Monday, May 26, 2008

Oh, Steve

Thanks so very much to everyone who has sent me a note or card regarding my mother's sudden death. I'm trying to respond to everyone personally (I will, soon!), but I have been flooded with messages, which is helping me cope: it's comforting to be in your thoughts and prayers. Thanks, again.

An ugly little stray dog showed up right around the time my mother died last Sunday. I certainly don't understand all the mysteries in this life, so I wonder if maybe my mom had a hand in it. But I also acknowledge the following: a) we're suckers, and b) we live in Trenton, where EVERYTHING is disposable, especially ugly little stray dogs.

There must be something about death that makes Sunday's events very clear for me: Miss Karen came over for brunch; Glen cooked; we all ate; Miss Karen helped Glen move some furniture down the stairs for my sister Karen (thanks, again, Miss Karen! I would have helped, but I am currently not allowed, per the laws of Glen and my sisters, to move furniture down the stairs); the sky turned dark, and the wind whipped up; Miss Karen left; and Glen spotted the ugly little stray dog eating chicken bones in the middle of our intersection.

We've become incredibly demoralized by the stray animal problem here in Trenton, though usually we encounter cats. The whole situation sucks, and reflects a bigger problem of poverty and lack of care in our society, and yeah, people are to blame, but there are plenty of "stray" people as well, so I try not to hate humanity that much. Our attitude goes up and down, depending on what's happening in our lives, how many animals are currently swinging by for dinner and so forth, and last Sunday, we kind of had the "there's only so much we can do" mentality. So, Glen went over to the dog, and kicked the chicken bones to the sidewalk, at least so the creature wouldn't get T-boned by an uninsured, idiotic Trenton knucklehead; that is, before puncturing his digestive system on the damn bones. But the dog was thrilled to see Glen, and acted like they were long, lost friends, and Glen picked him up. The dog was a disgusting, filthy, smelly thing (which he was), so Glen held him, dog legs splayed every which way, as far away from as he could. He set the dog down on our porch, and the little guy squealed and jumped and danced and licked my feet, as if we'd just been reunited after a long, long time.

And then it poured. Glen made the decision — since I no longer want to accept the blame for this situation — to bring the dog in, unwilling to let him run around on the streets, especially in the rain. We gave him some cat food — I had just brought myself to throw Lacey's food away about two weeks ago — which was all we had. The ugly little guy was very thankful. Then, we threw him in the tub. Glen asked around with the neighbors, and no one knew anything, except for one guy who said, "I thought that thing was a possum," and that he had seen the "possum" hanging around for the last few days. The dog doesn't look like a possum to me, at all, although he has perhaps the ugliest rat tail I have ever's almost perverted.

We dried the dog off, and the hockey game came on, and he curled up with us, finally settling in the crook of Glen's arm, as if he was part of our family all this time. As ugly as he was, he was also so adorable and so very sweet: he was happy and slept easily, with no anxiety. He was home, in his mind. We made plans to continue to ask around about the dog, and figured we needed to have a name for him in the meantime, and so, we called him Steve. He became Steve because we don't have very many Steves in our lives. For the record, Steve is the first dog I've ever named in my whole life, and I took the job seriously, and I think I did an excellent job. He is a Steve, and he learned his new name immediately.

A short time later, my sister, Jenny, called to tell me that my mother had died. My sisters arrived and the three of us headed to Maryland to be with my father; Glen and Steve and the cats stayed behind, and Steve's info was posted to one of the local community bulletin boards, and Glen asked a few more neighbors. No one has asked about Steve, and there are no "lost dog" signs posted in our neighborhood.

Glen came to Maryland on Wednesday, and brought Steve with him, since he couldn't leave him at home. Steve travels well, and was a good boy at my parents' house, which was important, because I'm sure my father wouldn't have been able to handle a bad boy at this time. We came home late Thursday, and still, no one had claimed Steve. Because of everything that happened, I didn't get to spend that much time with the dog, but discovered on Thursday that he still has his testicles. Of course. This is Trenton, after all. Testicles or not, part of the reason I'm writing about him is because I can only imagine how I'd feel if I had lost Lacey at some point — I'd have been bereft. I'm not convinced that my feelings for Lacey are anything like what Steve's (previous?) "owners" feel for him, though. I'm assuming, based on the sheer volume of other strays we've encountered, and more importantly, that some of the idiots down the street were obviously engaged in some sort of "animal situation" that necessitated the police to send small animal control out just about two weeks ago, that Steve is probably just another Trenton stray, maybe "owned" for pit bull bait, or by an irresponsible jerk who couldn't stand the thought of removing his dog's "junk," or some combination of both, and was ultimately kicked to the curb as soon as he became inconvenient. Or, maybe he got lucky and escaped.

My mother could be contentious and critical and harsh, but she had a soft spot for those unable to care for themselves. She spent a lot of time visiting people in nursing homes; for some years, she worked with developmentally and physically disabled kids; she painted pictures for the Pediatric AIDS ward at a North Jersey hospital, back in the late 1980s; she opened her doors to kids who were kicked out of their homes; and she often allowed us to bring in random animals we found wandering the streets, much to my father's dismay. Most recently, not long after we moved to Trenton, a mama cat with two kittens showed up. Glen and I thought we were so virtuous because we had, by that point, cleaned up and fixed three Trenton strays, and figured we had made a dent in the problem. We were on a roll and pimped this new mama and her kittens, and we were lucky enough to find the kittens a home, contingent on their clean bill of health. Alas, that was not in the cards. The kittens tested positive for Feline Leukemia, which is probably the most dismal cat disease, and is very nearly always quickly fatal in kittens. Mama cat, somehow, tested negative. Despite getting thrown to the lions with this cat situation, we were so naive, and had no idea of just how lousy some cat diseases can be, and in reading up on Feline Leukemia, I was certain that we had exposed our animals; I lost sleep and beat myself up. I was so distressed we could live in a world where baby ANYTHINGS could die, especially since they were so damn cute, and so full of life. And they did die, those two little kittens. Even though I tried not to bond with them, their deaths are one of those hurts that hasn't ever quite leveled out, mostly because we had been naive do-gooders, and were maybe a bit smug about that. I'm not a militant animal rights girl; I'm not a vegetarian. So, I will tell you, even those of you disinterested in cats and kittens, that I don't care what Wild Kingdom said; I don't care that Survival of the Fittest and Culling of the Herd stuff makes logical sense, it is just plain wrong when baby creatures die, specifically domesticated creatures. Life and death are random, and it should not ever happen to the young. Ever.

So, we were left with the mother cat who may or may not have been incubating the disease. We had considered, originally, the sterilize and release option, but my vet recommended that she get tested again in another couple of months, to see if her exposure to the virus would manifest itself in the disease; my vet recommended euthanasia if the mother cat did test positive, so she wouldn't continue to spread the disease. Logically, I got that. It made sense; why spread a horrible disease? But also, we felt betrayed by the universe: we had been trying to do good by these cats, and suddenly, we were put in the position to play God. The problem existed before our arrival, and despite our efforts, continues to exist, and so the whole idea of deciding who lives and who dies in the stray cat world just made me sick. We were in over our heads. Plus, at the time, with Lacey, and healthy cats of our own who were not vaccinated against Feline Leukemia (they're indoor cats, the vet reasoned), we were out of options.

Or so we thought. My mother said she'd foster the cat, at least until she could be tested again for Feline Leukemia. My mother was 60 at the time, and had commented on many occasions on how much she hated cats; she had never owned one, and wasn't interested now. But she, too, hated what we were going through, and hurt along with us, at the kittens' diagnosis. And she wanted to help. As animals are inclined to do, this mama cat got into my mother's heart, and fortunately, the cat continued to test negative for Feline Leukemia. My mother named her Lady, which, no offense to my mom, was an inappropriate name, since the cat spends most of her waking hours splayed right in the middle of the living room licking her crotch. Other than the obsessive crotch licking, Lady is a social, beautiful cat. My mother was impressed because Lady is relatively uncommon, especially for a stray: she's a female tuxedo, and what makes Lady so striking is that she has great, big green eyes, and a "beauty mark" right on her cheek: a small black splotch of fur amid the white on her face.

