Totowa Book of the Dead
Most of my teen years were spent in the Irving Savings Bank parking lot on Union Boulevard in Totowa, New Jersey. In the evenings the boulevard was like death. Nothing ever happened. Few cars drove by. No life existed. I’d sit there in a car throughout the winter, spring, summer and fall, with a friend or two and watch nothing. We’d go for a drive, cruise Route 80 West for awhile; bullshitting, listening to music, getting high. Then we’d turn around, head back, and like a magnet, end up parking at that same spot, back on the boulevard, sipping our Dunkin’ Donuts coffees.
The city of Paterson bordered the suburb of Totowa. Before the great urban exodus, Totowa was just a place to bury Paterson’s dead. It has five huge cemeteries. At one time it was written in “The Guinness Book of World Records” that there was a population of more dead in the town than living. Totowa’s population is about 12,000 residents but there are over 85,000 interments at just Laurel Grove Cemetery alone. Lacking parks, Totowa’s cemeteries provided a wide degree of ritualized initiations into adulthood. At age eight you play hide n’ seek amongst the tombstones. At 13, you smoke your first joint behind them. At 16, you sneak kisses. At 26, you put flowers on the graves of friends who didn’t live through high school. At 35, you help your parents buy their plot and sometime, hopefully much later, you pick out your own.
At least the cemeteries had trees. It was a place to cool off, smell green, and get away from all that blinding whiteness of aluminum sided, one family housing developments. Totowa neighborhoods didn’t have many trees. I think working class people are afraid of them. Trees cause cracks in sidewalks and make too much mess in the fall. Someone might slip and break their neck. The biggest threat of our blue-collar existence is directly related to trees. Some injured party might sue and take your house away.
Totowa’s building boom started in the 1950’s when the population doubled. Trees would often get in the way of construction and were cut down for the sake of convenience. As a family grew and that extra addition was built on the house, the trees again would be sacrificed. My father left the big old one in the back of our house alone because it edged the property and bordered our neighbor’s fence. It must have been a hundred years old. I’m sure it was there well before my uncle owned the property, where he grew his prize-winning flowers. In the morning, that towering tree shaded the whole back of our house. Mom had three clotheslines attached to it and the neighbor behind our house had two. For some reason, it didn’t have any low branches and we were never able to climb it. Its trunk simply went straight up and then ballooned at the top like a big round lollipop.
In 1792, when Alexander Hamilton founded Paterson and established it as the manufacturing center of America, Totowa was a thriving Dutch farm community. The Native American tribes known as the Lenni Lenape’s had perished by the 1690’s. It was the usual genocide reasons for the indigenous population’s demise; small pox, measles, tuberculosis, alcoholism and forced relocation by the colonial powers. They don’t even know what Totowa really means. They do know that it’s a word from the Lenni Lenape language but since these people had no alphabet and no longer exist, it’s a little tough to find an accurate translation. Some think Totowa means manly men and was originally spelled Totoa. Other historian’s have opposing theories regarding the meaning such as; Where you begin, To sink and be forced down under water by weight, To dive and reappear, Land between the river and the mountain, God’s token, and Heavy falling weight of water.
Totowa youth all go through the same two public schools. Washington Park Elementary School for the primary grades and Memorial School from 5th to 8th grade, unless of course you paid tuition and went to Saint James Parochial School. We were all bused to the town of Little Falls for high school. The Passaic Valley Regional High School serves one thousand students from the surrounding communities of Little Falls, Totowa, and West Paterson. This little world bred familiarity. You could easily spend your entire education with the same kids in your class every year until you graduated.
The youth of Totowa traveled in packs. We had hangouts all over town. We were like one big incestuous family. If we weren’t in our cars at the bank’s parking lot, then we were at our secret camp site on the Totowa mountain, in the woods at the PAL Field, playing pinball at Cozy’s Sweet Shop, standing by the bench next to Walker’s Hardware Store, partying by the graveyard’s elk, or driving down the infamous Reefer Road.
