John Charles Telson III


John Charles Telson, the third, was hired in August, 1975, ahead of the start of the Christmas Season to replace me as the driver.

A journal entry I made about him after meeting him again for lunch 30 years later, described his arrival at the warehouse.

“I first met John Telson in August, 1975, when he answered a jobs advertisement for a delivery man. He was to take over my position at D&B Wholesale Cosmetics warehouse in Fairfield,” the entry from Jan. 19. 2002 said. “The owner, Donald Gottheimer, had expanded the business, purchasing a new building on the other end of town, which meant a larger operation and more employees. I was to become an in house man, something akin to assistant warehouse manager under Stanley Kalafut, with whom I had worked for more than a year at the old warehouse on Bloomfield Avenue.”

          Donald had already unveiled news that we would move to a new facility once we got through the Christmas season in November. Business was good. Donald needed me full time in the warehouse to help Stanley get the shipments out.

          John was a miniature Paul Bunyan, from his boots and jeans to his lumberjack-like shirt and beard. The only thing John had that Bunyan lacked were the thick black rimmed glasses and an inferior complex as big as the Grand Canyon.

          Looking back at him from the 2002 journal, I seemed to notice things about him that foreshadowed the future.       

          “When I met him the first time, John had squat face, scraggly hair, and a well-trimmed beard. He wore work boots and sometimes military style pants, and a button down shirt over which he wore a down vest. When he walked, his ring of keys announced each step. His voice was somewhat nasally and unique,” the 2002 journal entry said.

          The descendant of a family that had migrated from Clifton to Moonachie where they started their own small trucking firm, John was nothing like his forefathers at all. While consumed with personal ambition, John would not follow in his father’s footsteps and could not work for his father, and so sought out a job outside the family.

Since he came from a background of trucking, he seemed an idea fit for the job. I was the only one who bothered to ask him why.

          As much as he loved his family, John found his father overbearing in the same way many children of working class do, never able to live up this father’s expectations, always asked to do more than the paid help did, getting instead long hours and a lot of abuse.

          John told me later that he had a tough enough time living under the same roof with his father without having to work side by side with him all day long as well.

“Even that early, John seemed frail to me, although he put on airs as someone more macho than he was, trying to live up to working class expectations of a father, a small trucking firm owner in Moonachie, who wanted a son more macho than John could ever be,” the 2002 journal said. “John didn’t want to work for his father’s firm, he told me at the time, and had sought out other work outside the family. For John’s father, this must have been something of a blow since he had wanted to leave the business to his son – wanting him to follow the same blue collar path he had. But John was as interested in books as he was in automotives, and he knew no matter what he did, he could never live up to his father’s expectations.”

Just shy of his 22nd birthday when he came through the old warehouse door, Jon was the eldest sibling in a family that included two sisters and – I believe – a younger brother. John had hoped to attend college after graduating high school, but his father wouldn’t hear of it, insisting John work for a living like all the Telson men had before him.

          Later, John confided in me that he always wanted to become a history teacher. He loved to read about the past, especially military history. He was a fanatic war game player, something my uncles had introduced me to a few years earlier, and so this became something John and I did sometimes after hours at his house or my apartment in Passaic.

          In another journal entry written after our last meeting in 2002, I talked more about these games:

John and I shared a common interest: military strategy board games.

          I had developed a taste for the games during the winter of 1972 when my Uncle Harold brought them over to old house on Crooks Avenue in Clifton where he spent hours in mortal combat over the kitchen table. Harold and I, and my one time best friend, Ralph Mueller, had conducted marathon sessions of another board came, Risk.

          Once out on my own again in the early 1970s, I lost touch with my uncle, Ralph and war games, only to discovered John was even more fanatic about the games than I had ever been.

          Compared to John and his friends, I was a total amateur. For him, these games became a way of life that he would continue for decades after I lost touch with him, so that when I met him at The Wick in early 2002, it was the last remaining pillar of his social life, something that he could count on with the rest of his life seemed to fall apart around him.

          He said he met with his group several times a month to engage in all night sessions of world conquest. These friends were among his oldest and closest friend and were as passionate about the games as he was. And in those final days of his life, when he wasn’t actually playing those games, he was planning his play, designing pieces he could incorporate into them or reading the history of the battles he intended to simulate.

          Hearing him talk about these games over lunch, brought back our own days when he came over to my apartment on Paulison Avenue in Passaic, or I went to his house, and how eventually I shied away from greater involvement.

          His passion for the games extended to the companies that manufactured them, and he was then mourning the demise of one of the once more popular game companies that had recently gone under unable to compete with contemporary video games and other advances in technology.

          A true loyalist, John and his friends clung to the cardboard pieces and the table-top boards full of hexagon shapes, reverently treating each because they knew if damaged they could not easily be replaced.

          John used a copy machine to preserve many of the maps and pieces that he knew would eventually wear out, looking ahead to a future when he would have to rely on them, little realizing that his future would come to an end in early 2006 with his death, and all that would remain of his dream of becoming a history teacher, would be these pieces and those maps.”

          John turned 18 just as the drinking age got lowered, and became – of all things – a beer can collector, the collection of which he kept on the shelves of his room. Later, when he got married, he displayed the collection in the living room. To this day, I can’t watch John Goodman’s Dilbert from the film Arachnophobia without thinking of John, or the Goodman’s role in the Great Lumbowski, since John was an equally fanatic bowler and belong to several leagues, including one in the nearby Wallington Lanes.

          He smoked heavily, a habit he perpetually vowed to give up, inspiring a somewhat friendly competition, since I struggled to give up smoking, too. Each time I tried, I managed to talk myself back into the habit.

          One day, John came through the side door to the Kaplan Drive warehouse and announced he had quit smoking – and had not smoked for days. I quit on the spot, figuring if a man with a weak a will has his could do it, so could I.

          Some time later when having dinner at his family’s house, his sister game him away, saying “John still smokes, he just pretends he stopped.”

          Never the less, I never went back to smoking, something I owe John even after all these years.

          John’s pride and joy was an olive-green Dodge van, the same make and model as the one he was to drive for the warehouse – only he had equipped it with everything including the kitchen sink.

          I half expected him to drive up in it during our last lunch together in 2002, and was disappointed when he pulled up in a rusted 1990s Chevy instead. But I recalled the van in one of the journal entries I wrote after that lunch.

          “Over the years, I could not think of John Telson and not think of his olive colored van.

          Similar to the red Dodge the company used to transport merchandise around the metropolitan area, John’s van was decked out with those things that defined his independence.

          It was first of all a camper fitted out with bed and kitchen appliances, though if he ever actually took the vehicle any place remote I never heard about it.

          He just needed to have it ready for it and when he wanted to go or if some circumstance  demanded its use – much in the way some people in the 1950s built personal air raid shelters in their basements or back yards on the off chance that the Soviets might actually launch a nuclear holocaust.

          John wasn’t what some would later call “a survivalist,” his van was more symbolic than that, an escape pod to which he went daily, in which he was surrounded by his personally constructed world, beholden to no one, not even his father, and something upon which he could always depend when the rest of the world seem cruel or unfriendly.

          I don’t remember whether he had an 8-track player in it or a cassette deck, but I remembered he had a full stock of tapes that allowed him to fill the interior with nearly constant song – he loved a band called “Renaissance” and often played tunes such as “Mother Russia” from the two or three albums the band put out during the mid-to-late 1970s.  The summer of 1975 was also dominated by performers such as Boz Skaggs, Fleetwood Mac, and the break-through album by The Eagles, Hotel California. Each time I hear any of these, John’s is among the faces that comes to mind.

          Despite the van’s massive use of gasoline during years when we still had gasoline shortages, John clung to that van, and I often looked for the van in the parking lot outside the D&B Warehouse on Kaplan Drive and later when I worked with John at Wine Imports of America in Hawthorne, to determine if he had arrived.”

          At some point in the mid-1980s, I ran into John and the van again, when I was jogging along River Drive in Garfield.

“He was apparently using it to help someone move when we ran into each other,” my 2002 journal recalled. “He said at the time that he had moved to California after Wine Imports went out of business, and had actually used the van to make the trip, and driven back when California could not provide him with the happiness he thought he would find there. I did ask him about the van over our lunch at The Wick. I half expected him to tell me he still had it somewhere, perhaps up on blocks behind his father’s house in Moonachie, where he was trying to restore it to its former glory – even after two and half decades. The van, John told me, was his first and last new vehicle, and since its demise, he had been contemned to driving a string of questionable used cars, such as the Chevy he’d driven to The Wick. He did not say when he got rid of the van, but he did say he had recently seen it again as if fate had decreed that he should get a glimpse of his own fading dreams.

          “I was in a junk yard getting a part for my car,” he said. “There is was. On a pile. I had to go over to make sure it was mine, and it was. I couldn’t believe it was there.”

          “John actually arrived at D&B Cosmetics just prior to our move from the complex at 1275 Bloomfield Avenue to the building Donald had purchased on Kaplan Drive,” another journal entry recalled, “and became part of the labor force for when we actually deconstructed the shelves and pallet racks in one place and rebuilt them in the other.”

          Since John arrived before the 1975 Christmas season, he was the only one of the later employees to have actually worked in the old warehouse. Some were hired before the move, all they actually did was pack up everything in the old warehouse for transport to the new digs across town.

          John buzzed around the warehouse with an enthusiasm that put the rest of us to shame. Out from under his father’s thumb, he seemed to see Cosmetics Plus as his second chance.

          From the start, he admitted later that he eyed Stanley’s job when Stanley moved up to the next level even though he knew that job had been promised to me.

          In another journal entry written later, this becomes clear: “Like Stanley, John seemed to think that he was getting in on the ground-floor of something important and that if he was lucky, he could build a future there, and already had an idea that he might replace me, even though he did not admit this to me until after we’d worked a few months together.

          “I just wanted to let you know I’m looking to get your job as assistant manager,” he said.

          This was a friendly warning, but an unnecessary one since his actions at the time had already clearly announced his intentions. I felt quite threatened by him, too, and in retrospect, we both needed to focus ourselves on some meaningful occupation, and our conflict over which one of us became assistant manager became less and less important as time went on.”

          While Stanley and John saw Cosmetics Plus as a career, I still hadn’t made up my mind about it, or perhaps already felt the walls of the job closing in around me, and I was already desperately looking for a way out.

          Donald’s step up to the new place scared me even more when I actually got to see the place and learned more clearly what he had planned.


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