Monday, July 27, 2009

Sweet Home, New Jersey

That's my old man's luncheonette in the 1940s and that's some of the crowd that often gathered there for community discussions. They'd consume plenty of coffee. My dad and mom are in back row to the far right. (photo courtesy Chester Historical Society)

Why does it always seem to happen in NJ?
by Charlie Leck

My concentration has been on New Jersey lately. I am compiling a book of memories and stories about my early life in Jersey. It will be a private publication for, you know, the grandkids and, perhaps, their kids. It’s really just an ego driven attempt to leave something of myself behind – to hang on through a few more generations. Nevertheless, I’m enjoying the exercise of stretching my mind and recalling stories of youth. I send most of the stories back to Jersey, to my brother Frank, so he can make comments and corrections. He has a much more finely tuned memory than I.

So, this week, the New York Times is carrying a lot of stories about corruption in my home state. They had another big bust by the cops back there that even pinched a few rabbis among the crooked mayors, assemblypersons and town councilpeople. Amazing! There aren't really big bucks involved. A genuine crook would sneer at the idea of being bought for such meager prices.

My old man’s general store and luncheonette was a gathering place for the “old men” in my hometown. Art Thompson, Ed and Dan McDonald, Fred Wyckoff and some other geezers would gather there on cold, snowy winter days when there wasn’t much else to do but gossip. They’d stake out a table near the big old coal burning stove in the center of the store. Coffee and buttered toast, with some jam on the side, was a popular order.

Some of the regular, retired old-timers would hang around for hours. On and off, they’d be joined by some of the working men in town who would take their coffee breaks at the store just to get in on a little of the banter.

One of the popular topics of conversation was crooked politicians. As a kid, listening in on all this talk, it was easy to get the idea that every big city and every big state was just as bad as New Jersey; but that wasn’t true. New Jersey holds a special and leading position in this category of political corruption. It seemed that the mayoral candidates of the big communities over near the Hudson River and New York City were always running against incumbents who were uncovered as crooks; and they were always promising to clean things up. A couple years later these new mayors would take a tumble and the cops would nail them for taking a bribe of a few hundred dollars to quash a health inspection report or something of the sort.

The men around the table would laugh themselves silly with funny stories about “the gang” and the pols. They were pretty much equals in the eyes of those guys sipping on their hot coffee while their booted toes were stretched out toward the coal stove. Local politicians in the urban areas of the state were stereotyped as crooks.

My mom would wander around the crowded table with a fresh pot of coffee, refreshing the 5¢ cups of coffee. The guys would stay an hour or more on those winter days. They would have each purchased a newspaper – a New York Herald Tribune or a Daily News – and they’d browse through them as they chatted.

This morning’s NY Times tells us that in the last decade “nearly 150 of the state’s senators, mayors, county executives and council members have been arrested and charged with leaping at the chance to engage in these lowest-common-denominator crimes, at times for laughably small sums of money.”

Well, it was no different 5 or 6 decades ago and, maybe, it was even a little bit worse back then.

The NY Times raises the question this morning: “Why is New Jersey so unshakably corrupt?”

In my mind, dimly, I can hear our little town’s long-time mayor, Arnold Nichols, answering the question.

“It must be the water,” he’d say. “They drink different water over there in the city. Corruption is so bad over there that you can smell the stink of it in the air.”

The other guys around the table would lean their chairs back on two legs and laugh it up loudly.

“Milly,” Dom Mercadante would shout, “can I get another order of toast with some of that marmalade.”

The Times quotes one of the self-confessed political crooks of these times as saying it is just too hard “to resist when the envelope appears.”

Citizens of New Jersey, today, seem like those guys sitting around the hot stove 55 years ago. They just laugh at it and they aren’t in the least surprised. It’s New Jersey, after all, and there’s a certain reputation that needs to be upheld.

If you’re a developer or contractor in New Jersey, at least over there in the urban corridor, you’d better know how to “kick-back” if you want future plans and projects approved by local governments. Without that approval, a company turns belly-up.

In Michael Barbaro’s story in the NY Times today, he calls “fraud, extortion and kickbacks” as “common as traffic jams on the New Jersey Turnpike.”

Barbaro points out that there are 566 municipalities in New Jersey and most of them have limiting budgets and leaders without experience or training, elected to positions of government that pay very, very little. A white envelop, stuffed with cash, is a mighty temptation in such a situation.

Another writer, Richard Benfield, has about the same take.
“There are three reasons why New Jersey is a hotbed of corruption: 1) it has a history that is less than pure, 2) it has more municipalities and other governing bodies than your average state, and 3) people tend to ignore what goes on in a state sandwiched between two powerful cities: New York and Philadelphia.”
A professor at Rutgers University (the State University of New Jersey), Ingrid W. Reed, puts a different slant on it, and I like the reasoning.
“Maybe a culture of corruption is a culture without outrage – by citizens or public officials. That’s New Jersey.”
I wonder how old, Dan McDonald would have felt about that. I think he’d giggle a bit and ask my old man for a cigar. His son, Ed McDonald, would holler over for my father to bring a package of Red Man, too. Ed would pull open the packet and slip the baseball card out, featuring one of the Major Leagues stars, and he'd hand it over to me. He'd stuff some tobacco in his mouth and nod at me.

"There you are, Charlie. Now don't grow up to be no politician, you know!"

That's one of the Leck boys (I think my brother, Frank) standing in front of the store. (photo courtesy Chester Historical Society)

1 comment:

  1. Great blog! I was interested to read the comments from my paternal grandfather, Arnold Nichols. He died before I was born so it is nice to hear something of him.

    Katrina Nichols MacLeod