Sunday, May 31, 2009

Beach Train

There was once a little railway in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, called the Beach Train. The two-foot gauge track was laid in the sand, parallel to the boardwalk. The trains took riders the half mile from Jenkinson's Pavilion to Manasquan Inlet.

If a thing like this had been established in England, it would have had its own corporate title, a band of enthusiasts, and several small books devoted to its history and operations. But this one was just the Beach Train.

I rode it when I was a kid. I remember being puzzled at the three-rail main line, and I remember the fun of riding a little train along the beach.

Years later I rode it again with my own little kid. The Beach Train was down to a single track two-rail main, and a tenth of a mile had been cut from the north end after housing was constructed at the inlet. But it still had the same trains, now in their last years.

Here's a southbound train on a foggy early evening in June 1990.

(We've got a lot of images in this post. Click them for larger versions. They are all my own photographs, except the next four.)

Charles Jenkinson opened the Pavilion in 1928. It transformed Point Pleasant Beach from a quiet seaside town to a popular day tripper destination. The pavilion itself was a large open building on the beach side of the boardwalk, offering various refreshments, and facing it on the land side was another Jenkinson building with a store and swimming pool. The business flourished even in the harsh economic times of the 1930s. Jenkinson established a second
pavilion at Manasquan Inlet in 1934, and in 1938 his son and successor Orlo Jenkinson acquired the 2,000 feet of beach that separated the two. For historical reasons the food and concession facilities were located at each end of the combined property, but this had the pleasing effect of leaving a large central area relatively open with just the boardwalk and the beach. (For a little more history, see Amusement Parks of New Jersey by Jim Futrell, Stackpole Books, 2004.)

The railway opened in 1949. It served both as a gentle amusement ride and as transportation between the two Jenkinson's units. Both round trip and one-way tickets were sold. This almost made it a common carrier, but what I suppose exempted it from regulatory red tape is that it ran entirely within the property of one company.

Historic track plans are not available, but the basic plan was a main line parallel to the boardwalk with a loop at each end. The Inlet station was on the north loop. The Pavilion station however was located on a single track extending past the south loop. Trains had to back out a
short distance past the siding switch, and then run forward into the south loop to turn.

The three aerial views below, from postcards published circa 1955 to 1960, show the Beach Train layout. The postcard images are from Point Pleasant History.

Blogger Emil Salvini at
Tales of the New Jersey Shore writes:
At one time there were three shiny locomotives that pulled seven, two seat cars each and a pair of them always ran in seven-minute intervals often passing each other at 20 MPH.
I know of two engines: 311 delivered in 1949, and 312 delivered in 1953. They seem to have been from the same unknown builder, since later evidence is that the parts were interchangeable. Orlo Jenkinson did not go for railway nostalgia, but ordered engines that looked similar to the most modern main line power, Electro Motive Division F units, although they are not scale models. As J R May commented in 2008, they were amusement park trains "but the locomotives are hefty".

The main line was laid with three rails, with a full four-rail passing siding about halfway. The three-rail section was cheaper than full double track and still had the advantage of eliminating switches at the loops.

Another postcard view, below, gives a good view of most of the line
looking south from a point over the north loop. This shows how the three-rail main line avoided a switch where the loop starts. The passing siding is clearly visible in the distance.

Below, engine 311 leads a northbound six-car train at the reverse curve near Inlet, on three-rail track. This is the same curve seen in the previous view. Postcard view from Point Pleasant History.

Below, engine 312 leads a southbound train on three-rail track. Photo by J R May, late 1970s, used by permission of The Two Footers.

I took the four photographs below in October 1989. They show the trains laid up in the off season. It amazes me that they were not covered at all, allowing wind-blown sand to beat them and blow into the engine compartments. The entire fleet at this time was the two engines and seven passengers cars numbered 1 to 7.

Below: Pavilion station. The stairway, left foreground, led to a concrete platform with benches for waiting passengers. The sidewall differences between engines 311 (front) and 312 are apparent, as well as their general similarity.

Below: Close-up of engine 312 and the identification text of 311.
Both engines had notations "JBT" (Jenkinson's Beach Train), and stated the year delivered. They also had an "F" designating the front end, as unnecessary as that may seem!

Below: Looking north from Pavilion station. The south loop is visible in the near distance. It's about six weeks after the line closed for the season, and the track is already disappearing under the sand.

Below: Looking south from the north loop, at almost the same location as the postcard view of 311 a few images back. The Pavilion is the white building in the distance. The loop is the track in the right foreground and it returned just this side of the fence in the near distance. Inside the loop the siding is visible together with some extra rails.


