up, crawling on beams over deep black shafts as he kept the elevators running.

“That was some building,” he’d say, wiring up a toaster at the kitchen table, cracking a dead can opener in two. “They don’t make ’em like that no more.”

Shuffling to the cellar to study his switches and knobs, he hummed old songs through the few teeth left in his head. We heard the clack of the latch as he passed through the double doors, twin relics of his long-gone career. They were part of a Hudson Toimnal phone booth; he had hauled them home on a commuter train long before the towers came down.

He showed us his past in one fading brown snapshot: It’s 1934, and a skinny mechanic swings from rope-and-rag stirrups; he’s painting the northmost flagpole, a massive “U D S” behind him in awesome reverse. He’s only 25, but his smile says he’s the happiest man in Manhattan, with good reason: He’s hundreds of feet above the busy sidewalks, earning a rare day off from the best job he’ll ever have.

Sixty years later, the man in that photo surprised me. For all his talk about the Hudson Toimnal, he never expressed much interest in seeing its replacement—until one autumn morning, when he said that we should go.

As skyscrapers loomed over the deck of the ferry, I wondered what was happening at work.

“In them days,” he told me, “you wouldn’t dare take a day off. You take too many, they figured they could do without you.”

At the Battery, he gave a punk a cigarette and stared at the piers in confusion. “I don’t recognize none of this,” he insisted, but I pushed him through crowds of commuters and straight into the tourists. They were waiting to take the same elevator we were.

“I sure hope the cable doesn’t snap,” some jerk said, earning rueful snickers on the long ride up.

“Cables don’t break,” came the quiet rebuttal after we reached the top, “but if they do, the brake jaws grab the guide rails. That keeps the car from falling.” He was at home here, and still on the job.

But when we took the final escalator to the observation deck, he was silent for far too long. He studied the skyline. We were now a thousand feet higher than the flagpoles he had painted; all of it had changed.

Sad and lost, he shuffled his way to the western side. There he stopped, and began scanning for landmarks across the river—until, amazed to have sighted a familiar face, he rushed to a viewfinder, stuck in a quarter, and spun it straight toward the street where his childhood was.

He talked for weeks about what he’d beheld. “I thought the Hudson Toimnal Building was something,” he said. “But them Twin Towers…”

We heard less about the Hudson Toimnal Building after that, and for a while I forgot about the fading old photo. Five years later, I saw it again, in an envelope he left with my name on it.

Today, I keep it with a snapshot of my own: An old man visits a famous building that stands on top of his past. His hands grip the railing, as if a good gust might blow him away—but then he smiles, turns his ballcap backwards, and peers through the viewer, squinting to see where he’s been.

“Painted in a corner, and all you wanna do…”

They sound familiar, but I haven’t said them in ages: names like Prismacolor, Pigma, and Bristol, old friends in their enigmatic way, back in the days when we drove halfway to Newark Airport to scope out the metal shelves and breathe in the chemicals we hoped we could turn into art.

Two hundred miles south, the store may be different, but the sights and scents are the same. The blank sheets of vellum shine with promise, the tubes of fresh paint reek of unexploded energy—but fifteen years later, sneaking through aisles of markers and paper and pens feels like driving past the house of an old girlfriend. Besides, I’m here for mats and frames, which are easy, not inspiration, which is hard, especially when every drawing board resembles the piles I’ve shoved into storage, and each color marker is a reminder that some things dry up when you just can’t be bothered to use them.

“…but when it’s your brother, sometimes you look the other way.”

What hath Tony Soprano to do with Charlemagne? Matthew Gabriele at Modern Medieval poses the question and ponders two points of comparison: Charlemagne’s coldly methodical consolidation of power, and the rex quondam et futurus vibe that resonated long after the Frankish king’s death. As someone who’s written about Charlemagne and as a proud son of the great Garden State, I’m happy to throw a few coals on the “Tony Sopranomagne” debate, letting it smolder like the hearth at Aachen on a cold winter night—or like cigarette butts in a half-eaten pork-roll sandwich at a north Jersey diner at 3 o’clock in the morning.

While the description of Charlemagne as a “cold-blooded thug” is certainly plausible for the king’s earlier years, I’m not sure the comparison fully stands. Granted, Charlemagne kept his family close; he propagated a famously contentious dynasty; and, like Tony, he loved his onion rings. But generally speaking, Charlemagne was more likely to exile his enemies, not have them whacked. He finagled Bavaria from his former brother-in-law with a big-picture strategy that would have left a brute like Tony Soprano gaping in amazement. At the same time, he cultivated a loyal inner circle and maintained it through wariness, charisma, and worthy rewards rather than mob-boss paranoia. Within the modest limits of his intellectual gifts, Charlemagne was also far more inquisitive than one might expect of a man who discovered learning fairly late in life; it’s safe to suggest that, unlike Tony, Charlemagne was more enlightened at the start of his own personal season six than he was at the start of season one.