While Lady is worthy of some more ink (and it will come, I'm sure), I mention her as a way to illustrate my mother's open-door policy toward those in need. I am religiously-challenged, at least in the organizational fashion, and have a hard time believing that maybe my mom guided Steve, a creature in need, to us. But who knows? Maybe she did. Or maybe it's just the statistics of living in Trenton.* Lacey died in October, and she was just such a fantastic dog, that I haven't felt ready for another: I miss HER, not dog ownership, specifically. But at the same time, dogs are great, and I felt that if one just kind of fell into my lap, that would be acceptable, but I wouldn't, under any circumstances, go "shopping" for one, maybe never again. And then Steve appeared within minutes of my mom's death, and it brings me a bit of comfort — even if it makes me seem insane — to think that maybe these two events are related. So, I'm hoping that no one claims Steve, because, yep, even though he's ugly, and oh yeah, farts more than Glen does (which is a lot), or a dog four times his size, I do love him already, and he's brought us a lot of laughter and warmth during this otherwise dismal time. And he runs all over the place with a little cat toy, which he found all by himself, that says "I love cats,"** and I think that's just priceless. If he came from a loving, responsible home, we are willing to give him back, and I hope his owners, if he had owners, will contact us. With each passing day, though, it seems maybe Steve's former "owner" was a Michael Vick wannabee, or in some other way, just another irresponsible Trenton ass. I'm betting that odds are in our favor that we'll wind up with Steve, and I'm really hoping for that, too.

* Regarding statistics in Trenton: in addition to encountering too many stray animals, we're pretty damn likely to have a car T-boned by an uninsured driver; which happened to us the first month we moved here (for more on T-boning in Trenton by the uninsured, check out this). We've gone on to see a multitude of T-bonings at the hands of the uninsured, though we have since gotten our vehicles in the garage to reduce our risk. Also, here in Trenton, our chances are higher than they are anywhere else for getting hit in the head by a beer bottle, thanks to the asshole visiting the crazy guy across the street who thinks it's perfectly acceptable to throw his shit into someone else's backyard (i.e. our yard). These, of course, are not acts of God, but rather acts of knuckleheads, so it leaves me feeling confused about why Steve came to us in the first place. Statistically, he's no different than a beer bottle that's been lobbed in our direction, or a T-boning, but he's far more awesome than both of those things suck.

** I would never buy a cat toy that said, "I love cats" or anything else with those words on it, for that matter, because pretty much anything with the word "cat" on it, or a picture of a cat on it, is a sign of getting old (click here for more on signs of getting old). I'm not crazy about getting old, but more than that, I don't want to get old THAT WAY, you know, in the crazy cat lady way. And also, while I do feel love for cats, it's not the predominant sentiment. Mostly, I think they're some of the biggest bastards in the universe, and I really admire them for that. Anyway, the "I love cats" toy was a gift, and none of the cats have ever touched it, because they are just way too cool. Steve, however, operates outside of cool, and that's what makes him so special.

Friday, May 23, 2008


I'll be honest, life with my mother was not easy, especially lately. She was impulsive, defensive, impatient, critical, insensitive, bossy, entitled, intolerant, above reproach, and often, impetuous. And she died, completely without warning on Sunday afternoon, May 18th, at her home in Maryland. I thought life with her was nearly impossible, but life without her is bleaker. Despite our differences, I love her, and wish more than anything, she was still here.

It seemed that there were no consequences for my mother in her world. She did what she wanted, ate what she wanted, and said whatever the hell popped into her head no matter how harsh, and oh, how that frustrated us. But I know, too, that sometimes our greatest weaknesses are our greatest strengths, and often we are hardest on those we love the most. My mother loved my father, sisters and me, set the standard higher for us, is all. I think my mother innately knew that life was too short, and for her, she did not want to be caught up in too many details, too many rules. She was a big picture person. In spending time in her home this week with my father and sisters, it's been good therapy to be close to my mother's spirit; helping my father make our mother's final arrangements, has made my mother's love and the positive side of her larger-than-life personality abundantly apparent.

My mother was an artist; she worked almost exclusively in watercolors for the last 20 years or so. She also had begun teaching art in the Salisbury, Maryland area, and in speaking with her shocked colleagues and students over the last few days has made me remember with clarity her ability to make others feel important and confident. In the last week, I've heard many in her art circle talk about how she had a following, a passion for life, and how she inspired so many. Because my most recent years with her have been complicated, it was, at least for a short time, difficult to see my mother in the way she was described by her art students. But I woke up on Tuesday morning, too early and crying, on the couch in her family room, remembering — knowing — how and why people loved her, in fact, how and why they flocked to her.

Some of my most favorite memories with my mom involve driving, even though she went about it in a way that would horrify society today. She was above the law: she drove fast, and made her own lane, cursed everyone else on the road, and always had Neil Diamond blaring on the stereo. As time wore on, the disregard for the law, the aggressiveness toward other drivers, and most importantly, the Neil Diamond music, embarrassed me (very nearly to death), but as a young child, sitting in the seat behind her in the family van (unbuckled, of course), with the sun on my freckled face, the hot wind mussing up my hair, belting Neil's Greatest Hits, completely unaware of just how inappropriate the lyrics to "Girl, You'll Be a Woman, Soon" and "Desiree" were, was just exhilarating. We often had several friends, neighborhood kids, and/or cousins in the van with us, and wow, we owned the road.

We had coloring books and crayons, but they were gifts from others. Maggie would never buy them for her own children, oh no. The orderliness of coloring books, she told us, might just make us stupid. She approached art like her driving, and she encouraged us to disregard the lines. She allowed us access to her fine papers and expensive supplies, and while she she loudly protested so many other activities and details in life, she'd give us plenty of quiet time, guidance, encouragement, and permission to explore what colors could do on paper.

My mother had an uncanny ability to immediately sense someone's weakness, and to know precisely how to push their buttons. My sisters and I inherited a bit of this, but I think, as we got older, have tried to suppress it because of the conflict it can cause. But Maggie honed those skills without apology, and I think it was this particular trait that made her one hell of a card player. Throughout my childhood, there were peanut- and smoke-filled evenings in the kitchen, and week after week, the contents of her penny jar grew to the point she'd need to get larger jars. If she had been playing for real money instead of pennies, we'd have been rich, that's for sure.

As we got older, we dabbled in scout clubs, but I think because of my mother's disregard for the rules, scouting didn't go so well for the Ott girls. My mom did try, though, and even, at one point, led a Brownie Scout troupe. It would have ended badly, I'm sure, but just in the nick of time, my mother found our school's drama club needed a parent director, so she saved us from the sheeplike group-think of the scouts, and got us small roles in the school plays. My mother was very aware that other parents might accuse her of nepotism, so none of us had any major roles, until her youngest, my sister Jenny, was nearly at the end of her grade school career, and casted her as the lead, and our family dog, Tramp, as Sandy, in the unbearable "Annie." My mom was done with drama club after that, on her own terms, pleased, I think, with her daughter's and dog's performances in an otherwise intolerable show.

Later, we all had stint with the church youth group, which was, more than anything, one hell of a social event, a three- to four-year party. Between the youth group and the drama club, Maggie had cast her net wide, and affected very literally hundreds of school kids, nearly all of whom wound up coming to our house over the years. Our place was Grand Central Station, and I don't remember many nights without someone crashed on the couch. Several times, friends, cousins, neighborhood kids would get kicked out of their own homes, and my mother took them in. Always.

I went off to college, and on the weekends I came home, often found a rowdier scene than what was going on in Wolfe Hall at Trenton State College. Neil Diamond continued to blare, and my mother sat at her spot at the table, holding court with a half a dozen people at any given time. The house was smoke-filled, and the dishes were piled high; bacon rolls and pepperoni bread were warm in the oven, and the card game was cutthroat. One night I got in late, and found the usual scene in the kitchen, but discovered my father, two dogs, several neighborhood kids, my sisters, and a Howell Township cop passed out on the couch in the other room. The game that night was the seemingly innocuous Skip-bo — no money even changed hands — but it left the losers devastated, piled like old clothes headed for the thrift store. The game went on into the wee hours of the morning, my mother victorious, and her victim pile impressive. I never understood until today why the Skip-Bo losers were so ravaged, but apparently, the game was originally called "Spite and Malice."

We all got older, and my parents moved from Howell to Little Egg Harbor, where it always seemed unnaturally quiet. My sisters and I were off living our own lives, and there was a dearth of neighborhood kids. My mother shifted gears and got back in touch with her art. Always the gambler, she took risks, and entered shows, and displayed her work in galleries, and started teaching. I think she really enjoyed the recognition that came along with the shows and contests, but her infectious personality and her lack of regard for convention made her an excellent teacher. I attended a few of her workshops, and was impressed with her style and her ability to make people believe in themselves. She and my dad moved to Maryland in 2003, and she continued teaching, and was able to reach many more people. Recently, she was working on a website for herself, where she had hoped to be able to sell some of her paintings.

My mother wrote scads of letters of complaints to all sorts of companies and agencies. I found this simultaneously hilarious and just plain awful. She seldom bothered to read the fine print, her complaints usually stemmed from user error, and she could never accept responsibility for that. And, her standards were ridiculously high, and I think it made her a bit mean sometimes. Where I'd be inclined to let a lot of things go, Maggie felt that if you were paying for a good or a service, it should be impeccable. I do agree with this, in theory. It's just our society is so screwed, and our economy is even more screwed, and because of low quality standards and stupid hiring practices, many of us have really low expectations. Maggie would be faced with this ineptitude over and over again, and she never accepted it. Ever. Maybe if more of us were as intolerant of low standards, we wouldn't be in our current situation?

