Cruising the Green of Second Avenue

Wild Child Publishing has issued the second volume of short stories in Cruising the Green of Second Avenue. The tales take up where Vol. I left off — bringing back Klein the Biker, Straight Charlie and Sammy the Madman while introducing new characters stumbling over life’s difficulties in the late 60s. Vol. II is an e-book published by Wild Child Publishing that you can download, save as a pdf (Adobe) file and print. Read both volumes and see that life isn't all that serious. Find it at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other online book sellers.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Immortality, Version 2.0

Grandma Fisk, lecturer and cartoonist.

My family treated our ancestors the way you’d set extra places at table.  Mom and grandma passed along centuries-old advice and anecdotes like they were something seen on the Six O’clock News.  (“Yes,” one would exclaim, “William set a trap to catch the thief stealing his firewood.  He told the children he’d drilled the wood and put gunpowder inside.  Of course, children can’t keep a secret….”  Or, “The worst thing Great-Great Grandpa Pierce’s second wife would say is, ‘Well, I pity him.’”)

Ancestors hovered in our house like so many ghosts on vacation.  Because my family were New England hoarders I’ve had a lot of their trunks to unpack, boxes to sort and albums to review.  It’s not unusual now to straighten up a room and stop to examine Great Grandpa Ballou’s letters from his Civil War regiment, read postcards from Grandma Fisk postmarked from towns across America where she lectured, or trip over the candlesticks Great-Great-Grandpa Pierce played with as a kid in 1816.             

My limited religious ruminations stop at the thought that we’re immortal until our last acquaintance passes on.  Given this dollar-store theology, I opt for saying you’re “alive” until you’re no longer remembered by anyone.  Let me suggest the Internet is a gateway to immortality.             

Grandma Fisk, for example, lectured on the Chautauqua Circuit before talking movies came along, traveling the country as “America’s Foremost Cartoonist.”  By Googling her name, I discovered the University of Iowa had a digital collection of Chautauqua information.  I called the librarian there, who exclaimed, “We have the programs and schedules, but we had no idea of the actual content of their talks!”  I was happy to donate her papers, photos, notes and stories, which are now online.  I like to think she’s been given a longer lease on life as students use her materials to research women’s liberation.           

A poignant search for unfading, eternal life compels me to store school photos, snapshots and Daguerreotypes.  Those “Kodak moments” are a way to store time in an album.  The Internet now gives them greater immortality.           

We can waltz through a live-for-the-moment future till the devil demands his due.  Then, the materials from the past become precious commodities.  That’s good news.  Our images and words can be archived, repeated and shared.  Their spirits can be invited to the dinner table.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Worst and Best Jobs in My Life

Every kid should work, even if he and she is studying like mad for an education. 

Or it may just be that I worked every year I was a small liberal arts college in Iowa.  I lived for my  $17 Grinnell paycheck from working 20 hours a week at $.85 an hour.  In fact, I was proud that I had the highest paying job on campus, 20 cents more than waiters got at the dining hall.  I washed pots and pans for a contracted food management service in the 1960s.  This paid for my daily quota of coffees at the student union and my 3.2 percent beers at the Rexall bar on the highway that ran through town.  (Iowa law prohibited bars serving anything stronger than 3.2 percent beer.  In fact, the nearest state liquor store was in Newton, 20 miles away.)   

When there was an opening for another pot walloper, I invited my roomie, a nice guy who had run away from Geneva, Switzerland, to join me.  Fifty years later, after his retirement as a professor of French at SUNY-Albany, he said, “Walt, that was the worst job I have ever had!”  The work wasn’t that bad, except when the cook made scalloped potatoes.  Then I needed a putty knife to clean pans of baked-on food.  If they’d given me anything sharper, we’d have had a mortally wounded cook.   

