Random memories of a one-of-a-kind city

By Mark Voger, author,
“Monster Mash: The Creepy, Kooky Monster Craze in America 1957-1972″

Before the brain grows any dimmer, I thought I’d better jot down some random memories of working in Newark from Jan. 8, 2009, until Sept. 8, 2014, as a writer-designer for The Star-Ledger.

Also presented are some photos I took around downtown Newark in 2014. (They’re in no particular order.)

It was really cool being a part of Newark for what was 5-3/4 years to the day. I had three Cory Booker sightings. Once, he shoveled snow for a photo op following a two-foot snowstorm. It was on a side street to the Star-Ledger building, so photographers could get there easily. And, I swear to God, once the photographers were gone, Cory got back in his limo and was driven away.

I saw a crack lady pull down her pants and spread her butt cheeks to take a dump, but get scared off by an ambulance siren (thank God). Sirens — any time of the day or night — are a constant in Newark. I always joke that the cops and ambulances set their sirens on “extra shrill.”

A Devils banner waves at Market and Mulberry streets near Prudential Center.

There was a convenience store we went to a coupla times a week. We called it “the car wash,” because it was a gas station/convenience store/car wash combo. (Somebody at the office would say, “I’m goin’ to the car wash for coffee. Wanna come?”) One time, a gal I worked with bought a muffin there, and she swore it tasted faintly of gasoline.

Anyway, the car wash was shot up twice. Once was a drive-by. The intended target wasn’t hit, but three bystanders were. (None were fatalities.) Someone joked that if they want to make Newark safer, teach the gangs how to shoot straight.

That was outside the store, but another time, someone was shot to death inside the store. That was a Saturday; we went back the following Monday. There was police presence on that day.

I fingered the bullet holes in the front door of the store. (They eventually covered the holes with stickers.) The mood inside was quiet, but the folks working there were trying to be upbeat. I felt so bad for them. Imagine!

Newark Penn Station.

One of the refrigerator glass doors was shot up, so they removed the glass and temporarily covered it with cardboard. Since cardboard isn’t “see through” like glass, they had to write “MILK” and “WATER” on the cardboard. That way, you knew what was inside the shot-up fridge. My buddy Ant (for Anthony) bought some milk, and he later complained that it wasn’t very cold. Well, cardboard ain’t airtight like glass. Within a week or so, the store replaced the fridge door.

This place had great empanadas (brought in daily by an old Caribbean guy); great porn (magazines featuring plus-size black women were a specialty); an extensive selection of pork rinds; and budget DVDs (I added many titles to my blaxploitation collection).

I wish I had this issue of Sweets so’s I could read the interview with Latia and find out why she’s juicy in all the right places.

They also carried a monthly publication called BUSTED. It was basically a compilation of recent mug shots, mostly from Essex County. It was presented as entertainment. You felt like you needed a shower after looking through it (though some of the busted chicks were cute). We bought, like, three issues, but then we stopped.

One time, me and Ant were in a long line at the store waiting to pay for our goods. (Ant would get pork rinds; I would get trail mix.) There were two magazines sitting on the long counter as we waited. The first was kind of a black Maxim — soft-core shots of nearly naked black ladies. Nothing too raunchy. We paged through it, admiring the contents. Underneath that edition was the real thing: an issue of Sweets magazine, which is full-on porn featuring the aforementioned plus-size black women. The cover had a gal with a tattooed rump deserving of its own Zip Code. She was squatting, which only enhanced her assets. The cover blurb said: “Latia explains why she is juicy in all the right places.” Me ’n’ Ant were going, “Now, that’s what I’m talkin’ about!” From behind us, we heard a voice. It was low, calm, a tiny bit raspy. She said: “Uh, sorry I left my sh*t in front’a y’all.” Ant and I apologized and handed the magazines to the woman.

I stood in front of the Whigham Funeral Home on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard while Whitney Houston lay inside. You sometimes see their trademark gold hearses buzzing around downtown. (The night Whitney’s body was brought to Whigham, we in the newsroom heard the accompanying police helicopters. The choppers were so loud — they were flying quite low — we thought there was a war going on. We found out later that it was Whitney coming home.)

