Looking for Judy

 

 

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On September 30, I took another ride into Newark to look up Judy and

possibly find Sue, weaving through streets I had not traveled since the

mid 1980s when I worked near there.

 

This section of Bloomfield had always scared people, that border land

between Newark and the Garden State Highway. My friend Frank and I came

here in the early and mid 1970s to find go go bars and pick up joints,

that almost acceptable world of blue collar workers struggling to get

out. By the time Sue hid out with Judy, the neighborhood grown more

seedy.

 

The pick-up bar two blocks east of the International House of Pancakes

had boards nailed across its windows and doors, no longer acceptable

even as a rock & roll venue. The neighbors used to complain about the

noise that went on and on, even after the club closed its doors for the

night. The police used to find couples screwing in their cars, right out

on the street. But Frank and I would visit an go-go bar off the main

drag here, a tiny place where the girls were ugly and the men uptight,

where we could buy beers cheap and consider ourselves lucky. We almost

got beat up for mouthing off to some favored patron, and Frank used to

fantasize about having one or two of the girls take us home.

 

Years later, after I first met Sue, I would wander back here as the

sound man for a punk bang who played in the same tight place, lead

guitarist and drummer taking turns with one of the go-go girls between

sets. Even as I returned in 1996, the go-go bar was still open for

business, though the red letters advertising "girls, girls, girls"

looked a bit faded. And strangely, it looked like every other

neighborhood bar with the same kind of men coming and going, men Sue

professed to hate, the lonely and desperate men, the macho men, the men

who couldn't afford the price of a whore and had to settle for the cheap

thrill a dollar's tip could bring them, copping a feel of the dancer's

tit while giving her a tip.

 

For all Sue's rhetoric, she never acknowledged the desperation that

drove men into clubs like these, the unhappy lives they led at home, the

wives so terrible in their fits of rage that even dancers like Sue

seemed pleasant. Sue and her psychotherapist, Nolan, never bothered

considering these men -- not the yuppies --but the down and out who

crawled up onto stools, sucked down their alcoholic potions, and stared

up willingly dancers like Sue to be teased and desired.

 

Sure, the assholes among them made the whole game sick, men who stuffed

their cash into Sue's pants, expecting sexual profits to return from

their investment. But most of these men -- myself included -- came

because they had no other place to go, and lacked the social skills to

compete head on with tough, club women, whose good looks sliced men

apart. Most of the men who came to go-go bars such as these knew women

as beautiful as these dancers wouldn't look twice at men in any other

venue, let alone dance for them.

 

And for the dancers, such men were easy victims. Sue and her ilk could

pick their pockets with a look, or a swerve of hip. The power over men

was not an illusion, and though Sue moaned to Nolan about getting lost

later, this came largely because age made her power less. These men had

come for fantasy, to see women they knew they couldn't get. They did not

come to see women like Sue, whose age and desperation made her look as

pathetic and unappealing as their wives.

 

Sue's desperation wasn't born out of a sudden realization of how slimy a

world she danced in, but in the fact that she could not as easily pick

the pockets of men, even as desperate as these. She wanted to quit

dancing, not because it was dirty or disgusting, but because younger,

prettier girls did for these men what she no longer could.

 

I was always confused by the line between Newark and Bloomfield, a

blurry distinction that pushed one poor neighborhood of one town up

against one poor neighborhood of the other. But block by block, house by

house, and business by business, the closer I come to Newark, the more

dismal Bloomfield became, not quite the warzone of Broadway left after

the 1967 riots, but a much more gradual decay to a world that should not

have decayed at all. Time pealing the paint of the buildings. Time

breaking up the sidewalks and side streets, leaving a sense of greyness

over everything, like a dust that wouldn't wash off. I felt dirty, even

as I passed over the imaginary line, over a set of rail road tracks that

brought me into the numbered streets of the Northwestern edge of Newark.

 

I had once walked home from here after getting into a fight with Frank

over our constantly visiting a dank Bloomfield Avenue go-go bar named

the Dart Lounge. Even then, I had felt the sag of the neighborhood, and

saw the scurrying figures of its desperate occupants, me, the

aberration, me the subject of their scrutiny.