Let's take a ride! The following are from a set of photos I took one evening in July 1990. The film exposure has some problems, but the images preserve scenes on a now-vanished railway. Jenkinson's closes the beach when the lifeguards go off duty at 5:30, so we don't see anybody out there at this hour. Engine 311 will be protecting the schedule today.

Below: We back out of Pavilion station until we are past the switch. There (not shown) the brakeman gets off the train and armstrongs the switch to point into the loop, and we proceed forward into the loop.

Below: The engineer pauses the train in the south loop. The brakeman has reset the switch for the siding, for the return trip, and approaches the train. In a moment we will begin our journey north.

Below: The spring switch where the south loop joins the main. The northbound train (coming in from upper right) pushes its way through.

Below: The main line, looking north. This is why track is not usually laid in loose sand! In the distance is the dark pile of housing built at the inlet, seen looming over the white refreshment pavilion that was now the only public facility at the inlet end of the line.

Below: Running northbound.

Below: Northbound train, seen trackside. The brakeman sits sideways at the back of the engine. The Pavilion is in the left distance.

Below: The later Inlet station, after the railway was cut back, consisted of a bench and blue garbage can.

Below: On the other side of Inlet station, one passenger car waits on the siding inside the loop.

Below: Leaving the north loop, heading back south.

Below: Running southbound.

On this same date I came upon the scene of an accident. A passenger car of a southbound train had derailed at the spring switch coming out of the north loop. The engine pulled away so that the brakeman and two other men from the company could loosen the switch and right the car. The passengers appear dazed from the experience.


The third generation of Jenkinsons sold the business in 1977 to Pasquale Storino and associates, who had been previously in the gambling machine business. Storino quickly upgraded the old pavilion and other buildings, and began acquiring the other boardwalk properties. At the inlet, a large residential complex was built where there had been a kiddie park and later a miniature golf course. The Beach Train railway's north loop was relocated about 500 feet south, and more importantly there were now no amusements at the inlet to draw visitors.

Emil Salvini writes,

By the mid 1990s the new owners of Jenkinson's lost interest in the train and the Zitarosa family purchased the train running it as a labor of love. Parts were impossible to locate so locomotive parts were pirated from each other and by the end one locomotive could barely run at 5 MPH on a single set of tracks. The family struggled to find a buyer as they dealt with the constant deterioration of the tracks caused by the sand and heat. In the end they gave up the good fight and the old beach train became a Jersey Shore memory.
Engine 311 may have been the survivor. It is the one seen pulling a train in my 1989 and 1990 photographs.

The Beach Train's last run was on Saturday, August 31, 1996. The New York Times reported, "The train's owner, Rick Zitaross, said that an amusement park in New York State had expressed interest in giving the train a new home."

However the train ended up in private hands. J R May wrote late in 2008 at The Two Footers, a periodical for narrow gauge enthusiasts:

I have now joined the ranks of two-foot gauge ownership with my recent purchase of the "remains" of the Jenkinson's Beach Train which ran on the beach here in Point Pleasant, NJ for nearly 50 years. I rode many times as a kid and even collected tickets on it and ran it back in the 1977 summer season. The more complete of the two locomotives is here in my garage in Wall, NJ, and the four cars and second locomotive are down in South Jersey with my 3' gauge Porter.
Therefore that much of the rolling stock survives. The Beach Train railway though will not be seen again.

Next time: Growing smaller.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


The college stories I've been doing are starting to get to me. Every time I write one and think I'm using up all I can remember and then some, more stuff comes tumbling out of the closets of my brain. Memories that had lain there harmlessly for years come back to haunt me.

I'll tell you one that surprised me when I remembered it.

Actually, first I need to set this up. One of my favorite foods is a dish made with crumbled chopped meat, green pepper, and tomato sauce, served over a small pasta like shells or elbows. Pasta Bolognese, we sophisticates would call it. I not only like to eat it, but it's one of very few things I can cook without thinking much about it, I've been making it for so long.

Now I could exaggerate and say I've eaten this dish forever but that's not true. There is no way we had this in my Irish American house, with the meat and potatoes and the decorative peas and corn (decorative as far as we kids were concerned). My mom would not have made this pasta thing. It comes from somewhere else.

What surprised me? I suddenly remembered where I got this dish from. College. The girl that "Mary" is based on in the stories used to cook this for the two of us. It was cheap, reasonably nutritious, and filling. I had totally forgotten about that.

But now of course I'm going to think about it. This is what I get for my freakin' need to write stories. I've got a mental image of a tiny white apartment kitchen and... oh, enough, I really don't want this in my head. If only I'd left well enough alone.

