There are so many stories to tell about Camden, New Jersey that you won’t hear from journalists like Matt Taibbi working for such slick weekly mass entertainment weeklies as Rolling Stone or the moralizing Marxist almost a revolutionary Chris Hedges who now writes for truthdig.org only because such a truth teller as Hedges did not actually live them as I did. My earliest memories of Camden go back to a point in my life when I was about six years old and I was one of those so called “latch-key” children who had nowhere to go after school let out but were forced by circumstances to wander the streets and maybe haunt whatever playgrounds may have existed until they perhaps had the courage to enter by themselves a lonely empty house.
In my case I preferred to hide myself behind an evergreen bush that stood in the corner of something resembling a garden but without any other plants than two spare evergreen bushes one of which was large enough to provide enough shelter from prying eyes passing by on the street if he huddled up behind it in the corner that was created by the wooden staircase leading to the front door and the house itself. The little boy was forced by his fear of ghosts which he imagined were in the empty house to huddle behind this shaggy evergreen until 6:00PM in the evening when his mother would finally arrive at the old Collingswood station for the Pennsylvania Reading Railroad Seashore line from her job at RCA in Camden. It was on this line that Stevie a few years later was to see the last steam locomotive in service on that line steam by huffing and puffing in that all exited glorious manner that marked the golden age of railroad travel. The old wooden station was built in the late 19th century in the same Victorian style as many of the old Victorian era mansions that made Collingswood famous for such during its own golden age. Fifty years later the town resembled nothing so much as stage set for Thornton Wilder’s classic play Our Town.
His mother Mary worked as a secretary to a mid-level manager in the financial division of RCA that was founded and owned by the war profiteer David Sarnoff who became one of the richest and most powerful men in the US and the world through the theft of patents belonging to the genius inventor Nicola Tesla who died in abject poverty in a run down hotel that he could hardly afford to pay for by his own hand. RCA was the acronym for Radio Corporation of America and its giant sprawling plant was located right on the Camden waterfront next to the New Jersey side of the Benjamin Franklin bridge that connected Camden to Philadelphia and was for a short while after it was built in the 1930s during that period called The Great Depression, the longest suspension bridge in the world. After WWII Camden continued to be a busy port city as well as a ship building center where the New York Ship Building Company provided employment for countless thousands of highly skilled workers who bought home the kind of paychecks that were responsible for the creation of the American middle class. The various wharfs and dry docks of the New York Ship Building Company stretched for a least a mile or more along the Camden waterfront. My mother’s oldest sister’s husband worked for NY Ship Building as an electrician and I remember going with my grandmother Tamah in my grandparents 1955 Ford to pick up my Uncle Ed after dark on evenings when he had worked overtime and my Aunt Pat was not able to pick him up because she needed their car to travel to and from her own place of employment which was one of the many hospitals in Camden that she had worked at during her career as a RN, i.e. Registered Nurse and later as a nursing supervisor. At that time she was probably working at West Jersey Hospital, the hospital that I was born at in September of 1950.
The little boy’s mother Mary was not the only family member to work for Sarnoff’s RCA in Camden, New Jersey down on the waterfront. His mother however was the most important person in his life because he and his younger brother who was named Donald and called Donny had no father to speak of other than the biological one who his mother with her two small boys had been forced to flee from in an effort to survive. Her secretarial position at RCA was the first and only job that she had been able to get after fleeing from the Donley Estates public housing project in Trenton, New Jersey to Collingswood where both her parents Tamah and Charles lived. Stevie’s mother Mary worked at RCA for the next 35 years eventually being transferred from Camden to Cherry Hill New Jersey the upwardly mobile and higher income suburb in what was called “South Jersey.” From this point on Camden became only a passing landmark in the rear view mirror of life for Mary and her two boys at least for awhile until it intruded into their lives once more in a way that often seems tragic to me now looking at it from the standpoint of over forty years after the fact! It was a tragic reminder of the fact that the kind of job security that seemed to exist for awhile in post WWII America gave way in the 1970s to the new reality that the superpower status that had been attained by the US power structure after WWII that has been described by some as Pax Americana was now on much shakier ground than it had ever been on before.
The little boy now a man in his mid 60s and hard pressed at certain times to make sense of his life now remembers that it was the harsh cold of winter bearing down on him with sub freezing temperatures as he huddled up in that corner of the garden that was hardly a garden that burnt itself into his brain in a way that he knew he would remember for the rest of his life.