 

"Don't go into that neighborhood at night," my friend John warned me

when he found out about my search for Sue. He had spent time in this

world during the 1980s, sinking so low once as to cop crack here and

smoke it in phone booths before driving back to safer, whiter neighbors

where he resided. He used to carry a pistol on his trips through town,

even when taking the train south to New Brunswick where he worked. He

knew the street, and hated it, and yet for a time could not live without

it. He also knew how desperate people could get when pressed into a

corner. In 1987, I shared some of this with him, breaking his crack pipe

for him when I found it in his apartment. I remember seeing the dealers

haunting his door step, wraiths that reminded me of my own drug days in

LA and on the Lower East Side.

 

But not all of Newark is blighted. Bloomfield Avenue itself formed a

kind of barrier, a dividing line between the homes of the

still-struggling working class and the abominable world of junkies,

prostitutes and pimps. The poorer houses lined the northside of

Bloomfield Avenue, a neighborhood with the typical markers of siege,

barbed-wired yards, metal gated grocery stores, and roadside repairs

with the legs of workers sticking out from under cars and into the

street.

 

The two and three family houses typical on the working class side are

sparse here, as if the original designers of the city had planned for

rooming houses here, apartment buildings with torn aluminum siding or

failing shingles, houses with windows boarded over or covered over with

sheets, hallway windows wide open with tiny kids' heads hanging out,

watching people and traffic.

 

This part of town has had a reputation since the mid-1970s, though most

women who pulled tricks generally picked their johns up in other parts

of town, in the up in other parts of town, in the clubs or along

Broadway. Those who came here regularly, came by invitation or by habit,

knowing already which door bell to ring or which apartment to knock at.

Street wal

 

The Dart Lounge was still there, still advertises go-go girls, though

the sign was so faded it might no longer be valid, stuck between the gas

stations, insurance dealers, and closed store fronts. The only sense of

life here came via the Rickles mall, where the Dunkin has taken on a

joint effort with Baskin Robbins, and even on a Sunday morning, a line

of people crowds the sidewalk, aching to get in.

 

When I worked as the night baker here in 1986, the prostitutes used to

cluttered around the curved counters clucking like chickens, as friendly

with the cops as they were with the mobsters, all part of the mosaic

that made up modern Newark, then and now. Churches were part of that

mix, too, and St. Francis of Xaiver Church is on the Newark side of the

tracks, a huge brick series of buildings that incorporates church,

school, playground and day care, one of the social anchors that keeps

the neighborhood from falling into total ruin, still crowded on Sunday

with people of all colors and ethnic heritages. It was here in the pews

to the church that the priest thought he saw Sue crying, being comforted

by a red-haired man. In fact, many of the local Sue sightings seemed to

center around this neighborhood, as if Fifth Street where Judy and Sue

were supposedly living.

 

Nearby was the Italian Tribune, the Italian-American imitation of the

Jewish Defense League, which was most noted for its protest against the

automatic association between Italians and the Mafia. The newspaper did

everything possible to improve the public perception of Italians, and

fought with vengeance against anyone who pushed the old gangster

stereotype. This paper would lead the fight later to close a play at the

Williams Carlos Williams Center because the main characters were Italian

mobsters. The newspapers also funneled cash into pro-Italian projects,

such as the poetry efforts of Maria Gillian in Paterson, who ran the

Great Falls Poetry project.

 

While the church drew parishioners from both sides of the tracks, the

newspaper marked the boundary between towns and cultures, the blacks and

Latinos crowding in on territory that in the past had been hard core

Italian, marking as significant a change over of social power as Sue's

story marked the passing of the Italian influence from the mob scene --

new people transforming the landscape, shaping into its own unique

personality.

 

As I passed, crowds of well-dressed people flowed towards the doors of

the church, blacks and Latinos mingling with whites, hardly conscious of

the fact that the brothels began within a block of where they were

standing, and were operating even as they crossed themselves marking the

traditional beginning of Mass service. Many of the men who stood here

now beside their wives, saw the inside of brothels more frequently than

the inside of the church.

 

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A Sue Look-a-like

 

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