Let's focus on the weird name she had for it. Slumgullion. Ever hear of it? It probably depends on where you're from. Frustratingly the Dictionary of American Regional English has been published only up to words starting with "sk"! But a tour of the web suggests that usage is concentrated around Ohio and Indiana as I would have guessed.

The exact ingredients vary, but it usually involves a mixture of beef, tomato paste or sauce or soup, onions or green pepper or corn, poured over a base of "macaroni" (not your fancy "pasta"!) or sometimes rice or potato. In origin it was probably a stew of leftovers.

The oldest reference is Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1872, but there it is not a stew at all but a cheap liquor. (What else would it be? It's Mark Twain, chewing a cigar and swigging ol' rotgut.)

The derivation of the name appears to be from "slime" and the obsolete word "gallion" which means mud or even cesspool. Mmm, tasty! See this.

Does thinking about a slimy cesspool make you hungry? Hey, let's make some! We're going to feed three people today: me, my wife, and my daughter home from college.


Half pound to full pound of chopped meat. I think it's faithful to the origins of this dish to just go to the store and see what size packages they happen to have. I'd tend to go for the smaller end of this range though, unless you're all really hungry. If you can splurge on 90% lean that will save you pouring out the fat, and since we're putting this into sauce we don't need to worry about it being dry. Today I found a package of 0.53 pound of ground chuck.

A jar or can of some kind of tomato product.
I don't want to be telling you what to do. What I've been reading tells me that slumgullion can be very soupy, but at home we like it the opposite way, and the version I first had was somewhere in the middle. I would use a small can of plain tomato sauce or a small jar of prepared pasta sauce. Today I've got a 14 ounce jar of Classico tomato and basil sauce.

Some kind of pasta.
The standard for slumgullion is elbow macaroni, the same stuff you'd make mac and cheese with (something I just can't stand to eat). I'm breaking with tradition here and using spaghetti. This Dreamfields brand has more fiber and less digestible carbs than most, and it's still a nice semolina pasta, not some mysterious alternative.

One green pepper.
You see how simple this dish is, so it's nice to add something else. Many people use onion. A little bit of chopped celery is pretty good too, if you have some celery around. I wouldn't buy it just for this. People on the web mention corn, which strikes me as a weird ingredient for this dish, except that they probably had plenty of it around out there in mid America. Some people who grew up eating slumgullion talk about how much they hate it now. Anyway what we have here is a green pepper, and I like it.

The other carb. It fills you up and you can mush it around in the meat and sauce to get another texture going. We have a nice bastone from locally famous Calandra's bakery, with a nice tough crust on it. I usually get a semolina bread but the store didn't have any left today. Am I getting too fancy? Look, it's not made organically in Vermont or anything.

Red wine.
This is not slumgullion tradition, but I can't eat pasta without it. We have here a Primitivo from Puglia in southern Italy, a close relative of Zinfandel, and it's got "full body and unique mineral bouquet with undertones of cherries and plums". Sometimes I have a Sicilian red, or an Australian Shiraz or west coast Syrah (same grape). It should be something dry and full bodied anyway.

You need a pot for the pasta and a pan for the meat and other stuff. I don't know what these cooking containers are called technically, but look at them, below. You know you have things like them.
(After taking the photo below I remembered the right side burner is the larger one, and moved the pot and pan.)


Put water in the pot, meat in the pan, and get them going on high. Keep pushing at the meat with an implement to break it up so it gets into crumbly bits. You need to get the meat brown all through.

While this is happening, cut the pepper. Come on, be good, that's not a euphemism. Cut little pieces off the green pepper.

Also, open the container of tomato whatever, and start to break off pieces of bread, dip them in the sauce, and eat them. Cook's privilege. You might also open the wine and pour a glass, so you can check whether it's any good.

At length you will discover that the water is boiling and the meat has become brown, or black. We move seamlessly into phase deux.

Put pasta into the water, and see how long they say it needs to cook on the side of the box. Set the timer. This is a break from tradition, since slumgullion macaroni is probably just cooked until it turns to mush. But we don't have to do that if we don't want to. The style favored by Cleveland shortstop Al Dente (lifetime .220) is what we want.

Using a timer is a recent break from my tradition, which was to scoop out a pastum (that's singular for pasta, right?) every so often, put it in my mouth and burn my tongue, and chew to see how it's going. I am not too set in my ways to change.

Now turn to the meat pan. If you can see fat floating around, I'd pause here and scoop out as much of that fat as you can. We used 90% lean and we don't need to. Ha ha. We can turn off the burner for a few minutes, because we're using a small jar of medium thick sauce. If you are using a larger container of something thinner, leave the burner on and dump it in now, and let some of the water in it boil away.

