I was in the midst of another cancer scare. Imaging tests were ordered, and then blood tests. No cancer – Yay! – but the blood tests revealed that I needed to increase the dosage of a medication for an unrelated chronic illness. Wednesday, March 23, 2022, was gray and drizzly. I don’t like to leave the apartment anywhere near sunset, but this medicine was important. I said the prayer I always say before opening my door. “God be with me as I walk. Saint Joseph protect my home. Saint Christopher protect my steps.” I set out for the CVS, three miles and two towns distant. Thanks to Google maps, I know I walk up 430 feet to arrive at the CVS in Wayne. There are pharmacies five minutes’ walk from my apartment, and, like my apartment, these nearby pharmacies are more or less at sea level. I walk so far and so high because I live in Paterson, NJ. It’s not just that a good part of the population speaks Spanish, Arabic, Bengali, or what is now called African American Vernacular English, and used to be called Ebonics. It’s not just because I am white and my first language is English, so I am a target for hostility and petty sabotage. I don’t want my prescriptions to meet the same fate as my vandalized, spat upon, and disappearing postal mail. I walk two towns away because even simple things that should work easily often don’t work in Paterson at all. More on that, later.
I passed the sprawling Salvation Army rehabilitation center and second-hand store, a four-story, red brick, former textile factory. The Salvation Army was, as usual, surrounded by garbage. Garbage scattered on the street and clogged the raceway. Paterson’s raceways travel parallel to some sidewalks in the Falls area. They are manmade channels for water diverted from the Passaic River. These raceways used to power Paterson’s once famous textile mills that gave Paterson the name “Silk City.” The oldest mill is over two hundred years old; Alexander Hamilton founded this city in 1791. His “Society of Useful Manufactures” first harnessed the power of the river and its waterfall. Paterson’s architecturally elegant red brick mills, stitched together inside with massive beams from what must have been awesome trees, are repurposed into office buildings, schools, apartment houses, the Salvation Army complex, and sets for retro films like “West Side Story” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo.”
Many of the old mills stand empty. On July 13, 2013, the day the Trayvon Martin verdict was announced, I was walking this same route to the CVS. I came across a road block and police officers. I rejoiced. Finally somnambulant Patersonians had awakened from their stupors and were doing something. Even if they were protesting a verdict that I thought was fair, I could admire their civic activity. But no. The cops were not there because of a Martin protest. They were there because one of Paterson’s former silk mills, the source of Paterson’s previous wealth and fame, Paterson’s raison d’etre, had spontaneously collapsed into rubble. I suspect that the mill sighed before it finally gave way; I suspect that any accurate coroner would identify its cause of death as “despair.” The police were there to protect the public from injury while playing in ruined dreams.
The raceways, like the river itself, choke with garbage: plastic bags and bottles, discarded television sets, shopping carts. Around the Salvation Army, much of the garbage traveling the raceway detour into the Atlantic Ocean consists of clothing. I once scavenged one of my favorite garments, a bright red, Woolrich barn coat, from the piles of clothing surrounding the Salvation Army. Sometimes those donating clothes don’t wait until the doors open and simply drop clothing outside the locked building. Sometimes workers don’t get to these clothes before the arrival of the wind, the rain, skunks, racoons, and the other varied forces that bring down everything else in Paterson. Generously donated clothing, unattended by human hands, ends up as just more garbage on Paterson’s streets.
An empty lot stretches about a thousand feet between the Salvation Army complex and the West Broadway Bridge over the Passaic River. The bridge was built in 1897. “The bridge is considered a nationally significant example of the Melan arch technology and one of earliest and the most important concrete-steel spans in the Northeast.” The bridge has been deemed worthy of inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. I have walked on that bridge through shin-high Passaic River water during one of Paterson’s many floods.
Heroin addicts shoot up, defecate, and pick through clothing in the empty lot. Canada geese feed on summer’s burgeoning grasses. Beginning with the first real warm spell, sky-blue chicory blossoms and cloud-white Queen Anne’s lace will festoon this empty lot. When passing, I always admire the round crown of a volunteer oak on the lot’s edge, and I wonder at how long its sculptural beauty has survived Paterson, and I wonder how much longer it will endure.
