I had a place to stay in Linden, I knew it wasn't going to be easy getting there. I'd been advised to stay off of Route 1, as it would have taken me through the heart of Newark. Once I'd passed through East Orange, (essentially the West Side of Newark) I figured I could pop back over to '1 and make up some time getting to Linden. Stopping at a bus stop to get some rest, a woman and her son were waiting on public transportation. Curious about my pack he asked me if I'd been in the military. Giving the same answer I do every time I said
"Nossir, they just hold up really well, I'm walking from Boston to Washington, D.C. and needed something that would take a beating."
He nodded, understanding and asked "Why are you walking to Washington, D.C. couldn't you take a bus or a plane or something?"
In what I'm assuming was Hindi, his mother asked him what I was doing, he explained and she exclaimed in a very thick accent,
"Ohh! That is a long way to walk, how did you get here?!" She then rattled off a line I couldn't follow even if I had a rudimentary grasp of the language. He listened, then asked me,
"she wants to know if you went through East Orange, it's very dangerous"
I nodded, "Yes, that was indeed a dodgy part of town, but I made it through sticking South of the tracks and walking fast" laughing a bit I explained my purpose of carrying a letter to congress, and why. She listened closely, and as I sparked up a smoke she tut tutted me.
"You are a nice young man, nice body, strong body to walk so far, you smoke cigarettes, destroy your body, nice face, you shouldn't smoke. If you love God, you will take care of yourself, have many children they grow up strong, if you smoke, you won't meet a nice girl, your clothes will smell bad, your hair, your nails."
I took another drag off of my cigarette, "Well ma'am, I haven't many vices, I don't really drink and for most of this journey cannabis has been off the table, so I'm holding onto this one vice with a white knuckle grip!" Her son laughed at that, translating for her, but she didn't smile, she just looked at me with pity in her eyes.
"You laugh, but you don't want to be alone only to have that, throw it away and you will be a better man"
Not knowing what to say to that, and I'd finished my cigarette anyway, I rolled the cherry out of it looking around for a trash can. Unable to find one I pocketed the butt, not wanting to litter along the roadway. Seeing that I was uncomfortable, although unaware of the reason, her son asked me if I needed anything. She piped up,
"Yes do you need sandwich? Water? Anything, we help, you are doing a good thing, it is a strong good thing that you do, we want to help."
I thanked her for her kind thoughts, and wish to help, but my pack was full to bursting from my stay at Cookie's and my most recent resupply. She asked if there was anything she could do to help and I replied
"Ma'am, you've given me some sage advice and food for thought, I couldn't ask for anything more, thank you for your encouragement, and your support. I wish y'all the best"
The sun was Westering quickly, and I'd been warned by locals that this wasn't the best place to be after dark, especially not so burdened. I figured with a mile or so left I could hop the bus and get to the Leonard Lee Funeral Home before dark. Not concerned with ghosties, or frightened of seeing a dead body (both prerequisites for staying at the parlor), it was a short hop, rather than an hour walk from my conference on the roadside to where I'd be laying my head. On arriving I called my host, letting him know I was there,
"Should I go around back?" I asked, not sure what to do with myself, and wondering if I would need to dodge a hearse.
"Oh no, don't worry about it, I'll be down to let you in, just a minute" I shuffled my feet, the locals giving me the stink eye while I stood and waited at the front entrance. My host opened the door, I'd met him once before and was excited to get a chance to sit down and chat for a bit about our mutual friend and photography.
"Don't worry about the locals, most of the folks around here are afraid of the place, and think we're weird for living here, but as the neighborhood gets worse and worse, it's actually a good thing, they leave us alone."
I nodded, that had been the second reaction I'd gotten from folks when I was asking for directions, the first was "oh I'm so sorry dear who died?" When I told them that I was staying with a friend who lived above the place, they pulled back like I was possessed, and pointed vaguely in the direction I was supposed to go.
Richard was excited to have someone to talk to, we chatted about what the town used to be since he grew up in the area.
"This area was mostly blue collar..." He started.
"Yeah, I'd heard that it was largely Polish and German" I said.
"Well, Polish, and Jewish on the other side of the tracks, over the past ten years or so, the line between the nice part of town and the ghetto keeps moving over street by street." he replied.
I asked him how the funeral parlor business was making out with the economy being the way it is. "Fewer people can afford viewings, most folks are opting for full cremation which the Funeral Home sees very little of. Who can afford a viewing, procession, and to have a grave maintained these days. Usually it's two days from death to cremation, with a brief ceremony in between"
We talked a bit longer on that macabre subject, then getting into what he does for work, which is remodeling grocery stores. Say goodbye to A & P in New Jersey folks, it's been purchased by Stop & Shop and they'll be gutting the stores and rehiring staff at lower wages within the next year or so. Stop & Shop, which is owned by Giant, which also owns Food Lion, has a habit of taking over smaller chains. They shut the stores down for a week, rearranging the inside, then hire all new staff when they reopen under a new name. This has been the "way of things" in New Jersey for the past two decades. With very little call for social responsibility in low income neighborhoods who takes the time to find out that a local store is closing, or tries to find out what they can do about it?
Richard and I chatted for a few hours, he is a wealth of information about the supermarket industry, Route 66, photography and just about anything else my tired brain could think of. When our conversation was punctuated by yawns, he headed off to bed and I achieved unconsciousness with a record swiftness. The last thing I remember was his warning that if I was going to sleep in, to wait until after the funeral was over to leave.