At some point when the force moves us, we put the burner back on and dump the sauce and peppers in there. We only need to get the sauce hot, and we like to keep the peppers snappy. Probably it's when the pasta timer says there'
s four or five minutes left.

Try not to let that last step slide till the pasta timer dings, because then you have to face the quandary about whether to let the pasta sit in the water, or to drain it and let it sit without the water. It gets a little weird either way. It's good if no one is in the kitchen to see either of those things happen, like when you drop something on the floor, wipe the cat hair off, and toss it back in the pan where the bacteri
a will be killed by the heat (but I know you wouldn't do that).

If all is well, when the timer goes off, the house does not explode, but rather the pasta is perfectly done and so is the pan with the meat, sauce, and pepper. Turn them off, drain the pasta, and yell at the other two people you're cooking for, to come and get it before you toss it to the hogs.

I forgot, but before now you should have set out plates, forks, and glasses on the table, and brought the bread and wine out there if you've left any for them. Provide soft drinks and grated cheese for them that likes it, and some kind of napkins. We like these paper napkins on a roll.


There. Now you can sit and enjoy a good American meal and be patriotic for just the once.

Next time: Beach Train.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


[The College stories start here.]

Classy literary pieces sometimes begin with an apt quotation from a respected writer. I can do little more than be pretentious, but why should that stop me?
When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.
—Reader's Digest, September 1937.
You thought it was Mark Twain, right? So did I. But it hasn't been sourced earlier than 1937, and besides that Samuel Clemens's father died when he was eleven. But Twain is good. I'll just pick another one.
It isn't so astonishing, the number of things that I can remember, as the number of things I can remember that aren't so.
—Josh Billings, as recalled by Mark Twain to his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine.
So Twain said it, but he didn't say it, as Yogi would put it. Josh Billings was the comic character of writer Henry Wheeler Shaw, and apparently the source of the expression "just joshing". That's not a bad quote, but I'm determined to find a real quotation from Twain that will work here. Third time's the charm. This next one is for real.
When we remember that we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.
—Mark Twain, Notebooks, July 1898.

I don't think we realized it, but one of the lessons we needed to learn back in college was how to handle our parents. We didn't live at home any more. What were we going to do with them?

One day Lisa was talking to me about going out to JFK with her friend Andrea. I told you I worked in the library. Lisa was a student who worked mainly in Philosophy Library. She was a friend of Mary's although they couldn't have been more different. I got that shock thing with Mary but we really got on each other's nerves ; there wasn't anything like that happening with Lisa but we always got along great.

Lisa had a long series of boyfriends we never saw. I don't mean to cast doubt. I had reason to believe it. But it was like she left work and entered some other universe than the one we were in with our grind of working and studying. Good for her. I had no clue how to meet that many girls or where I would go with them if I did.

I first ran into Lisa when I went down to cover her break time in Philo. Lisa was very easy to talk to. When she asked how you were doing, she actually wanted to know. "Fine" was not a good enough answer. She'd get you started, pick up her knitting, and say "tell me more" every time you paused, until you ran out of news, or until somebody called down to ask why break wasn't over yet. I would schedule my own break to come right after I spelled Lisa, and sitting there with her was my break.

And how was Lisa herself doing? Well, she danced around that most of the time, as far as I know. You could see what her mood was all right, but if she told anybody what really was up with her, it wasn't me. She was probably doing the same thing she did with our news: she passed it along only to the ones she thought needed to know.

Anyway, back to our story. It seemed her friend needed to get to JFK, and Lisa was going to go along to keep her company, and somehow I got invited so that I could keep Lisa company on the way back. I think what was happening is that Andrea's parents were flying in from somewhere, and she was joining them to continue to somewhere else. I don't quite remember that part.

At this time I had rarely seen Lisa outside the library, and I had never met her friend Andrea. So this was a grand adventure. We all met up someplace on campus and set off downtown. The cheap way to JFK, which is what we were taking, was the subway to a place way out in Queens, and then a local bus the rest of the way. None of us had done it before. I guess we might have been helping Andrea carry stuff too, now that I think about it.

All I can recall for sure is that we had a happy time travelling together. It was dark out, and cold. Winter break maybe. But it didn't bother us. I'm pretty sure where we went was the Union Turnpike subway station, and then we went outside and found our way with other poor travellers to the bus stop nearby and took the Q-whatever bus from there. It was a long journey but the three of us were doing fine.

