Archive for June, 2012



June 17, 2012

That particular spring afternoon began innocuously enough as I left my Belleville apartment to meet my wife after work in New York to join her to celebrate her birthday. My plan was to walk to the local subway station, take it to Penn Station in Newark, and then hop a train into the city. The weather forecast warned of possible showers, so I brought my umbrella to be safe.

I crossed the final street at the crosswalk approaching the station. The light was red for oncoming traffic, but I saw a white station wagon speeding toward me looking like it wasn’t planning on stopping. I hustled to the sidewalk, pointing to the light with my umbrella, an unpremeditated gesture in reaction to the dangerous situation. Perhaps at other times or places I might have chosen a different gesture, but for whatever reason, this time I did not. Therefore, what happened next came as a complete surprise.

The station wagon screeched to a stop just past the intersection. The driver, a burly and rather unkempt man, clambered out and came after me with an angry scowl on his face. I could tell he meant business, so I began walking more rapidly down the block.

“Com’ere! I just wanna talk to you!” he yelled with a telltale slur.

Not likely, I thought, judging by his aggressive demeanor. He began coming after me, so I began to run. His staggering gait told me he wouldn’t be able to catch me on foot.

I was now a street beyond the subway stop with the brute between me and it, so I decided to go around the block and return after enough time passed to ensure he’d left. When I rounded the corner, I heard a squealing noise closing in behind me. It was the station wagon, the sound unmistakably that of a loose fan belt. He was chasing me! I sprinted up that block and cut through an alley to the next one over, but after a moment, there it was again — that fan belt signaling the approach of the station wagon.

Panic set in. This guy was serious. Abandoning the thought of catching the subway, I took off down the side streets towards my apartment, but the wagon kept reappearing around each corner in relentless pursuit.

In desperation, I decided to cut through a complex of old-fashioned garden apartments. I sprinted through the courtyard, but there it was again! He had driven over a sidewalk and entered the grassy area between the buildings and zeroed in on me, bouncing over flower beds and through clothes lines as he went.

I yelled to a woman hanging clothes, “Call the police! I’m being chased by a crazy man!”

She saw the car and called back, “Oh, he lives here. He’s probably drunk, as usual.” I had unwittingly wandered into the lair of the beast!

I cut back through another alley to the street that led to Clara Maas Hospital, dashed past it to my block, and considered taking refuge in my apartment but thought better of it in case he spotted me. Instead, I got in my car and sped away in the opposite direction to safety.

I ended up driving to New York. I must have looked shaken up when I finally arrived because my wife immediately exclaimed, “What happened to you?!”

I told her the story of my strange encounter and subsequent escape. Her first response was, “Are you sure you only pointed with the umbrella?” I explained that indeed I had, but even if I hadn’t, his reaction could certainly not be considered rational.

Not long after this incident, we moved from Belleville. It wasn’t totally because of that event, but I must say I was glad to be out of there. I had spent my remaining time looking over my shoulder, growing anxious every time I saw a white station wagon driving my way.

A year or so later, I noticed an article in the newspaper which told of the arrest of a man in Belleville. He was convicted of driving his car up onto a sidewalk in a partly successful attempt to run down two pedestrians. I can’t be sure it was the same guy who chased me (there was no mention of a fan belt problem), but the similarity seemed too great to be merely a coincidence.

To this day I try to keep a wide berth of that area. And I still jump whenever I hear a squeaky fan belt.


Gas Man

June 10, 2012


Summer is here. Time for barbecues, trips to the shore, and family vacations. However, there is another activity that is not quite as pleasant: the annual ritual of students trying to find a summer job. For some, any job will do. Clearly it’s preferable to get one that is in a field of interest, but in most cases the paramount motivation is money. My biggest desire, however, was that it not be boring. My first venture failed miserably in that respect, but the next two summers turned out to be anything but.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I managed to find employment at a fast food joint named Chicken Delight. I don’t know if the customers were delighted, but I certainly wasn’t. As the low man on the totem pole, the worst tasks became mine.

