Searching for J-Town – A Primer

Oscar Wilde once wrote that “memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.” I’ve written about memory on many past occasions, often in the electronic pages of this, and other blogs. I wrote three novels and published two that were a fictionalization of my memories. You could argue that I am haunted by them, and my uncanny inability to forget them. Yet could the argument be made that the terms “haunted,” and/or “haunting” are not negative ones? Rather, could one such as I claim that to be haunted is to be the keeper of certain memories for others? Could one argue that what I have often considered the bane of my existence is, in fact, a gift?

I have never shied away from talking or writing about my past before now. In many ways this blog was always meant to be the diary that I carry about with me. So were/are the ENDWORLD books. You could argue that my desire to electronically journal that which I once scribbled in a copybook or leather-bound notebook for only my consumption was a product of pretentiousness. Folks might wonder “what makes my story or stories so important that I need to write them down, in the First Person (no less) for public consumption?” The short answer to that question is a simple one: Nothing. My life truly has been, for the most part unextraordinary. Yet the long answer is a bit more complex. I was, and I am keeping a promise or promises that I made to “write it all down one day.” I am a big fan of keeping my promises, which brings me to the WHY. Why this blog entry? And what does it mean for my future? I invite you, my family, friends and oftentimes casual readers to read on for the answer to that two-part question.

2022 has been a bizarre year. I think I’ve made that abundantly clear in my last couple of posts. So much good, tinged with so much bad: A true representation of Yin and Yang, light and dark et al.. 2022 was very much a year, representative of my life in microcosm. Given that, what are the implications for 2023 and beyond? What happens next?

It goes without saying that the completion and publication of HEAVEN AND ENDWORLD, at least from a writing standpoint is tantamount. As a good friend told me recently, “you need to finish your trilogy.” That is and will be foremost on my list of non-work related, and non-home improvement related goals in 2023. But what comes afterwards? Where do I go once the story, I have labored for almost 30 years to complete is finally fleshed out? What happens after I fulfill that promise? The answer to that particular question is also simple: I move onto my next promise. And that one is why I am writing this blog entry today, December 30th, as I glance behind me in the clear, Winter stillness at the year that was, and prepare for the year that is to come.

That same friend who I referenced above–the one that advised me to finish my trilogy–followed up that answer with another. The question? What then? That answer was ALSO a simple one: “Write about what you know.”

Some time ago… Decades honestly, I sat outside my last apartment in Jenkintown, PA with my friend Emily and discussed the prospect of writing a memoir about our experiences, growing up in what we endearingly referred to then, and still refer to now as “J-Town.” It is likely that many of you reading this know about Jenkintown. Even if you didn’t grow up in or around it, you’ve likely heard of it in the last 10-15 years. The actor/director/producer Bradley Cooper grew up there (and apparently was Confirmed with me; go figure). The hit TV series “The Goldbergs” is set there. Jenkintown has grown into so, much more over the last couple of decades than the Frank Lloyd Wright House and the old Wanamaker Building. It is now an integral part of pop culture. I’d go so far as to say it is semi-famous. Yet back then–When Emily and I sat outside in the parking lot of Madison Manor on a warm and breezy, Summer night–it was little more than a product of OUR collective memories. Not just hers and mine, but my sister’s. My mother’s. And all of the families that we grew up with us there. Not just the Marshes and the Cooneys, but the Rings and the Harmers, the Hungerfords and the Fitzgeralds, the Lyons and the Breslins. Even the Morenos. And that was just our street–Maple Street. If one were to branch out further, one could include the Kyles. The Parkers. The Scharnikows. The McCreaveys. I am sure there are other families that I cannot remember currently but may in time. J-Town, for Emily, myself and so many others was at that time still the world we knew the best. Post-college but pre-adulthood.

In the time since that unforgettable night, we’ve all moved around a bit–some more than others, sarcasm fully intended (I’ve probably moved around the most). We’ve grown up, started families and started careers. We’ve developed close, bonds of friendship with people that have only ever heard of J-Town because of Bradley Cooper or “The Goldbergs.” When asked how I became the man I am today, I generally speak of my experiences post-high school, and never those during or before. Yet truthfully, the person I am NOW started then. On a tiny street in a tiny town on the outskirts of Philadelphia, PA. So, if I am and remain committed to the e-publication of the diary I carry with me, how can I exclude Jenkintown from that discourse any longer?

Roughly 10 years ago, I received a message from Emily on what my friend Ed likes to call “The Book of Faces.” Most of us know it as Facebook. It was in response to a post I made about a new story idea.