Not long ago, she was interviewed by a local paper in her area, and she and the reporter weren't able to understand one another. My mother, as I mentioned earlier, could be very difficult, and at times, downright combative. And the poor reporter was young, and maybe not so cut out for the job, but her editor insisted on getting the story on my mom. The miscommunication between them was over a seemingly simple issue: the color green. My mother has always taken great pride in making her own green paint out of different levels of blue and yellow. The young reporter — eager for feedback — had made the critical error of reading my mother an early draft of her article, and said in a way that was apropos to nothing that my mother made her own green paint. Period. My mother was none too pleased, and they butted heads. After a few rounds, my mother grew worried about how the article might come out, and she knew I understood how she felt about green, and she knew I'd be able to communicate those feelings to the reporter. My mother, a colorful gal, and someone who had never followed the rules, was saying that manufactured green paint was lame, restrictive to an artist, did not pay proper tribute to this wonderful lush planet on which we live. Look out the window, I told the reporter, and look at the greens. No two greens are the same; due to the light and shadows of the sun and the other foliage; due to the levels of chlorophyll; due to variation in species and cultivars; due, simply, to maybe how we see things. My mother set aside the commercial greens, and made her own, with every leaf and every blade of grass she painted, meticulously adjusting her yellows and blues to create lavishly dimensional landscapes, inspired by her own colorful gardens and surroundings.

I have not mentioned this on my blog or to that many people, largely because of fear, but I'm pregnant again, and due August 17th. Losing our first daughter, Catherine, was life-changing, jarring, but left me with a far better appreciation for biology and family and legacy. My mother was devastated by Catherine's death, and she and my father came to see us on the day the baby came, and my mother cradled her little body, aware, as a mother, of the violation and sacredness in that day. Very quickly, though, she pushed me to get pregnant again — which I wanted, although it terrified me, because it is so hard to hope when my only experience was so perfect and uneventful, and ultimately yielded a beautiful baby who did not live, a baby who died on her lifeline. I'm not as much of a risk taker as my mother is, but I know this one is worth it. I appreciate my mother's encouragement, though, so much of it seemed full of the "get over it" mentality; and that just isn't possible, not in those terms. When I did conceive, she would not tolerate my worries; it felt dismissive of Catherine, and I hate this so much now, but this drove a wedge between us. I just needed her to acknowledge my concerns — I am level, despite all the reasons not to be — and for whatever reason, she wouldn't, or couldn't understand my very nervous hopefulness. Maybe she didn't want to vocalize her own fears, her own pain of losing her little granddaughter, in an attempt to keep me positive. This baby — if we're lucky to bring him/her home — will not replace Catherine; this baby is, even in utero, unique, different, and is loved, already, just the same. I don't want people to forget my first child, and it killed me to think that perhaps my mother was forgetting about her. The other day, my dad asked me to organize some files on their computer, and I came across a recent letter my mother had written to some legislators, regarding the type of certificates parents of deceased babies are issued. Catherine was full-term, and her death, ultimately, a horrible accident, but we were issued a fetal death certificate, which did not acknowledge her life, or, that I had given birth to her. Law required that we bury or cremate her, which is something we do for the living, for fellow humans. So, to not get that acknowledgment of her life, and my huge efforts, was hard. My mother wrote to the politician about how beautiful and precious Catherine was, and how much she was loved, and how we all had so many hopes and dreams for her, and she — and other babies like her – needed to be acknowledged as babies, not just fetuses. My mother never shared with me that she had written this letter; I wish she had. Oh, regrets. How I hate to be deprived of both a daughter, and a mother now. I hope this new life within me makes it, and outlives us, as nature intends, but I hate the thought this new person will not have the chance know his/her maternal grandmother.

My mother was 63. Way too young. She never followed the rules, not even the suggested guidelines, in any area of life. So, she was diabetic, and had high blood pressure. She had been trying recently to improve her diet, to even follow the rules a bit. Her death was due to those health issues, and so, we hate that death took her just as she was making some physical changes for the better, it's just so untimely, so unfair. I suppose, in some ways, I'm grateful that her last months were filled with her favorite foods, even if she was not indulging as much in the most recent days. She, like all of us, was imperfect. But she was a force of nature, full of life. And I loved her, flaws and all. My life is emptier without her.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Iris thief, beware

Angus and the Iris. He is not the thief: he is only interested in drinking the water in the vase.

In a different life, I'd probably do more, and say less. Probably. I don't really know for sure, but it seems like a fine idea right now. It's not that I have regrets about my life, or the way it is, but there are times, I dunno, I guess I wish I were less sane, and more athletic. I'd probably climb those water towers on Olden Avenue, taking them from the Polish, or the Russians, or the Bloods, or whoever has tagged them now, and I'd claim them for myself. I really am a good person, and I don't have a problem with our laws, and I really dislike graffiti, but there's something about those water towers that's been calling me. I want to climb. Yep, it's idiotic and ridiculous to make the climb with a can of paint, and tell the world, "I was here," but it's brave, all the same. Maybe it's a little like climbing Everest. Maybe?

Similarly, if I had that courage, maybe I'd spend more time in my shrubs, hopping out to frighten anyone who feels either the lack of regard for my flora and stomps it, or that sense of entitlement to take it away for themselves. All of this comes about because when we moved here four years ago, I brought my irises from our old place, and for whatever reason (transplant trauma, maybe?) they have not been the best bloomers. The following year, my mother divided her iris beds, and gave me bags and bags of them, and they, too, have not been very prolific.

Until this year, that is. I'm still a long way away from a large swath of gorgeous bearded irises, but most of the ones we planted here — kind of willy-nilly — have finally bloomed this year, and it's been really satisfying. And, to my surprise, many of them are not purple: there are tea colored ones with burgundy highlights, and yellow ones, and pure white ones, all with fuzzy yellow tongues. I've been so happy about these flowers: our hard work has finally paid off, and, also, I kinda feel that the universe owes us some small favors, and it's about time those irises bloomed.

So, to the iris thief who came by the other night with some kind of cutting implement (which indicates, what? premeditation or an unstable personality, or both?) and removed two of my lovely iris blooms from my side yard, you are lucky that I am generally content to sit on my ass and talk. Or write. However, because you also dislodged a section of my decorative fencing while reaching in for those flowers, and didn't even have the decency to return it to rights (and I would have thought someone interested in flowers might have a decent side, even if you are, ultimately, still a thief), I am THIS CLOSE to hanging out in my shrubs after all, with a hose, and if you dare return, I'd love to provide you with one hell of a power wash.

For the record, I'd also hose off anyone who drives by with the music too loud, or too often, or on an illegal off-road vehicle, or in a car that is purposely altered to be loud. I'd get the speeders and the people who blow the stop sign, too. I might hose off the random white people who come through my neighborhood, because I know what you're really up to, and none of it is good. If I see anyone walking unsterilized pit bulls with or without leashes, I'll probably get you too. Believe me, my motivation is noble vigilanteism, but I suspect the power of the hose might be intoxicating, so just for kicks, I might get the crazy guy across the street, in that "accidentally but on purpose" kind of way, because his meltdowns are just THAT fantastic.

Just as soon as I get down from the water tower, all of you above-mentioned people are in for it.

Here are some of my irises. You can see why people would want them. Other than waiting nearly 4 years for them to bloom, irises just aren't hard to tend, so thieves, just plant your own, for crying out loud.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


Americans — and Trentonians — have an ugly side to our history, much of which is now out in the open. While our history also includes many successes, the failures are part of us, too, and often, those failures are glossed over, after time has gone by. It may be hard to look at that and acknowledge, but it's productive to confront our complicated, disturbing past head on and openly, so we can learn as we go forward.

Demographics shift and populations change, and there are reminders of painful days all around Trenton, and maybe those reminders inspire today's residents to dismiss/discard/demolish the old, and build new: make a new history.

It's my hope that Trenton finds healing and prosperity again, but for now, mostly, we stagnate. Instead of creating a rich, new history, we settle for shoddy, quick fixes and the ostrich approach to challenges — we bury our heads and hope when we pop back up, the problems will be gone. Because of that, our future is as unclear as our past is complicated. We have major issues at hand, and while discussion and debate is good, it seems many of our current issues are deliberately prolonged or put aside. Maybe that's the stuff of trickery, so that we'll get caught up in our own lives, and forget the passion that surrounds our current issues? This problem is not unique to Trenton; it's happening everywhere. But it does seem Trenton's officials have become very good at dragging things out, too. We are, too, dependent on other governing bodies (namely, the state), which can also slow down our processes here, but we must figure out how to be self-sufficient without our hand extended to the state for aid, or else we will never see improvement.