The interesting thing about it is that when we got to the airport, we met Andrea's parents, and Lisa and I spent a little time hanging out with them before we headed back. What comes to me clearly out of the fog of dying memory cells is Lisa and I talking on the way back about how nice Andrea's parents were, not like our dorky moms and dads. They didn't seem crazy or embarrassing at all, and we had had a reasonable conversation together. What a lucky girl that Andrea was.

That's about it. I am wondering now, off on a tangent, why I did not ask Lisa when Andrea was coming back or get her opinion on helping me contact her when she did, but maybe that right there is the difference between people like Lisa and some of the rest of us.

One more thing.

On some other occasion much later on, Lisa needed a car. By this time we were pretty good friends. I can't think of any reason we would need a car in Manhattan except to help somebody move, so let's say that was it. I don't remember any cool story to tell you about who was moving. At any rate I ended up calling my parents to find out whether we could use one of their two cars. They lived at this time in Rockland County in a house that will feature someday in my Places I Have Lived series. Yes, they told me we could borrow a car. We were going to take it overnight.

So Lisa was the first girl I brought home to meet the folks. The usual Barnard girl of the time, with her frizzy hair in a bun, well worn jeans, peasant blouse, pretty much something out of the Woodstock festival. My girlfriend? No one asked. If they thought so, fine. I liked Lisa. Anyway. We took the subway to the bus terminal, the bus up highway 9W, and got to the house. We sat in the kitchen for a while and talked to my mom and maybe my dad. It was weird. Two parts of my life colliding. I should explain that I could not have avoided this terribly awkward experience by going by myself, because I had not yet learned to drive, I was such a city kid. The only way to get the car was to bring Lisa up there with me.

So we drove the car back to New York and parked it on Claremont Avenue behind Barnard for the night. Sure, I remember that, but not whatever it was that we did with the car the next day. What can I tell you. That's how my brain works sometimes. I also don't remember anything at all about returning the car and seeing one or both of my parents a second time, but obviously we must have done that. They got the car back in good condition.

But now here's the really weird part. This is your payoff for reading this far. On the way back on the bus, Lisa told me how nice my parents were, not like her dorky mom and dad.

Megalosaurus is in college now. She writes:
My parents are a never-ending source of amusement ... I swear, I am living in a sitcom sometimes ... No wonder I turned out the way I did.
The torch is passed.
When we remember that we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.

[The next College story is Growing Smaller.]

Next time: Slumgullion.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


[The College stories start here.]

There were communists around in those days. College days.

Previously I might have left the impression that I worked only in Burgess-Carpenter and Classics Library, but BCC had an outpost two floors down, a little place we liked to call Philosophy Library. That was its name. That's why we called it that. It said it on the door.

Philo needed only one person at a time, but we on the BCC student staff would cover it for breaks and vacations, and eventually I had regular assigned shifts down there. There wasn't anybody to talk to except to try to kibitz with the Philosophy grad students when they took reading breaks and stood around outside the reading room door. Because of this, for a time I knew someone who could tell you what Hegel would say about just about anything that could happen. Listen, I waited for a chance when that would be handy, but it never came.

This is a roundabout way of saying how I met James, the communist student, who worked mainly in Philo. He might have been
involved in the biographical research on Carpenter and Classics, now that I think of it. One of his concerns was that anyone who knew him might end up blackballed once a background check revealed a connection to him. At this date I no longer recall specifically what activities he was involved in, and maybe he never told me. He was a nice quiet guy. I guess those are the ones that blow things up. No, I don't think that happened. He was from Maine, and that's almost like being Canadian.

Some old communist from the 1930s had an incredibly well located apartment right across the street from campus on 114th St, and rather than live in it, he rented the three bedrooms to students. When I met her, Mary was one of them. The other two students, a year ahead of us, had the same name, and had worked out that one would be Dave and the other one David, so that they'd know which one you were addressing. The apartment had a great phone number: 222-2223. (But please don't call it. The people who have it now don't want to know about this.)

As we all knew, Mary was secretly in love with Dave, but this did not seem to mean much to him. I think he was secretly in love with somebody else, but Dave left so little an impression on me that I'm afraid I just don't remember much about him aside from him being pretty good looking. If I was a girl I would say he was handsome. But I'm not, so I'm going to go with Mary's judgement on this one.

David meanwhile spent much of his time being sore that people didn't like him because he was Jewish. I never told him that probably the truth was that they didn't like him because of his argumentative personality. I figured this would not have made him feel better, and he was maybe better off with his own interpretation.