Broad Street and Edison Place in downtown Newark.

Every day, I passed the still-standing facade of the South Park Calvary Presbyterian Church, the first racially integrated church in Newark, where Abraham Lincoln spoke in 1861. I caught those Lincoln vibes every day.

I did a photo shoot at Symphony Hall on Broad Street with Billy Brown, who sang the 1968 #1 R&B hit “Love on a Two-Way Street,” a song that still sends me. (Billy was playing Symphony Hall a couple of weeks later, and I had done a preview interview with him. Both he and Symphony Hall agreed to the shoot.) On a blazing hot weekday, the cat showed up with a garment bag draped over his shoulder. He changed into his stage clothes, charmed everyone there and posed onstage and at a few photogenic corners of the venue. He couldn’t have been nicer. A real pro.

I fell in love with the Ironbound. Beautiful people, wonderful restaurants, and my patch from Tony’s Tire Shop held up like a champ.

It could be 10 degrees out, but there was always a group of revelers outside All Brother Liquors #1 at Washington and West Kinney, when I’d drive by around 10 p.m.

Sometimes I’d go into Newark an hour early and walk up to Military Park and back, just to people-watch.

A vendor keeps cool on Market Street.

I sorely miss seeing the sometimes crazy, form-fitting fashions worn by the young ladies of Newark, God bless their sweet, sweet booties. You saw some outrageous shapes. Outrageous. I always used to say, “It’s something in the water.” And then a girl might be wearing, say, electric-blue tiger-stripe Spandex. Crazy stuff.

I got to know panhandlers, local old folks, restaurant workers and the guys who play dominoes every day at Nevada Court.

I remember seein’ a dude about 55 walkin’ around in a well-weathered orange leather jacket. Very cool. This jacket looked like it was made in 1971. I have no doubt the wearer was the original owner.

I’ve tramped through downtown in every weather from 100 degrees to a knee-high snowstorm to Hurricane Sandy. The night of Sandy, I tried to brave Court Street on the way to Broad, when a dislodged street sign flew by me horizontally. Not too close, but it’s the kind of thing that could decapitate you if it wanted to. I rushed back into the building, wondering why I am so stupid.

Broad and Market.

I remember observing that driving along Broad, black folks and white folks on the street rarely interacted. But sometimes they did. Once in a while, you’d see two old-timers — really old guys, one black, one white — talking casually. I figured it was neighborhood guys who’d been on this block forever, and they knew each other. Maybe they weren’t buddies when they were kids, but that was then, and now they can pause to swap some memories or news.

Sometimes, you would see a spirited game of softball in Lincoln Park. Those were always integrated.

Another time, I stopped for a red light on Broad and saw an elderly black lady and a well-dressed white guy crossing the street together. The white guy was talkin’ up a storm to the lady, really trying to get a point across. I remember thinking, “That’s nice.” When they walked in front of my car, I recognized the “white guy.” It was Cory Booker.

(Which is really funny, considering that when Cory ran for mayor of Newark against Sharpe James in 2002, Sharpe told everyone who would listen that Cory was actually white — Jewish, even — passing for black.)

Another view of Newark Penn Station.

One time, there was a high-speed chase in downtown — like, three or four cop cars chasing one car. They were flying! I was just leaving the Star-Ledger building, and these vehicles came screaming down Court. From the third floor of the parking garage, I could see the red-and-blue flashing lights of the cop cars go up and down several blocks. I decided to wait it out. When the sound of the sirens receded, I ventured forth. Sure enough, the chase double-backed to my area. I was stopped on West Kinney, and the cars flew by me in a blur along Broad. It was a warm night, and my window was down. A teen on that corner said, to no one in particular (but I was the only person within ear-shot), “They done f*cked it up! They done f*cked it up! Newark never chases! They done f*cked it up!”

You always heard great stuff like that. I remember walking along Broad, and a guy was hitting on a young girl. He didn’t have a chance, but ya gotta try, right? She was saying to him, “You on Facebook? Evuh-body on Facebook.” He pointed to his face and said, “This my Facebook right heah!”

Court and University at dusk.

VIDEO: The Moments, with lead singer Billy Brown, doing “Love on a Two-Way Street.”