It's clear there is a lack of desire to move forward; we're settling for the muck (and mosquitoes) of stagnancy. There are a lot of opinions, and the powers-that-be are dismissive of anything that comes from outside the inner circle, and because of this intolerance of any progressive or risky thinking, my bet is that we'll look back at this era and we'll have as many regrets and as much shame as we've had about other times in our history.

Instead of learning from our mistakes, and creating new, positive memories from our old painful reminders, we turn the other way. Disintegration abounds: families fall apart, people regularly die here in ways that are wholly unacceptable to practically everyone else in the world, infrastructure becomes irrelevant, political marginalization alienates large groups of people, and the monuments to our talents and perseverance crumble.

A proud future is attainable in Trenton, since this city, while broken, is also full of potential and raw energy. We must tap into that energy, and stop tolerating our current, broken system.

Raw potential?
The William Cook School, on Cuyler Avenue, near Walnut Avenue, just north of the new East Ward Police precinct.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

From his own mouth

(Click to enlarge)

We'll be talking Trenton Fantasy Boxing later, so think on your picks. Will Pintella roll over and play dead when Santiago comes at him, or will he lay a beating on him? Maybe Coston and Bethea will tag team him, while Lartigue prepares to administer a Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka to Santiago's gut. My money's on council...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Delusions and death

Glen and I were driving around some particularly frightening neighborhoods on Saturday morning, to scope out alternative properties for Daniel Brenna's proposed 25-story tower, so that maybe his efforts would help Trenton, instead of depleting the best of our housing stock.

We headed down Walnut Avenue, because I wanted to get an up-close and personal view of the decimated rowhomes along Chestnut, which my camera was able to pick up from atop the parking garage on S. Clinton (near Pete DeLorenzo's) back in March. What we saw with our own eyes — and even some of the details we missed, but were able to see later in the photos I took on Saturday — was just abysmal. Entire blocks were boarded up, or very nearly boarded up, but based on the mailboxes, and Direct TV dishes, and cars (some of them fancy, German cars), it's apparent that this was no ghost town. People live there.

And just a few hours later, a little girl died there in a fire; "collateral damage" according to ousted Police Director Joseph Santiago, in a retaliatory hit likely ordered by an imprisoned gang man to get back at the girl's family for testifying against him during his drug trial in 2007. There are a couple of stories in today's papers; read about the problem with witness intimidation here, and check out this link for the overview of the story, based on what's known/available now.

The 10-year-old Qua-Daishia Hopkins is more than just collateral damage; she was a human being living in absolutely unacceptable conditions. The reasons for the conditions are complicated, and can't be blamed on any one person or group. But it represents colossal, systemic failure, and if you're either brave or crazy enough to drive down Walnut or Chestnut Avenue, near the proposed Transit Center, you'll see the despair and waste, and how easily a fire could start, and spread. This is the neighborhood that would very literally be in the shadow of that new 25-story tower, a tower which will supposedly bring progress to Trenton. I can't help but wonder if that isn't just a pipe dream, and, if in the off chance that tower is completed, who will experience the joys of progress? Certainly not the people in Qua-Daishia's neighborhood.

Trenton Mayor Douglas Palmer called Qua-Daishia's death an outrage, and he's right. And hopefully, his pal, Santiago, who vengefully, it seems, hopes to amputate Trenton's Vice Unit, in a misguided effort to keep costs down, will be able to hunt properly for this little girl's killer without the very group of dedicated officers central to that task.

I'm not claiming to have all the answers, and I really do hate to just complain complain complain, without offering anything productive in return. So here's my stab at some solutions that should begin now; we can't wait until 2010:

  • Maybe — maybe — if this city's administration and officials took a step back and took a drive through that neighborhood adjacent to the proposed Transit Village, maybe it would help us all to see the answers. The city isn't directly responsible for the breakdown of family, but the city isn't doing anything to help heal people, help build people up. I know that healing people is not the sole purpose of government, but in a very basic sense, government IS supposed to look out for people: it's why we have elections and departments within the government. Trenton must stop accepting so much RCA money, which crowds the poor and marginalized into terrible, filthy corners of this city, corners which are now gapingly open and full of cracks, oozing with violence and anger and disconnectedness and no future, qualities that definitely tear people apart, and ruins communities.
  • The city must stop entertaining developers who are interested in demolishing one perfectly acceptable corner of the city, but won't even look at the potential that exists in the very adjacent decrepit neighborhoods. Maybe this smells of gentrification; I hope not, especially since real estate right now is such a gamble anyway. But maybe if a developer decided to take over an all-but-ruined block near the intersection of Chestnut and Walnut, instead of a perfectly beautiful corner near Clinton and Greenwood, maybe it would send a clear message to the drug dealers and ganglords: this is no longer the best place to do business. We need to fix the damn broken windows, you know? I didn't even read that book, but the theory resonates with me, and has seemed to have some success on my own corner. And it works so well in nearby cities who have implemented it, like New York City, where crime rates continue at an all time low.
  • We need to get the major unrest with the police department settled once and for all. There will always be differences, that's human nature. But what's been going on is an embarrassment, and puts our safety at risk, and this needs to stop. The officers who serve in that department are embattled and are suffering as a result of the turmoil, but the real losers are the decent citizens of this city. Santiago needs to be removed as soon as we're legally able to do so, if the courts won't. This will help stop some of the in-fighting and get priorities back on track; and will save the Vice Unit (a department that's performed well, in my opinion and experience), which should not be on the chopping block anyway. The Santiago regime has caused too much damage within the department and community in these 5 years, and has not only put some very questionable people in charge of our safety, but this regime has — I believe — also manipulated statistics and misguided the public with the "crime is down" mantra, and ALL of it is completely unacceptable, and very, very dangerous.
  • We need politicians and officials who actually care about the people, and the history; rather than their own careers and ego. Public service is not the same thing as a career in business. We don't need highly paid executives who get the job based on favor and chumminess. Our government, for a shrinking population, is too large, and we need to make some cuts, starting at the damn top, instead of at the bottom, for a change. Our mayor does not need the posse he has; he is not a movie star, or a famous athlete or, even the mayor of a very large city. Ditch the baggage, Doug. For crying out loud. And while you're at it, roll up your damn sleeves and get to work. For real. The mayor needs to take it down a notch and get out of his fancy suit and chauffeured car and set an example so that residents are likely follow his example.
Maybe I'm delusional? I don't know. All I know is our city is broken and bleeding, and the priorities at the top are so misguided and off. We need to make some changes now. Changes won't bring Qua-Daishia back, but maybe another person's life will be spared for our efforts.

Monday, May 12, 2008

A theater review, some liberated daffodils, and much digression

Thursday was one of those days which kinda-sorta evoked a feeling of culture and sophistication, because our evening should have been filled with it. We didn't get a full-on filling of sophistication and culture, but we did get a good hearty dose, at least. At the risk of sounding like a snob, I do enjoy the whole culture and sophistication thing from time to time, but somehow, I am simply unable to pull it off correctly, or prolong it with any level of credibility. Whenever I have plans that involve culture, I feel like The Great Pretender, the little girl on Halloween, playing dress-up.

And, really, it's for the best. My life is overrun by cats; I read a lot, but recently, have been (contentedly) stuck in the autobiographic "graphic novel" genre (not "graphic" in the sense of "pornographic," but rather [autobiographical] novels that are written in comic book format). Here's one of my favorites. And here's another recent favorite. I love a wide array of music, even plenty of "cultured," stuff, but these days, some of my favorite musicians are the wild-eyed, borderline sociopathic, fully nerdy, yet superbly-skilled piano players who often punctuate the end of a musical phrase with some sort of wrestling move that involves an elbow and the forearm, and perhaps a foot, and approximately 44 keys of the piano, while sustaining the f-word, sincerely, and loudly, and on pitch, for upward of 60 seconds (depending on whether it's a live or studio performance) and it doesn't offend my sensibilities (maybe because I have so few); a fine example of this sort of music is here, and I fully recommend viewing it at full volume (warning: some cussin', though most of it is bleeped, in case you're at work). At home, we often eat dinner without proper attire, and on occasion, in front of the television; and speaking of dinner, my favorite food — despite the fact I love most anything as long as it does not involve mayonnaise or large hunks of mammal flesh (small bits of mammal are fine) — is grilled cheese. Served with a good pickle and some potato chips. Ideally, afterward, cookies (preferably chocolate chip) will be available. Yum!