As the school year drew to a close I was mentioning to people that I was wondering where to live when the dorm closed. Although we had by now accepted each other's existence as an inescapable fact, I did not expect it when Mary asked me if I'd like to live in her room for the
summer. Excuse me? What? Ha, I made her blush. She meant she was going home to the parents, and they wanted somebody to cover her third of rent. Apparently I had fooled Dave and David into believing I was not much crazier than they were.

So that summer I lived with the communists.

I have to mention the people in the apartment next door. They were an indefinite number of girls who seemed to wear as little as possible. We believed that they hung around the apartment wearing just flimsy long shirts. We gained nothing from it though. Dave probably didn't care, David probably assumed they would not like him because he was Jewish, and I probably was not yet the suave young man that I would later... oh let's face it, they scared us.

The only one who'd ventured in there was Mary. One time the communists had been locked out, and Mary had been allowed into the girls' apartment so that she could climb out their window and walk along a ledge to get to the adjacent open window in the communist apartment. The ledge was no more than three inches wide, and this was the fifth floor. Dave and David insisted to me that this really happened. If so it has to be the craziest thing Mary did. That I know of.

It was really a two-bedroom. Her room, now temporarily mine, was the living room. It had a pair of glass-panelled doors, with the glass painted over, and they closed completely, so it could be a bedroom. Being the living room, it was a good size, with large windows looking out toward campus. The only common space left was the kitchen and bathroom.

Dave and David seemed to keep busy. What did they do for money? It beats me. What an incurious person I could be. Maybe I knew once. I must have eaten with them sometimes but nothing about that sticks in my mind. I don't think we had a television. David liked to sit there commenting on stories in the New York Times and that was usually good to listen to. Even when he was outraged at the latest thing the government was doing there was something comical about his delivery.

I knew from Mary that the price of living in the communist apartment included doing things from time to time to help the oppressed peoples. Or at least doing things to publicize talks the movement gave about helping the oppressed peoples. The devious bastards said nothing to me about this, and Mary thought that they might let it go since I would only be there temporarily till she got back in September.

But enough about Mary. She was gone for three blessed months and I found inner peace or something that would pass for it.

One day I came back from work to find Dave and David pondering the state of things at the kitchen table. They needed scissors. Did I happen to have scissors? No, of course not. When you live in dorms or shared apartments, you don't have things like scissors. Not when you can borrow them from your friends when you need them.

They had looked all over and couldn't find scissors. They got up and
looked in their rooms again, and then opened the kitchen drawers too. No joy. They looked frustrated, the poor guys. It was a warm summer evening, and there they were sitting in a little kitchen without scissors.

Then I got it. It was a communist trick. I was supposed to volunteer
to go get scissors. See, if they could subtly guide me in that direction, so I'd feel like it was my own idea to go get them, it would get me in a frame of mind where I was part of their scheme, whatever it was, and I could be sucked into helping them out with the rest of it. Right. This is how they get recruits. What caused their obvious frustration was that I was so slow to take the bait. It made me wonder how long they could keep at it.

I happened to notice that they had something taped to the refrigerator
that had obviously been cut out with scissors. I showed them. They must have scissors, because one of them did this. Yes, of course they had scissors, but they were lost. They couldn't find them. And now they needed scissors. They got up and looked again in the same places.

After a while it started getting old. "I'm going to go to Woolworth's and buy scissors." "Oh, you don't have to." But I did have to. I had to get out of there. Any excuse.

Along the way I stopped and looked in the window of Janoff's store on Broadway. Old man Janoff still ran it then. It was a cluttered old store that dealt with typewriter sales and repair but also art and writing supplies. I've always liked cluttered stores like that. If you can describe what you want to the owner, he'll show you some corner where they not only have it but have several kinds of it. He had the best selection of pens and paper in the neighborhood. I was thinking of replacing one of my Rapidograph pens that was clogged up, so I almost went in. But I was on a mission. After giving it a few moments' thought I moved along.

We liked Woolworth's. I'd gone there with Mary sometimes. I have to explain that with our counterculture values, we hated large soulless corporations and the money-grubbing they stood for. So liking Woolworth's is worth remarking upon. But the store was full of useful stuff, and at good prices. You felt like you were getting a fair deal there. If the oppressed peoples had run their own stores, they'd be pretty much like Woolworth's.

Anyone who patronized our local Woolworth emporium at 109th and Broadway will remember one peculiarity of the building. The back left quarter of the store sloped downhill to the corner. If you didn't see it, your inner ear would alert you that something was off balance as you walked back there. The store shelves sloped down with it, but the ceiling was level.
It was inexplicable why the floor tilted. The building rested on solid Manhattan bedrock. It had to have been built that way originally. When Woolworth's went out of business the building was renovated to death and some spoilsport changed the floor to the ordinary level style that you can find anywhere.

