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Bergen County Blogs

BIRTH OF A JOY-ZEE GIRL

I grew up on the Lower East Side.

          Of the Coytesville section of Fort Lee. Coytesville was like the gum on the bottom of 

Englewood Cliff’s shoe; the Hooterville to their Petticoat Junction. In its heyday, 

Coytesville’s saloons were like Korean nail salons—one on almost every sidewalk-less street 

corner. In 1965, I was brought home from Holy Name Hospital to a small house on a street 

with no name, just a number--5th Street. To my right was Interstate Park; to my left was the 

road that led to Jim’s Candy Emporium where my life-long love affair with everything 

confectionary began.

My father was a union man, and in the ‘70’s union jobs were like Wonka’s golden ticket—

the decade before Reagen sounded their death knell; the decade before debt was handed out 

like lollipops at the bank. 

Everyone’s dad was a union man—police, fire, postal, teacher, iron 

worker, teamster, laborer; and everyone seemed to make ends meet. Like most moms, my 

mom stayed at home; like most families, we had two used American cars parked in our 

tarred driveway (yes, tarred; pavers were men who paved streets and not decorative 

driveway bricks); a house with no mortgage; and a week down the Jersey Shore every 

summer. All accomplished on one paycheck.

          The door­way to my world opened onto Sixth Street Park. If I close my eyes I can still 

see the sharp prism of sunlight reflecting off the jalousie glass windows of our aluminum 

porch door distorting the colors of the brightly painted merry-go-round into kaleidoscopic 

blobs of yel­lows, reds, blues and greens.

Within the perimeter of the playground sat the shallow hole of the blue-painted kiddie 

pool lifeguarded each summer of my childhood by Fritz, the ageless ancient German 

immigrant who lived next door to the playground. I’m not sure how to describe Fritz except 

to say that he always looked constipated. All summer long Fritz would bullet German-

infused commands at us kids from the perch of his sagging nylon-woven lawn chair atop the 

small grassy knoll above the pool. When he ejected you from the pool, you asked no 

questions—you goose-stepped to the bench and served out your sentence in silence.

Sitting faithfully beside Fritz was his brown and black German Shepherd who made Cujo 

look like Morris the Cat. The same commands Fritz shouted at his dog, he shouted at us. 

When he yelled, I never knew whether to sit, growl, or attack one of the Carney boys. I 

swear he had to have been a former Scoutmaster in the Hitler Youth. Somewhere there’s a 

book in me screaming to get out, “Fritz’s Guide to Childcare—Sitz! Platz! Halt die Klappe!” 

(Sit, Stay, Shut Your Mouth!)

When I was around five, the Kempf’s rented the old Sweeny house across the street. The 

Kempf’s were the Walton’s without a conscience; at least the boys were. They shaved cats 

with straight edged razor blades; hoisted them up trees in rusting crab nets; fed spoonfuls of 

dirt to unsuspecting neighborhood kids; even pushed a Volkswagon Bug down a ditch. My 

old man swore the Kempf’s were moved in as a way to force us to sell, but eventually they 

were the ones who left. Oddly, with them went the neighborhood.

The wrecking ball knew no rest back then. Turn-of-the-century houses were replaced 

by quadrangular brick McMansions; familiar names moved out; new architecture and 

cultures moved in. By the end of the decade the old neighborhood was well on its way to 

becoming unrecognizable, and so was I.

Everything changed the summer I turned 15. I bore within me a restlessness that I 

never felt before, and would never feel again in quite the same urgent way. All that mattered 

were my friends; being confined at home for any significant amount of time gave me a 

mental rash. When I wasn’t working, I was sitting on the cliffs of the Palisades imagining the 

life I would someday live on the sky-lined side of the Hudson.

On August 18th, 1980, I wrote: “I can’t wait to be gone. Gone from this place; gone from 

this town where everyone knows everything about everyone. In this place nothing ever 

changes; people only die.”

To Be Continued…