So, Thursday. We were invited to help a neighbor do some gardening — cultured, right? — and afterward, Glen and I would be headed over to the Mill Hill Playhouse for the Passage Theatre Company's production of Cecilia's Last Tea Party. VERY cultured! I was excited! We made the plans several days prior, and I never checked to see what the show was about. It was irrelevant to me, since an evening at the theater is a treat in my world. But Glen was curious, so before we headed over to the neighbor's yard for a bit of gardening, Glen found a plot summary online, and I'm sorry to say, he nearly blew a gasket. "Did you know we're going to see an f-ing puppet show?" he bellowed? "AN F-ING PUPPET SHOW!! No one likes puppet shows. How the F did we get roped into this?" And then, like one of my favorite musicians, he sustained the f-word at a loud volume for a long duration. Glen has a talent in that regard, truly.

As much as I admire Glen's passion for the arts, and his ability to convey an emotion so well with just one word, time was getting away from us, and we had to get to L's house, to help out in her garden, so I encouraged him to shut up about the show, and focus on our task at hand. I'm very practical like that. Now, some back story: our little gardening adventure across the street is not the stuff of art and color and heady, perfume-laden flowerlust. L has been asking us for more than a year to dig up her daffodils, and our task was akin to a prison camp liberation, rather than any kind of shared moment with beautiful nature. The cheery, yellow, early spring harbingers of hope apparently were the bane of L's existence, and she thought about their removal and/or demise very, very often, for many, many months. When she asked us last year to dig up her bulbs, I suggested we wait a few more weeks until the flowers die (they were in delightful bloom when she asked us to take them), and then wait still, for the green stalks die back too, so the bulbs had the best chance to get as much nourishment as possible. She agreed. But we all got busy, and I guess, time took its toll on the pesky daffodil flowers, and a bit later, the pesky foliage, and they died back. L was able to look out at her little patch of urban lawn and have an uninterrupted view of grass, and all was okay in the world. Until spring happened this year, that is.

As soon as the daffodils began to emerge, she called us weekly to ask us to dig them up; she pleaded; she reminded us nearly every other day that her daffodils needed to be gone, and soon. So by last Thursday, we could wait no more. She literally came out of her back door with a spray bottle labeled "weed killer" in her own writing, as we arrived in her yard with our gloves and tools. "Oh, perfect timing!" she said, "I was just gonna use this on those daffodils, but now that you're here, I'll spray it on something else instead." She said she preferred a more natural approach to killing flora — like vinegar or boiling water — but she hated to see her poison go to waste. Understandable, of course. I should mention that I didn't notice any weeds in her meticulous — if small — lawn; just four bearded irises, about to explode in breathtaking bloom, which I had given her two summers ago after my mother had dug up and divided her own beds of irises.

L sprayed the contents of the bottle around the yard nonetheless, while Glen first used a shovel to try to work out the very established, naturalized daffodil clumps, many of which were up against a foot-high concrete abutment of sorts at the edge of the property. The concrete posed a challenge with our tools, so he had to sit on his bum, and work out the bulbs with his hands, and these daffodils must have known the constant danger they were in and had wiggled themselves into the chunks of rock and cement at the abutment. Glen's mood was already questionable because of our plans to see the "f-ing puppet show," and only grew more sour as he loosened the soil around the bulbs, gave the greens a good, solid pull, and came up, time and time again with no bulb attached.

L continued to spray, at the "weeds" near Glen, and at one point, a shovel conked Glen in the head, and an up-and-coming knuckhead* allowed his female pit bull to lunge at Glen through L's chain link fence, none of which helped Glen's mood, but he was able to devise a system involving a pitchfork, dandelion remover, and his own hands to salvage most of the very frightened bulbs, all the while he was leveraging himself against L's newly chemically-enhanced lawn.

I hope it doesn't sound like I'm picking on L for her need to destroy/remove her daffodils, even if I don't quite understand that urge. We're grateful for the near 5 gallon bucket of daffodil bulbs, and even if they're too traumatized to bloom next year, we suspect they'll be as good as ever by 2010 (hopefully to herald in a new political age for Trenton).

So Glen showered, and I prepared dinner: grilled cheese, pickles, and potato chips, but in my defense, I used some fantastic fromage Québécois, which Glen brought home from Montreal when he was up in April. Oh, the French Canadians are very nearly intolerable (and sometimes smelly), but they make some right-dicky awesome cheese.

When he appeared at the table, he was wearing a clean, but wrinkled Aqua Teen Hunger Force t-shirt, and while I'm certainly not the fashion police, I asked him to explain why, when we were going to the theater. "We're going to see an f-ing PUPPET SHOW!" he said, exasperated. "I'm not wearing a tuck-in, button-up shirt for THAT."

I suggested that he keep an open mind. Plus, we knew that a reviewer was supposed to be at this show, and it would be nice to show the outside world that Trenton residents support their arts, even if, by and large, most Trenton residents are too busy selling drugs to white suburban soccer moms, or playing dice, or riding around on illegal dirtbikes to support the arts. We needed to represent the good guys.

"FINE!" he said, irritated. "But I bet I could put on a better puppet show right out in the back yard, in that window of the garage."

I'd hate for you to think I'm not supportive of Glen's endeavors, but even prior to seeing Cecilia's Last Tea Party, I knew that there was no way that Glen's puppet show would be better. First, his disdain for puppets has given him zero experience with them, and that, in and of itself, is a recipe for disaster. Plus, who would do the marketing for Glen's puppet show? So I said, "No one would come to your puppet show, Glen."


I had no response, and I was conflicted, because on one hand, he's right: no one likes puppet shows; and also because I have been trying, with some serious effort, to detach-and-observe (my new motto) when Glen gets into a state like this, or, on occasion, just stand by my man, after I learned the joys of relationship solidarity earlier this year while shopping with Glen when he gets into a state. I wanted to stand by him, even though, at times, like right then, moments before we were heading out to the theater, he was completely insane, which was not unlike the time he gave the finger to the Tombstone Pizzas in the supermarket freezer case, and to the Sports Authority store down in Mt. Laurel, even though he had intended it for Dick's Sporting Goods instead. The thing of it is, food prices ARE high, and I worked for a food distribution company, so I know the mark-up is significant. It's easy to extend your finger when average people get screwed over every day for their dough. And, maybe I shouldn't admit to this, but what the heck: I do feel that most sports are evil, most physical activity just does not fit into my world, so while it may never occur to me to give the finger to a sporting good store, I don't feel badly about it either. But I can't offer the same support to Glen when he's railing about the arts, the local arts, in particular. It's just different. Even if no one likes puppet shows, we, as polite members of society, must happily endure from time to time.

So we ate our grilled fromages, and he guzzled down a beer, to take of the edge off his puppet hatred; and he changed out of the wrinkled ATHF shirt into a different, not-as-wrinkled ATHF shirt. Or maybe it was a Chuck Norris t-shirt, I can't remember. And we headed off to the theater.

I'm just gonna say this up front: Cecilia's Last Tea Party was good. Very good. So much better than we both expected, given that we expected a puppet show. It wasn't a puppet show at all, so Glen got all frenzied for nothing, though there were two main stuffed animals in the show, and they were funny and adorable. The show, I think, could have easily been enjoyed by children, though the European colonization of Asia was central to the story, giving the show a bit of political backbone, and credibility with adults. Little Cecilia is the daughter of a local princess and a European explorer, and her parents are taken away by rebels. She remains at their estate, with her care provider, "Aunt" Tambora, and, in her loneliness, Cecilia retreats into a fantasy world with her toy pelican and toy Bengal tiger. Coming around to check on them regularly is Colonel Billy Krakatoa, a deliciously complicated villain; he's obviously let power go to his head, after witnessing his European oppressors do the same, and at the same time, he seems fascinated with and tender toward little Cecilia. It's hard to judge his intentions, though. He promises to come back for tea, with his own toy creature, a two-headed frog; and has a mysterious ticket in his pocket to show her when he returns. Cecilia and her creatures are none too pleased about Billy at tea, with a two-headed frog, though they're very curious about ticket in his pocket.

Billy creates a further layer of tension, because we don't know what he really wants, when everyone is already on edge because the fate of Cecilia's parents, and Cecilia and Tambora's own future, is unknown; and to boot, Cecilia's stuffed animals have been misbehaving (think Calvin and Hobbes). The acting was really good, convincing (even the stuffed animals), and things come to a head when Billy returns the following day, as promised, with his toy frog, and sits down for tea: big, indelicate, and imposing, in his military garb, and proceeds — seemingly out of the blue — to channel his little two-headed frog's voice, and makes the frog sing and dance. The audience loved Billy's frog song, and we roared with laughter, but the actors didn't miss a beat. A short time later, Cecilia's creatures sneak up on Billy's frog, and attack it under the table, and Billy's violence is unleashed. He rips the heads off of Cecilia's pelican and tiger, and grabs Cecilia by her neck. The theater is very intimate, holding only 120 people, so his anger was alarming and believable to the audience. And when Billy grabbed the little girl, a woman in the audience — truly, just member of the audience — cried out, "NO, BILLY, DON'T!!!!"