I went in and started looking around. Down in the back— literally
down in the back— I watched the parakeets in the pets section. Then I remembered I'd been wanting to get a new cup, so I looked at what they had and selected one. I looked at some of the home furnishings but I decided not to add anything to my temporary quarters. Next aisle: did I need socks? I guess not. Then there were those pesky scissors. I saw they had the blunt ones for little kids, and maybe I would get a pair of those and say that that was all I could find. But that would be a lie. I took a normal pair. I paid for the cup and scissors up front.

I decided to walk back in the shade of the trees on Riverside Drive. I paused to watch the little kids playing in the tot lots, their parents watching them. I'm sure I did not think that on some day that lay ahead one of those dads would be me and one of those kids would be mine. In fact I am sure I imagined myself for a few minutes as one of the kids on the swings and climbing bars, not one of the old people. But you can't go back.

I walked
up the edge of the park to 116th, looking at the trees and feeling the summer air. You don't want to go too fast when it's warm out. Then it was up the hill and through the campus grounds, with the college kids lying in the grass or tossing disks, and lastly around to 114th St.

I walked in to the dark empty apartment, left the scissors on the
kitchen table, and went into my room to read a book.

Dave and David didn't try to get me to do anything else. There was an
odd moment late in the summer when they told me I would have to move because Mary was coming back. As if this had not always been the plan. It was fine with me though. I had a dorm room lined up.

[The next College story is Parents.]

Next time: Parents.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


[This is the first College story.]

Back in college, I knew this girl Mary. We had a weird thing going. Weird. That was one of her favorite words. I can still hear how she drawled out the "e" and that hard "r" in her midwestern accent. It's still with me even though it was a long time ago. Sometimes I say "weird" the way she would say it, but nobody knows that I am imitating somebody when I do it.

I should tell you right off the strangest thing about it. This gets right to the heart of the problem. There was something she did that nobody else ever did to me. The first time I saw Mary on any day, I got a shock. My heart skipped. It sounds like a corny song lyric but it really happened. Like a scare, like hearing an unexpected noise in a dark place. It was a little more happy than that. There she is! I still don't know what the hell that was. It was annoying. Because we didn't really get along.

One day when I was walking on campus between classes I saw Mary coming the other way. She was looking around as she walked and right about when she noticed me she stumbled on an uneven brick in the pavement and dropped the notebooks she was carrying. She stopped still and looked at me. I proceeded to drop my stuff too and looked back. We stood there like that while people walked by between us. Then she shook off the look we were giving each other, acted annoyed, picked up her things, and walked away without a word. That gave me an idea.

The next time I saw her I said we should do it again. We could
compare class schedules and agree on a time that we could just happen to meet— no cell phones in those days— and we could make it more elaborate. An ostensibly chance encounter, some kind of dropping stuff to get attention, some kind of weird interaction, and then, key thing, walk away as if nothing unusual had happened. She gave me The Look and said I was weird. I guess I enjoyed saying things like that, to get a rise out of her. I'm not sure what my motivation was sometimes. Our thing never made a lot of sense.

We worked together in the university library. That's how I met her. I was hired as a student worker, and first day in, I was assigned to do inventory with this girl. It was summer, and Mary was wearing a simple dress and sandals with a lot of straps. She had me at hello. The job was to go off to some section of shelves, and one of us would say call numbers from the shelflist, and the other would say whether the books were there, and they could be checked off on the list. Boring boring. We took turns doing each side of it. I had a nice day.

I learned how to shelve books, and check out books, and all the routine stuff you do in a library. It was a full time job in the summer. Along the way I learned that if Mary and I spent any time talking about things, we would soon reach a point where we had differing opinions, and it would all go downhill. The problem was that Mary was as smart as anything and let you know it, and I have always liked girls like that. It was awful.

Once summer was over, I did evening and weekend hours at the
library, whatever worked around my classes. Mary and I never took a class together, even though we were in the same year. That would have been interesting. I can only imagine what we'd have been like in class discussions. I always thought it was fascinating how much we disagreed, and she didn't.

I worked with Mary every week. I barely remember working with anyone else, but that cannot be right. They only needed two students at a time to run the place. It seems to me now as if we were picking each other's shifts. But maybe it was just that we both worked as many hours as we could, and there were only so many hours. Somehow we spent a lot of time together whether we liked it or not. Even now I can tell you what town Mary grew up in, her little sister's name, and what snack cake she asked for if I ran out to get us something.

