Story and photos by Pete Shaw
A few weeks ago I was in New Jersey. I go there twice a year, and I should tell you now that this is not the lead-in to a joke, although I am sure you have already come up with numerous punchlines. My brother and my father live there, in Denville, a small town in the northwest part of the state. My dad is from Brooklyn–Greenpoint, to be precise–and my brother was born in Queens. But in 1968, along with my mom, who was also from Brooklyn–Bay Ridge, to be precise–moved to Marlboro, New Jersey, and from 1970 until two years ago, the house in Marlboro was in one form or another, home. It was a small, quiet place when I was growing up, and I have fond memories of my youth. I would not want to live there now if only because so much of the open space I knew is gone, save for in my memory.
As I type, the Republican National Convention is wrapping up. Donald Trump is the Republican candidate for President of the United States. I don’t have a terribly difficult time typing those words, although I would be lying if I told you that I feel good about it. He is a man who preaches hatred in numerous forms, and he plays to the most base instincts in our humanity. He is selfish, and it seems he regards people as things he can use or things to be feared, depending on whether they support or oppose him. He cares only about wealth and power, and their projection. He is the perfect representative of a capitalist society, the distillation of its practical ethos that everything, including life, has a price.
On July 2, my brother, dad, and I were sitting in a park on a bluff in Weehawken, New Jersey, overlooking Manhattan. The view is incredible, and I highly recommend it. A day prior, my brother and I had been a few miles to the east in Hoboken, wandering around. There is a park there that overlooks the Hudson River, and in it were shot a few scenes On the Waterfront. A mile or so east is the old Hoboken train station which you can see in Once Upon a Time in America. The views of The City from all those spots are stellar, and with the right eyes the New York seen and conjured in those films comes to life.
My dad is 91. The rise of Trump, for lack of a better phrasing because the dark spirit that he embodies has been with this country since July 4, 1776, shocks him. Perhaps the view from Weehawken displays a Manhattan as different to my dad’s eyes from when he was growing up as the country now appears to him.
A week earlier, I took my dad to see his sister, Dorothy. At 88, she is his last remaining sibling. Patrick died long ago. Bernie in 1991. Tilly and Dolly a few years later. Kenneth only a couple of days after my mom passed. Florence a couple of years ago. Dorothy, who now lives in an assisted living facility on Long Island, not far from where my mom first started her career in teaching, has had some health setbacks the past couple of years. Regardless, she is still sweet. In her room are photos of their mom, who died when I was 10; their dad, who left much earlier; and Bernie. She and Bernie lived with their mom in Queens. Those that I met all seemed to be kind, caring, and decent people. Dorothy and my dad, as well as my cousin Adrienne who lives nearby and helps take care of Dorothy, remain so.
We had lunch and shot the breeze for a few hours. On the way back to Denville we drove near where my grandpa and grandma on my mom’s side lived after they moved from Bay Ridge, and then past Coney Island. To the immediate right was the train yard where a long time ago, my dad told me, the trains slept. They still bed down there. To the left was the high school attended Lee Mazzilli, the great hope of the Mets in the 1970s. One day my grandparents took my brother to a Mets game. I, too young and probably too much of a hellion, was left behind. It was helmet day, and they made sure to get me one of the souvenir batting helmets being given away.
A few more blocks toward the Coney Island beach is where Woody Guthrie lived, renting a place from a landlord whom he more or less described as scum of the earth. That landlord’s last name was Trump.
When we would visit my mom’s parents, it was always a good time. At least that’s how I remember it. Which is funny because we really didn’t do much. But I guess it was nice being able to go from throwing a ball against a wall in the tiny backyard they had to just being with them. When we would leave, my grandpa would flick a dead light switch on the wall, telling us he was turning on the lights atop the towers of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. And lo and behold, when we came to the bridge about 20 minutes later, the red lights were on. That grandpa died in 1984, three years to the day after my dad’s mom, and grandma Farrell died in 2000, only a few days after my better 99% and I moved to these parts. Every so often I remember how much I miss them, but I draw comfort in being so lucky as to have known them.
My dad plays bocce on Wednesdays with some of the other residents of the independent living facility in which he lives. I was invited to play. My first match saw me paired with Kathleen. She is from the Bronx, although she now spends much of her time in Florida. She told me about living in an apartment building without an elevator, having to carry her children up to the fifth floor. Many years distanced from the experience, she smiled about it. Then she got down to the business of kicking ass. We won our game, handily, a fact she noted a few days later.
Bob, from Brooklyn, moderates the bocce games. He is a crafty player, skilled at knocking away the opponents’ balls. He is about 10 years younger than my dad, and he is quite the character. A salty sort who could go on forever about the Dodgers.
My mom’s mom would have liked half of him. I always got the feeling the two worst people in the history of the world to her were Oliver Cromwell and Walter O’Malley. As she was Irish through and through, Cromwell makes sense. O’Malley takes a little more time to understand. He was the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers who moved them to Los Angeles. Back around 1994, me, my brother, and my nephew were visiting my grandma, and there was a Mets game on television. She asked who the Mets were playing. She really did not care much about baseball, but when we replied, “The Dodgers,” the beast was unleashed. “I HOPE THEY KILL THEM!” Had Cromwell entered the room, she would have told him to take a number.
