The Long Tail of Greasy Tony’s

Greasy Tony's, NJ

Greasy Tony’s in NJ once upon a time

What is it about a short, simple post about a New Jersey food joint that went out of business that keeps it appearing in the top 10 posts read here?

Back in 2008,  I posted a story called Greasy Tony’s Reborn in the Desert.  Tony’s was I place I frequented in the early 1970s as an undergrad at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ.

It had good, fast, greasy food. Nothing extraordinary. It vanished in 1992, a victim of the university’s expansion. The students who made it popular caused its demise.

Whatever following Greasy Tony’s place might have had, it doesn’t explain why the post has “legs” (or a “long tail” as it is known online).

Is it the title of the post – reborn in the desert? Was it the mention of James Gandolfini (a Rutgers grad) eating a cheesesteak in the resurrected eatery in the Arizona desert?

Mr. Greasy Tony, Tony Giorgianni, died in 2008, so that is not topical news.

If you found that post, or this one, how about a comment here about why you came here. It puzzles me.

Update: 2022

A sharp-eyed reader let me know that they spotted a Greasy Tony’s t-shirt in the movie Revenge of the Nerds being worn by Booger. I guess someone connected to the film knew of the place. Perhaps this explains why some people search online and find these posts.

Nerds

Utopia, New Jersey

helicon2
Nightly discussions occurred around the Helicon Hall fireplace

I remember being introduced to the idea of a utopia back in junior high school and becoming fascinated with the idea of creating a society of perfection. It was the same social studies class that introduced me to the idea of a sharing community where all were equal and work and the rewards were shared. Then our clever teacher told us this was called Socialism and Communism. Of course, we were taught that those were bad things, but they sounded pretty good to us.

But the idea that Sir Thomas More had back in 1516 in his book, Utopia, stayed with me. I particularly liked More setting his utopia on an island because I have always had a thing for islands.

Utopia has been used to describe “intentional communities” that attempt to create an ideal society,  I wrote here earlier about Henry Ford’s failed attempt at a utopian community in the Amazon which he called Fordlandia.

New Jersey would not be the first place that comes to mind when you bring up utopian communities, but one example is an experiment by the writer Upton Sinclair. Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” He was no fan of commercial society.

Upton was born in 1878. When he was 15 years old, he started supporting himself by writing “dime” novels. He continued to write pulp fiction to get himself through Columbia University and he wrote a novelette a week all through college.

When he got an assignment from a socialist weekly to investigate working conditions in the meatpacking industry of Chicago, he was shocked at what he saw. He used his research to write The Jungle. The manuscript was rejected a number of times, so Sinclair published it himself in 1906. He had already published five novels, but The Jungle was his first real success. It motivated people to demand reforms in the meatpacking industry. It was said that President Roosevelt received a hundred letters a day demanding reforms.

The success of The Jungle allowed Sinclair to start a utopian experiment in New Jersey.

Upton Sinclair and son, David, 1904
Upton Sinclair and son, David, 1904

As unlikely as that may sound, there have been other utopian experiments in the state, as documented in Utopia, New Jersey: Travels in the Nearest Eden. The cooperative colony in Englewood, NJ was founded by Upton Sinclair in 1906.

A fire would end the experiment after only six months, but the dream remained with Sinclair for the rest of his life.

It was called Helicon Home Colony. It was hardly perfect. There were sex scandals that were written about in the press right from the beginning. They had a policy that specifically excluded non-whites. But Sinclair really believed his experiment was the future of American living.

Matt Novak wrote a good piece on Helicon that goes deeper into this story.

Sinclair considered his Helicon Home Colony (AKA Helicon Hall) as living based on reason and science. His ideas came from his reading of other 19th century socialist utopians.

Meta
Meta

My reading about the experiment makes me think that Sinclair wanted to get away from an unhappy family life.  He was not getting along with his first wife, Meta. He didn’t like being a father. He had just spent  three years secluded with them on an isolated farm in order to finish The Jungle.

