Memories of a Lost Time

by Ralph J. Chin


Sometimes, during the quiet moments in my life, I’ll sit back and reflect upon the past like most people of my age. It’s easy to get nostalgic and sink into some long lost moments of the past. When I do this, I think about all the places I’ve seen and things that I’ve done along with the people I’ve met in the course of my travels. As fascinating as all this is to me, most of it seems so distant and faded with the amount of time that has past yet the memories of my Newark childhood seem to live on forever in my heart.

Who would think that I would wake up one day and suddenly realize that it’s been many decades since I shuffled through a mass of colorful, dry autumn leaves that had fallen on the sidewalk just to hear the sound that they made as I was on my way to Maple Avenue elementary school. Swish, swish, crunch, crunch! The wind would toss them about and let them settle into random piles….Swish, swish, crunch, crunch! All the way to school! The chilly air would be nipping at my face and made me thrust my hands deep into my coat pockets but I still sought out every leaf pile that was within my path!

Then as I got older and started driving around Newark in a hand me down ’65 Rambler American car that my sister gave me. I started listening to the radio and began noticing that you could tell which radio station the people in the car in front of you were listening to because you could read their lips of the passengers as they sang the songs that were being played on your radio! There was only AM radio at the time and the most popular radio station in my area was WABC with Cousin Bruceee! He came on as a little loud but to his credit, he played all the popular songs of that time! I even remember some of the commercials he played like the Dennison’s Clothing store slogan of “Money Talks Nobody Walks, We’ll even take your money without you!” Then there was the John’s Bargain Stores commercial that became the joke of everything that was cheap. If someone saw something that was made cheaply they’d ask the person “Where’d you get that at? John’s Bargain Store? We all would laugh at the commercialism of the time. But the big revelation of the time was when FM radio became a reality. Allison Steele was WNEW’s Night bird, one of the top FM DJ’s of the time but there were many underground stations that would pop up for a week or two and so my friends and I would spend hours scanning the FM spectrum until we discovered something unique.

Diners were extremely popular back then and some were open 24/7 like the Weequahic diner down on Elizabeth Avenue, Tops Diner on Passaic Avenue in East Newark and a little outside of the Newark boundaries was the North Arlington Diner which was just on the other side of the Passaic River. You had to go over an iron bridge to get to it and it was always busy. These diners were a favorite stop for the late nighters after partying most of the evening. A burger special was the most generic food dish of this crowd. It consisted of a burger with lettuce, tomato and pickles served with crisply fried French fries and little tub of coleslaw. Somehow it hit the spot every time!

Then, when you got tired of the city life, you could cut through Hillside and catch Route 22. From there, you could ride it all the way into the mountains and spend the day up at the Watchung Reservation in Scotch Plains. A popular side of the road amusement spot in that area was Bowcraft. Back then it was just a small archery and tennis recreation center nestled among the tall, shady trees. You could also go to the Oranges and spend the day at the South Mountain Reservation. I used to take my dog up there and let her run free. She would run at top speed through the high grass to the edge of the woods and then turn around without stopping and run just as fast back to me. She hardly could see above the grass but she loved the mountains and it was a joy to see her so happy. We would play for hours in that open field and would go home pretty tired.

I am now living in Florida for some forty odd years after working in Hawaii for four great years. Despite these warm spells in my life, today I’m missing the nip in the air along the smells and sounds of a typical Newark Fall. I remember standing on my back porch of my parent’s house in the Weequahic section of Newark all those years ago marveling at the crispness of the autumn air. I would take a deep breath and feel the chill of the air as it filled my lungs. What an invigorating feeling that was!! Then, as fall progressed into winter, the welcome warmth of a cozy home after a fierce snowball fight with the neighbors was another worthwhile experience. It was a safe refuge from the cold, a place where you could relax and be warm with family and friends. When the freshness of the springtime air came in as the seasons changed yet again, it was time to open the windows! The flowers and trees would bloom and you could easily hear the gentle rustle of the leaf filled trees as you walked to wherever you were going. There was always a cool breeze following you around!

Yes, the summer would sometimes be hot and humid and we’d all sleep in the air conditioned part of the house or make a beeline to the Jersey shore! While I was in high school my favorite seaside haunt was Bradley Beach. It was within walking distance of Asbury Park, which was a fun place to be! As we got older, our hang out shifted southward towards Seaside Heights and then, eventually, to Atlantic City. I know these places have undergone tremendous changes since then but in my minds eye, I can see them as they were all those years ago. The boardwalks, the amusement arcades and the food! My favorite snack was super hard cold slab of ice cream stuck in between two hot, juicy waffles. The contrasting temperatures of the two ingredients created its own environment in your mouth. Yum!

Okay, yes, I’ll admit it. Florida was my choice and it was the logical one at the time because after living in Hawaii I couldn’t bring myself to go back to those cold winters of New Jersey. But my attitude has changed over the years and the urge to go “home” is really strong. I know it won’t be the same and I’ll probably move to the outlying areas like so many former Newarkers have done. To reinforce this urge is the fact that I am now living with my teenage sweetheart from North Newark after we met again at the Newark Memories site on the internet. We are happily enjoying each other and life once again. Together we often reminisce about different aspects of Newark that we have experienced in our collective pasts and will probably be the only people in Florida who plan to move north for their retirement although we would love to keep a residence in both states but that’s a reality for the rich and a mere dream for us. Besides most of our children and our families, what’s left of them, are still living in the New Jersey/Massachusetts area and finally, it’s the place we both still call home.