The sidewalk is about eight feet above the empty lot. A concrete berm elevates the sidewalk above the lot, and below the lot, the river. A fluorescent orange hoodie lay on the shelf of the berm, about four feet below the sidewalk. I could use a hoodie, so I inspected it as I walked. I realized it was too small and too garishly colored for my taste. I moved on. And then I stopped. That hoodie had seemed too bulky to be mere donated clothing. I walked back. I asked myself if that were just a bulky hoodie, or if there were something, or someone, inside it.
It was getting closer to sunset. If I did not move quickly, even Saint Christopher might abandon me. I thought of bending down and poking the fluorescent orange hoodie with my cane, to reassure myself that I was imagining things; that no hoodie that close to the ground might contain anything human. But to poke a living human being with my cane would be undignified. What would Jesus do?
A guardrail separated me from the hoodie. A bum was wandering about twenty feet away. If I walked around this guardrail, and jumped down onto the concrete berm, It would be hard for me to escape, if that bum were to decide to cause me trouble. The sidewalk was a place of relative safety, a safety I was loathe to surrender. There were no other pedestrians around, and, in any case, other pedestrians were no guarantee of safety. I’d been assaulted and knocked down on this street a few years ago, and passersby, seeing a white woman assaulted by a “brother,” rapidly exited the scene. Clearly, I was acutely visible to the witnesses of the assault, but they would pretend that I was indeed invisible.
“Hey!” I shouted. Nothing. “Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey!” I shouted as loudly as I could, over the traffic whizzing past.
The hoodie rose up. There was indeed a head inside. The rest of the short, skinny, negligible body was hidden by the concrete berm on which the man was leaning. I saw a face. Grizzled. Bloodied. At least sixty. Ethnicity? Perhaps white, Hispanic, light-skinned black. I was too focused on other things to make any accurate assessment.
“Are you okay?” I yelled down at him. No reply. “Are you okay?” I kept yelling. Nothing.
I finally walked around the guardrail and jumped onto the concrete berm.
“Can you walk? What is your name? What’s going on? Do you need help? Do you want me to call for help?” I yelled all these as loudly as I could.
The man’s hand was bleeding, as was his forehead. The hoodie, I realized, had been on top of the jagged rump of a rusted metal pipe jutting about an inch above the concrete. It was a safe guess that this man had fallen and hit his head on the pipe.
I calculated. What should I do?
If this scene had played out in any number of other cities, towns, Third World villages and Eastern European capitals I’d lived in, I would not have hesitated, or asked what I should do. I would stop and help. Now? I wasn’t sure. This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered a person in immediate medical distress on a Paterson street. In fact, this has happened so many times that I have lost count. It’s now around ten times, and each time, I have hesitated, and not known what to do.
I remembered Friday, December 28, 2012. That day, too, I was on an emergency errand; I was, again, out too close to sunset for my own comfort, but I had to deposit a paycheck to cover January’s rent.
I saw a man, supine, limp as a rag doll, on the sidewalk in front of a Rite Aid drugstore. His face was a hideous color. Not “white” as in “Caucasian,” but “white” as in the color of newspaper. Grey splotches, every bit as grey as the cement sidewalk on which he lay, interspersed with the white of his cheeks. His pants were pulled down below his buttocks. My first thought was “I don’t want to look at this. It is ugly and it nauseates me. Watching this man die will ruin my day.”
A black man was leaning over the white man. A black woman hovered near the white man’s side. “Get his money,” the black man instructed the woman. A wad of bills was jammed between the white man’s shoe and the sidewalk. The woman grabbed the money. The white man began to convulse.
I wondered what I should do. Maybe whatever was happening here was just between these three, and I was in their way. Maybe I should just move on.
The woman was using her cell phone to call 911. The black man was talking to the white man on the sidewalk.