Kitchen and dining room work might be infectious.  The summer I was 18, a college chum from Massachusetts said, “You’ve got to see Martha’s Vineyard.  C’mon up and work there for the summer.”  It was the summer of Patti Page’s hit song, “Old Cape Cod.”  You remember:  If you're fond of sand dunes and salty air / Quaint little villages here and there / You're sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod.” 

I was hooked.  The owner of a rambling old wreck called the Wesley House in Oak Bluffs hired me to wear a hot, ugly green uniform and serve three meals at day.  But when those days were over, oh boy!  All the summer workers were in their late teens.  Best of all, I had a fake ID that said I was 21.  I could buy beer for the beach parties.  I could dress sharp and hang out at neat clubs in Edgartown.  The beaches were free and the girls were fantastic. 

It was the best job I ever had.  There were only two downsides to my temporary career:  I came away that summer earning only $300.  And when I went to get a haircut, the barber would smell me and say, “You work in a restaurant, don’t you?”

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sing It Again for Me

My daughter called me up to ask me querulously, “What is the 'Frozen Logger'?  I was singing to Zeke (my grandson) last night and he said Grandpa always sings ‘The Frozen Logger.’”

First, I was overjoyed that this seven-year-old liked my singing enough to remember it.  Second, that he liked the song, since he rarely laughs at my jokes and this song is one extended bit of humor.  Zeke does his best to appear sophisticatedly unamused.  (He did laugh as a four-year-old after he saw the garbage truck, and I said “Tell them we don’t need any more garbage.”) 

“Well,” I told my daughter, “it goes like this. ‘As I sat down one evening / within a small cafĂ© / a 40-year-old waitress / to me these words did say.’”

“That’s the song?”

“It gets better.  ‘I see that you are a logger / and not just a common bum / ‘cause nobody but a logger / stirs his coffee with his thumb.’”  I think I memorized this song because (a) the lyrics were funny and (b) I remember my Dad knew the song writer James Stevens up in Oregon or Washington.

I don’t know if I need to memorize more than one or two songs.  Just a couple seems to do just fine.  A few years ago I was at a wedding in Taiwan.  The reception was held along several blocks of a street covered with tents and with a stage for karaoke.  The emcee saw me as the only white guy meiguo ren at the affair and asked in Chinese if I’d like to sing a song.  I demurred, mostly because I’m not sure I remembered all the words to Gene Autry’s “Back in the Saddle Again,” the only other song I’ve kind of memorized.  “I’m back in the saddle again / out where a friend is a friend / where the longhorn cattle feed / on the lowly jimson weed / I’m back in the saddle again.”  

I think those are the words, but I’d better check because it’s important.

When I was six years old, I was seriously thinking of changing my name.  I asked my dad how you do this, and he said you go to a judge who will make the change legal.  “And by the way,” he asked. “What would you like your new name to be?”  

“Gene Autry,” I answered.  After all, a man should know more than one song when he has a name like Walter.


Friday, April 7, 2017

Hollywood on the Hudson

Pearl White in The House of Hate, filmed in 1918 in Fort Lee.

Sad to say, fewer people are going into a dark theater to watch movies as more people channel surf the TV or even cut the cable and pull up an on-demand film through Netflix, Hulu or Amazon. 

And with it, a part of our state’s history may be disappearing too. The film industry started here. We were the movie capital of the world, and it started in West Orange. William Kennedy Laurie Dickson was an employee in Thomas Edison's Orange laboratory, and it was Mr. Dickson who invented a camera and projector called a Kinetograph. A peephole on top of the large cabinet, called a Kinetoscope, allowed a viewer to look at moving pictures. 

By 1892, Dickson and Edison had finished versions of the products. They used flexible 35-mm film from the Eastman Company (Kodak) to take the pictures. 

Edison and his assistants then needed to produce things to show. In December 1892, the Kinetographic Theater, opened in West Orange. Only sunlight was strong enough to allow images to be seen on movie film at that time, so the roof of the studio opened to let in sunlight. Inside was a stage, barely 12 square feet. 

