Joe Bardin is a writer based in Scottsdale, AZ. His literary nonfiction has appeared in Louisville Review, Eclectica, Rock & Sling, JMWW and Burrow Press Review, among others. An alumni and scholarship recipient of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, he is a Rhode Island International Film Festival screenplay semifinalist, and a member of the Dramatists Guild, whose plays have been performed professionally.
Trenton into Time
After our three bedroom Jerusalem apartment, considered large by local standards, the three story plus a basement red brick colonial we moved into in Trenton, New Jersey in the fall of 1973 was so enormous I got lost in it. There were bedrooms and bathrooms beyond sharing, a second floor hall as well a first floor hall, linoleum covered back stairs along with burgundy carpeted front stairs, and a complexity of doors that challenged my memory the first few weeks.
A militia of kids patrolled our street, into which my next older brother, Matt, and I were immediately drafted. Aged seven, I was always the smallest or next to smallest, desperate to keep up. Matt, aged ten, took only passing interest in my progress, a betrayal that burned along with other humiliations. I did not understand the games I was too small to be good at in any case – football, stickball, kick the can. And though we had spoken English at home in Jerusalem, my language of play was still Hebrew. So sketchy was my English that when we were taken to get library cards, and I was required to sign my full name, I didn’t know how to spell Joseph.
Most of the kids may not have known what fuck really meant, but they used it with confidence that gave them power. Fart was an equally mysterious term of immense import, which I couldn’t distinguish from the word part. I heard it as parting and concluded, sometimes correctly, that it had something to do with leaving something behind when you left (when you parted). But then sometimes it didn’t.
The militia was led by an immeasurably older kid, probably 13, whom I’ll call Todd. Todd was heavy set, yeasty smelling, not particularly athletic but imaginatively brilliant. He would spin stories around the activities he led us into, often with a compelling moral dimension, which would make our participation indisputable.
On the other side of Todd’s house lived a family called Ridderbush, whose kids were never allowed out with us due to their father’s sternness, possibly based on a military background or some religious belief or both. Todd considered their separateness a provocation, but a biting dog in their back yard prevented us from carrying out the campaign of vandalism that was clearly their due.
One day the Ridderbush family was gone on vacation, and so was the dog. Todd seized the opportunity to break into their garage, where he found razor tipped hunting arrows, which he presented as conclusive evidence of Ridderbush’s barbarity. Who could do that to innocent animals? Someone produced a plastic bow and Todd was soon shooting the hunting arrows over the creek that ran parallel to our street. He sent me across to collect them but did not stop shooting. One arrow hit high in an oak and dropped right into my head. I was brought bleeding profusely to my mother by Todd, who looked like the responsible one, as I was rushed to the emergency room for stitches.
In Jerusalem, we had had no TV, of which there was little to watch there anyway. We’d cross the hall to neighbors, an older couple, where the TV often played some black and white circus from Italy in which glum clowns and weary animals lumbered through their tricks. In Trenton, we got our own TV, but to protect our budding intellects, were allowed just one hour’s viewing per day. But at a neighbor, a family of eight kids, who largely populated the militia, I watched TV for hours on end, usually with some of their kids, but sometimes on my own, taking in reruns of Batman, Ultraman, Three Stooges, the various iterations of Bugs Bunny, and the Tom and Jerry’s I hated, being a cat lover. I tended to sympathize with sufferers, and felt a pang for fat Sergeant Schultz at the beginning of each episode of Hogan’s Heroes, as he cried out in frustration at having been fooled again by the wily Americans.
At the very end of our dead end street were the remains of a house that had burned down years earlier. The militia would meet in the attic of the surviving garage to smoke cigarettes and plan operations. It was resolved to dumpster dive the IBM building one block over on West State Street, where we salvaged discarded keyboards, dead monitors and great reels of mainframe computer tape. In his garage, Todd set up the hardware as a command center, like Captain Kirk’s bridge from Star Trek. He added to the defunct gear an actual working light here and there giving the whole setup the aura of efficacy, which awed me into playing along with his somewhat stupid games of space travel, in which he issued Kirk-like commands– Warp speed! Fire photon torpedoes!—that we could only pretend to implement.
The more bored the militia got, the more malicious its operations became. We tied computer tape across our street at six inches off the ground, with the ends attached to flowerpots on front porches and other movable objects, for passing cars to drag to their destruction. Because I was small, I was often the agent sent up the steps to tie the tape.
We went on expeditions through downtown, all the way to the Calhoun Street Bridge. Crossing the Delaware River, looking down at the muddy current rounding an island of weeds and trees produced in me deep Tom Sawyer stirrings, and I could have stayed there for hours gazing. But the militia’s mission was to Woolworth’s on the Pennsylvania side, whose aisles we roamed until someone found what they wanted to steal. A signal would pass among us, like the body language between bees, and we’d buzz out of the store as casually and quickly as possible with a haul of M&M’s, fireworks, hardware, whatever.
Only my anxiety at being left out superseded my anxiety at being included in these petty crimes. But despite my near continuous fear of being caught, we never were. Which was part of the puzzle of Trenton; where was everyone who was supposed to be watching us?
Perhaps they were concerned with more serious criminality. Muggings and burglaries occurred on a regular basis, always by blacks, it was assumed on our street, which was part of an angry white enclave surrounded by the rest of angry black Trenton. Windows were smashed, TV’s and stereos taken, along with purses swiped out of coat closets or off kitchen tables. We’d find pocketbooks tossed in bushes nearby amid a fascinating litter of femininity – compacts, lipstick, notes, photos, change purses, pens – which we picked over for our own purposes.