The library, no longer a separate entity, was a combination of three small libraries that occupied the fourth floor of the Butler Library building. Its full name was Burgess-Carpenter and Classics. Mike, one of the older student workers, told a few of us one day that nineteenth century Columbia icon, Professor John W Burgess, had believed in the supremacy of the Anglo-Aryan people. The absurdity of this appealed to some of us and we wanted to get the dirt on the others too. Mike went on to become a radical historian and activist. We had a few communists around the place. It was still almost the sixties. Mike was at Columbia in 1968.

We found to our disappointment that George Rice Carpenter, a professor of Rhetoric in the decades around 1900, had been much appreciated by his students, and had written nothing more controversial than textbooks and a few biographies of well-known authors. In the library a handful of old books that no one read still had their original bindings with a bookplate inside the front cover featuring a halftone photograph of Carpenter. I wonder whether any of those are still around.

I was able to find some information on Homer G Classics that no one
else knew about. It's a little hazy to me now but I'll tell you what I can recall. Practically obligated by his name, he became a scholar of Greek and Latin. Like Carpenter he taught generations of students at Columbia. The Classics Library was formed under his guidance. Some say he invented the trot, a book with facing pages of original text and nearly literal translation, with notes, an aid to students, but he could have done no more than popularize it in America ; such things go back centuries. His few publications are even more obscure than Carpenter's. In retirement he finally admitted to a lifelong interest in mechanical engineering, only hinted at in his series of articles on Archimedes that were once in vogue. Manuscripts found after his death suggested that he planned to publish on more modern engineering topics, and possibly had already done so under a pseudonym.

The bunch of us typed up a sheet with brief vitae of the three. Mary
said my work on Classics was ridiculous. I expected nothing less. She never appreciated my writing. I think we conspirators followed up on our plan to make photocopies to distribute at the desk, but I cannot recall whether we did. I don't have one now, but maybe someone reading this does.

Was there anything more boring than doing inventory? Why, yes. There was. Shelf reading. You pull all the book spines to the shelf edge, push the bookends to get all the books standing straight, and while doing this you check that the books are filed in call number order. I shelf-read. Mary shelf-read. We all did. At least sometimes we could beg to work the same bookstack area and be close enough to call out strange titles as we found them and steal glances. There was a copy of Fleurs du Mal that had been rebound with the neatly stamped gold title Mal du Fleurs. Of course we did not bring it back to the office for correction. Mary just sighed deeply the second time I showed it to her. And the third. But this was comedy! With a capital K!

One day when we were not at work, I was in the big reading room attached to the Reference collection, taking notes from encyclopedias for some paper I had to write. I think it was the paper where my topic was the earliest railway. I wonder what class that was. I had discovered that the ancient Greeks built something to carry ships across the Isthmus of Corinth, and it would be the earliest, if you'll count a stone guideway as a railway. I was especially pleased that I had retained enough of my high school Greek to read parts of an article on it in a Greek encyclopedia, which had the longest account I could find. And what a cool bibliography item that was going to make, with the title handwritten in squiggly Greek letters amongst the typing. I was full of myself. (Today you can just Google it and before long you end up with this and this.)

I was writing away when I heard somebody drop something and looked up. Mary was in the doorway from Reference, and she had dropped a fat ringbinder and was now standing there looking at me. I was sitting at a reading table about fifty feet away across the big room. I stood up and brushed my notebook and pens to the floor and looked back at her. About half the students in the room were looking. She left the binder where it fell and took a step toward me, and I started walking toward her.

We kept our eyes locked and walked slowly straight toward each other. What the hell were we going to do when we met in the middle? We had never planned it out. We kept going until we stopped about a foot apart. Mary was as tall as I was, so we were eye to eye. She looked at me ; I looked at her. What was it going to be? She took a breath, pursed her lips and... maybe she meant to blow a sudden puff of air, contemptuously. But I felt spit hit my cheek. I don't know how I kept a straight face, but I paused for control, and spat back at her. Our faces remained expressionless. We both raised our left arms slowly and deliberately wiped the spit from our faces, and flicked it away, still looking in each other's eyes. She waited a beat and then turned her back to me. I turned around too. Glancing down I saw her start to walk away, so I did the same.

When I got back to my seat I bent over to pick up my stuff. I stole a glance toward the door. The walk toward each other had timed it perfectly for the walk back. She was just picking up her binder at the same time. She never looked back at me but just walked out the door. I resumed taking notes. We had gained the attention of the whole room by this time. A few students wandered in and wondered why everyone but me was looking around the room instead of reading.

We never did it again. But that one was good.

And it shows you what our relationship was.

[The next College story is Communists.]

Next time: Communists.