Tag Archives: New Jersey

James Gandolfini

Not many actors get to portray a character so perfectly that they burn themselves into popular culture. James Gandolfini played the conflicted mob boss Tony Soprano so well that not only did he become forever linked to the character, he added the entire Mafia family to the stockpile of things in which New Jerseyans take ironic pride — hey, we got Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, lotsa Superfund sites and we got Tony Soprano! I felt it when my California in-laws, who had always considered New Jersey something of a practical joke on the rest of the country, suddenly took a keen interest in places like Kearny and the Caldwells.

Shortly after the BBC began airing the show, I was talking on the telephone to a British investment banker with a great toff accent, who idly asked what part of the U.S. I was calling from. When I said “Hoboken” he gasped. “That’s where the Sopranos live!”

“Well, not exactly,” I said. “You know that bridge he drives across in the opening credits . . . “

Another gasp, this one a little louder. “I know that bridge! That’s the New Jersey Turnpike!”

I’ll spare you the details of how I gave a lesson in North Jersey geography to a Tory in the City of London, but I will say that even when the series was at its wobbly, self-indulgent, let’s-see-how-we-can-justify-staying-on-the-HBO-sugar-tit-for-another-season worst, I felt a link to The Sopranos. Partly it was commercial: the appearance of the Pulaski Skyway in the opening credits was an easy hook to use whenever I did author appearances in connection with The Last Three Miles. But it was in large part due to Gandolfini’s artistry.

Like Viggo Mortensen, Gandolfini excelled at conveying the sense of deep currents of thought and emotion going on beneath an impassive exterior. Silvio, Paulie Walnuts and the rest of the mob cast became cartoon characters as the show staggered through its last three seasons, but Tony Soprano stayed real, thanks to Gandolfini’s immensely subtle talent.  During the show’s first season, Gandolfini’s switching between the paternal and the predatory made “College” the most perfectly realized episode in the only perfectly realized season. One of my favorite moments in The Sopranos comes when a dirty cop on the mobster’s payroll complains about how he’s perpetually broke. Tony tells him he should stop gambling because he loses so much. “Yeah, well I got two bills on Rutgers this weekend,” the cop says, and Tony replies, in a tone that shows he can barely keep from rolling his eyes, “That’ll solve all your problems.” Gandolfini may have done booster commercials for the Scarlet Knights, but whenever I hear about the latest ups and downs in my alma mater’s Big Time Football crusade, I think of him delivering that line.

Gandolfini did good and even great work after The Sopranos: as a played-out hit man in Killing Them Softly he gave a much-needed shot of oxygen to a film that really should have worked much better than it did. His performance as the father in Not Fade Away, directed by Sopranos mastermind David Chase, showed he still had talent and artistry to burn. There have been a lot of tributes to Gandolfini in the wake of his untimely death, but I particularly like this one from Glenn Kenny, who explains exactly what made him so great in Not Fade Away. As for Kenny’s closing line, all I can say is yes.

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Surf’s up

Now that the Jersey Shore has taken yet another pounding from a winter storm, it may be time to spend some idle moments with this N.J. Flood Mapper, prepared by Rutgers University to show the effect of rising sea levels on selected areas of the Shore. Let’s just I’m revising my fantasy of owning a house by the ocean.

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Blurbito ergo sum

Two unexpected bits of coolness that come with publishing a nonfiction book: (1) Seeing yourself cited in bibliographies and footnotes, and (2) being approached for cover blurbs by other writers in your line. Which is a roundabout way of saying that not only is the just-published Killing the Poormaster: A Saga of Poverty, Corruption, and Murder in the Great Depression a great book that deserves lots of attention, but it also marks my debut as a blurber. Not just on the dust jacket, either –I’m right before the title page, rubbing inky elbows with Anthony DePalma and Fred Gardaphe. Tell Mr. DeMille I’m ready for my close-up.

Holly Metz has written a historical page-turner centered on the February 1938 death of Harry Barck, a petty city official in Hoboken, N.J., who used his position as “poormaster” to grind impoverished city residents under his heel. To borrow phrase from Jimmy Breslin, Barck died of natural causes — his heart stopped beating when a paper spike was thrust into it. For the scores of Hoboken residents who’d had their assistance arbitrarily cut back because of Barck’s views on self-reliance, and the families forced to get by on resources that would have been inadequate even for one person, the poormaster’s death was a source of grim satisfaction. An unemployed mason, Joe Scutellaro, was charged with murder; Scutellaro claimed the death was accidental, saying he had fought with Barck after the poormaster suggested his wife should turn tricks instead of asking for aid from the city.