Its real name is Riverview Drive. It’s the only street left in town that resembles a genuine country road. We called it Reefer Road because you could light a joint at the beginning of the Drive and finish it by the time you got to the end. It hugs the Passaic River on one side, which is why it’s so windy. The cemetery and Interstate 80 run along on the other side.
Everyone in town felt safe smoking on Reefer Road because of its isolation. It was so private that it became a gay cruising spot. When a reporter from the local newspaper wrote an article about a raid that had occurred, he interviewed one of my friends, learned of our name for that section of the Drive and put it in the title, Cops Break Up Hang Out on Homo Beach.
The evening routine went something like this: Two or three times a night hop in somebody’s car at the bank, blast some Led Zeppelin, make a right out of the parking lot on to UB (Union Boulevard) and start rolling a joint. One mile later, before crossing the Beatties Bridge into Little Falls, hang a left on Riverview Drive. Light the joint and smoke the entire thing before the road ended at the Hillary Street Bridge. Then make another sharp left and pull into Laurel Grove Cemetery.
Once you’re stoned, the scenic tour continues as you drive up the tree-lined entrance of the cemetery, surrounded by fields of grass and a pond that attracts migrating geese every year. It is full of huge, beautiful monuments and sculptures spread out among two hundred acres of rolling hills. Five generations of the Hinchliffe family ran it since its opening in 1887. Unused cemetery land was donated for a ball field. According to Totowa’s 75th Anniversary Commemorative Book it was a favorite place to hang out even in the 1800’s. Steamboats use to run from the Great Falls in Paterson to the cemetery. It’s been recorded that trips to Laurel Grove were considered a day’s outing. Many people from nearby towns brought a picnic lunch and spent the entire day there.
Further up, past the mausoleum road, through a clearing in the trees, stands the majestic elk dedicated in 1890. It is a life-sized, bronze sculpture about fifteen feet high. It sits on a block of granite the size of a small car with words inscribed on each side: Brotherly Love, Charity, Fidelity, and Justice. The elk is located at one of the graveyard’s highest points overlooking Route 80, elevation 140 feet above the Passaic River. There are about twenty-five members of the Benevolent Paternal Order of Elks buried around the monument. Special permission from the lodge gets you buried there.
My friends and I would cut school and spend many an afternoon by the elk. The cemetery workers never bothered us. We would sun ourselves and sit at the top of the retaining wall high above the traffic speeding by on Interstate 80 below. Truckers would blow their horns. We’d wave and dream about rides to San Francisco. At night, you could park there with your boyfriend or meet up with other people in their cars and sit under the moonlight listening to the roar of the highway compete with car stereos against the still of the graveyard’s night. If the spirit moved you enough, you could climb up and ride the elk yourself. It is considered another rite of passage among the locals.
I was almost killed once on Reefer Road. It was when Dave stole a yellow school bus from the parking lot of his father’s transport company. He pulled up at the bank around one in the morning and invited everyone to pile in for a ride.
Then he drove by the Tar Park, which is another parking lot between Washington Park Grammar School and the police station. Everyone there piled in. For a brief period of time the safest place to buy and sell drugs or smoke pot was in that parking lot behind the police station. It came to an abrupt ending one evening when the Captain of the Totowa Police Force recognized his family car parked there and discovered his two sons sitting in it getting stoned.
By the time Dave finished making his rounds the bus had about fifteen kids in it. We were passing joints, sipping beer out of the bottle, and singing along to the Deep Purple song Highway Star blasting on the cassette deck. We saw a man standing at a real bus stop and pulled over, “Come on man, we’ll take you where you wanna go.” But the guy refused to get in. Dave was flying down Reefer Road. He must have been doing about 80 miles per hour and as we approached Dead Man’s Curve, I yelled, “Slow down, Dave you won’t make this turn.” He was grinning and glassy-eyed and crazy with speed feeding off my fear. As we got closer everyone started screaming, “Slow down…what are you fucking nuts?…You asshole…Dave!! SLOW DOWN!!” At the last minute, he slammed on the brakes. We spinned out of control. Our bodies were thrown from our seats. We almost ended up in the river that night.