He wanted freedom to write and a private community would allow him to write while others kept his wife occupied and the community raised his son.

He did have some progressive feminist beliefs and wanted the community to have things like cooking, cleaning and child-rearing done by those who could do it best without regard to gender. Creative pursuits could be followed by anyone who desired them.

Sinclair wrote some articles, including one in the New York Times, to set out his principles and solicit people who might want to join the experiment.

The plan was more ambitious than what he had the time to actuallycreate. He wanted to have as many electrical conveniences as possible and their own power plant, plus their own food-producing farm.

Although Sinclair was a self-avowed socialist, he didn’t call the community a socialist experiment and he didn’t want political beliefs to be part of the experiment.

As I said up front, it was hardly utopian in who was welcome to join.  Race, religion and profession were to be considerations. Writers, musicians, academics, artists  and creative types were invited to live there.  There was a board of directors and members owned shares in Helicon. Sinclair controlled about 70% of the board’s vote and could have overruled anyone.

One of the rumors that immediately started being said about the community was that the 46 adults (along with 15 children)  were just a sex cult of free love.

Helicon
Helicon Hall in Englewood

Sinclair didn’t want to employ traditional domestic servants and preferred using local students as interns. Interestingly, one of those interns was Sinclair Lewis who was then a budding author himself and who is often confused with Upton Sinclair. Sinclair Lewis would go on to write Babbitt, Main Street, Arrowsmith and other books and became the first writer from the United States to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. The interns did not work out and they ended up hiring servants which sounds less than utopian.

Whether or not Upton Sinclair’s idea of utopia would have succeeded will never be known.  A fire, on March 16, 1907, burned Helicon to the ground.  A carpenter died in the fire so there was an inquest. The hearings were a local sensation and exposed the “free-love nest” story back into the newspapers, but no charges against Sinclair or anyone else were made. Members of the community got back their investments from the insurance money, but Sinclair was broke.

Sinclair considered starting over again in California, and Fairhope, Alabama and in Arden, Delaware, but nothing ever came of those plans.

Upton Sinclair was prolific throughout his life and went on to write almost 100 books. In his 1919 book, The Brass Check, he wrote:

“I look back on Helicon Hall to-day, and this is the way I feel about it. I have lived in the future; I have known those wider freedoms and opportunities that the future will grant to all men and women. Now, by harsh fate I have been seized and dragged back into a lower order of existence and commanded to spend the balance of my days therein.”

He may have idealized Helicon more because he never got to see it fail and so he always believed that it could have worked.

Follow the River

river
The river of my childhood imagination

I grew up in the very urban Irvington, New Jersey. It borders the state’s biggest city, Newark. As you went west from town, you entered suburbia.

There is the South Mountain Reservation about 4 miles west and as a kid growing up in the 1960s my friends and I often rode there on my bike to “get into nature” and looked for adventures. It has Hemlock Falls, a mill pond where we fished and lots of trails in its more than 2000 acres. It was the closest thing I had to wilderness.

My only neighborhood oasis from urban life was the Elizabeth River which ran along the bottom of my street. I probably passed it almost every day. We called it “The Brook.” I don’t think I knew it was actually the Elizabeth River until I started getting into maps when I was 10 years old.

We played along and in that river all the time. We threw rocks. We made dams. We made little boats and tried to see which one would make it the furthest downstream. I imagined that some might someday make it to the ocean and to some other country. I put messages in my bottles asking the finder to write to me. I even included a self-addressed and stamped postcard in a few of them. No one ever responded.

Our parents always warned us not to go there. The water certainly wasn’t very clean and after heavy rain, it was full of rainbow eddies from gas and oil runoff from the streets. There were no fish for anglers, though were very small fish in some sections that attracted some big birds, such as night herons.

