Silk City

February 11, 2009

Charles Turndoff used to have a fur shop on Ellison Street in Paterson. It’s likely my mother bought such fur as she owned from Charlie, as the grownups called him. I drove by Ellison Street today. I knew Charlie and his shop were long gone, but still, I looked that way. That look was like the flick of a tongue at a sore one knows will hurt but still must touch.

It isn’t that I miss Charlie. I knew him only through the filter of my parents, and I don’t remember ever being in his shop. The ache comes from the larger transformation that his absence signfies in the city. A few blocks from Ellison Street, by the great falls of the Passaic River, Alexander Hamilton stared across the chasm and saw the future, but his vision – fortunate man – didn’t extend past the middle of the 2oth century. Hamilton Street and the Hamilton Club – at least, its spectre – are still among the landmarks downtown. The visionary’s dream is not.

This is a grim place now – Market Street, where my mother walked with us from one store to another, always lingering at Meyer Brothers, with its gleaming floors and polished counters and its saleswomen all in black. We’d expect my mother to remind us again that she, too, had worn black here, at 14, after exaggerating her age – her contribution to her family’s wellbeing. We’d be proud when the floorwalker, who would call her by her maiden name, and whom she still would call “Mr.”, recognized her after all those years. On the street again, we often encountered “Herman,” a mysterious, unexplained figure from my mother’s past – a well-dressed blind man walking with a white cane. My mother’s greeting would always be enthusiastic, and Herman always recognized her voice. We most likely would cross paths, too, with another jaunty figure with a cane, a figure of a different sort that wanted no explanation. And “Mr. Peanut” – in full costume – gave us the cue we needed to hound our mother to take us to the Planter’s store before boarding the bus for home. 

When we were old enough to go on our own, we rode or walked to Paterson and bought records from a man named Rip who looked like Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and called me “Mr. Paolino” when I was 15. And we’d go to a movie, sometimes two, at the Majestic, the Garden, the Rivoli, the U.S., or the Fabian. We were still children, really – insensitive to what was going on around us and coming behind us.

On my way to Paterson today I passed through Woodland Park – strange name on the map of Passaic County, there because voters managed last November, after vainly trying  in the past, to shed the name “West Paterson” and with it an association with the city that stirs under its grimy, ruined facades, a city that can’t forget its own name as it tries to see past tomorrow to a future that Hamilton didn’t plan. I sat in my car at a broken parking meter and watched the people who dream in Paterson now – black, Latino, Arabic – and I was glad to be back.

I made a new friend in the city today, a man who teaches some of those folks I watched on the street. “I was born in Paterson,” I told him. It sounded, it felt, so much better than saying “Woodland Park.”