This was the company's first performance with an audience, but who would have known, based on superb abilities of the actors. I could imagine the actors, in rehearsal, figuring this moment in the show would have gone so very differently, since it was so palpably tense, but when the woman – just a few feet away from us, just a few feet away from the stage — cried, "NO, BILLY, DON'T!!!!" the audience again burst into laughter. Credit to Robert Wu (Billy), Nitya Vidyasagar (Cecilia), and Indika Senanayake (the "Dark Shadow," who played the part of both of Cecilia's toys, as well as the adult Cecilia, and Cecilia's mother) for not slipping out of character while the entire audience gave what I suspect was the wrong reaction to that moment.

The show wrapped up, and, ultimately, I think Glen liked it, though it must have been difficult for him to shake off his preconceptions. I liked it, and judging the other reactions I saw, many people in the audience (it was a full house) felt the same.

Cecilia's Last Tea Party runs until June 1, and you should go see it. In fact, if you live in the area, you should go see as many shows at the Mill Hill Playhouse** as possible.

* We hear a lot "Don't hate the playa, hate the game," which is maybe some kind of corruption of Ghandi's, "Hate the sin and love the sinner," but I'm sorry, I hate a lot of the playas in my neighborhood. THEY KNOW BETTER. Including this kid who allowed his pit bull to lunge at Glen, even if there was a fence between.

**We saw a couple of shows in the fall, too, notably, David White's Urban Central, which was also fantastic. Sad and moving, and speaks volumes about our mess today. The show was inspired by true stories from Trenton Central High graduates, and centered on the race riots of 1967-1968, and I had hoped to offer up a review in my blog, but the holidays got in the way, and then, some real life strife with the high school happened, and even though the details are different, we — Trenton, that is (and maybe all of humanity) — have not learned from the past. At least right then, for me, it was too depressing for words. In David White's show, we see how people in that era struggled for equality, struggled to be seen as legitimate, struggled to find their way. And even though the race riots in Trenton (and elsewhere) were an ugly period in our history, such anguish and despair can often bring forth a rebirth of sorts. And now, 40 years later, it's clear that hasn't happened. The struggles are a bit different today, and are far more complicated, and the answers seem less clear than ever. The present-day condition of the high school needs to be addressed, and in my opinion, the building should not be discarded (allowing the building to rot is not green, and Trenton supposedly is; but also, our history and humanity is part of that building, and people should work toward preservation); but I'm more convinced that the current school board and city administration, and in fact, much of today's society, is not concerned enough with the students, the human beings who actually spend time in that building, even though the powers-that-be claim to be concerned only with the welfare of the children, and not the building itself. They are hollow words, as evidenced by the reality of the school system. I don't have the answers, but I know it goes above and beyond bricks and mortar (which need protection too). We're still doing things wrong, and wow, that sucks. Great job to David White, and the excellent actors (many of whom were Trenton students), for their work on Urban Central, even if my kudos are a bit late. David heads up The State Street Project, an educational outreach effort aimed at Trenton's young people, and pairs them up with professional artist-mentors in playwriting, performance, and theater classes. The Project's focus now includes the Anti-Violence Arts Initiative, which explores the causes and potential solution to violence in the Trenton community. Keep an eye out for these shows, and go see them. For more information, click here.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

If the walls could talk...

But first, some outright delusion (or is it??)...
Oh, hi! My name is Chrissy, and I live in the East Ward, and I own a house near the high school. I own CO Development Corporation, and my dream is to knock down my architecturally lovely, nearly 100-year old federalist home, and instead erect a 10-story, mixed-use — commercial and residential — building in its place. I am here tonight to ask you, esteemed members of city council, if you could change the usage and/or zoning verbiage in my neighborhood to allow me to do what I want. Please? Don't you accommodate all developers, no matter how lame-brained their plans are?

Now, back to the talking walls...

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Oh, hi! I'm a busy, convenient little Sunoco station on the corner of Greenwood and S. Clinton avenues, and even though I do a fine business, and am not a knucklehead-hangout, like the Shell station up the street, on the corner of Greenwood and Chambers. But, it's just not enough. I'm slated for destruction to make way for a supposed 25-story building, the supposed cornerstone of Trenton's Supposed Transit Village.

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Oh, hi! I'm 418 Greenwood Avenue, and I'm Glen's favorite house in all of Trenton. My trees add to my attractiveness, though they do block the view of the carriage house in the back, which is quite large, and well-maintained just like the rest of my property. Look at the architectural details, and my original parts! Oh, yeah, I'm occupied! Unfortunately, I'm slated for destruction to make way for Trenton's Transit Village.

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Oh, hi! I'm 434 Greenwood Avenue, and even though the numbers aren't consecutive, I'm right next door to 418 Greenwood (you can even see a bit of me in the previous picture). I'm a slightly different style home than my neighbor, but I'm impeccably maintained, and am currently occupied. Unfortunately, the Green City of Trenton is planning to knock me down to make way for Trenton's Transit Village.

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Oh, hi! I'm a distinctive, historic house for rent for office use, directly across the street from the doomed Sunoco station, on the southeast corner of Greenwood and Clinton avenues. Despite all of the renovations that went into my repair, I've been sitting vacant for awhile now. My renovators were respectful of my heritage and cleaned me up so nice, too. So far, my future is clear: I won't be razed to make way for Trenton's Transit Village, and I shouldn't be, either, since I'm so nice to look at as people drive down the hill and into the East Ward. I wonder if the developers of Trenton's Transit Village will be able to get tenants, if I haven't for so long?

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Oh, hi! I'm a beautiful old vacant brownstone directly across the street from two houses scheduled for demolition to accommodate Trenton's Transit Village, and I'm right next to the house in the previous picture, which, like me, is also vacant. Notice the care that's gone into my restoration. I'm not sure why I haven't been able to attract any businesses, though there is a small business in the back carriage house. I should be safe from the bulldozer, which is a relief, because even though I'm vacant, drivers heading east on Greenwood like to look at me as they pass.

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Oh, hi! I'm a decorative old Federalist style home, vacant, sitting next to the vacant property above. A lot of love and sweat has gone into my renovation and upkeep, but still, no one occupies my space within. I'm directly across the street from two beautiful, maintained, occupied homes that will be demolished to make way for a 25-story building in Trenton's Transit Village, but I should be safe.

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Oh, hi! I'm the last of the maintained, large beautiful houses on and near the corner of Greenwood and S. Clinton Avenue, on the north side of Greenwood. I do have some businesses within and boast parking for the area's workers and residents. I'm directly across the street from two occupied, maintained homes that will be demolished to make way for Trenton's progress.

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Oh, hi! I'm 532 East State Street, just behind the train station, within easy walking distance to the station, ample parking, and any future Transit Village. Even though my side of the train station, with its completely empty lots and boarded up homes, would make a fine spot for Trenton's Transit Village, we'll probably grow more and more blighted in the coming years. Too bad a developer won't use this section of the city; he or she would really be making a positive impact, without any compromise to his or her dreams.

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Oh, hi! I'm an empty lot on East State Street, just behind the train station. I could be completely pessimistic, but I suspect that those nice properties on Greenwood will look just like me in the not-so-distant future, and what a shame that will be, given that location's hustle and bustle. No one wants to look at properties like me because they're not only an eyesore, but also a constant reminder of failure.

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Oh, hi! Can you believe how many empty lots there are on East State Street, of all places? But look at me, I'm another one! I'm conveniently located right behind the train station, not too far from the entrance. I know I'll be like this for years to come, empty and neglected, fenced up and gone to waste, even though I might make a developer's dream come true. Odd, though, how they only want what's pretty. Maybe it's just fun to watch the wrecking ball?

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Oh, hi! I'm a not-so-successful factory conversion to loft apartments, and I've been "coming soon!" for some time now. There's a big padlock on my front door, and as you can see, I fit in so well on my block of East State Street. I wonder why development has stalled, and no one will rent me? I'm glad, though, that I'll still be standing, even if vacant, while those two beautiful occupied homes just around the corner get knocked down to make way for Trenton's future.

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Oh, hi! Welcome to hell! The corner of Walnut and Chestnut avenues, that is! As you can see, you can't turn your head more than half a degree without seeing boarded up urban decay. Why is it that developers want only attractive properties to knock down, and why do government officials actually think the developers will be helping the city by knocking down those attractive properties while places like this little festering sore are allowed to continue to fester? I'm just a stone's throw away from the entrance to the train station. Convenient, if not for the fear I inspire currently.

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Oh, hi! I'm an entire block on Chestnut Avenue. Hard to believe, based on my looks, that people actually live here, but they do. It would be nice if someone took an interest in us, as it would really help the city. We're just around the corner from the train station, and with some love and a lot of work, could have made a nice spot for Trenton's new business hub located around the train station.