In my childhood days, there were several times when we read stories in the local newspapers about a kid getting drowned along the river because they were caught by stormwater. We imagined a wall of water gushing down the river. I would go there when it rained and stand on the bridge over Allen Street watching for a wave. I never saw one. The water just gradually rose.

The Elizabeth River isn’t a Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn kind of river. When it passed through my town it was captured by concrete walls.
It is confined all along the way in this artificial channel that was built in the 1920s and 30s and as part of the WPA projects.

When I was in sixth grade, I had a fairly detailed map of waterways in the state and decided to try to find the source of the river. The headwaters of the Elizabeth River are actually buried beneath East Orange in Essex County. I assume it is fed by underground creeks and streams. It doesn’t see the light of day until it is at the border between Irvington and the Vailsburg neighborhood of Newark. From there it goes pretty much in a southern direction through the center of Irvington.

My neighborhood was near that place where it emerges from underground. You could enter the underground tunnel part to the north when the water was low. I tried it with a few friends but the fear of the darkness, crazy rats, maybe even bats, and that sudden wave of floodwater prevented us from ever going very far underground.

channel

I was happy to walk the full length of the open sections, In a dry summer, the water was restricted to an even smaller channel at the center, so you could walk most of the way on either side. We slipped on slimy rocks and got our sneakers and pants wet many times. There were places that had a kind of metal ladder to climb in or out but for most of the way, it would be tough to climb the walls.

There were times when older kids and even the police would see us down there and chase us out.

at Civic Square
Through Civic Square

Past my neighborhood, it flows past our area park and Irvington High School and along the east side of Civic Square with the library, town hall, and police and fire departments.

Further south, it forms the west boundary of the 19th century Clinton Cemetery. I always found this to be a creepy section, and then at the southern end of the cemetery, the river passes under the Garden State Parkway near Exit 143 and disappears as a surface waterway again. That was the end of the river for most of my young life.

going underground
The river goes back underground

When I was able to drive, I consulted maps and did some research and I decided to complete my river journey to the end of the river. It reemerges just south of the Union County line near the Parkway again.

By car and foot, I was able to track it to the Arthur Kill, a tidal strait between Staten Island, New York and New Jersey’s Union and Middlesex Counties. That strait is a major navigational channel for the Port of New York and New Jersey. The river’s mouth is Raritan Bay which is fed by the Passaic River, Hackensack River, Rahway River, and Elizabeth River.

Perhaps a few of my messages in bottles actually did make it along the river carried by heavier rains to this heavily used marine channel where you can see ocean-going tankers. They went out into the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe they are still adrift, searching for a shore to land upon.

The oddly-named Arthur Kill is an anglicization of the early 17th-century Dutch achter kill meaning “back channel.” It probably referred to it being located “behind Staten Island.” During the Dutch colonial era, the region was part of New Netherland. The Dutch kill comes from the Middle Dutch word kille, meaning riverbed, water channel, or stream. The area around Newark Bay was known as Cull Bay during the British colonial era. and the sister channel of Arthur Kill is called Kill van Kull which refers to the waterway that flows from the col (ridge or passage).

bridge in Elizabeth
South Front Street Bridge at the river’s mouth at the Arthur Kill

The channel is not a pretty part of the Jersey coast. It is primarily edged with industrial sites and is sometimes referred to as the Chemical Coast. The Staten Island side is primarily lined with salt marshes and is home to the Staten Island boat graveyard. It creates a border for Fresh Kills Landfill and Freshkills Park.

The Passaic River is the New Jersey River that gets the most attention. Its headwaters are in the Great Swamp which was once Glacial Lake Passaic as the Ice Age melted and the waters found their way counterintuitively north. It is still mostly unchanneled and above ground. It flows over hard, black volcanic basalt cliffs at the Great Falls in Paterson and empties into Newark Bay.

