I cherish the time I spent, back in another lifetime, as a newspaper reporter. And I include my time at the Rutgers Daily Targum, which is a student newspaper, but a really good one that publishes--to this day--five times a week when school is in session. We weren't kidding there.
At the Passaic Herald-News, my very first job out of school, I met some amazing people, a few of whom are close friends still all these years later. And I discovered, to my considerable chagrin, that I was a pretty bad reporter.
People think I'm being falsely modest when I say that. I'm not. I was a bad reporter, and for all the reasons that I hold good reporters in extremely high estimation. I was not good at cultivating sources of information among cops, politicians or for that matter, anybody else. I put in my time, but not more than my time. I didn't know where to look for news. I could write it, and I could research assignments when given to me, but I was terrible at generating my own stories.
And it's a shame, because the best story of my life, a really interesting and (I think) important book is out there, I can see it, but there's no way I could ever write it.
In the 1960s, when I was growing up, Irvington was a bedroom community of Newark, the state's largest city. Our suburban streets were crowded with homes and people--in fact, Irvington was (and they were proud of this!) the most densely populated town in the country. Three square miles. 70,000 residents. I'm not making a word of this up.
But it had a certain hybrid small town/city charm in those days. We walked the streets as kids without worrying about our safety. We walked from my house on Campfield Street, between Union Avenue and Chancellor Avenue, to the Dairy Queen all the way on the other side of town, and nobody thought a thing about it. Watson Bagels--still the best I have ever had, bar none, and you can suck on that, New Yorkers--was two blocks from my house. Once the 1970s rolled around, my father's paint store (which had been on West Market Street in Newark) relocated to Chancellor Avenue, across from Watson Bagel. (Readers of CHANCE OF A GHOST might get a few hints at my affection for paint stores.)
But the Newark riots of 1967 had their devastating effect on that city, and on ours. By the time I got to college in 1975, it was only a matter of time before my family was to move out of Irvington.
And that was the beginning. Today, the town (now a township, I think) is known around the state as a center of crime, and often violent crime. The population has decreased by almost 20,000. Drug dealers are rampant, the murder rate is eight times higher than the rest of New Jersey (ac-cording to the State Police) and most of us avoid the place altogether. When we are forced to drive through it, we keep the windows up and the doors locked. I have a friend who isn't scared of anything, and he won't even consider driving by the house he grew up in.
A year or two ago, the chapter of Mystery Writers of America that I belonged to sponsored a tour of the State Police weapons lab. And in one office over our heads hung a chart representing the level of violent crime in New Jersey. Listed were three municipalities: Newark, the state's largest city; Camden, the state's poorest city, and Irvington. Three square miles, and that much violence.
I'm sure the average resident of Irvington today is a law-abiding person. I used to occasionally drive by the house in which I spend my first 20 years (except when I was living at Rutgers); it looked like it was being well-maintained and the block still looked quiet and peaceful.
Now, I look at the address on Google Earth, because I wouldn't dare drive down that street again.
There's a book in this, and a good one. But I have no desire to cultivate sources in the town, to spend nights with gang members and drug dealers in an effort to see what the place is really like today. I wouldn't risk my evenings, let along my life, to set off the childhood memories of my hometown against the reality of Irvington in the 21st century.
I'm not a good reporter. I can write, but I'm not a good reporter. I don't have the instincts. If someone out there wants to research that book, I'll be an eager interview subject about the old days, and I'll be glad to write some of it. But don't ask me to go into the war zone. Because I know my limits, and that is past it.
It's a shame--I can see the story in front of me, but I can't report it. I hope somebody does. Because it needs to be told.