It never ceases to amaze me this life of mine. There has been so many high and lows, so many twists and turns and adding to that grand complexity are the people from my past writing to me through this Newark Memories site asking me if I remembered them. Many of them I did not but a few, a precious few, I remember them like it was just yesterday. Most of them were from my preteen years and no longer reside in New Jersey. There was a special heart just like my Denise in a world of indifference and prejudice back then. Her name is Jacqueline and she came to my birthday parties, played spin the bottle and even allowed me to kiss her without hesitation. Thanks Jacqueline, I will never forget your friendship!

I was soon to learn that her friendship would not be the norm in my world simply because my ethnic origin is Chinese. My family lived in the predominately white Jewish and Italian neighborhood that was Weequahic. My friends were rare and so most of them were special people who saw me as just another person in this stream of life. It wasn’t the easiest thing to live in this type of neighborhood because I was faced with a lot of prejudice and got into a lot of fist fights when the name calling started. Sometimes I won and sometimes I lost but I had one or two teachers that were always on my side when trouble presented itself at school. Incredibly that seemed to be enough to get me into my teen years and high school where I grew some thick skin and stopped fighting the prejudice by ignoring it when I could. I finally realized that it was their problem and not mine.

But imagine then, the difficulty in getting your teachers to pick you because you knew the answer to a question but they, instead, would constantly picked one of your classmates over you so often that you grew weary of raising your hand! Bear in mind that this was the 1960’s. My cousins and I were the only people of Asian descent in the entire school! A question gone unanswered, a concept unexplained. Silent prejudice did much more harm to me than the outspoken kind!

But I still loved Newark despite these difficult moments and especially when I unofficially joined the hippie movement. The times, they were a changing and the Age of Aquarius was upon us. It was a different Newark where people were flashing peace signs at you when you drove by, growing their hair long, wearing the same bell bottom jeans and listening to the same music as you were. Free concerts abounded and I remember attending almost every single one of them at the Rutgers University campus in downtown Newark. My favorite band was Black Forest Rhoades and they had a black singer and guitar player. My love of rock music then took me over to North Newark area where I met the love of my life in Denise. She lived on Verona Ave which was a couple of blocks away from the border of Belleville and North Newark. This area was a predominantly Italian American although my girlfriend was of Russian/German descent; she went unnoticed because of her gorgeous good looks!

Since Denise lived in North Newark and I lived in the Weequahic section of Newark, it was like the opposite ends of the earth for me. I tried many different routes in an effort to make my trip a little faster but my little old ’65 Rambler American couldn’t go that fast anyway. I had painted a peace sign on the door and under the peace sign was the symbol of the hippie nation, “Woodstock ‘69”. Sometimes I wound up in some pretty undesirable neighborhoods in my travels but undeterred, I kept trying to find the best way to her house. I crossed Clinton Ave., Springfield Ave., South Orange Ave., Central Ave., Park Ave., and then finally Bloomfield Ave. Once I got to Bloomfield Ave. I knew I was only minutes away from her house. You must remember that this was a time without the Internet or Google map to find your best route. Cell phones were a dream away and the streets were litter with glass telephone booths that could double as a shelter in the event of a sudden downpour of rain when you were walking on the sidewalks. Yes, sidewalks! Now there’s something you rarely see down in my part of Florida. People don’t seem to walk anywhere around here and if they do, then certainly at some point, they would have to walk in the streets! The mass transportation system is a mere shadow of Newark’s. The buses don’t run very often and there are no subways! A taxi would be very hard to flag down if you weren’t at the airport!

If you were from Newark then more than likely you would remember attending at least one basement party. Very few homes have basements down here in Florida due to the high water level and sandy nature of the soil. I loved those parties because most basements at that time were unfinished so you didn’t have to worry about ruining anything when you got intoxicated and spilt beer all over yourself and the floor! I remember when I started a rock band and we would practice in my basement. My mom would complain that all her dishes were vibrating and to turn the volume down a bit!! It would stink of beer and cigarettes after we were done but then I would hose it down and opened the basement windows. I never got a complaint from my parents!

Now imagine you went away to work in a far off land and didn’t see you old Newark neighborhood for four short years. And then, when you finally came back, you found the entire block across the street had been demolished in order to build a new elementary school! All the businesses and houses were gone along with all the people that made your memories. It kind of lends credence to a novel by Thomas Wolfe called “You can’t go home again”.

“You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame, …….. back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time--back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

Indeed. But who are we to say that our time was better, that our environment and memories are the way it should be? Today’s youth will have their own memories to drawn upon and that will be good enough for them just as it was for us. Newark will always hold a special place in my heart simply because that’s where it all started for me……….That distant, shining place in time that is no longer!


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