A foreign country

1991-1995 we lived on Sussex Street in Jersey City, our last address before moving to England. It was a 2 bed shotgun apartment in Paulus Hook, a neighbourhood clinging to the eastern edge of New Jersey. (Definition of a shotgun: one room leads directly to the next in a straight line, such that you can pull the trigger in say the kitchen, and if the doors are lined up as they were with ours, hit a burglar climbing through the bedroom window.) We were in 2L, though I suppose here it would be 1L. Rent wasn’t bad; it’s now a rather pricey area.

Therese appears to be reading the Newark Star-Ledger, which Sunday edition competed with the New York Times for roughage. I note that there’s a book called Medical Tests to her right, these being the days before Dr Google.

She’s sitting in one of a pair of wonderful old polished dark wood and velour chairs we bought at The Salvation Army charity shop for a song. (Most of our furniture was similarly sourced.) We would’ve carried them home a mile or so from the shop. They weren’t light.

The kitchen is in the back. The window overlooked the Statue of Liberty, perhaps a few dozen of her giant steps away.

I wouldn’t call Jersey City a “slice of heaven”, as the mayor suggested it could be to make the credulous feel better about their life choices, but we were reasonably happy there. It was a little like living in NYC but better, as it was cheaper and we had a grand view of the Manhattan skyline a few minutes walk from our doorstep.

The women just upstairs were lovers and fighters. When they weren’t scrapping they played Enya. This one, over and over:

Downstairs was Wanda, permanently stationed at her window on the world. She’d lived in the building since the Nixon administration, and held a grudge against the original owner for selling to a less-than-scrupulous landlord. We liked Wanda. When she died in her 80th year a couple of Russians with no volume control moved in. Thanks to them and the Irish mezzo-soprano, we got in the habit of turning the stereo up. Those days are a far cry from peaceful Far East Sussex.


This is Stephenie Ralston, early in her tenure as manager of marketing and publications at The Lotos Club in NYC. I’m guessing 1994, when she was 53. She singlehandedly kept my typesetting business in the black by giving me their menus, invitations, and monthly newsletter. (Not this one. Occupy Lotos!) The fax would whirr, and I’d get to work on my Compugraphic phototypesetter. This marvelous machine featured WYSIWYG, still a novelty in the biz. Many was the night I spent hunched over a light table with my ruler and X-Acto knife, laying down sheets of cold type with hot wax.

I cut quite the figure in those days: long of hair, ample of belly, scruffy of attire. It’s a wonder I ever made it past the front desk to her office in the sanctum, “where timeless elegance and contemporary style meet.” She does appear to be looking at me with a degree of amusement.

The Club motto comes from The Lotos-Eaters by Tennyson:

In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon
And alternate side of the street parking was suspended

Mark Twain was an early member, which has helped keep dues aspirational ever since.

Stephenie died in 2016. According to her obituary, she was an activist in the civil rights movement and an anti-war protester in the 1960s. In addition to her street cred, “her ability to complete crossword puzzles [presumably The New York Times] in record time was only matched by her remarkable chocolate cake and outstanding apple crisp.”

This next one is Nick, dust specks and all. He was in charge of the copier machines at the New Jersey print shop where I worked for a few years. He talked a mile a minute.

It was the easiest job I ever got. They were advertising for someone who could type, which I was able to do thanks to the only class in high school that ever advanced my career. I walked in, sat in front of the keyboard, proved that my fingers were up to the task without supervision by my eyes, and asked when I could start.

They then left me alone for a few weeks to figure out how to use the computer. You needed to input relatively simple code to configure text. It was kind of fun.

One of our clients was a certain literary club in the city.

The bosses treated me well. I wasn’t shy about asking for raises (despite being a mediocre typesetter; proper training wouldn’t have gone amiss), and I reached the grand heights of $500/week – a fortune.

I even talked them into letting me off the time clock, a hateful device. This lone act of chutzpah did not endear me to my co-workers.

Located in a former swamp, my employer may not have given Tony Soprano’s crew a run for their money, but they did operate in a bit of a moral vacuum. Nick later told me that they used to pay the chief pressman partly in cocaine, an arrangement which fortunately I was never offered.

During a flood I observed them throwing piles of paper stock on the water to increase the insurance payout. They also reported an expensive camera as a write-off, even though it had been untouched.

My personal favourite was when a customer hired them to make a counterfeit of the test results she’d lied about to get a job. Guess whose job it was to match the type and give her a higher score: a challenge I’ll admit was a pleasure, given my regard for standardized tests.

Eventually I grew unhappy with life at the print shop and set off on my own. Shortly afterwards The Lotos Club also jumped ship and landed in my lap. What can I say, I gave good customer service.


Topping up the Hudson River, 1993

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