by G.K. Stritch – find her on Amazon
A criminal — car thief, wife beater, sociopath — told me about the Great Falls in Paterson, New Jersey, when I was seventeen. Probation mandated that the thug enlist in a state-funded rehab program there for a minor drug offense. It seemed odd, a waterfall in the center of an old New Jersey drug-riddled city. I was ignorant of Paterson, but knew Newark and tried imagining Newark with a waterfall.
Now, almost forty years later, I live in a suburb seven miles from Paterson. When I first moved here, I asked my husband to take me. He was reluctant to go because he had been mugged at the Falls, and was in no hurry to return. But I pestered him because we lived close by and I was mightily curious. Finally, early one cool Fourth of July morn, we ventured out, parked the car, and walked over to watch the water crash down the cliffs, power and might. It was strange to see this magnificent natural creation in the heart of old Pater’s son. The city was quiet and no one was around, still we didn’t stay too long. Thoughts of Alexander Hamilton and William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg and the generations of Italian-Americans who once labored in the world’s “silk city” filled my head.
Lou Costello, of Abbott and Costello, was from Paterson. There’s a statue of him in town and the Paterson City hall is modeled after the Hôtel de Ville in Lyon, France, the one-time silk city of Europe.
Paterson is the heroin capital of the Northeast. It’s easy to get to from New York City and not far from the interstate that connects to Pennsylvania. Check out the top ten drug cities in the USA and Paterson is king of the hill. Watch the New Jersey news and often Paterson is cited for shootings in the streets. A nephew’s buddy, a young, dishonorably discharged marine, was killed in Paterson — drugs gone deadly.
I know several Paterson residents, and like each of them. They’re friendly and industrious, none are criminals, far from it, they’re gospel-singing Baptist church ladies and a gentleman. One of the church ladies called last week to suggest a job to me at her Star of Hope Ministries, but right now, I burn, baby, burn at the typewriter.
A probation officer who worked in Paterson related many stories about his office co-workers and the folks from the streets. He said criminals have one thing in common: stupidity. His clients were mobsters, prostitutes, druggies, gamblers. The Polish cleaning lady from the office became his at home housekeeper and he called her the charwoman. The probation officer was overly educated and overly qualified for his routine and boring job, and along with his grand vocabulary, he possessed an outrageous intellect and sense of humor. He once grabbed a bullhorn and mimicked Anthony Blanche reciting The Waste Land from atop a city building. Much of his work time was spent writing controversial political commentary on the state-owned computer, which lead to his being sacked, newspaper headlines with charges of his own crimes, and exile to Arkansas. The charwoman was hoping he’d marry her daughter. That didn’t happen, but the officer had spic-and-span digs while he worked for the county of Passaic.
I tagged along at the Fourth Biennial Conference of the William Carlos Williams Society, a few years ago, and got to read a paragraph on WCW and the Falls from my book. It rather broke things up for the visiting scholars from as far away as Belgium. The group toured the Falls together, past trails ladened with broken glass and poison ivy, and motorists wondering what so many middle-aged white people were doing roaming around Paterson on a hot, humid June day. In August, two months later, Paterson
would be under water, devastated by floods from Hurricane Irene, four of the city’s five bridges washed out.
It would be adventurous to go to Paterson to photograph the places where Ginsberg once lived with his parents, but I don’t drive much and have no camera, so I probably won’t do it.
Here in Passaic County, people have Ginsberg stories. Someone whose family owned a downtown business knew lovely Louis Ginsberg, and pater was worried sick about his wild, young son. I liked that woman; she was funny and had scores of stories to tell because she worked for the Paterson mayor for decades. I met her at a job I took at William Paterson University, but I only lasted six hours, so I didn’t get to hear many. After the day of employment, the state sent me to the unemployment office in Paterson. We showed our ID to the guard in the foyer before we entered. My husband took a day off work to drive me.
The Hamilton Club, a majestic neo-Italian Renaissance building downtown, is where the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Awards take place in handsome rooms that feature solid wood wainscoting, hand-crafted mantels, and a security guard. People come from all over the country to attend.
Paterson, Paterson, starting point where Sal and Dean take off into the vast American landscape, from one end of the groaning continent to the other. How great for Sal to leave the old city behind and see that wondrous stretch of land. In real life, how liberating for Allen to exit Paterson and go east twelve miles to Columbia University, over the George Washington Bridge, crossing the Hudson, and traveling forth, forth, forth, young man to meet Lucien Carr and Kerouac, Burroughs, and Cassady.