Not to distract you from your story idea, but your post reminded me of something I thought of over the holidays. So many of the Maple Street/Hillside crew are on ‘Facebook.’ Maybe it’s time to start soliciting memories and stories from them like we talked about doing once upon a time? I don’t know. I really don’t know anything about doing something like this. What I do know is that we all have so many memories–good and not so good–and I would love to capture both. I think capturing both is key because if what I believe is true, it does take a village and ours did a stellar job.

I cannot recall if I ever replied to her post or not, but I remembered it… Jotted it down for posterity, even after whatever story idea I came up with that day had faded. I went so far as to reach out, and the idea grew and grew as more folks from our little village were looped in via email, phone or The Book of Faces. A few months later though? The idea petered out. It took a proverbial backseat to Life with a capital L, but in the time between that post, my subsequent outreach and the last email I received from my sister Katie on it, ideas were shared. Memories were remembered. And I started what was, at that time a compilation called “Searching for J-Town.” I still have it–hell, I’m looking at it right now. “Suicide, Jolly Ranchers and Bloody Lips” courtesy of Sean Leahy. “Of Snow Days and Memories of Childhood” by yours truly. The idea never left me, and many of the folks I grew up with there have, in the years since, approached me about it, even as I toiled away at my own Life with a capital L, and re-re-writing and publishing The ENDWORLD Series. Elements that had been intended to make it into the compilation popped up on this, and other blogs too. “The Mayor of Maple Street” for instance. Through it all I asked one question of everyone that brought it up to me: Why me? Why should I write it? The answer to that question was, predictably simple: Because I am first and foremost, regardless of anything else a writer, and it is my story to tell. Sometimes, the answers to the questions we ask are not complicated.

Write about what you know. I am haunted by my memories of my childhood, yet not in a bad way. Courtesy of my propensity to remember my past, I am and have been the keeper of those memories since Day One. A curse? Sometimes. As Emily said in her message, some of our memories are “not so good.” Yet even the not so good memories played a part in turning me… Turning US into the people that we are today. Just like love, lost inspired The ENDWORLD Series, J-Town and specifically, Maple Street inspired not only this blog post, but the next project I will be undertaking after I finish my trilogy. I did, after all, promise every one of those people that asked me about our ill-fated “Searching for J-Town” that I would write it down one day. And I believe in keeping my promises.

I should note a few things before signing off with my standard winky emoticon/smiley face. The first? Simple. This is my “on deck” project. I have to finish The ENDWORLD Series first. My plan is to do so and have it ready for reading in late April of 2023–no pressure on my editor or cover artist (I love you Amy and Cat, and I will of course work at your pace). A bit of a truncated timeline to be sure, but the hard part–the first and portions of the second draft–is already done.

The second? Given my outline, elements of past blog entries will make it into this memoir. One cannot speak of or write about Maple Street and J-Town without talking about The Mayor of Maple Street, Big Bill “Mister” Ring. I’ll try to keep them as true to form as they were when I initially wrote them, though admittedly, my writing has changed a bit (sarcasm fully intended) since and I have a knack for not just editing, but re-writing things I previously wrote (see: The ENDWORLD Series). I do so in the interest of voice consistency and continuity.

The third? My memories may not be the same as yours, and if you are reading this right now (I will likely tag you when I post this to the Book of Faces), I invite you to share with me YOUR memories. I promise I won’t steal them and call them mine. Much as Emily and Sean were earlier, you will be credited.

And the fourth and maybe most important thing? My WHY. I’m not writing this to get on Oprah’s now-defunct booklist. I don’t write for profit. I’m writing this because I am a storyteller, and I like to tell stories. And I truly, whole-heartedly believe that this story needs to be told. Given the world we live in now, our little slice of old school Americana is about as extinct as the Dodo Bird. 2022, bordering on 2023 is a much colder, and cynical world than the one that we the children of J-Town grew up in circa 1980-1993. Occasionally, my beloved minions ask me about what life was like for me at 13 and 10 (respectfully). And I tell them as best I can. Many times, they look at me like I have two heads but every so often, their eyes gleam with a smidgen of understanding and wonderment, as well as a healthy bit of skepticism and disbelief. “How could you live without a cell phone or computer Dad?” “Your parents let you stay outside until 10-11PM over the Summer?” “They let you wander by yourself, across Old York Road–a highway–and up to Foxcroft a mile plus away to go sledding in the Winter?” My answer to these questions is always accompanied with a smirk, and a story unfolds. Those answers are the inspiration for what I will be writing in an effort to capture my, and hopefully YOUR memories for the next generation. The children of Maple Street. Back when we all lived in a little town we endearingly referred to as J-Town…

And no one lived anyplace else.

Winky emoticon. Smiley Face.

F.

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