The first of these was to deliver the chicken to customers who ordered by phone. The means of delivery was a small beat-up old Toyota equipped with a metal “hot box” on the front seat. With an eye on the bottom line, the owner decided to cover an area too widespread for efficient delivery. The result was threefold: cold fried chicken, unhappy customers, and meager tips.

One pitfall of the delivery vehicle was that the hot box was not fastened in any way to the seat. Every quick stop the driver made would result in the box tipping forward and the chicken landing on the floor. If you’ve ever looked at the floor of your car, you know this is not a good place for fried chicken to be. This happened on my first delivery run, and I returned immediately to the store to get a new batch. The owner was surprisingly irate, not that I spilled the chicken — an apparently common occurrence — but that I didn’t simply put it back in the container and deliver it. I protested that the chicken was contaminated by the carpet debris, but he said, “Hey, they won’t be able to tell; it blends in with the coating!”

Unfortunately, this made more sense after I observed the goings-on behind the counter. When the fryer was pulled out of the oil, sometimes a piece of chicken or several French fries would tumble out onto the floor. If a customer was present, a big show was made of throwing it away. But if no one was there, it was picked up and packed right into the container. Needless to say, I never ate any of their food.

My other job was to clean up at the end of the night. By then, the aluminum panels behind the fryers and the fan hoods above them were thoroughly coated with grease. The floors were spattered with the stuff ground in with dirt making the going slow and arduous. The boss would usually hang around watching the small TV in the back waiting to lock up. When I finished, he’d give it a perfunctory look and then grunt, thus signaling that I could leave.

I remember clearly the worst night of that summer. It was the 4th of July, and everyone was anxious to leave to join whatever festivities in which they normally partook, including me. That was not to be. It was an especially busy night for deliveries, so I couldn’t get started on my cleanup duties as soon as usual. As I started mopping the floor, the boss said, “OK, I’m gonna leave now. Lock up when you’re done.” As I sponged down the greasy aluminum panels, I could hear the fireworks in the distance and jovial groups of people walking by talking and laughing. And there I was, by myself, greasy and smelling like stale French fries while the rest of the world was having a good time. I swore I’d never take another job like that again.

Luckily, starting the following summer, I didn’t have to. My father worked at Public Service Gas and Electric Company and was able to get me in as a summer replacement meter reader (hooray for nepotism). My father had been a meter reader for many years, so I thought I knew something about the job, but I really had no idea of what I was getting myself into.

In those days, most gas and electric meters were in people’s basements which made it a somewhat intrusive operation. Each town was divided into sections, each of which became a meter reader’s route. Each route would have a book in which to record the consumption of gas and electricity. This book was a heavy-duty rectangular loose leaf binder with a thick, black, hard plastic cover. It was rather bulky and heavy, making it a bit cumbersome to carry, but it was quite handy for fending off the angry dogs which were present in many homes. Accompanying the book would be a ring of keys for the houses of people who worked so the meter reader could let himself in to read the meters.

The second essential piece of equipment was the flashlight, necessary for seeing the meter dials in dark cellars. It also bolstered one’s arsenal against Rover’s unwanted attention. And that was it — no uniform, no no hat, no identification badge.

My training became was assigned to an old timer everyone called Clancey. I had heard his name mentioned in many a story told by my father. Despite his advanced age, Clancey, a short, thin, balding Irishman, could out-walk any man in the Englewood office. He loved to show the young whippersnappers like me what a real master could do. I must admit, he was pretty impressive.

He showed me how to decide whether to loop a street or not, which part of a route to do first, how to deal with both dogs and nosy customers, and how to read and record the necessary numbers in the book. Clancey had several rules he swore by which he drilled into me during training. Always knock loudly (preferably with the butt end of the flashlight) and holler out “Gas man!” when entering a house (“You don’t want to be mistaken for a crook and get shot”). Be sure to check the bottom of the  page for that residence to see if there were any special notations like “big Doberman” or ”third basement step missing.” And, most important, enter by any legal means necessary to get those meters read.

Since I was the Summer Guy, I would do the route of anyone who was on vacation, so I always covered new territory throughout the northeastern half of Bergen County. This also meant that I had many different guy’s books, and each had their own system of shortcut abbreviations or phrases for the special notations. Several of them had just plain bad handwriting. This led to a few strange incidents.