Ironically, my parent’s original intention was to move my brother, sister, and me to the suburbs to improve the quality of our lives. They assumed that we would be sheltered from the evils of crime and drugs often associated with the city. For our parents, owning a home in Totowa was the fulfillment of their American Dream.
It all started just down the road a little ways in Paterson. My grandparents’ immigration from Italy was a treacherous journey across the Atlantic. Their hope was the sight of Lady Liberty. Mine was the drive two exits up Route 80. Hope was the sight of an indoor shopping mall. We had, like many other urban dwellers of the sixties, taken part in a mass exodus to the suburbs. We moved from the Riverside section of Paterson, third largest city in the state, 8.3 square miles, population 150,000, and 24% white into its neighboring borough called Totowa: 4.4 square miles, population 12,000, and 92% white. I wondered where that 8% of the black people lived. There was only one family that I knew of and Alison hung out with us at the bank. She wore psychedelic Hendrix looking clothes and wore her dead cat’s skull around her neck.
At the turn of the 19th century, Paterson was a major industrial center and attracted laborers from foreign lands who had little education or skills. I am the grand-daughter of fruit peddlers and bootleggers. My grandparents, made the transition from a rural background in Italy to city life in New Jersey, and watched their children grow up as Americans. This first generation, our parents, struggled to survive between old and new worlds. Daughters were geared towards marriage and motherhood. Sons climbed out of low-skilled jobs but were still destined for manual labor. Hardly anybody went to college.
My friends and I entered the picture as second generation Americans. We’re the ones who grew up in the working class suburbs and assimilated to mainstream, white ethnic status. Me and my girlfriends still clung to fantasies of a happy marriage. The guys wanted to take over their father’s businesses and dreamed of becoming rock and roll stars. We all had jobs when we turned sixteen. Some started earlier than that with paper routes or working with their dad on weekends. Parents charged rent to help pay the bills. Most people opted to buy new cars instead of moving out of their house. Being able to suck-ride around Passaic County with a great car stereo system was really all you needed. Having your own car meant autonomy. It was like having an apartment on wheels. Driving was freedom. Success was being able to start your own landscaping business.
I think that the difference with my generation is that, as children, we were disillusioned by the Vietnam War, graduated with Nixon’s resignation and came of age in the 80’s on the tail end of Reagonomics and a deep recession. Money seemed to be everywhere but none of us were making any. Even if we worked ourselves to death like our cigar smoking, brick laying, house building, hands-like-stone fathers had done…we still could never get that down payment together for a house. It was hard to top our parent’s goals and take their dream any further.
Totowa was the land of eternal teenagers. We joked that it must have been something in the water. Even well into our twenties, not many moved out of their parent’s house. The typical move was into their finished basement. If you were lucky enough there was a separate entrance behind the house. This was a partying crowd living for the day. Eating Quaaludes, Psilocybin, Seconals, and Valium. Smoking Colombian, Mexican, and Marlboro reds. Hanging in parking lots and taking long drives to unknown places.
I started photographing Paterson and Totowa in 1975. I took my first photography class as a junior in high school. In those days, photography was part of the Shop Department, thrown in there with woodworking and auto mechanics. My teacher was Donnie’s older brother. They lived on the corner of my street. We had massive punch ball games on Anderson Avenue when we were kids and he always yelled at us for hitting his car with the ball. I felt a little uncomfortable when I found out he was going to be my teacher, but he turned out to be a nice guy. I ended up getting a ‘D’ in the class for cutting too many times, but this did not deter my love for the craft.
In the land of more dead than living, many of my friends were dying untimely deaths; car crashes, cancer, drugs, drownings and suicides. People I grew up with weren’t living to see thirty. Then members of my family started to die. I had pictures of them all. My archive of negatives holds a personal documentary that spanned decades. As the years passed, I realized how much death and photography had inundated my life. Even photographs themselves have a life and a death. You can make a picture, wash and store it in an archival process, maybe even keep it for a hundred years but inevitably a negative and a photograph will fade away. Still, I never expected to see the day that my pictures would outlive the people in them. I never expected that the people I loved would be the ones to all fade away.