So, not too long ago, I discovered that the author Philip Roth is from Newark, New Jersey. I believe that I first learned this in this New York Times article, regarding his decision to stop writing. With that discovery, a tiny little bell went off inside of me, the essence of which one wouldn't really understand unless one is, to be honest, from Newark. Newark and New Jersey occupy a place in my soul that is hard to define except to say that is was the beginning of my life and it has colored the way I have seen everything since I left. That was in 1962.
Let's start with Newark. I was born there. Doesn't get much earlier than that. My parents were both from there, attended school there (Arts High), and lived there in the early years of their short marrige. My grandparents also lived there for years in apartments (home ownership being something both sets came to late in life). One pair on High Street in an old stately building behind pillars and lion's heads (I think there were lion's heads) and the other on 16th Avenue, in a fourth floor walk up overlooking a city park that I spent countless hours in. I can still see those apartments in my mind's eye as though it were yesterday. After hours spent trying to "visit" them on Google Street view, I was saddened to see that both sites seem to be reduced to piles of rubble. They say you can't go back again. I guess in some cases you can't even go back and take a walk on Google.
The first ten years of my life had a certain Jersey feeling to it, that that is really to say it had a certain "Newark" feel to it. For example, there has never been a "downtown" since Downtown Newark, that has been as much fun to be in. It just bustled. Yeah, yeah, it was not New York City, but nothing was or is New York City. I knew that even as a little kid after trips into NY. But, nothing was Newark, either. Nothing was like Bamberger's or Kresge's department store in the 1950s when the top floor actually had a monorail racing around the ceiling of the toy department.
I recall the last time I went to Newark. It was around 1966, I think. We actually went to McCrory's which was always our choice of a Five and Ten for lunch. The same woman I had seen working there in the early/mid fifties was still at the register of the luncheonette in 1966. I remember finding this amazing (it had really only been about 10 years or so ago that I had been there as a really kittle kid. Why would staying at the same job for ten years astound someone? Well, I guess it does if you are 13. How did I know for sure it was the same woman? Trust me. I knew. She had a very disticntive face that I used to stare at when little.
In Jersey, we rode buses. We rode buses all the time because neither my mother, nor my grandmothers drove cars back then. And, so, if you wanted to get somewhere and no man was handy, you took a bus to get there. You took buses to get "downtown" which was the only place you really shopped, malls being years away. If you wanted to go to another downtown in Jersey, you rode a bus. Maybe you even had to change buses. If you wanted to go to Olympic Park (and that is a whole blog post in and of itself) you rode two buses. I used my memories of a New Jersey bus when I illustrated Tex and Sugar. I actually looked at a picture of a NJ transit bus from the 50s for that art because that is how buses will remain in my mind forever.
From what I understand from my parents and grandparents, the bloom was already off the rose for Newark by the time I was born. They would spend hours and hours talking about how great Newark was at one time. I guess a city has it's heyday and then it passes. Ask anyone who's lived in Buffalo (like me). It used to be one of the wealthiest cities in the US at the turn of the last century. By the early 70s when I lived there, Buffalo was hurting--big time.
But, back to Newark. As much as Newark was the center of the universe in Jersey, other haunts were never that far from the hub. It's a small state. Like Westfield. Rahway. Elizabeth. That was my last NJ stop. I lived there with grandparents until moving to New York (they stayed). And after Elizabeth, they moved to Paterson, and downtown Paterson had a flavor all it's own, too. Many years spent shopping there in Sterns and Meyer Borthers.
I guess you can say that most places in New Jersey have a sort of Newark feel to them, unless you drive waaaay down to the Pine Barrens and, well, then you are in another country. As far as I know, the Russians who escaped from Christopher and Paulie Walnuts have STILL not been found. But the shore? Jersey all the way. Newark by the sea. When I think of Jersey memories, I think of: Italian ices, going to Kresge's for all kind of children's events, sugar cookies, soft pretzels, Nuns sitting in department stores with tins asking for small change, city buses, diners playing doo-wop, shopping, escalators, people-operated elevators, Ballantine Beer, a big bottle you could see from the Garden Sate Parkway, the Garden Sate Parkway, driving through tunnels to get to NYC, Five and Ten cent stores, parades of policemen (seems like there were always parades in Newark), the Colonade, McCrory's, Route 22 which we always drove on but never stopped at, parks with Cherry Blossoms, playgrounds in parks.... My list is endless, really.
But let's back to Philip Roth, which is why I went down the New Jersey memory lane to begin with ( I could write all day about Newark and Jersey, and still have lots ot say). This week I read, also in the Times, about an event honoring him and a bus tour through Newark as he celebrated his 80th birthday in an artcile, "Goodbye Newark, the Place Philip Roth Never Left." I was envious. I wish I were there. I would love to time travel back to Newark of years ago, and maybe that might have been the closest one could get to doing that--stopping at the places he knew and lived at.
Of Roth's work, I am guilty of having only read Portnoy's Complaint, and that was many, many years ago and I was very, very young and naive. I can't remember much of the book but I remember being astonished in so many ways a young girl would be. I also remember him doing...um.. something to his family's dinner. And to this day, I have a faint recollection of a line that pops into my head if I hang a bra on a bathroom doorknob...and it does any swinging.
I saw the movie, Goodbye Columbus, It did not evoke Jersey for me.
So I send this question out to cyberspace. Does Roth evoke Jersey and Newark in partlcular in his books? Should I right my wrong and read everything he has written in an attempt to glean any morsel of Newark and Jersey of old? Is there any sense that he was a Jersey boy? Curious and reminiscent minds want to know, because Google Street View left me high and dry.