Movies Move Out to the World

The following year, Edison demonstrated the Kinetoscope at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. To his joy, the public loved it. The first Kinetoscope parlor opened in New York, followed by similar openings all over the country.

Quickly, some 75 films were made, each lasting about 20 seconds. They filmed many different people and actions , including vaudeville acts, plays, magic tricks, and dancing. The “stars” were Buffalo Bill, gunslinger Annie Oakley, and strongman Eugene Sandow. 

Then came The Great Train Robbery that viewers could see on a screen instead of a peephole.  The 14 scenes were shot on location in and around Patterson. (You can see this wonderful 116-year-old drama online through the Library of Congress at 

Stars Are Born

In addition to Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, moving pictures created “stars.” People like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Pearl White and Harold Lloyd built their reputations in New Jersey and called Fort Lee home.  Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Will Rogers, Mary Pickford, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Lionel Barrymore, the Keystone Cops and Rudolph Valentino could be seen strolling through town. 

In 1907, Edison’s company came to Fort Lee to shoot “Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest,” featuring D.W. Griffith in his first starring role. The cliffs of the Palisades and the town’s boulder-strewn woodlands offered a dramatic background for the short silent film. Competing motion picture companies quickly followed suit, finding that Fort Lee’s diverse landscape could double for a range of settings from exotic Algeria to Sherwood Forest. By 1918, 11 major studios were operating in the town, according to the Fort Lee Film Commission. 

World War I spelled the decline of movie-making in New Jersey.  California’s climate was too inviting, and there was cheap land. New Jersey is still a popular film location, and choosing New Jersey as a place to film a production will result in a 20% tax credit on production material purchased within the state. But. our state still had one more claim to fame coming. 

From the Comfort of Your Car

On June 6, 1933, motorists began parking their cars on the grounds of Park-In Theaters, the first-ever drive-in movie theater, on Crescent Boulevard in Camden, New Jersey. 

Park-In Theaters (the term “drive-in” came later) was the brainchild of Richard Hollingshead, a movie fan and a sales manager at his father’s company, Whiz Auto Products. Reportedly, he was  inspired by his mother’s struggle to sit comfortably in traditional movie theater seats. His idea was for an open-air theater where you could watched movies in the comfort of your own automobiles. “He experimented in his driveway with different projection and sound techniques, mounting a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car, pinning a screen to some trees, and placing a radio behind the screen for sound,” according to the website, ‘This Day in History.’ 

Hollingshead was issued a patent in May of 1933 and opened Park-In Theaters, Inc. less than a month later. He charged 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person, with no group paying more than one dollar. The idea caught on, but Hollingshead’s patent was overturned in 1949. The craze had taken over, however, and drive-in theaters began appearing all over the country. 

This medium ran its course until the rise in suburban real estate, more walk-in theaters, color TV, and — finally — the introduction of video killed the drive-in concept. As of 2014, there were about 348 drive-ins still operating in the U.S. 

We’re Still Creating Movie Stars

You can’t escape the fact that some of the most popular film celebs come from the Garden State. Meryl Streep was a Summit native  James Gandolfini hailed from Westwood. John Travolta was an Englewood boy. Then there’s Bruce Willis from Penns Grove, Queen Latifah from Newark, Tom Cruise from Glen Ridge, Kevin Spacey from South Orange. Oh, heck, find your own favorites at the website

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Ghost Towns of the Pine Barrens

I'm on the edge of the Pine Barrens that make up almost a quarter of New Jersey.  Yet few outsiders know about the dwarf forests, ghost towns, and the forests that rely on fire in order to generate new growth.  My friend and celebrated Pine Barrens author Louise Barton told me, “The Pine Barrens is unique, with different vegetation, trees and wildlife.  The vegetation rots as the rain percolates down.  Even today, the water in the many lakes is the shade of murky, iced tea.” 