Bob also likes the Los Angeles Dodgers, hence the half-like. But fair enough as he talks Koufax and Scully, two good names to while away the last rays of a humid Summer day on the front porch of the St. Francis Residential Community. Gifted with gab, he kept me laughing and both my father and I engaged. Bob is good for my dad, and I am glad they have struck up a friendship.
You might think that since my dad is from Brooklyn that he liked the Dodgers. But you would be wrong. He was a Giants and Cubs fan. Kenneth liked the Cubs, and so he took a shine to them too. So it was not so terrible a thing when we drove 30 minutes to the Yogi Berra Museum located on the campus of Montclair State College. Berra played for what at least for most Brooklynites would have been the hated Yankees. But if he was detestable as a fantastic player for the most storied team in baseball, he seems difficult to have disliked as a person; a very down to earth man who had a wonderful way with words. Lines such as “Nobody goes to that restaurant anymore–it’s too crowded” and “You should always show up at your friends’ funerals so they’ll be sure to show up to yours,” have a quaint inner logic and are just a handful of the many that have been attributed to Berra. But as he noted, he never said most of the things he said.
And if hated as a Yankee, at least Berra had his final appearance as a player with the Mets. He also was a coach on the Amazing Mets that won the World Series in 1969, and in 1973 he improbably managed them to the World Series. My brother once told me he remembered them heading to Oakland up 3 games to 2 and thinking, “Wow, they really have a chance to win it.” However, they could not seal the deal. But by all counts it was a fun ride.
By day, I spent time with my dad and brother. At night, I was at my brother and sister-in-law’s place. My brother’s wife is a veterinarian. This perhaps explains the 3 dogs, 2 cats, and 2 ducks they have. She has opened a free vet clinic in Newark for people who have pets or want to have pets, but cannot afford veterinarian’s fees. I am not surprised she has done this: she is a wonderful person.
These are, for me, nice snapshots of a few days of a life that has afforded me the opportunity to know many good people, all extraordinary in their own way.
I don’t worry too much about Donald Trump. I don’t think he will win this election–the electoral map will be difficult for him to overcome. However, his ideas, hardly new, have been given much more light and purchase than at any time in my life. That worries me, deeply. Because soon someone will come along and fill in that vacuum, and that person will be a better politician than Trump, not so given to shooting from the hip, and possessing far greater savvy when it comes to using a dog whistle. The meaning of the words will be the same, but they will sound nicer and to many, palatable.
And I don’t mean this as an endorsement for Hillary Clinton or any Democrat. As some person noted quite a few years ago, the Republicans prefer to rule with an iron fist, while the Democrats like to slip a silk glove over it. That said, if I lived in a swing state I would vote for Clinton. To me, voting is a tactic, and particularly, it is a tactic to buy time. And to deal with all the problems that this capitalist system has brought upon us, ranging from climate change to endless war to white supremacy and many foul points in between, we need all the time we can get. It is a five minute break from doing the real work that makes change. If you read this publication with any kind of frequency, you know some of the many groups doing that work. If you have not done so already, join one of those groups–no matter for whom you vote, if you vote at all–and get involved in the real work of creating the world you want to see. I assure you, your problem will be choosing from the many out there.
Listening to the contemptible bullshit coming out of the Republicans over the past few nights–the visceral hatred for pretty much anyone who is not white, Christian, heterosexual, and probably a few other things–it is horrifying to see these horrible people churned out by our system, with Donald Trump currently at the head of the sordid parade, ready to lead the troops into battle. These are badly damaged people, malformed by the system that produced them. There are numerous terrible moments to choose from, but one that sticks out for me from that fetid morass was the gleeful cheer that rose from the crowd when it was announced that yet another police officer involved in the murder of Freddie Gray was acquitted.
Pick your totalitarian state, and these folks would be fluent in the father tongue.
A long time ago when these type thoughts would bring me down, I’d think of people like my family and friends to cheer me up. They were, I felt, examples that the system sometimes works because it produces people like them. Decent people. Not heroes. Just good, ordinary folks trying to make ends meet.
But these days I think this false. I do believe the capitalist system works. But it works to dehumanize people, some far more horrifically than others; to make sure a few people control most of the wealth and power while the rest fight for the crumbs. You can pick up a newspaper any day and see this, as well as the great lengths most of those newspapers will go to present this as either a wonderful opportunity of some sort that shows how wonderful the system is, or in the rare cases when the carnage is too horrifying to cover over, a gross mistake of the noblest intentions.
I suppose I now have twice as many thoughts to get me down. But I would be lying to you if I said they did. Instead I find myself even more cheered by both these good people I have had the great fortune to know, both those who have made their way as decently as they could through an indecent system, as well as the truly wondrous people doing wonderful work to abolish that indecent system. Beautiful links of a gorgeous chain existing not because of the system, but despite its best attempts to crush them.