Still, my Elizabeth River holds a much stronger hold on my memory and imagination. To a small boy, “The Brook” was Twain’s Mississippi River even if I never was able to float on a raft downstream.

face in the wall
A strange “face in the wall” along the river

The Many Saints of Newark

I was not a regular viewer of The Sopranos when it was the big show to watch on HBO. I saw episodes but I have this aversion to most mob movies and shows. I can’t really explain it. The glorification of crime and violence? Maybe. But I did enjoy it when I saw a neighborhood or location that I know in an episode.

I suspect that is a common thing for all of you.  It happens for books too. I recall reading Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and being delighted that he was riding the #94 bus on Stuyvesant Avenue in Irvington, NJ just like I had done many times. His books were full of references to the Newark area that I knew intimately.

I met Roth very briefly once when his childhood home on Summit St. was being marked as a historic site. He lived there for his first 17 years. That dedication day, I walked over from my job at the nearby NJIT campus and he was standing outside. It was early and the press hadn’t really descended on him. I deliberately did not say or ask him anything literary. We talked about the Weequahic Diner.

The trailer for the prequel to The Sopranos story came out this month. The Many Saints of Newark will be in theaters and streaming on HBOMax starting October 1.

The film is directed by Alan Taylor and written by David Chase and Lawrence Konner. It is a prequel to Chase’s HBO series The Sopranos. The film stars Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Ray Liotta, and Vera Farmiga. But I suspect that a lot of attention will go to Michael Gandolfini who plays young Tony (Anthony) Soprano. I’ve seen him in The Deuce but this is clearly his big role. He is the son of Marcy and James Gandolfini, so there will be plenty of critics who say he only got the part because his father played Tony on HBO. We’ll see.

The film is set in the 1960s and 1970s in Newark, New Jersey. The 1967 riots in the city – which I recall all too well since I was living in the neighboring Irvington and my grandparents still lived in Newark – are a backdrop to the film. It was a turning point for the city, and the turn was downward. There was a “white flight” from the city after 1967. The film looks particularly at the tensions between the Italian-American and African-American communities.

I’m no Sopranos expert but I don’t remember Tony’s childhood being a major part of the stories. But it is a good choice for the prequel because Anthony is growing up in a very charged time in Newark and America’s history. Anthony and I would be about the same age then.

I don’t know much about Jersey gangsters, but in the film, there is a move on the powerful DiMeo crime family in the city. Anthony idolizes his uncle, Dickie Moltisanti, who influences the teenager in ways that clearly foreshadow his own mob boss Tony Soprano life.

posterThough the film is all about Newark, like most films, the locations are in many places, including some that stand-in for the Newark of 50 years ago. They started shooting in Brooklyn back in spring 2019 and then moved to Newark that summer.

Newark’s Branford Place was a focal point fixed to look more 1960s. There are lots of places I recognize just from production stills and the trailer. They remade the old Adams Theatre marquee, and redid the sign for Hobby’s Delicatessen to look as it had looked before. My parents took me to see Ben Hur when I was quite young at the Adams Theatre. I went to Hobby’s for lunch in my time at NJIT many years later.

Adams theater

I was doing some work the summer of 2019 in Paterson and caught them filming scenes at a recreated Satriale’s Pork Store there.

People obsessed with The Sopranos do “tours” of many of the locations. When James Gandolfini died, people left flowers on the driveway of the house used as Tony’s home which is near where I live now. So, Sopranos locations seem to have been a part of my youth and adult lives.

Here are some of the locations used that people tour.

The Sopranos home: Aspen Drive, North Caldwell
Christopher’s new house: Baldwin Ct, Fairfield.
Green Grove Convalescent Home is Green Hill Senior Living and Rehabilitation, Pleasant Valley Way, W. Orange.
Janice & Richie’s house: Westmount Dr., Livingston.
Livia Soprano’s house: Gould Street, Verona.
Johnny Sack’s house: Fox Run, North Caldwell.
Kearny Boat Launch: Bellville Pike at Passaic Ave.
Pizzaland: Belleville Turnpike, North Arlington.
Satriale’s Pork Store: 101 Kearny Avenue, Kearny.
Skyway Diner: Central Ave. & 2nd St., Kearny.
Harsimus Cemetery: Newark Ave., Jersey City
Bada Bing strip club: Satin Dolls, Route 17, Lodi.