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Oh, hi! I'm on the southeast corner of Chestnut and Walnut Avenues, right around the corner from the Trenton Train Station. I'm attached to a block very nearly as bad as the one in the previous picture. I'm not sure how places like this are allowed to exist, especially when rich developers have so much money and good will to help fix up the city. Anyone need a baby chair?

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Oh hi! I'm most of the first block of Chestnut Avenue, attached to the building pictured previously. The city owns several of the buildings on my block — you can tell because the city boards up the windows with pretty scenes of windows with curtains and flowers and sometimes kitties. My favorite abandoned city-owned homes have pictures of the kitties, but unfortunately, we only have vases with flowers over here on Chestnut, but the result is the same: there's no one inside these structures, and the property is going to waste. This block might have provided the perfect footprint for the proposed new 25-story building slated to be the cornerstone of Trenton's Transit Center, since we're so close to the station, but unfortunately the developer would prefer to wreck more perfect buildings.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Further thoughts on the "Transit Village"

South Ward councilman, Jim Coston, blogged earlier today about his decision to vote with the council majority to change the specifications and protections within the Greenwood-Hamilton historic district, which would allow for the demolition of a gas station and two stunning, maintained, occupied homes here in the East Ward, on the corner of Greenwood and Clinton Avenues. I certainly respect Mr. Coston's dedication to the city, and his thinking abilities, and that he is one of the few city officials who believes in information and disclosure, and just want to thank him for addressing the issue today, and facing his critics directly.

While I get his point about progress and sacrifice, and hope for the future, the reality is that this is Trenton. We're a city with TONS of discarded real estate. We're a city with a very, very poor track record with developers. Even if this Greenwood Ave/Train Station developer, Daniel Brenna, says he won't demolish the beautiful Victorian homes until he can guarantee occupancy in his proposed 25-story building for that corner, he cannot predict the future. No one can. Trenton's not a city with a "if you build it, they will come" aura, and most of the time, nothing gets built anyway, except public distrust. Plus, Segal Real Estate has a big sign right across the street from Brenna's proposed "Transit Village," in front of the other stunning historic home on the south corner of Greenwood and Clinton, boasting available space within. I'm fairly certain that sign has been up for several years, and people are just not flocking. City council, please get a grip.

Perhaps I'd be more open-minded to the purposeful destruction of two beautiful, historic homes and a useful gas station, if Trenton were a different city, a city amid a renaissance, with happy citizens, low crime, and not much in the way of available real estate. It's just not our reality, though.

It's time we get real, and not entertain developers who talk new construction and/or anything that may require the use of eminent domain, when we have so many vacancies, and often right in the same vicinity as the proposed development. These developers are not doing us any favors: why tear down perfectly lovely, viable structures for new, questionable buildings (that will likely never see a groundbreaking ceremony, ANYWAY), when the scads of abandoned shit will remain? I mean, seriously, WTF are you thinking, council? WTF? Glen and I climbed atop a parking garage across the street from the train station back in March, and took pictures of Trenton from that vantage point, and I'm so glad I took so many. Here's a map of the area I photographed:

Map courtesy of Google Maps. Click to enlarge.
1. Refers to Brenna's proposed "Transit Village," approximately where the existing Sunoco Station and two jeopardized occupied homes are located.
2. Refers to some very seriously available real estate, very close to the train station.
3. Also refers to some seriously available real estate, just behind the train station.

Refer to #2 on the map. Click to enlarge. I took this picture to show how the also-likely-doomed high school building, another one of our city's — and my ward's — architectural treasures, stands out proud amid an otherwise blighted view. But now let's focus on that blighted view in the foreground. Note the abandoned, gutted, and boarded up homes on what I believe is Chestnut Avenue. Might provide the perfect footprint for Brenna's 25-story building, no?

Refer to #3 on the map. Click to enlarge. This is East State Street, near the convenient S. Clinton Avenue intersection. Well-lit and well-travelled, this location provides safe, easy passage on foot to the train station. Note, once again, the large boarded up building, the empty lots, and the overall lack of inspiration currently at this location. Parking, obviously, is not an issue. This spot, too, might make a fantastic transformation into "Transit Village."

I thought I had some pictures of Glen's favorite properties in Trenton, the ones now on the chopping block, but they're not great pictures. But, no worry: that can (and will) be remedied easily enough. This weekend, we're on a scouting mission — gratis!! — for Brenna and any other developer in need of space in Trenton. Pitiful, of course, that the city employees paid to maintain a list of abandoned properties aren't doing their jobs, and that the citizens, under the direction of the Trenton Council of Civic Associations (TCCA) will be taking inventory of these properties. Maybe city council members can keep a cheat sheet up by their seats of all the abandoned/available properties, and will direct eager developers to those locations, and keep them the hell away from well-maintained homes of decent citizens.

Unimaginable idiocy

We've had some happy days, here in Trenton, over the last few weeks, feeling the huge shift in attitude and power among the people here. Seems that priorities are back on track, and common sense prevails, even if there is a long road ahead.

But earlier this week, we read about a few setbacks in logic and progress that just would not happen anywhere else but Trenton*. One of those things is a redesignation of two beautiful, maintained, occupied historic homes in our ward, on Greenwood Avenue, near the Trenton Train Station. Council voted 5-1 last night to change the wording of the redevelopment plan that would allow those homes (and a nearby gas station, too) to be demolished and a 25-story tower erected in their stead.

I'm repeating, for emphasis, the two homes are beautiful, maintained, and occupied. They're historic, and lovely. In fact, every single time — again, for emphasis, EVERY SINGLE TIME — Glen and I pass that spot, Glen comments on just how beautiful the one house — the one closer to the Sunoco station — is.

It is completely unimaginable that council would approve such a foolish change, when this city is RIDDLED with vacant buildings — probably with nearly the same square footage that the developer, Daniel Brenna, is hoping to build at the site of Glen's favorite property. Is there no one on council who can say, "You know what Dan, it's a nice idea you have for that big building on the corner of Clinton and Greenwood, but we're gonna direct you a couple blocks back, over to East State Street, instead, where there are tons of available properties, all very close to the train station"? (or somewhere else in the very near vicinity, where there are available properties). It is completely unimaginable that council would approve such a thoughtless, aggressive change when — HELLO — most of the development plans for this city have wound up failing, and costing the city in the end. These failures costs us more than just money: it costs us our people, our heritage, our spirit, our spine. Many Trenton citizens have lost their homes thanks to development folly, and our elected representatives of these people should know better, for crying out loud.

That corner of Clinton and Greenwood is such an inspiration, and to more than just Glen. For anyone coming off Rt. 1, and heading east, instead of downtown, these properties are among the first that are seen. They're across from a few other lovely, maintained Victorian buildings on the corner. All of the owners here respect the architecture and heritage of those homes, and together have stood tall, amid some fairly serious decay, right nearby. These houses welcome folks to the East Ward, and send a clear message that Trenton is not nearly as bad as many outsiders would perceive.

I like change, and have hopes for Trenton, but firmly believe that can be accomplished without raping the community.


* For some other un-frigging-believeable stories going on nowhere else but in Trenton this week, check out The Front Stoop for details on ousted Police Director, Joseph Santiago's revenge, as the door very literally hits his ass on the way out of town: he's looking to disband Trenton's Vice Unit, before he leaves, making Trenton — possibly — the only city in the nation (and one with a SIGNIFICANT drug trade) without a dedicated vice squad. For news on the administration's smoke and mirrors bullshit surrounding their desire to spend $200,000 on new guns for our police force, when the existing manufacturer has offered to replace the department's guns for free, please check out Ruins of Trenton.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

"F*ck you, Paul."

We know that if one utters a profanity during a public meeting, in what should be sacred chambers, that person should be ejected for the profane utterance, the breech of decorum. It's how polite society operates.

Yet, Trenton City Council chambers have lost so much dignity, largely due to the actions and inactions of some of our elected officials. One elected official in particular, council president, Paul Pintella, has relinquished his role as representative of the people to become marionette for Mayor Douglas Palmer, and in doing so, is usually combative toward, dismissive of, and certainly disinterested in many residents who are brave enough to speak during the public session of council meetings. For more on this, please hop on over to The Front Stoop. I could say more about how Pintella, the council president, the man with the microphone, the man frequently quoted in the papers, constantly belittles, interrupts, and mocks the residents of this city when they speak, as if he hasn't had enough public spotlight, but I don't want to duplicate Old Mill Hill's fantastic detailing of Pintella's arrogance. Please check out that link.

Recently, many people have crafted intelligent responses to Mr. Pintella's overconfidence and lack of commitment to the people he was elected to represent, but these sentiments have fallen on deaf ears; Pintella's continued support of the unsupportable is befuddling.