The memories that the man now in his mid 60s has of Camden New Jersey from that early period of his life are of a bustling industrial city that the life of South Jersey and its people were centered around as the main place for employment, department store shopping, education and even entertainment. Of the two large movie theaters that existed back then in Camden the only name that he can now remember is the locally famous Stanley Theater that he had gone to with his mother and brother to see a movie that he can no longer recall. There were decent to excellent restaurants in Camden during this time all of which Stevie, Donny, and their mother Mary had been to at least once. There was the locally famous “Calico Kitchen” right on Markey Street in the downtown business area that many people who worked in Camden during that era went to for lunch. There on Market Street further down toward the waterfront was Kinney’s owned by the affable Irish-American Tom Kinney who often circulated amongst his guests thanking them for their patronage and letting them know that he was available if they had any complaints. Then there was Chubby’s out in Fairview which was a subdivision of Camden on the outskirts of the city that had been built upon a plan that was both picturesque and utilitarian.
While attending Rutgers University at its Camden campus as a freshman in 1968-69 Stevie now know as Steve had taken his first date Paula R. to dinner along with another couple with whom they were double-dating with to Camden’s once famous steak house called “The Pub.” However, it was Kinney’s that had been sold many years later during the era of Camden’s steep decline to a Greek owner whose first name was Steve that a very hot and torrid romantic encounter had begun as a result of meeting a very hot to trot gal ten years his senior. Nona K. was her name and she claimed to be a nympho-maniac and made good on this claim. Everyone who ever draws breath in this world should at one point in their lives experience the fullness of life that can only be experienced through the kind of torrid love affair that only the young or the relatively young are capable of. This was his time and he lived it to the full!
Nona K. lived in Camden and worked as a server at the cafeteria that Kinney’s had been turned into by the new Greek owner Steve who was even more affable than the original owner. The first real date that Steve had with Nona was on January 1st of 1980 when they went together to see Philadelphia’s famous Mummers Day Parade that was held every New Years and featured all the dozens of fancy outfit and/or string bands that made the parade a real spectacle to see and be a part of. And as time wore on throughout the New Years Day it became one vast party along Broad Street which was the usual parade route that the string bands, floats, and fancy brigades strutted their stuff on every year. As a young boy Stevie had witnessed this event from the comfort and exclusivity of his Uncle Larry’s high rise office looking down on the parade at such a young age that he actually thought that the people he saw down on the street were tiny little people that he could pick up in his hand. Such is actually the way very young children perceive things from such a distance before they become acclimated to the perceptual experience of depth and distance.
Camden was however unique in its hay-day as the city that America’s poet of democracy had lived in for most of his adult life. Although born on Long Island New York and then serving as both a nurse for the Union Army in Washington, D.C. as well as a war reporter; it was to Camden that Walt Whitman came after the Civil War to spend his life writing the kind of free verse poetry that was unique to the literary idiom that he established in the post Civil War era. Whitman lived down near the old ferry that took paying passengers across the one mile wide expanse of the Delaware River that separated Camden and Philadelphia. His home was an old two story wooden row house of a variety that is no longer seen today because most that had existed at one time were either torn down or burnt down and replaced with the kind of brick row-house homes that still make up a substantial part of the housing stock in such old East Coast cities as Camden and Philadelphia. Old Walt as he was known by his neighbors and friends regularly took the Camden Ferry to Philadelphia so that he could join the most celebrated American literary icons of that era who met regularly at in various Mainline mansions to discuss literary affairs. It was at one of these Soirées that Whitman read the first drafts and final edition of his life’s major work Leaves of Grass. The humility of his life was matched with the richness of the old Philadelphia Mainline mansions that these literary Soirees were held at and commented upon in the local Philadelphia and Camden press of that era in a passing and pedestrian sort of way.
Today Walt Whitman’s legacy is honored by the Walt Whitman International Poetry Center that is like an ancient Greek temple and amphitheater that would have made Old Walt happy to see as a result of the simple elegance that it exudes which was the essence of the Hellenistic of the Heroic Age. There is a timeless quality to such things that can never be equaled by any kind of contemporary building or technique of the modern era other than that used to create replicas of such ancient Hellenistic structured based upon the very same design plans probably used by the ancients to construct the originals. It was old Walt who suggested that all true poetry was about war as an inspiration to the warrior but I think that really what he meant by that statement is that all true poetry is about the experiencing of something primal and archetypal.