“We are calling 911. You are right in front of a drugstore. Can we get you anything? Will anything help? Try to remain calm.”
I realized that I was staring at the man’s pale face as if he were putting on some kind of a show. I tried to look away, but then realized I was trying to figure out what to do to be helpful, and that required that I look at the pale man.
The man’s arms, hands, and legs began to shake. His head lolled against the bricks of the drugstore.
I could hear the woman shouting into her cell phone. I could hear the 911 operator asking all the tedious question they are instructed to ask. “Where are you?” asked over and over, even after the woman clearly and definitively stated the location. “What is the man doing?” asked over and over, even after the woman reported events accurately.
I decided that I would squat down next to the convulsing man and speak to him in a soothing way as he died. I was trying to map out my space on the sidewalk next to him when I could see some pink reappearing in his cheeks. The convulsions lessened. He stood up.
“You shouldn’t stand up,” I said. “You are still weak. You may fall. Then you will have a concussion.”
“I need a cigarette,” he said. “Do you have a cigarette?”
The black man approached a white man standing nearby and smoking. “Give that man your cigarette,” he said. The smoker did so.
The pale man took the cigarette and began smoking. More color appeared in his face. “I need to raise my blood pressure. That’s why I’m smoking. I need my medication. I need my medication,” he said, as if we could give it to him; as if we were failing him by not doing so. The woman handed him his money. The cash exchange reminded me. Sunset was coming and the bank would close soon.
The man seemed annoyed at all of us, as if we had caused the convulsions, as if we were denying him his medication. I was pissed off that he insisted on standing. We had become involved with him by giving our time and presence. Any head injury from a fall would be our problem. He should relieve us all and sit back down. I was dumbstruck that he regarded a cigarette as a health aid. I wanted to move on! I just stood there. I would not leave till he was okay.
“I’m going to get my medication,” he said.
“But the ambulance has not arrived yet!” I said.
“I’ll be fine,” he said. He tossed away the cigarette and entered the drugstore.
The woman and I stayed outside, waiting for the ambulance. Finally, off in the distance, the sound of a siren.
A big black guy got out. The woman and I explained that the man in distress about whom we had called had entered the Rite Aid. We described his clothes. The ambulance driver pursed his lips as if we had made a mistake by calling him, or maybe as if the man had made a mistake by leaving the scene. The driver was not happy about something. But he did his duty. He entered the drugstore. I rushed to the bank.
On December 1, 2020, I was walking toward Garret Mountain, a park I visit as often as I can. I was on McBride Avenue Extension and I saw a young, black woman, barefoot, on all fours, in heavy traffic, across from the 77-feet-high Paterson Falls. Drivers, focused on their commute, swerved around her. No one stopped.
In every other city or town I’ve lived in, if a woman was barefoot and on all fours in the middle of heavy traffic, everyone would stop. In my small, poor, ethnically diverse hometown, people would stop. They would drive her to a hospital. They would follow up with offers of food, clothing, shelter, employment. She would have been visible. She would have been memorable. The difference between a visible woman and an invisible one on all fours in the middle of rush hour traffic is not a difference of biology or economics. It’s a difference of culture.
The rules change when you cross the border into Paterson. Because you know, or at least you assume, that the human decay is so advanced, that you just lock your car doors, step on the gas, and escape. Maybe you fear a racial incident. You fear this especially in December, 2020, because any white person in the vicinity of any black person might be accused of racism and trounced on social media. Maybe this is how people have fun around here. It’s not my place to interfere. So you just keep moving.
I called the police. The dispatcher gave me a hard time. McBride Avenue Extension is very short, only a thousand feet long. We were not at a cross street. The dispatcher also didn’t seem to understand why a woman’s presence in the middle of the street required emergency services. “Is she bleeding?” I said I didn’t know. I struggled to explain over the sound of traffic. Then I yelled to the woman.
“Do you need help? What’s going on?”
“I’m trying to get home,” she said.
“You are in the middle of a street,” I said, explaining what was obvious to me but evidently not obvious to her. “You need to get out of the street.”