Though I’d come from a city seething with racial rivalry, I’d never heard it spoken of openly, perhaps because in Jerusalem, I lived among the conquering, and in Trenton, among the conquered. Todd showed us a sawed off pool cue called a “nigger beater”. To my alarm –how would I explain it to my parents? --he announced we should carry one at all times, a command that came to nothing, like much of the racist bluster heard on that street.
I didn’t know why we hated them, and they hated us, but I learned to avoid the black kids whenever possible. Meeting them usually meant being threatened with bodily harm--which I was too small and quick to cry to actually incur--and being divested of my pocket change. These encounters almost always started with exaggerated friendliness the black kids used to get close enough to threaten -- --“how ya doin”! Countless times, though I knew better, curiosity got the best of me. If I approached, or even slowed my walk, I was usually in for it. “Bust ya head”, they might threaten with a broken brick in hand, as out came the tears along with the quarters and dimes. If, however, by some strength of will I stifled my curiosity and walked on, I often passed without incident.
One house, where three grown women lived, whose porch we boobie-trapped regularly with computer tape, had Plexiglas put in the downstairs windows to protect against burglars. We snuck up on their porch to inspect it and Todd got an idea. The city was riddled with crime and we had to act. It would take intense training to achieve this, but we needed to become crime fighters.
The militia far preferred committing crimes to preventing them, and wasn’t much for training of any sort. The more intense Todd’s vision became of whipping us into an elite crime fighting unit, the more kids dropped out. Todd maintained morale by framing this as a weeding out of the weak, which galvanized those who remained, even when it was just my brother Matt and I. Then, without explanation, Matt quit too.
Not dissuaded in the least, Todd maintained that with the right training we could become an elite, super-hero-like crime fighting duo. Half the time Todd didn’t even want me around, now I was going to be Robin to his Batman? I sensed the asymmetry, but I’d been so intent on being included, I didn’t know how to bail out.
Todd’s father was rumored to have committed suicide. His mother, a tall, thin, pale woman owned a car dealership outside of town, and had younger, usually heavily tattooed boyfriends that were impossible for me to distinguish from the boyfriends of Todd’s sexy older sister. One of these boyfriends was invariably working on an ancient MG in the driveway on weekends.
But during the week, Todd’s musty, somewhat disheveled house was enormous and usually empty of adult supervision. Todd said it was time to work on hand-to-hand combat, and that he had an area set up for this in his basement. Since we’d be operating at night, we had to learn to fight in the dark. He switched off the lights leaving us in pitch-blackness.
I felt the same fear as when we ripped off Woolworth’s or vandalized front porches, the anxiety of following others into precarious acts from which I had nothing to gain but their dubious company. But this wasn’t the same. For a moment, in the utter darkness, there was silence. Then Todd found me and showed me what he said was a hold I should use on criminals when they attacked. He put my hand on his bare balls and told me I had to squeeze. I did this. But when he told me I had to do it again, I knew what I had to do was leave, and I did.
In Jerusalem in Hebrew I had made my first friendships, played at Five Stones, a version of jacks, told my first lies to my mother about washing my hands when I hadn’t, dug up pottery that may or may not have been ancient, which was everywhere underfoot, watched the Disney movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks at the Jerusalem YMCA drunk with wonder. But now, in Trenton in English, that wonder would not translate, and I became aware of time and its increments of emptiness to be filled, which somehow matched up with the gaps that had opened between me and people and my self. In what had been whole cloth a seam appeared between protection and isolation that would divide me for decades. Maybe I was just growing up, sensing the structure of things, but awakening to the separations of time meant going to sleep on timelessness.
Despite my best efforts, the militia regularly left me out. My mother had my infant sister, Sarah, on her hands, and was writing a novel -- a mysterious, typed, time-consuming thing that occurred behind the closed door of the study, producing a stack of papers we were never to read. My father was at work, the Commissioner of Environmental Protection, which is why we moved to Trenton, the state’s capitol. My oldest brother, Jacob, paid me in candy bars to help him on his newspaper route, but had fundamentally different interests, and Matt’s involvements intersected mine only intermittently.
Often I would go to the creek, a spillway for the Delaware and Raritan Canal, which formed the property boundary at the end of our mammoth back yard. We were instructed to never enter the creek, because the canal’s floodgates could open without warning and drown us. This I disregarded even more frequently than the one-hour TV rule.
The creek ran down a gulley with steeped banks on either side, invisible from my mother’s kitchen window, with a canopy of oaks and maples overhead, through which dappled sunlight touched down on tea colored water, which flowed over stones its ancestry had smoothed into a floor, and around granite outcroppings that formed familiar crossing points. I dreamed I was an Indian, doing Indian things, like setting traps and soaking ivy vines to make rope. I grew so fluent in the creek’s variations of rock and stream and pool I could walk almost anywhere without wetting a shoe.
I still felt a child’s pagan intimacy with the current, trickling in places like braids of glass, then rushing through mini rapids into flusters of foam, then murkier by-waters. But after storms, the floodgates did open, and violent torrents of water crashed through, and I would go back to see how stones and banks and the channels themselves had changed, trying to conserve in myself what was inevitably flowing away.