Chance encounters


There I was on a PATH train that was jam-packed with humanity. I’m tellin’ ya. We were friggin’ sardines.

It was the evening of Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, and I was riding home from my third and final day at the New York Comic Con, where I promoted “Groovy.”

Work was being done on Journal Square Station, which put a real crimp in the already precarious PATH operation. (As it was, we were on a limited-service weekend schedule.) The results were less cars, more waiting, bodies piling up on platforms by the minute and, inevitably, the horrible rush to squeeze into a car before the doors clamped shut.

Somehow, I had snagged a seat. But I was carrying, and trying to protect, the poster I’d brought to the convention — an enlargement of the “Groovy” cover mounted on foamboard.

We were chugging along. Within a stop or two, the doors opened again, and dozens of people filed into the car. One of them was Jim McGreevey.

Yep, that Jim McGreevey — the onetime governor of New Jersey whose legacy is complicated. Granted, he was the first openly gay governor in U.S. history. But what brought him there was a scandal: He appointed a down-low boyfriend to a security position for which said boyfriend was well compensated and unqualified. McGreevey gave his surprise “I am a gay American” speech in 2004 and announced his resignation, which happened two years and 10 months into his term. Since then, McGreevey has maintained a voice in politics by advocating for programs to assist convicts seeking rehabilitation, and ex-convicts re-entering society.

Meanwhile, back on that PATH train …

Due to the crushing crowd, McGreevey was practically on top of me, clutching a “grab rail” (those commuter-steadying poles). No one seemed to recognize him. (These days, most travelers rarely look up from their phones.) He looked fit, with close-cropped silvery hair and an at-peace-with-myself aura. He clocked that I recognized him — it was a subtle exchange with the slightest of nods — and then looked down at my poster and smiled. “’Groovy’ — what’s this?” he asked.

That was the ice-breaker for a pleasant conversation that lasted about 15 minutes — a long time in the PATH milieu — and took place inside of two PATH cars and on the Grove Street Station platform.

I wasn’t going to monopolize this guy’s time, but he kept the conversation coming. It was weird, almost dreamlike, to have a former governor of your home state comment on the color scheme of your book cover.

McGreevey was very interested in “Groovy.” He wanted to hear all about it. He even gave me some marketing advice, by suggesting I identify (and pitch) people at various print, broadcast and web outlets who might be inclined to cover this type of book. I told him I’d compiled such a list for my publisher. In some cases, McGreevey asked me what writers or broadcasters are on my list. “Who are you reaching out to at The Star-Ledger?” he asked with particular interest. (I hadn’t identified myself as a Star-Ledger writer-designer.) I told him that, for what it’s worth, I was pitching Leonard Lopate at WNYC. We both declared ourselves to be Lopate fans.

Following are some snatches of the conversation:

“Are you going to see ‘Springsteen on Broadway’?” I asked him. (I recalled that he was a Bruce Springsteen guy.)

“I want to. I plan to,” McGreevey replied.

“I’m sure you’ve heard that some tickets are going for $10,000.”

“You’re kidding!”

“I’ve never been a huge Bruce fan,” I said. “I like his first three albums, and then select songs after that. But I admire his energy.”

“His energy is amazing.”

“He’s gotta be 68, right?”

“Is he that old?”

“I’m guessing.” (Springsteen was 68 at the time.)

“What do you think of (Jon) Bon Jovi?” McGreevey asked me.

“Well …” (I gestured toward my eyes to mimic plastic surgery) “… I’m sure he’s had work done. But I doubt if Bruce has.”

“No, I don’t think Bruce would do that. Bon Jovi’s from a different time.”

“A time when image was more important than music. What was your first rock concert?”

McGreevey paused. “The Who at Madison Square Garden in 1972. I slept in Bryant Park that night,” he said.

“’72 — that was The Who in their prime. ‘Who’s Next’ was had just come out. Mine was David Bowie at the Philadelphia Spectrum in 1974. What’s your favorite movie?”

Another pause. “I liked watching the ‘Harry Potter’ movies with my daughter. What’s yours?”