As for Matthew’s theory about the factors that caused later medieval people to doubt Charlemagne’s demise and further inflate his legend, I can’t argue with it. I’ll defer to, and eagerly await the publication of, the very neat-looking book of essays he’s editing. I should disclose, however, that I have a vested interest in a Charlemagne who isn’t dead. Think of the sequel possibilities! Becoming Charlemagne II: The Rise of the Silver Denarius. Or maybe Become Charlemagne or Ein Hard. Even better: 62,036 Weeks Later. Yes, I can already hear the rumbling voiceover at the start of the trailer: “In a world shattered by chaos, one man…”

“Spring’s a girl from the streets at night…”

She once came home to find Allen Ginsberg in her bed, or so she claimed, and I didn’t yet have reason to doubt her. I hadn’t heard of him, nor had I heard of James Joyce, but she spoke a little too highly of the guy. Had he ever wound up in her bed?

“My mom hosts a reading every year at the store,” she explained. “All the professors bring their eloquent selves, and then some of them drink too much and leer at me and it gets a little ca-reepy.”

I stared at her with utter incomprehension.

“Molly’s soliloquy is one of the most beautiful things written in the English language. You’ve really never heard of it?”

When you’re a very stupid seventeen, you don’t expect such arch disappointment from a wild-haired girl with paint-stains on her jeans. You shrug, and you let her console you with a giggle and a whisper.

“It’s an orgasm.”

She exhausted me—not only because she barnstormed through each new day, but because I soon understood that my every experience, every memory, was merely a feeble imitation of her far more interesting life. If I dabbled at the guitar, she had fronted a band at a nearby roadhouse. If I got a speeding ticket, she had an ex-lover in prison. (The infamous James Joyce? I couldn’t ask.) If I wrote a poem, she printed her own magazine and pocketed checks from a mysterious benefactor in New England. If I sighed, she swooned—and someone reported the news in the local paper.

Her mom was of little help. The dirty dishes in her stairwell and the sink full of books seemed vaguely Continental, at least to someone who had never actually been to a Continent, and I was charmed when the grinning pixie extended a wisp and greeted us, greeted her dahlink, in the German accent that everyone knew was a put-on. She led me by the hand to her living room, where seated on the couch was a grim, chin-whiskered man who looked rather literary. Was this the famous James Joyce? He was ancient—at least 35.

“This is the guy my mom wants me to marry,” came the whisper in my ear. “He’s a Quaker.”

Mother and daughter vanished, so my rival and I politely ate exotic fruit together. He was a mechanic. His name, alas, was William.

But I never forgot about the elusive James Joyce. Two years later, when I found myself in Dublin on a June sixteenth, I sought him out. He and I had unfinished business.

I looked for him at his favorite cafeteria, but I found only scones. At the college, I wandered through dismal old rooms, pushing past tourists and one musty book. Disheartened, I trudged to the ferry terminal, intending to leave, but on a whim, I followed a sign to the thrice-blessed tower that bore his name. The sun was setting and the tower was closed, but it felt like a start.

After her late shift at the convenience store, I told her all this—and then I waited, and braced for her reply. I expected her to say that she had found James Joyce where I had failed, that by typical coincidence he had sauntered into the bookshop, kissed her mother’s hand, and whisked her away to Paris or Zurich. She would have proof: autographed books, unpublished letters, secret photos. Reporters would clamor. Quakers would be stunned.

Instead, she managed a faint smile and stared at her coffee. She’d had a long day, she said, and the diner was cold, so I drove her home, to the shabby house next to the projects where she was raising her brother. She still had stories to tell, sadder ones than when I’d known her, but I scarcely cared. All I saw was the look she gave me as the door shut. I knew the look well, but I was thrilled to see it, because I had never seen it on her. She, finally, was exhausted too.

A lifetime later, I teach English. I guide curious students through great works, and I watch as long-dead authors bring out the best in them. My star pupils shine with pride—the pride of discovery, of creativity, of intellectual optimism. Garrulous and confident, they insist that the best art is transcendent. They mean it, so I smile and nod. I dread what they’ll eventually learn: that sometimes, literature makes us look for things that aren’t there—and that sometimes, a simple book can cause us to be truly and terribly cruel.