This may have influenced settlers, beginning in 1674.  “The settlers used to collect rain water that pocketed at the tree roots and use it as a medicine.  Due to the rotting vegetation, the natural waterways often ran the color of blood and mists blanketed the forests.  This supernatural setting helped stir the imagination, and the Jersey Devil was conceived.  Further skullduggery was accounted for by the Moonrakers — land pirates who posted lights to lure ships onto the shore — and sea pirates and privateers prowling offshore.  Witch hunters were quick to accuse the early settlers, and Ben Franklin mentioned the witch trials held at Mt. Holly.”  

Towns like Atsion, Chatsworth, Batsto, Double Trouble, Harrisville, Martha, and Whitesbog Village were once thriving industrial and agricultural centers.  Now, except for a few residents’ homes, you may only find building foundations.  It’s estimated there may be as many as 100 deserted towns in the Pine Barrens. 

The earliest permanent European settlers began occupying the area in 1674.  Hamlets and coastal towns were based on shipbuilding, commerce and timber-based trades.  For a century after 1760 iron, charcoal, and glass industries flourished.  By 1830, there were 655 sawmills in the state; today there are about 75 sawmills here.   

And it all has virtually disappeared except for small towns and “Pineys” who share a unique culture.  

On a summer day, try exploring the ghost town of Friendship.  This was the heart of a 3,000-acre cranberry farm.  It was founded in 1869 on the site of a sawmill dating back to 1795.  For a time, the cranberry business here was the largest in the area, but it declined and was sold to real estate speculators in the 1950s.  A one-room schoolhouse is the only surviving structure, and it’s somewhere else.  Today, foundation ruins of the abandoned town can be found in the field to the east side of Carranza Road and south side of Friendship-Speedwell Road.
All that’s left of the Hampton Furnace operation.
Isolated deep in the Pinelands, Harrisville is a genuine ghost town from the 1800s.  Once a flourishing village, it was abandoned in 1891 after the great paper mill, the driving force of the community, closed. Today the mill’s evocative ruins can be seen, but are fenced off for safety and preservation reasons.  Harrisville is about 8 miles northwest of New Gretna, where the highway crosses the east branch of the Wading River.  Almost nothing remains except for a few crumbling foundations and canal remnants.  The area is covered with dense undergrowth.
Travel down to Hampton Furnace to find the ruins of a late 18th century furnace and, later, cranberry operation along the Batsto River.  Information on the Hampton Furnace is scarce, but it was opened about 1795 and was in operation until about 1850.  The furnace smelted bog iron found in nearby swamps and bogs.  This site may also have produced cannonballs and shot for the War of 1812.  To find Hampton Furnace, make your way to Hammonton and travel northeast out of town on Route 206 to Atsion (Route 206 at Atsion Rd.).  Go slightly beyond the town and take a right on Hampton Rd.  Follow this road for two to three miles until you get to Riders Switch and Glossy Spung Rd/High Crossing Rd.  The remains are in that area.   
 And this is just an introduction.  There are other “ghost towns”, like Hermann, site of a late 19th century glass factory on the Mullica River; Martha, and the ruins of the bog iron smelting furnace that flourished from 1793-1845; Pasadena or Brooksbrae and the extensive runs of a brick-making factory amid the encroaching forest; and Weymouth Furnacewhere the Great Egg Harbor River runs by grand stone arches, a towering chimney stack, and moss-covered foundations from the old mill – all that now remain of this historical landmark. 
Warning: If you choose to visit the Pine Barrens off-road, be aware of “sugar sand” in such places as Friendship.  Sugar sand consists of tiny grains and can be very slippery even when dry.  Your vehicle may get stuck.  More important, warns Louise Barton, “If you are lost in the woods, you may get no cell phone signal to call for help.  Hikers and hunters may wander aimlessly for hours, and two grown men cried with relief when I was able to direct them to the road just two miles down.”