One house in Fort Lee had an odd notation that I couldn’t quite decipher other than the words “watch for.” This was somewhat ominous since I had to let myself in with an attached key. There had already been some close encounters with German Shepherds and Doberman Pinschers lurking in locked basements, so I was wary. This was an older house that had a dark unfinished cellar with iron support columns known as “lolly poles.” I called out “Gas man!” as I entered and flipped on the light switch by the basement door.

The dim light of a few bare bulbs was enough to see the meters in their normal position in the front corner. As I moved toward them, I sensed some movement on the floor by a lolly pole to my left. At first I thought it was a very large dog, but when I shined my flashlight there, much to my astonishment the beam settled on a lion! I froze in my tracks, images of the bloody carnage from Tarzan movies I’d seen flashing through my brain. Then I noticed the chain connecting the lion’s collar to the pole. The lion lazily lifted his head off his front paws to indifferently gaze at this petrified intruder, and just as quickly dropped it back to return to its afternoon nap. When I got back to the office and excitedly told everyone, Clancey just chuckled and explained that the owner worked with the circus and often had Leo down there. Good info to have beforehand, I thought to myself.

Another such indecipherable notation was in a book on a route in Northvale way up by the New York state border. Some kind of condition was noted, but I was running late, so I decided to hop the low wire fence to get to the electric meter that I could see on the back outside corner.  Halfway there, I saw — too late, as it turned out — a flurry of feathers coming towards me. It was a rooster of some sort, and the ferocity of its approach made me instinctively turn and run. It got to me just as I was about to vault the fence, slashing at my legs and shredding my pants with its claws. “Oh,” Clancey told me later, “it’s just a fighting cock. I’ve seen worse.” Thanks, Clance.

The strangest encounter, however, was with a human during another key entry in Fort Lee. As I went in the basement. I was confronted by rows and rows of dresses on racks like that which you’d see in a department store. Though unusual, it was certainly not remarkable. I crossed the room and began reading the meters when I heard a rustling noise down the next row of dresses. I caught a glimpse of a woman approaching me. Again, not a big deal. Often the residents happened to be home even when use of a key was indicated, but I had yelled “Gas man!” so there should be no surprises. I refocused to finish recording the numbers when a voice behind me asked, “Everything OK?” It was a man’s voice. I turned and stood face to face with the figure that had been approaching in the flower print dress, but the deep voice and five o’clock shadow told me this was no woman.

“Uh, yes, um, everything’s fine,” I managed to stammer as I backed down the nearest aisle. I got out of there fast, so startling was the encounter. Looking back, I’m sure there was most likely no danger, but I was nineteen and naive and as yet unexposed to such things as were most of us back in 1968. I didn’t bother even mentioning that one to Clancey later.

On the positive side, I did get to meet several people of note. One particularly hot day while doing a route along Palisade Avenue in Englewood, Betsy Palmer, a TV celebrity of the 60’s, invited me in for a glass of iced tea. She was quite lovely even in her duster and slippers.

Another time I met Frank Sinatra’s father (I think it was in Leonia). His meters were in his garage, and he let me in, talking the whole time, mostly about boxing. The walls of the garage were covered with fight posters. It seemed that he wanted young Frankie to go into the fight game, but the boy apparently had other ideas.

I read the  meters of other famous folks though I didn’t actually see them: Elston Howard, the Yankee’s MVP catcher after Yogi, one of the Eisley brothers (remember “It’s your thing, do what you wanna do”?), and crooner Tony Bennett, all legendary personalities at the time. Heady stuff for a young guy like me.

My brief stint in this job that entailed miles of walking in heat and rain, several dog bites (the little dogs were the worst, especially Chihuahuas), innumerable flea bites from standing in the dark cat-infested basements of apartment buildings, severe bouts of spider web entanglement and subsequent arachnophobia, and lonely senior citizens lying in wait to engage in endless conversations gave me a new appreciation for what my father had done all those years. But in spite of the drawbacks, I don’t think a job selling clothing in a mall or shuffling papers in an office would have matched my ever-changing experiences of being a gas man, for in the cellar world through which we traveled, the unexpected was the norm. And that was just fine by me.