She stood up. Her posture looked the way people looked on old TV sets when the “horizontal hold” was on the blink; as if two different people, who had never met, were operating her body parts above and below the waist. The woman wobbled her way to the sidewalk.
“I called for help,” I said. “Help is on the way.”
“No. Don’t call for help. I don’t need any help. I’m just trying to get home.”
“You’re not wearing any shoes,” I said.
“I’m fine. Don’t call the police. Whatever you do, don’t call the police!”
Well, great. The dispatcher didn’t see a problem. The person I was trying to help didn’t see a problem. I debated with myself. Clearly this woman didn’t want me to call the police. I could call back and cancel; I could lie and say she was fine. There had been so many reports in the news that year of “Black Lives Matter,” of calls made for disturbed persons ending badly. I determined to stay with this woman until emergency personnel arrived. Nothing bad would happen to her as long as I was watching, I decided.
“You’re a beautiful young woman. You deserve better,” I said.
“God bless you,” she said.
She began to walk toward the fence around the Paterson Falls. I panicked. More people have committed suicide near me in Paterson than any place else I’ve lived.
On February 21, 2017, I was walking along this very spot, toward Garret Mountain. My workday was over, I was shrugging off my cares, and heading to the park. Right behind me there was a plunge and a splash. I realized what happened when I saw the emergency vehicles. It’s an eerie feeling when someone ends his own life just as you are passing by. He jumped over the Wayne Avenue Bridge into the Passaic River.
NBC News called the Passaic “The River of Death.” “If you were trying to guess at random the local waterway where two bodies turned up in one day a week ago, the Passaic River would not be a bad bet … over the years, with depressing frequency, bodies have been dumped and tossed into the river or suicides have chosen it as their dreary last stop … The Passaic is a pretty decisive argument against human perfectibility,” writes the New York Times.
On April 25, 2018, I was stopped by a policeman as I attempted to enter the Garret Mountain park.
“Why?” I asked, angry.
“Dunno,” the cop shrugged. I could tell that this police officer knew, but did not want to say, why the park was closed.
I skirted around the police barricade at the main entrance and snuck into the park via a slender trail slinking through trees. I saw emergency personnel in rafts on Barbour Pond. I put two and two together. “Oh, no, not again.” Samuel Nunez, an adjunct professor like me, who taught at Paterson’s community college where I used to teach, had ended his life just before I arrived for my walk. Eventually Prof. Nunez’s body emerged from Barbour’s Pond, and the police barricade was taken down.
A 15-year-old Kennedy high school girl jumped off a Garret Mountain cliff on October 7, 2015. I was visiting Kennedy high school that week as part of my job. Our host explained to us that the students were subdued because their classmate had just flung herself off a cliff.
I did not want another suicide near me. I kept following the barefoot young woman, who was holding on to the fence around the Paterson Falls. I determined to tackle her if she looked like she was going to go over.
After some time, I could hear a siren and see flashing lights. The ambulance pulled up beside me. Stopped commuters honked their car horns. Jerks. The ambulance personnel were suited up for COVID-19. They looked like spacemen.
I indicated the barefoot young woman holding on to the fence. “I’m concerned about her. Can you help?”
“We’re on it,” they said.
I walked away, continuing my walk up to Garret Mountain, and I cried.
I thought of all these incidences and many others as I shouted at the man in the fluorescent orange hoodie on March 23, 2022. I thought of people who seemed desperately needy but who seemed annoyed when I offered help. I thought of rescue workers who seemed annoyed to be called. As before, I thought of my own selfish focus. I wanted to get to nice, clean suburban Wayne, to the efficient, functional CVS, pick up my new prescription, and get back before nightfall. I re-christen the streets I walk along after the name of the person most recently shot on that street. What would Jesus do?
The man in the orange hoodie began to mutter incoherently and sway. He did manage to ask for money for “A cup of coffee.” Coins lay on the ground. I gathered up the coins and pressed them into his palm, but, I said, “I’m not going to give you any money.”