“My favorite movie is ‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’ …”

“That’s quite a pick,” he said, laughing.

“… but my pick for the greatest movie ever made is ‘The Godfather.’”

“That is a classic. What do you think of the second film?”

“Oh, yeah, a lot of people like it better — we ‘Godfather’ freaks call them ‘G1’ and ‘G2.’”

“I think I like ‘G2’ better.”

“You’re not alone. How do you keep fit?”

“I walk and walk and walk and walk.”

“Me, too. I’m 59, and I just spent the last three days walking from 34th and 6th to Javits, two times each day.”

“That’s pretty amazing.” (McGreevey was 60.)

“I’m overweight,” I said. “It’s too late for me; I’ve already eaten too many Pop Tarts to live to 100.”

“But, still, there are a lot of people who couldn’t or wouldn’t do all that walking.”

“I always walk the stairs instead of taking the elevator. I park far away from the store and get a little extra walk in.”

“That’s the way to do it.”

“The older generation lived on coffee, cigarettes and booze. Sometimes you look at an old movie and you see Fredric March or somebody lookin’ like they’re 70, and they’re your age.” (I guess I was monopolizing the conversation, if not his time.)

McGreevey was traveling alone; he said he was late for a birthday party. When we got onto the Grove Street Station platform to switch trains, he continued to speak with me, even sticking with me into the next car. I guess I had a new best friend. I think he hung with me because I didn’t come off like the sort of person who would ask to take a selfie. (Imagine the mess that might have caused in a crowded PATH car.)

When we were on that platform, he asked me what my next project was. I actually told him, making him one of five people on Earth who I’ve shared this with. (It’s wa-a-ay too early to talk about, what with me being Irish and superstitious and all.)

When his stop came up, McGreevey said, “Good luck with ‘Groovy,’” and I said, “Thanks, Jim” — the first time I acknowledged in earnest that I knew who he was.

I never told him what I did for a living — that I was a newspaper guy, that I watched his “I am a gay American” speech live in the Asbury Park Press newsroom in Neptune, standing between my section editor, Kathy Dzielak, and comedian Vinnie Brand, who happened to be visiting her. Or that I later worked at The Star-Ledger, which won a Pulitzer for its coverage of same. It wasn’t that I was being coy; he just never asked me.

I wish I had asked McGreevey about the noble cause he has devoted himself to in his third act: helping convicts and ex-convicts who wish to be rehabilitated. It somehow speaks to his own rehabilitation. I believe he is sincerely trying to make a bad situation better. Anyway, he said he was down with “Groovy.” There’s a special place in my heart for anyone who takes that position.

Same night, another new best friend

I rode on to Newark Penn Station, where I would switch to an NJ Transit train. I know this train station well, having worked in Newark for nearly six years. You have to be on the lookout for panhandlers, especially during non-peak-commuting hours. If you spend a lot of time in Newark, you’ve probably learned how to deflect panhandlers. But you wouldn’t want to deflect them all. Some, you give to.

I hadn’t eaten for hours. I was looking at the prices at a pizzeria inside the station. The person who then approached me was as bad off as anyone I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t tell this person’s gender at first. She was dressed in rags, didn’t have many teeth, and looked sick.

“Can you buy me a slice of pizza? I’m hungry,” she said.

“Of course,” I said in a sing-song voice.

Tears immediately gushed from her eyes. I mean gushed.

“One regular slice,” I said to the pizzeria guy.

“We don’t have regular,” he said.

“Sicilian, then.”

“No Sicilian. Just what you see.”

I turned to the woman. “What looks good?”

She peered into the glass and said, almost excitedly, “Oh, pepperoni!”

The transaction was made, and soon she was holding a paper plate with a pepperoni slice.

“Thank you so much. What’s your name?”

“I’m Mark.” I took her hand. It was wet, but I didn’t flinch. We held hands for a while.

“I’m Geri. Thank you so much.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“That’s what my grandfather used to say: Don’t be silly.”

I had to let go and head toward the Track 5 stairway.

“I love you, Mark,” she called out.

“I love you, too.”