I still see people taking photos and wanting to sit in the booth at Holsten’s Restaurant where the final scene of the final episode of The Sopranos was shot. It’s on Broad Street in Bloomfield.

Mr. Softee

It doesn’t have to be a place that takes me back. I saw a shot of Anthony inside a Mr. Softee ice cream truck and immediately I hear its annoying constantly playing “music” as it wandered my hometown streets and showed up at our neighborhood park and at baseball games. I was a Good Humor ice cream truck customer, but the truck triggers memories.

The film’s title, The Many Saints of Newark, is a reference to the translation of the family name of Anthony’s uncle, Moltisanti. It translates as “many saints” which is surely a bit of Chase’s ironic, dark humor.

Will I see the movie? Sure, probably streaming on HBO. I won’t do any tours but I do like seeing those places on film. It is an odd kind of appeal since I can see those places in person any day. Somehow, seeing these places on a screen or a printed page somehow elevates them. Art imitates life.

Uncle Wiggily and J.D. Salinger

 

Uncle Wiggily is not an Easter bunny. He is a gentlemanly old rabbit who always wears a suit and a silk top hat. 

The character was created by Howard R. Garis. I just discovered this year that Uncle Wiggily has some roots in my home state of New Jersey and even in my birthplace of Newark.
 
Garis was a reporter for the Newark Evening News and he wrote hundreds of children’s books, many of them as a ghostwriter. He published his first Uncle Wiggily story in a newspaper in 1910, and it was so popular that he ended up publishing an Uncle Wiggily story six days a week for more than 30 years. By the time he retired, he had written more than 10,000 stories about the rabbit. 
 
According to Garis’ obituary in the Chicago Tribune, it was a walk in the woods in Verona, New Jersey that inspired him to write about the rabbit. I now live in the town next to Verona. The Uncle Wiggily connection is very strong with me.
 
I don’t really remember the stories, though in my childhood the Newark Evening News was dropped on our front porch every night and I did read the comics, so it’s likely I read some of those stories. I was a big fan of rabbits and we had them as pets.
 
I do remember playing an Uncle Wiggily game. I found the original game selling online for $100. I guess I should have kept my childhood game – and kept it in good shape.  They do sell today a much more reasonable version of the game.
 

Uncle Wiggily Longears – his full name – appeared in the paper every day (except Sundays) from 1910 to 1962 and Garis published 79 books in his lifetime illustrated by a variety of artists. 
 
I left Uncle Wiggily behind when I got a bit older, but he popped up again in my early teen years.
 
Eloise and Walt are characters that appear in the short story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” which is one of the stories in J.D. Salinger‘s collection Nine Stories which I read many times. In that story, Eloise recalls a time when she and Walt were running to catch a bus and she sprained her ankle. Walt says, referring to her ankle, “Poor Uncle Wiggily.”
 
I guess Jerry Salinger read some of those stories. Uncle Wiggily is lame from rheumatism and uses a candy-striped walking stick.
 
The 1949 film My Foolish Heart was based on this story and is still the only authorized adaptation of Salinger’s writings into a film. The film’s plot bears little resemblance to the original story – which might be why Salinger never allowed his fiction to be used again.
 
The story is about how Eloise is trying to come to terms with her life with her husband Lew when her true love was Walt (a member of Salinger’s favorite family, the Glass family) who died during his service in the army.
 
Poor Uncle Wiggily. 

Crossposted at One-Page Schoolhouse

The Provinces of East and West Jersey

Seal of the Province of Western New Jersey
Seal of the Province of Western New Jersey

Once upon a time, New Jersey was the Province of New Jersey. In 1686, a man took a long walk through the Province and did the first survey in order to mark the border dividing it into West Jersey and East Jersey.