The blood on his forehead cinched my decision. “I’m calling for help,” I said to the man. He showed no awareness.
Remember when I said nothing works in Paterson? I told the dispatcher that I was in the empty lot along the Passaic River between Broadway Bridge – worthy to be an historic landmark! – and the huge Salvation Army complex on Van Houten Street. She claimed that I was being uncooperative, that she had no idea where I was, and that she wouldn’t send anyone. Any Patersonian had to know these landmarks. There are just a handful of bridges over the Passaic River, and you usually have to cross one to enter or exit the city. The dispatcher yelled at me as if I were a misbehaving child in a dysfunctional school run by a sadistic principal. Communicating with her was harder than communicating with the elderly junky I’d just awakened from a possible concussion.
The ambulance sped right past me. The dispatcher called me back and demanded to know, not just “Van Houten Street,” but the exact name of the cross street on which I was standing. I felt like saying, “I could tell you the expletive-deleted exact name of the expletive-deleted cross street if there were any expletive-deleted street signs!” I told the dispatcher to tell the ambulance that I saw them speed past and if they just turned around they’d see me waving.
The ambulance workers, two black men, looked young, handsome, strong, and compassionate. They pulled on bright purple Nitrile gloves. “He’s high,” one ambulance worker said to me, as if that were something really obvious and unimportant, as if I should have just kept walking past.
“I wasn’t sure if I should call or not,” I said, plaintively. “But when I saw that his forehead was bleeding … ” I trailed off. I felt, as I always do, as if I were a stranger in a strange land and everybody else knew the rules around here and I was the only one who did not.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” the ambulance worker reassured me, but the indulgent pity he showed me suggested that I did do something wrong. He and his partner hopped over the guardrail, down to the concrete berm, and the “high” man.
I started walking to CVS, I shook, and I cried.
I see junkies every day. They anger me. They set fire to buildings, endangering us all, taxing the city, and reducing more of Paterson’s landmarks to soot. They threaten mothers with children. A neighbor left quarters on his console, quarters he used to pay parkway tolls. A junky broke the car window and stole the quarters. Junkies defecate in Paterson City Parking Lot # 7. They use the parked cars as privacy shields from the adjacent heavy traffic on Curtis Place, traffic they stop to panhandle. There is a sign announcing that panhandling is illegal, and that drivers, rather than beggars, will be punished if caught. There are no police officers to catch the flow of cash from rolled downed windows into grimy palms at the end of track-marked arms. City Parking Lot # 7 reeks of human feces. Drivers must tiptoe to avoid gathering feces on the soles of their shoes.
Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh is very proud of the taxpayer dollars he has siphoned into Paterson. Costello Park was recently renovated. It is now a playground specially designed for autistic children. No sooner did the construction wrap-up than junkies, bums, and sidewalk partiers re-colonized the area around the park. As five-year-olds slide down itty-bitty kiddy slides, Patersonians lounge on overturned milk crates, drink and litter the sidewalk with discarded bottles and the plastic mouthpieces of their sickly sweet Black and Mild flavored cigars. Junkies demand money from passersby, drop their pants and crap, and no one interferes. Sayegh was able to suck taxpayer dollars into Paterson but he was not able to import a culture that protects children from deviance.
The junkies don’t need drivers trapped at a red light. The junkies are mere feet away from the Salvation Army and multiple other services that would feed, house, and counsel them. They reject help because “help” means “No drugs; no weapons.” They’d rather have drugs and weapons than help. Every “good” person who gives them money subsidizes the damage they do to themselves and an entire city.
What would Jesus do if he saw that suspiciously plump orange hoodie? He would see, in its contents, a creature made in the image and likeness of God. What being, created in the image and likeness of God, would choose an empty lot during cold sunset rainfall instead of a roof, cleanliness, stability? Who, and what, could save that man? The left or the right?