The ensuing trial turned the spotlight on the way America treated its impoverished citizens during hard times, and Holly Metz’ book picks out some even more glaring parallels with our current economic and political situation. The depth of research is evident on every page, but Metz’ prose is quick and light on its feet. Hoboken may have gone from roughneck to ritzy over time, but one of the most important things you’ll learn from Killing the Poormaster is this: The past is always closer than you think.

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Surf and turf

Since Island Beach State Park is one of my favorite stretches of the Jersey shore, I’ve noticed that an awful lot of untamed nature has been going on there. First there was a sighting of a 12-foot Big G in June, and now here’s this video of a feeding frenzy that actually came within the surf line. My first thought was that they wanted the new Blu-Ray of Jaws (which I wouldn’t mind getting, either) but they were dining on menhaden, which is already a popular bait fish — I guess the sharks decided to cut out the middleman and eat ’em before they became bait. The sharks in question were apparently browns and sand tigers. Not species that are usually dangerous to people, but you wouldn’t have wanted to be swimming when this buffet rush started.

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The egg cream challenge

Lou Reed sings the praises of the most perfect summer drink that doesn’t contain alcohol. (The one with alcohol would be a Dark’N’Stormy, or a gin and tonic.) Unfortunately, the only place in my immediate area that still knows how to make a real egg cream is Magnifico’s, on Route 18 North in East Brunswick, N.J. They understand that an egg cream starts with seltzer and syrup. If the workers at an ice cream joint ask you what kind of soda you want, change your order, because an egg cream made with Coke or root beer ain’t an egg cream.

So, what happens when people want an egg cream in some other part of the country? Feel free to list your egg cream connection in the comments field. Next time I’m traveling, I want to know if there are any options if I’m suddenly stricken with the unquenchable thirst for an egg cream.


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Credit where due

I’m no great fan of Chris Christie, but I have to applaud the New Jersey governor’s impatience and barely contained disgust with whackaloons criticizing his appointment of Sohail Mohammed, a Muslim lawyer, to the state bench in Passaic County. With all the uglies to be laid at Christie’s door, I found this display bracing to watch.

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Friday finds


All you need to celebrate Halloween the H.G. Wells way. (And the George Pal way, and the Oson Welles way, and the Hugo Gernsback way. . .) The image above, incidentally, shows Michael Condron’s sculpture of a Martian tripod in Woking, Surrey, where all hell breaks loose in the original novel. Check here for the New Jersey location used in the radio broadcast.

How about some literary costume ideas for trick-or-tweeding?

Halloween, B’more style.

Continuing our Halloween theme, it turns out that Dan Aykroyd based the Ghostbusters storyline on the psychic exploits of his own dad.

Novelists nominate books they think have been unfairly neglected.

A medievalist tries his hand at the Dante’s Inferno board game.

Taking on Knut Hamsun.

No need to be skeptical about Martin Gardner.

Patricia Cornwell’s latest mystery tale is playing out in court.

Gore Vidal’s sunset years.

How Paul Shaffer was crucified and resurrected by Bob Dylan.

There’s nothing more pathetic than a whining contrarian.

Maurice Sendak has three words for parents who think Where the Wild Things Are is too scary for their kids.

The Guardian harkens back to its coverage of John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize for Literature. A writer retraces the journey described in Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.

M*A*S*H was Robert Altman’s first big hit as a filmmaker, but his son ended up making more money off it than he did.

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Sixth season of ‘The Wire’

At first it just seemed like another New Jersey corruption scandal, albeit on a larger scale. The bit with the Apple Jacks box full of cash was a nice detail. But then the organ-trafficking and Syrian Jews from Deal stuff came out, and it now appears we’re watching the unofficial sixth season of The Wire.

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Hey Joe

Elizabeth-born Joe Weil is the poet laureate of New Jersey. Really. If you don’t believe me, let Nick tell you about it.

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Approved authors 3

There are still some shopping days left before Christmas, so I’m offering passages from some of the books I’ve read and enjoyed this year. Most of the books were published this year. Most of the books are by people I’ve had some contact with, whether e-mail or in person, but there are also authors who wouldn’t know me if they tripped over me in a doorway.  In short, they’re here because I enjoyed their books and I think you will, too.

in-hoboken-revisedIN HOBOKEN, by Christian Bauman, Melville House, 2008.