All true poetry aims at establishing an emotional connection to what is real in life that has been glossed over and forgotten through the slow accretion of aeons of time since humans were able to live the kinds of authentic free lives that the great and undaunted philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche spoke of and stood for in his life’s work. Whitman and Nietzsche would seem to be the ultimate odd couple if one were to consider only the yammering of the know-nothings. It was this underlying sense of the authentic in man/woman that had once existed before the dawn of the kind of slave societies that gave birth to civilization and turned human beings into the kind of cattle they have become in the so-called modern and/or post-modern era that both of these great genius’s seemed to stand for each in his own way stressing this idea of a return to the real and authentic.
Curiously enough Camden today has become the new cool as various writers and public intellectuals fall all over each other in an effort to “scoop” each other with the latest Camden story. I don’t write to be fashionable or to conform to anybody else’s idea of what constitutes good taste in regard to such things or even what it means to be cool! I write because I have a story to tell and like the late great Beat poet Charles Bukowsky, I just don’t give a rat’s @$$ what other people think of my effort! I do this for me sucker and if you want to go along for the ride then you better fasten your mother-fing seat belt cause you’re in for a rough ride emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually. I ain’t got no time for whiners and/or cry-babies so get off the bus now if you think you ain’t got what it takes to stay on board.
The fate of Camden just like the fate of the rest of the WWII economy was tied directly to the kind of war spending that fueled prosperity. After the war a certain kind of marking time occurred as the basic industrial infrastructure remained that had been an essential part of the war effort. Such Camden based industrial concerns as the New York Ship Building Company were emblematic of this wartime industrial base that slowly withered away after the war until either bankruptcy was declared and the site shut down and boarded up or the good paying jobs just move elsewhere for reasons that were never explained or understood by those workers who had been laid off as a result of such a decision made by the major stockholders in corporate boardrooms located elsewhere. Such was the new sad reality of Camden in an economy grown fat from war but now placed on a starvation diet to appease the an investor class that stood safely behind the invisible wall of anonymity that protects such individuals from having to take responsibility for the havoc and destruction that their decisions produce for the lives of others.
Such is the essential part of the Camden reality that even to this day most American’s are ill prepared to accept after 100 years of anti-communist propaganda that has warped the ability of the population to think critically about the major issues of the day that impact their lives in the kind of vital way that requires of a person or a population the ability to think critically about such matters. More than this factor however was the total corruption that set in at this time and more over seeped into every aspect of life in Camden. For people such as myself who had the opportunity to work in government during this era of decline and witness first hand the nature of the social pathology at work in Camden the source of the corruption could be seen emanating from a single source which comes under the heading of organized crime as to the unorganized type that is free to exist as long as it is willing to pay tribute in the form of a “street tax” to the organized variety.
No city in America was probably more directly controlled by organized crime than was Camden, New Jersey during the period of its sad decline. There was prosperity for some but at the expense of the many. It was a form of capitalism that prospered for the few as an ethnically driven sort of enterprise that outsiders could be associated with but in a way that never allowed them to enter the inner sanctum. In this sense it really wasn’t that different for all other forms of capitalism that in another era had been dominated by White Anglo-Saxon Protestants whose inner sanctum was the local Masonic Temple and functioned in basically the same manner as the Johnny come latelys to the power principle that is the real determiner of everything that takes place in America despite the facade of politics that is instrumental in creating popular myths about democracy and such. It was the ward system in Camden and the rest of the former industrial Northeast that formed the basis of a political machine controlled for the most part by the so called “Democratic” party that served the interests of that element of the plutocracy that had grown rich from the war and whose last names frequently ended in a vowel. More often than not the Knights of Columbus became the anti-room to this new inner sanctum that has grown like mushrooms on the decaying corpse of a city. That’s what happens to a local or regional power structure when it has to live off the scraps of prosperity left behind by the Big Bourgeoisie when he finds better opportunities for exploitation and plunder elsewhere.
So it was this junior varsity of American style capitalism that ran the show in Camden and which provided goodies to those of us who at one point in our lives stood in proximity to these second stringers. It was this proximity to the seat of regional power that enabled Steve at the young age of 20 to grab his place in Camden County government that in its own way set him on a kind of rendezvous with his own personal and private destiny that was both unique and tragic each in its own special way!