Paterson has the bones of a once-great city inhabited by industrious, risk-taking citizens. Paterson can claim Hollywood celebrities Bruce Vilanch and Abbot and Costello, poets Allen Ginsburg and William Carlos Williams, baseball-bat-wielding high school principal Joe Clark and also Larry Doby, the first black baseball player in the American League, as former residents. John Holland launched the first modern submarine in the Passaic River. Samuel Colt manufactured revolvers with mother of pearl handles on the river’s banks. The engine for the Spirit of St. Louis, Charles Lindbergh’s plane that made the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight, was built in Paterson, as were locomotives used in the construction of the Panama Canal.
Paterson is now inhabited by too many broken lives. God took Ezekiel to a valley of bones. “Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life.” What could work this miracle in Paterson?
I used to be a leftist. Years ago, I went to a David Horowitz lecture. Horowitz is a former Communist who turned rightward. My friends and I regarded him as Satan incarnate. I attended his lecture expecting to protest, or to mock. But, for months afterward, as I walked Paterson’s streets, Horowitz’s lecture echoed in my head. Horowitz was right. The carnage around me has many causes. Industry fled to cheaper labor. But one significant cause: Democratic efforts to help. The very giveaways and lowered standards meant to help actually hurt.
The left promotes the disease model of addiction. The disease model insists that addicts do not exercise choice, but are powerless victims of a disease comparable to cancer. Conservative author and former prison doctor Theodore Dalrymple disagrees. In his book “Romancing Opiates: Pharmacological Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy,” Dalrymple argues that culture and personal choice drive, and can stop, addiction. Dalrymple claims that Mao Zedong cured twenty million opium addicts. Mao, Dalrymple writes, “shot the dealers out of hand, and addicts who did not give up their habit … within a mere three years, Mao produced more cures than all the drug clinics in the world.” Mao was pure evil and I do not endorse his approach, but the success of that approach proves that human choice plays a role in addiction. If Mao had threatened to execute cancer patients, that would not have cured a single one of cancer.
I once had a student I’ll call “Josh.” Josh was the tallest student in class. He moved with that smooth charm that handsome athletes wear as easily as broken-in Levis. Josh came from a loving, white, middle class home in one of America’s most desirable suburbs. Josh cruised toward an A, till the middle of the semester, when he decided that his final project would be something I could not approve, because it was totally extraneous to the subject matter we had studied. Josh could have accepted being told “No,” and adopted a different topic. Knowing that I would have to fail him if he persisted, he persisted, and he failed. He later died of a heroin overdose. After his death, I lurked in an online discussion among mothers who had had a child who died from opioids. One mother said that if she could do anything different for her dead child, she would have told the child “No.” Apparently she never had.
Chris Rufo is currently famous for this work on Critical Race Theory. Before he began that work, he wanted to understand poverty and broken lives in America. He made the documentary “America Lost” about cities like Paterson. Amidst the rubble, he found hope in traditional institutions: the family, and the church.
Conservative values could enflesh Paterson’s dry bones. Conservative values embodied in traditional institutions like solid, self-supporting nuclear families. The church, like the family, is a conservative institution. Some churches focus on the litany of the left: “You are a victim and you are entitled and owed. Cultivate your grievances and blame others for life’s inevitable unfairness. Never allow yourself to feel satisfied. Never allow yourself to feel grateful.” Leftist churches damn rather than save. The salvific church demands answers to conservative questions: “What can you do for others to acquit the debt you owe those others?” That church believes, along with Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl, that no matter how reduced your circumstances, or unjust your fate, you are blessed with free will and you exercise that free will to make choices. A church that recognizes that we are all made in the image and likeness of God also recognizes that we all face consequences and personal responsibility for the choices that we make.
When I voice, on social media, observations fashioned by conservative values, rich, white liberals – RWLs – lecture me. “You have to understand histories of oppression. Racism. Despair. Pain. People don’t want to become drug addicts. They are injured, their doctor prescribes opioids that the big companies distribute like candy so they can earn big profits. The problem is rich white men.”