I have relatives who remember Hoboken in the days when its riverfront bristled with docks, the Clam Broth House was a sawdust-on-the-floor joint with a separate eating area for women, and you simply didn’t venture east of Washington Street unless you were a cop, a stevedore, or someone in search of trouble. When I lived in Jersey City in the late 1980s, Hoboken was yupping up rapidly but still had the bruises from its postwar decline: a scary housing project; an abandoned hulk of a building near Observer Highway that had once housed a craphouse supermarket where the baggers panhandled you as the cashier counted out your change; crumbling brownstones in need of a big cash infusion. Now, of course, the brownstones are worth millions of dollars, the docks have been replaced with an esplanade, the Clam Broth House exists only as a hand-shaped sign, and the abandoned supermarket houses a Barnes & Noble and a CVS drug store.

One of the constants in Hoboken’s story has been the great music club Maxwell’s, which has been known for years — barring a brief, unfortunate period when some new owners tried to make it into a brew pub — as a place where you could see tomorrow’s great bands today. Before the city went high-rent, Hoboken was a place where musicians could find affordable digs and access to Manhattan via the PATH.

Christian Bauman uses that music scene as the backdrop for his third novel, In Hoboken, published earlier this year. Bauman’s perspective is not that of an appreciator, but a participant:

For fifteen years, songwriters — folk, pop, rock, whatever — had been coming to Geoff’s apartment on Tuesday nights. From the amateur to the obscure to the famous, all were usually welcome. You played your newest song and the group critiqued. Fiercely critiqued. When Thatcher was seventeen, a senior in high school — and still unknown to Mason as Randolph’s son — he’d been in a trio with James and another kid from their town, a tall, muscular Greek kid a year older named King Papas. The trio took the bus from Gary Ridge into the city one night to play the open mike at Cornelia Street Cafe. Three kids from the same Jersey town into acoustic music, in 1987 — not common. A guy who looked like a vacationing dentist came up after they’d played and took Thatcher aside. He’d introduced himself as Nate Goldman. “I’m a manager.”

“I know who you are,” Thatcher has said, heart rate accelerating. Goldman was a legend, an old-school legend, who’d started his career while still in college, in the 1940s, following Pete Seeger around like a puppy dog and offering a management contract to every Communist folksinger and black blues belter Seeger turned him on to. Goldman’s day had essentially passed, but his management stable — his Talent — was still impressive.

“Yeah, well — I can’t manage you three kids so don’t piss your lederhosen.” Goldman had grabbed a card from his pocket and a pen and scrawled something on the back. “You know who Geoff Mason is, smartypants? Yeah?” He gave Thatcher the card. “Here’s his address. You guys — whichever of you guys writes the words — you go to his place Tuesday night, any Tuesday night, and tell him I sent you. You can’t sing for shit but you got some good words.”

James was at Rutgers within a few months, but Thatcher and King Papas made Geoff’s apartment a religion. Thatcher ended up in the army, and Papas ended up in Boston, but there was a time they never missed a Tuesday night. In the four years Thatcher was in the army he never came back, even when he was on leave. He visited Geoff if he was home, and wrote often, but never came by on Tuesdays.

“So why don’t you come?” Geoff said again. “Bring both those songs.”

“Okay, maybe.”

“It’ not a death sentence. Do what you will.” Mason reached for the bottle on the floor, filled his glass and then filled Thatcher’s. Thatcher took a long drink of the wine.

“You know what it is?” Thatcher said. “I just — I just don’t have a connection with those people anymore.”

“What people? Which?”

“The people who come here. The New Yorkers.”

“You mean your friends?”

Thatcher rolled his eyes. “Some of them. My friends are in Jersey.”

“So why don’t you like New York writers? Because they only write about life as a New York writer?”

Thatcher rolled his eyes again.

“Yes, well.” Mason tapped the stem of his wineglass with his fingernail. “We’re not as elitist as you think, and you’re not as worldly and of-the-people as you imagine. Just come on Tuesday and sing your proletarian drivel.”

Bauman’s first two novels, The Ice Beneath You and Voodoo Lounge, drew heavily on his military background; In Hoboken reflects his continuing career as a road-tested folk musician. The title is a semi-homage to Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, and In Hoboken, with its large cast of musicians and artists trying to make their way in a world that has few places for them will introduce you to a time and a place that’s equally exotic.

And yeah, Bauman blurbed my book. What of it? The man’s got Robert Stone, Hubert Selby Jr. and Neal Pollack singing his praises — you think he needs a leg up from me?

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