Last night during the city council meeting, Mr. Pintella had what seemed to be a harmless exchange with Trenton businessman and former mayoral candidate Frank Weeden, and Mr. Weeden ended that exchange with a surprising "Fuck you, Paul," and then excused himself from chambers, so that he didn't have to be removed by security.

Mr. Weeden knew the consequences of his words, and removed himself. But he speaks for many of us in Trenton. Many have tried — and failed — to bridge the growing gap between the people and Mr. Pintella; many have asked him to look at the mess this city is in; and the blood of this city is on the hands of the Palmer administration, and also on Pintella's, since he only does Palmer's bidding.

Pintella is the same man who told Trentonian reporter, LA Parker last night, "...there is nothing that he can say or do to me that will affect my life."

We don't all have to get along, we don't all have to agree, but one should not be so self-important, so dismissive. Pintella should have been a better listener, a better representative all along; he needed to be affected by what people were saying, long before it came to this. Frank certainly doesn't speak for everyone, but he does speak for many. Maybe there's just nothing left to say, but "Fuck you, Paul."

Fuck you, Paul, indeed.

Friday, May 2, 2008


(I just sent this to my councilman, Gino Melone. For more background on the story about the Trenton Police Department's new gun request, please click here)

Hi Gino,

History is full of examples of victorious outgunned underdogs, and the lesson here is that it's not about the weapons or the might, but rather, the brains of the leadership and the dedication of the group.

If we apply that Trenton — and really, shouldn't we look at history to help guide us in the present? — it is safe to say that fancy, new guns won't make us safer. New guns are not the deciding factor in whether or not the good guys win the war against the criminals.

I like gadgets and new things, and trust that the new, more expensive Springfield handles well, and might even be cooler than the same-old/same-old Glock. But it's just a gun — a tool — which is no better than the person using it, and, to the person on the receiving end, there is no difference between a Glock and a Springfield. Heck, look what Vice President Dick Cheney did with bird shot!

You and I both are looking at a significant tax increase this year, and since you're only a few blocks away from me, you see a lot of the same grit and grime, and possibly even the same miscreants and criminals as I do. We pay a lot for what we get here in Trenton — we love it, but this is no paradise — and we'll be paying more shortly. We face a $7 million budget shortfall in FY 2009. The new Springfields will cost us $200,000 for the weapons alone — I'm assuming the holsters/belts will be extra — an expense we just cannot afford right now. Glock has offered new, free weapons to our police department, and considering shot is shot, whether it comes from a Glock or a Springfield, how can we possibly justify the new guns? It's an unnecessary expense at this time for our city. Maybe we can revisit it if and when our fiscal picture improves.

I hope you will vote against this expenditure.

Christine Ott
Trenton, NJ 08629

Thursday, May 1, 2008


Waiting can be terrible, especially when you're hungry. Glen's birthday was on Sunday, and we assembled at Jenny's place (Jenny is my sister), and had our first ever International Dinner, which all got started because of the Tamale Lady, whom we discovered selling tamales outside of the thrift store, and also, the outside the Supremo market over on Lalor. The Tamale Lady opened Jenny's eyes to the joy of international cuisine, and in particular, all that hails from the Latino realm, so the theme of Glen's birthday dinner was Latino dishes.

My friend Karen (not to be confused with my sister, Karen), and her toddler son Owen were also invited, and they were coming up the Garden State Parkway on a Sunday afternoon, from south, coastal Jersey. She was supposed to arrive between 1 and 2, and by 20 after 2, we were still waiting, with much hunger and anxiety. Traffic. My sisters hovered by the window like hawks, waiting, waiting, waiting, and Karen made it just before we headed to our own colorful, aromatic buffet without her. And bonus: she brought a dish, too. I wish I had pictures of everything, but it just didn't work out that way.

What a feast we had, too: Jenny and her husband, Rich, made churros (fried dough sprinkled in cinnamon sugar) for the kids; they also made chile rellenos, which I didn't think would be possible, but was so very pleased to be wrong about that. Jenny stuffed her mild poblanos with some kind of queso, and some ground chicken, dipped them in a batter, fried them up, and topped them with some red sauce and some more cheese. I am a fan of all things fried and cheese in all of its bountiful forms, so I was very pleased with the chiles.

Jenny's delicious chile rellenos.

Jenny also made some yummy rice — I'd call it Spanish rice, though I'm not sure if technically that's correct — and a smooth black bean and cilantro soup, which not only quietly stole the show (everyone loved it), but also looked so photogenic with all that steam rising from it.

Smooth black bean 'n' cilantro soup.

Jenny also made homemade tortilla chips, and Glen made some fantastic guacamole, and we inhaled that. Even the baby, Emma, loved the guac: it was cute to watch her sitting there long after we had moved into the dining room, dipping her own chip (and sometimes her fingers) into the bowl of guacamole. She pretty much had the bowl to herself after that, and while we went through a little bit of guac-withdrawal, we were pleased to see Emma so thrilled with mushy, green stuff.

Oh! And my niece Megan made some salsa, which was some of the best I've ever had!

Megan's salsa; Glen's guacamole is in the upper left. Both were fantastic.

My friend Karen made a delicious cold salad of chicken, beans, onions, mangos, garlic, tomatoes, and other spices, and because she arrived at the last possible minute, we were all too busy loading our plates up with food, and I neglected — to my regret — to get a picture of it.

My sister Karen made a lovely chilled shrimp dish, garnished with lime juice, lime zest, and garlic, which was also very popular. She also made a beef-n-bean chili, and included garbanzos, and there was a lot of malcontented muttering about the inclusion of those beans, but I thought they were just fine in the chili. It was perhaps the spiciest chili I have deliberately eaten, and for me, needed to be served with rice, and several sorts of dairy.

Karen's shrimp (some of them, anyway; her other shrimp was in playing with the Wii, but more on that later)...

...and her chili with garbanzo beans.

Glen made an Ecuadorian dish inspired by one of his old roommates; I believe he called it pork frittata, though it contains no eggs, as one might assume. It's made from a nice cut of pork, marinated in garlic and oil, and then sauteed; and two different types of corn are added: hominy and a toasted yellow corn. I love the corn part of this dish a lot, particularly the hominy.

Glen's pork and corn.

I made fizzy frozen peach drinks in the blender, utilizing a large bag of frozen peach slices, some peach nectar, and some lemon-lime soda stirred in at the end. This was popular with the women and some of the children. One of the men had kicked a child off of the Wii, much to the child's dismay; and the other men were drinking beer in the side yard, and I know (for a fact) they were complaining about the one who had aggressively removed the child from the game system. So they didn't get any peach fizzy. Too bad for them. But I'm sure they all enjoyed doing what they were doing at the time, particularly the guy who got to play with the Wii all the livelong day, including through dinner, but not dessert, because apparently, he had a very important phone call he had to take through the singing of "Happy Birthday" and then the subsequent consuming of the cake (see below for details on that), and he made a point of letting us all know how important it was, by talking loudly while we sang and shoved cake in our heads. The poor kid, though; it's so sad to learn about idiotic, selfish adults at such a young age. But with any luck, this particular guy will not be coming to too many more family functions. Rumor has it, he's on his way out.

I made a birthday cake for Glen, too, using my Betty Crocker Bake'n Fill 4 Piece Bake Set, which, yes, I ordered because I saw it featured on a late night TV commercial a year or so ago. But wow, am I a dope: I didn't take a picture of this birthday cake, which I made, per Glen's request, with devil's food cake, chocolate icing, and peanut butter mousse filling. I'm a pretty good cook, but am not the best baker. I can handle a cake, though, especially when I just have to add some water, oil, and eggs. But I'm generally unimpressed with the presentation of a cake mix cake, so the Bake'n Fill gives me some cred with my peeps. And nothing says "Happy Birthday" like a Bake'n Fill. No lie. I snagged a couple of images from the internet to show you what a final cake could look like, if I were so inclined to make it look that way, but I wasn't. The few people who have sampled some of of my Bake'n Fill cakes have wondered, "How the heck did you do it?" It's not hard at all. I'm hoping a picture of the pans will help make this non-feat of baking clearer. Basically, you make a round sheet cake, and then choose one of the dome pans, and use the thing on the tippy-top to create a cavity in your dome cake, so when it's all done cooking, you can fill with peanut butter mousse, ice cream, fruit, or mayonnaise, if you are messed up. I hate mayonnaise, and would never have it in my house, so don't worry, I wouldn't do that. But I know some big mayo fans out there (Hi Mom!) who might be so inclined.

The Betty Crocker Bake'N Fill, and the type of cake you can create with it, if you were so inclined.

The Latino International Dinner went over so well, we're hoping to gather again next month for a Greek Fest. Stay tuned!