I have repeatedly been prescribed opioids for illnesses that sidetracked my life and caused me great pain. I took not just hydrocodone, but morphine. I recognized the threat opioids posed, discarded them, and lived with pain for years.
“How do you help a weak muscle?” I ask RWLs. “You work it. You exercise it. You force it to overcome resistance, to lift weight. And you force that muscle to function according to a rigorous pattern dictated by an external formula. Sit-ups. Push-ups. Not ‘Just thrash around however you feel like moving’ but ‘Perform this disciplined movement ten times and meet these external criteria.’ The real-life analog? ‘Dress and groom in this specific way. Arrive on time. Achieve this goal in this manner in this time frame.’ The left attacks the performance principle. The left tells people that they can’t and they shouldn’t be required to. Arriving on time, grooming oneself, achieving a goal, being polite, are now suddenly denounced as ‘white.'”
“Racist,” they say.
I Google the names of towns where these RWLs live. I invariably discover that they live in majority white towns with average incomes tens of thousands of dollars higher than the average income in Paterson. But these RWLs fancy themselves oppression experts.
I tell them that what has kept me alive so far, what has kept me off the needle, out of jail, and above Paterson’s Falls, at least so far, are conservative values. I was raised in a Catholic culture. Nuns were every bit as mean as you’ve heard, and they did beat the stuffing out of me. But they hammered into me that I was made in the image and likeness of God, that my body was “the temple of the holy spirit” and anything I did with my body I shared with God, that my every action had eternal consequences, and, not that I was entitled, but that I owed. I owed my grandmother because she was smart but a peasant and never had a chance at an education, so I had to get an education. I owed my parents who worked miserable jobs to put food on the table. I owe the men who fought for this country. I must not sin, against myself or others, or I will suffer eternal consequences. An old joke: the Jews invented guilt but the Catholics perfected it. That Jewish/Catholic guilt is supposed to cripple. At its best, it doesn’t cripple; it protects. The training I received made it impossible for me to make the same choices Josh made.
Frank was born in Paterson seven decades ago. In 1968, after Martin Luther King was assassinated, Frank’s siblings were walking home from Eastside High School. They were assaulted and “beaten bloody” by a group of black youths. Police intervened and drove them home. Neither Frank’s parents, nor his siblings, had played any role in the assassination of MLK, slavery, or Jim Crow. Frank’s parents were born where borders shift with atrocities and wars. They and their parents had been victims of czars, emperors, Fuhrers and commissars. Three family members had perished in camps. They were post-World-Two Displaced Persons, and came to America as contract manual laborers. They were abused, underpaid, and overworked. The police attempted to explain to Frank’s parents what was happening in the city, but Frank’s parents hadn’t yet learned English. Frank, the only family member born in the US, tried to explain to his parents in Polish language the concept of “race riot.” They understood enough immediately to move the family out of Paterson.
Frank remembers a Paterson that was “poor but decent” where homeowners and store proprietors were fined if the front of their buildings were unclean. Frank remembers streets where he played with black friends, streets that, after 1968, became no-go zones. Frank remembers textile mills still clattering, and smokestacks emitting smoke, but little garbage or crime in the streets. Frank remembers intact families and intense community engagement. Fathers protected their neighborhoods, and mothers protected their own and others’ kids.
One person looks at the Passaic River cascading over the Paterson Falls and says, “Hydropower runs machines. Let’s start an industry!” Paterson’s former residents looked at the Passaic River and built an historic bridge over it. Today Patersonians look at the river and see a place to dump garbage. They see a way to end a life, their own or someone else’s. One person finishes a bag of chips and stuffs the empty bag in his pocket till he arrives at a garbage can. Another person tosses his garbage onto the street. One person sees a park full of playing toddlers and watches his language and smiles beneficently because you have to be nice around little kids; you must protect their innocence. Another person sees a park full of playing toddlers and exploits the surrounding public sidewalk to shoot up, to smoke a joint, to drop garbage or human waste. These choices have nothing to do with genes or “histories of oppression.” These choices are cobbled by culture. Culture can and must change.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery