In Jersey City PG (Pre-Gentrification) rock stars and heiresses were few and far between.

Once someone makes the existential choice of substance abuse, next is the practical matter of financing this new lifestyle. Since in Jersey City PG (Pre-Gentrification) rock stars and heiresses were few and far between, adventurous locals had to rely on their own ingenuity.

One imaginative fellow somehow got hold of an expensive looking suit and a late model Cadillac. He then proceeded to a Journal Square jewelry store and made certain that the clerk saw the car parked nearby. After being shown a diamond ring, the director and star of this little drama simply grabbed the pricey item and ran out the door, leaving the car behind as a puzzle for the police. Wending his way to the North Bergen cliff-side home of a dealer in rare powders — one known as T — he exchanged the glittering stone and its gold band for $225 worth of cocaine.

T — always wanting to impress the ladies with his prowess (intellectual or otherwise) — related to a female companion that he’d very quickly sold the ring for thousands of dollars. As luck would have it, the pretty Miss also knew the original acquirer and told him the tale. A feud ensued, Hudson County’s own little ring saga of the gutters, that ended with both T’s and the thief’s arrest.

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Hal’s concern for the public morals — of juveniles in particular.

I, Claudius was very popular in the Tunnel Bar. One evening a little crowd of regulars were watching as Claudius was summoned before Caligula. Next thing on the screen is the walk on the wild side emperor doing the shimmy-shimmy, shakey-shake.

As luck would have it, just then in walks a somewhat tipsy Hal who at first finds the performance quite captivating, murmuring, “What’s this? VCR?”

“Nah,” I says, “jus’ TV.”


“Hey! This is Channel 13,” was my reply.

Incensed, Hal began to stride back and forth, slamming his fist down into the air. “CHANNEL 13! KIDS COULD BE WATCHIN’!”

To this day, I find quite touching Hal’s concern for the public morals — of juveniles in particular.

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Taking Numbers at the corner of 4th and Grove

My father had many stories about taking numbers — the illegal lottery — during the ’50s and ’60s down by the corner of 4th and Grove in Jersey City. (The Green Door tavern, Jean’s Luncheonette, Lou’s Barber Shop, the fruit and vegetable store — even the corner itself — all are long gone.)

One of the tales concerned sitting on milk crates on the sidewalk along with some other guys from the neighborhood, While my father was writing out a betting slip, a new car came to a sudden halt in the street in front. A well-dressed, husky young man got out and ran over to the group yelling “WHAT’S GOING ON HERE!”

Quickly standing up — and simultaneously flinging the pencil and paper off to the side — my father asked “Whad’ya mean?” He was puzzled for the visitor was not Jersey City Police — those all were one way or another well-known. Was he a Prosecutor? State? A Fed?

The stranger put his hand in his pocket, Everyone expected some sort of badge to emerge, No, in the wallet was just a driver’s license.

“I’m Harold Delmore of the Delmore Milk Company. Those are our crates that you’re using for benches. I want them back.”

As Mr, Delmore put his hand on one of the then wooden boxes, my father said “Hey! There’s a deposit on these! You gotta pay that first before you goes takin’ anytin’.

“Now confused, “I . . . uh . . . don’t have any money with me.”

“So? You came here lookin’ to cheat us out of the deposit? Get goin’ before I call a cop!”

Harold Delmore ran back to his car and never came back.

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You can’t do everything at once . . .

Vinny Buchelle spoke of an amusing incident that occurred when he was working (as an inmate) in the morgue at the Trenton State Hospital for the Criminally insane. On one particularly busy day, they ran out of slabs. Another inmate/worker asked the boss what they should do.

“Throw ‘im on the floor. Whadya think? We’re gonna send ‘im back?”

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That’s how you play the game.

My father was a numbers (illegal lottery) bookie in Downtown Jersey City from the ’50s through the ’80s. Back when he ran his operation out of a candy store on Fourth and Grove (back when there was a Fourth and Grove), a new customer — who we shall call Jake — started betting a significant amount every day.

After placing his now routine daily numbers, Jake had a query “Tony, do you take baseball action?”

Back then bookies were specialists; numbers guys didn’t take sports bets; sports guys didn’t take track (horse) bets. My father was about to say, no, but instead nodded in the affirmative.

“OK here’s fifty for the Whirlybirds on Saturday.”

After Jake left someone who hung out in the candy store — George — had a question. “You’re takin’ sports now, Tony?”

“Nah, I jus’ didn’ wan’ ta chase a spender. I’m gonna run aroun’ the corner and han’ it over to Sal.”

“Yah, know, there’s somethin’ uncanny abou’ tha’ Jake. Whadevah team he bets on always loses.”

A little later while walking over to the neighborhood sports bookie, my father thought about what George had said. “Sal, the Whirlybirds are playin’ this Saturday?”

“Yeah. Gainsda Pitchforks.”

“OK. Here’s fifty on the Pitchforks.”

For that entire season, every time that Jake placed a bet on a team, my father instead put it on the opposition. He wound up having to pay out only once or twice.

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So here’s where we stand, in Freedom’s land by David Friedland

Perhaps you may have read Robert Service’s poem Line at Lenin’s tomb? In those days being politically correct meant that you wore a grey uniform, and you behaved exactly like evryone else. That was no one offended anyone else. Everyone was equal. Below is his poem, and my poor attempt at an answer to the last line he wrote.


# # #

This is the yarn he told me
As we sat in Casey’s Bar,
That Rooshun mug who scammed from the jug
In the Land of the Crimson Star;
That Soviet guy with the single eye,
And the face like a flaming scar.

Where Lenin lies the red flag flies, and the rat-grey workers wait
To tread the gloom of Lenin’s Tomb, where the Comrade lies in state.
With lagging pace they scan his face, so weary yet so firm;
For years a score they’ve laboured sore to save him from the worm.
The Kremlin walls are grimly grey, but Lenin’s Tomb is red,
And pilgrims from the Sour Lands say: “He sleeps and is not dead.”
Before their eyes in peace he lies, a symbol and a sign,
And as they pass that dome of glass they see – a God Divine.
So Doctors plug him full of dope, for if he drops to dust,
So will collapse their faith and hope, the whole combine will bust.
But say, Tovarich; hark to me . . . a secret I’ll disclose,
For I did see what none did see; I know what no one knows.

I was a Cheko terrorist – Oh I served the Soviets well,
Till they put me down on the bone-yard list, for the fear that I might tell;
That I might tell the thing I saw, and that only I did see,
They held me in quod with a firing squad to make a corpse of me.
But I got away, and here today I’m telling my tale to you;
Though it may sound weird, by Lenin’s beard, so help me God it’s true.
I slouched across that great Red Square, and watched the waiting line.
The mongrel sons of Marx were there, convened to Lenin’s shrine;
Ten thousand men of Muscovy, Mongol and Turkoman,
Black-bonnets of the Aral Sea and Tatars of Kazan.
Kalmuck and Bashkir, Lett and Finn, Georgian, Jew and Lapp,
Kirghiz and Kazakh, crowding in to gaze at Lenin’s map.
Aye, though a score of years had run I saw them pause and pray,
As mourners at the Tomb of one who died but yesterday.
I watched them in a bleary daze of bitterness and pain,
For oh, I missed the cheery blaze of vodka in my brain.
I stared, my eyes were hypnotized by that saturnine host,
When with a start that shook my heart I saw – I saw a ghost.
As in foggèd glass I saw him pass, and peer at me and grin –
A man I knew, a man I slew, Prince Boris Mazarin.

Now do not think because I drink I love the flowing bowl;
But liquor kills remorse and stills the anguish of the soul.
And there’s so much I would forget, stark horrors I have seen,
Faces and forms that haunt me yet, like shadows on a screen.
And of these sights that mar my nights the ghastliest by far
Is the death of Boris Mazarin, that soldier of the Czar.

A mighty nobleman was he; we took him by surprise;
His mother, son and daughters three we slew before his eyes.
We tortured him, with jibes and threats; then mad for glut of gore,
Upon our reeking bayonets we nailed him to the door.
But he defied us to the last, crying: “O carrion crew!
I’d die with joy could I destroy a hundred dogs like you.”
I thrust my sword into his throat; the blade was gay with blood;
We flung him to his castle moat, and stamped him in its mud.
That mighty Cossack of the Don was dead with all his race….
And now I saw him coming on, dire vengeance in his face.
(Or was it some fantastic dream of my besotted brain?)
He looked at me with eyes a-gleam, the man whom I had slain.
He looked and bade me follow him; I could not help but go;
I joined the throng that passed along, so sorrowful and slow.
I followed with a sense of doom that shadow gaunt and grim;
Into the bowels of the Tomb I followed, followed him.

The light within was weird and dim, and icy cold the air;
My brow was wet with bitter sweat, I stumbled on the stair.
I tried to cry; my throat was dry; I sought to grip his arm;
For well I knew this man I slew was there to do us harm.
Lo! he was walking by my side, his fingers clutched my own,
This man I knew so well had died, his hand was naked bone.
His face was like a skull, his eyes were caverns of decay . . .
And so we came to the crystal frame where lonely Lenin lay.

Without a sound we shuffled round> I sought to make a sign,
But like a vice his hand of ice was biting into mine.
With leaden pace around the place where Lenin lies at rest,
We slouched, I saw his bony claw go fumbling to his breast.
With ghastly grin he groped within, and tore his robe apart,
And from the hollow of his ribs he drew his blackened heart. . . .
Ah no! Oh God! A bomb, a BOMB! And as I shrieked with dread,
With fiendish cry he raised it high, and . . . swung at Lenin’s head.
Oh I was blinded by the flash and deafened by the roar,
And in a mess of bloody mash I wallowed on the floor.
Then Alps of darkness on me fell, and when I saw again
The leprous light ’twas in a cell, and I was racked with pain;
And ringèd around by shapes of gloom, who hoped that I would die;
For of the crowd that crammed the Tomb the sole to live was I.
They told me I had dreamed a dream that must not be revealed,
But by their eyes of evil gleam I knew my doom was sealed.

I need not tell how from my cell in Lubianka gaol,
I broke away, but listen, here’s the point of all my tale. . . .
Outside the “Gay Pay Oo” none knew of that grim scene of gore;
They closed the Tomb, and then they threw it open as before.
And there was Lenin, stiff and still, a symbol and a sign,
And rancid races come to thrill and wonder at his Shrine;
And hold the thought: if Lenin rot the Soviets will decay;
And there he sleeps and calm he keeps his watch and ward for aye.
Yet if you pass that frame of glass, peer closely at his phiz,
So stern and firm it mocks the worm, it looks like wax . . . and is.
They tell you he’s a mummy – don’t you make that bright mistake:
I tell you – he’s a dummy; aye, a fiction and a fake.
This eye beheld the bloody bomb that bashed him on the bean.
I heard the crash, I saw the flash, yet . . . there he lies serene.
And by the roar that rocked the Tomb I ask: how could that be?
But if you doubt that deed of doom, just go yourself and see.
You think I’m mad, or drunk, or both . . . Well, I don’t care a damn:
I tell you this: their Lenin is a waxen, show-case SHAM.

Such was the yarn he handed me,
Down there in Casey’s Bar,
That Rooshun bug with the scrambled mug
From the land of the Commissar.
It may be true, I leave it you
To figger out how far.

Robert William Service

– – –

It’s been many years, since you shed your tears
over beers at Casey’s bar
so here’s where we stand, in Freedom’s land,
I’ll tell you where we are
My parents came from Minsk and Pinsk, and stood against the Tzar,
they both were whipped ‘till they fled on a ship
to the land of the bars and stars,
I was born, as the night birthed dawn, in a hospital named after Christ
I was raised as a Jew, who innately knew, what Jesus sacrificed.
In the land of the free, the barons drank tea, and worshiped the dollar bill,
Our land was grand, with God we stand,while we idolized Buffalo Bill
Most Indians were dead, as immigrants instead, claimed their Sovereign land,
so we built a few walls, ignoring their calls, to share our wonderland
The Bolsheviks came, and were able to claim, the votes of the disaffected
and so one day, a black man found the way, to actually get elected!
We’ve had many Tzars, moved from horses to cars, a long way from the cave
only indian tribes’, borders survive, in the land of the free and the brave
Just as bees have hives, the comrades survived, to bring equality
they distributed the wealth, often by stealth, and caused widespread bankruptcy
Soon we’ll all be same, sharing one name, one world without any borders,
Yet calm your fears, the Queen Bee appears`, to issue uniform orders
Around and round, from left to right, from cave to outer space
the sands of time, neither yours nor mine, vanish without trace
At Lenin’s tomb. in darkest gloom, the Ruskies now line to vote
while ghost Jefferson, his work undone, boards my father’s boat
So that it, in rhyme with wit, thank you Robert Service
Imagining Ogdan Nash, opined with panache, “Democracy makes me Nervous!”


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Life-long resident of Jersey City hired as Security

Back around ’88 or ’89, Jersey City PG (PreGentrification) had an interesting interlude with the NEW AND IMPROVED version. There was a building upgrade / redo going on in the Heights. For who knows what reason — the developers acquired a well-known local as (get this) security. One Sunday the guy sold all the brandy-new appliances — refrigerators, washers and driers. (Dish washers might have been up for grabs, too. My memory is a bit foggy in that regards.) Like a little crowd was there hauling the fridges out the door, into vans, up on car roofs and maybe even strapped onto supermarket shopping carts. A couple of elderly women next door were watching the scene and one finally asked, “What’s this all about?” The ring leader of the circus was completely cool and just said, “THEY SENT THE WRONG ONES!”

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It must be the computer games!

Some years back, I was walking down my block in the Jersey City Heights when I spotted a notorious local career criminal. I at first couldn’t believe my eyes for the last I’d heard was the he had been sent to prison for ten years. Finally approaching, yes indeed it was him. He’d just gotten out. I hope that the years had flown by as quickly for him as they had for me. While talking with him, I began to unlock the steel roll-down gate on my garage.

“What’s with the heavy metal? Do you store something valuable in there?”

“Nah, it’s just that the crew across the street were real hard core like and were breakin’ into everythin’ up and down the block just to steal anything. They was real bad; worse than you, even.”

As a flat statement, without a trace of irony, “That’s hard to believe.”

“Yeah, but it’s true. One broke the father’s arm and the other broke the mother’s jaw.”

“Jeez! It must be the computer games!”

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Second Thief, Best Thief reviewed in Crossing Under The Hudson

Second Thief, Best Thief by Anthony Olszewski reviewed in Crossing Under the Hudson

Crossing Under the Hudson: The Story of the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels
By Angus Kress Gillespie

I discovered a marvelous little collection of stories entitled Second Thief, Best Thief: Tunnel Bar by Anthony Olszewski. All of the eight stories take place in and around an inner-city tavern called the Tunnel Bar, just outside the Holland Tunnel in Jersey City. It’s a bar that does not have ferns. The author, a native born at the Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital in 1956, has unimpeachable credentials to speak for Jersey City. The book is clearly autobiographical since the author actually worked as a bartender at the family-owned Tunnel Bar. The stories are set in the late 1970s when Jersey City was postindustrial and not yet gentrified. This was time before the pretentiously spelled Newport Centre was built, and the Hudson River waterfront was full of abandoned warehouses and railroad yards.

Olszewski’s short stories come out of a bartender’s oral storytelling tradition, so they are really miniature anecdotes that are quickly sketched and come right to the point. The stories are written in the hard-boiled style of Dashiell Hammett. The characters talk and act as real people do. The main customers at the Tunnel Bar are from the Jersey side of the Holland Tunnel — truck drivers, warehouse workers, and factory laborers. These regulars are supplemented by others who stop off after traveling through the tunnel from time to time.

The narrator for the stories is the bartender, Sal Jr., clearly a stand-in for the author. Sal is a hard-hearted and disillusioned observer of the human condition. At on one point, he gives us a vivid description of the interior of the bar:
Late one night a belligerent wino, upset with the tavern owner’s “attitude,” threw a brick through one of the panes of glass. The hole was boarded over and — since the glass was never replaced — remained so. In an attempt to prevent burglary, metal bars from a scrap yard were bolted behind the intact glass in the one window and behind the plywood covering the space left by the other. After decades of cigarette smoke, a layer of yellow tar covered everything except for the rows of shiny bottles on the counter behind the bar.

Through the narrator we meet the gin mill crowd, an interesting cast of characters. There’s the homeless James O’Leitnin, who hangs out at be bar, seated by the phone. He takes it on himself to answer the phone on a basis, “having assumed the imaginary job of bar receptionist.” Then there’s a big ex-convict named Hal, who, at six feet four inches and 260 pounds, intimidates any who might argue with him. In the old days, Hal’s specialty was armed robbery, but now he’s content to do enforcer work for loan sharks and bookies.

Olszewski has a good ear for local dialect; he captures the flavor of Jersey City with his wit and wordplay. The characters are often con men. They defraud their marks by exploiting their weaknesses, such as greed and dishonesty. But there’s some humor the old saying “You can’t cheat an honest man.” Like the short story writer O. Henry, Olszewski is fond of the clever surprise ending. Typically, the author puts one of his low-life characters into some impossible jam, and then extricates him at very end with a wry twist. In one story a homeless man, Vinny Buchelle, is accused by detectives from the Jersey City police of murder, and kidnapping. Things look bad for Vinny. How is he going to get out of this one? (I don’t want to spoil the surprise.)

Reading this collection of short stories set right outside the portal of the Holland Tunnel on the Jersey side, we get the feeling that anything can go wrong in this dingy spot.

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Tommy’s comments on the reports of his death.

Some decades ago, here and there in the Heights and in the Tunnel Bar stories about Tommy — a dealer in rare powders — often were in the air. I was in the tavern one day back then when in walked Tommy’s cousin Eddy, a railroad worker in the Hoboken yard. Seeing Eddy, I realized that the town crier news feed had been quiet.

“How’s Tommy? I haven’t heard anything about him for a while.”

Looking at his watch, “Well . . . Let’s see . . . It’s after 3, so I guess he’s dead.”

“It’s after 3, so he’s dead! What’s that mean?”

“He got real sick last night and went to the hospital. I was there at 7am. The doctor said that it was meningitis and that Tommy’d be dead in 8 hours.”
. . .
I was walking up Central Ave a couple of weeks later. Out of the corner of one eye, it seemed that there was Tommy. My first thought was that I was imagining an apparition. When I looked closer, indeed it was him.

“Jeepers, Tommy! Eddy told me that the doctor said you’d be dead in 8 hours!”

“Yeah, I was layin’ in the bed too weak to move when I heard the jerk say that. I thought then ‘Who the hell is this bastard to be handin’ out det sentences?’ I willed myself up and told the nurse to get me my clothes. ‘YOU CAN’T LEAVE!’ THE HELL I CAN! I ain’t under arrest. You ain’t keepin’ me here.”

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Tommy’s handling of other things of value

Tommy — as a dealer in rare powders — needed creativity to a degree not known to conventional merchants. As a f’rinstance, inventory just was not going to go on display in a glass case under the counter. Any number of people with guns — many with badges, but many, too, without — stood ready to remove all material close at hand.

Tommy’s North Bergen cliffside location provided the solution; the wooded hills equalled infinity in terms of hiding places. This though was not perfect. As might be expected — particularly when working in the dark with judgement often compromised from being one’s own best customer — the next day, each tree winds up looking like every other. At least once, Tommy needed to spend an entire day — and well into the night with a flash light — scouring the hills like someone looking for a leprechaun’s treasure. On another occasion, the packaging was faulty, so rain turned the powder to mush. Tommy’s plan was to dry the stuff out, but I don’t know if that was successful.

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Eddie Sarge’s partner Vito Genovese

Jersey City is the world’s biggest small town and here’s yet another example to prove that. I’d often heard stories about Vito Genovese — the partner of Eddie Sarge — From the Transfer Station crowd and Tommy. I never thought that Vito Genovese was the individual in question’s actual name. My assumption was that Sarge’s partner was another wild man like him and that the notorious La Cosa Nostra signature was an AKA.

Around the same time, a few doors up from me on Reservoir Ave. was an Italian family who lived in an apartment. The husband was a stocky guy who generally was in work clothes. I thought that perhaps he had a job on the docks. The wife was always very neatly and conservatively dressed and seemed to be an immigrant or first-generation. There were two quiet and well-behaved young sons. I knew that the man’s name was Vito. I never spoke with him, but every so often I’d see him in Joe Pedati’s candy store, flipping through one of the Playboy magazines that Joe kept on the sly behind the counter.

I heard that Eddie Sarge and Vito Genovese were collared in a heavy coke bust. A few days later, someone on the block told me that the neighbor Vito had been arrested. “Vito who?” I asked. “Vito Genovese” was the reply.

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