That man was Surveyor-General George Keith. The line that he drew on the map was a very straight one. The purpose of the survey was to clarify disputes resulting from the earlier 1676 Quintipartite Deed, which created the two territories. On July 1, 1676, William Penn, Gawen Lawrie (who served from 1683 to 1686 as Deputy to Governor Robert Barclay), Nicholas Lucas and Edward Byllinge executed a deed with Sir George Carteret known as the “Quintipartite Deed,” in which the territory was divided into two parts. East Jersey was taken by Carteret, and West Jersey by Byllinge and his trustees.

The newer “Keith Line” runs North-Northwest from the southern part of Little Egg Harbor Township, passing just north of Tuckerton. The line was to continue upward to a point on the Delaware River which is just north of the Delaware Water Gap, but Keith was stopped in his survey. Hewas stopped by the Governor of West Jersey, Daniel Coxe, when he had reached the South Branch of the Raritan River (now Three Bridges in Readington Township).

Other more accurate surveys and maps needed to be made to resolve property disputes. But my own interest in the Keith Line is more cultural. These days, some people use this line as a way to mark the boundary between things like the “spheres of influence” for New York City sports teams and Philadelphia sports teams, such as the New York Giants (who play all their home games in New Jersey!) and the Philadelphia Eagles.

I like that when George took his 70-mile walk he defined some of New Jersey’s history and that history still exists in some ways today. Remember, these disputed boundaries were between two British provinces, and this was happening  about a century before the Declaration of Independence was signed.

It is not that his survey settled all arguments amongst New Jerseyeans about what divides the state, and there are still many opinions on what is North, Central or South Jersey. But Keith’s line and subsequent lines have stuck over the years as the boundary of East and West Jersey.

The original provinces of West and East New Jersey are shown in yellow and green respectively. The Keith Line is shown in red, and the Coxe and Barclay line is shown in orange
The original provinces of West and East New Jersey are shown in yellow and green respectively. The Keith Line is shown in red, and the Coxe and Barclay line is shown in orange

 

George was the Surveyor General of East Jersey. He walked north from Little Egg Harbor but when he was stopped at the Raritan River (in today’s Warren County) there were some who claimed he was already way off-course.

But the boundary was not surveyed again for another 60 years. According to Robert Barnett’s website WestJersey.org. there at least 5 boundary lines – 2 before and 2 after Mr. Keith’s.

The ruler-straight Keith Line is still a marker for municipal and county boundaries from Southern Ocean and Burlington counties up to Warren.

 

A good part of Barnett’s interest in all this is because of the two quite different distinct populations that settled in the two provinces. West Jersey was primarily populated by Quakers (see William Penn) and the East Jersey Province was primarily made up of Calvinists or Reformed Christians.

Religion isn’t the distinction between those two areas of the state today, but differences remain. One example of  the historic distinction can be seen in cemeteries east and west. Some of the western Quaker burial grounds are simple and uniform, while the oldest northeastern ones will have ornate monuments.

 

Other distinctions are much broader (and more questionable) generalizations, such as West Jersey being more “blue-collar” and more likely to have a simpler Quaker-ish pace as compared to East Jersey being wealthier and faster-paced. Of course, there is some real evidence if you look at things like Census data on taxes, income and home values, which are all significantly higher in the East.

Despite being close to Philadelphia, the west has about a third of the population living in more rural or suburban communities.

As other writers have noted, there is a pretty distinct line dividing the fans of the Phillies vs. Mets or Yankees, Eagles vs. Jets or Giants. In language, there are some food regionalisms like hoagie vs. sub sandwiches, water ice vs. Italian ice, and pork roll vs. Taylor Ham. All topics for barroom arguments in NJ.

And we haven’t even gotten into where South Jersey begins, or the Lenape or Lenni-Lenape (later European-renamed Delaware Indians) who occupied these areas long before the Europeans arrived.