Braving the Wilds

Field Notes from the Suburban Jungle

Tag: Montclair

Sharing the Table

Jean Shin’s evocative, allegorical sculpture “Host,” gracing the grounds of the The Montclair Art Museum, offers a distinctive glimpse into our unique suburban culture.  The piece consists of three segments of a tree: its stump, a log and a beautifully natural branch, standing upright lending the feel of a living sapling reaching for the sun.  It is made largely of donated flatware given by members of our community.  Stainless steel, plated silver, perhaps even a cast-off lone solid silver piece, no longer useful to an individual family, now feed an entire community and blind passers- and drivers-by with reflected brilliance.

Ms Shin, a Brooklyn artist commissioned by the Museum to commemorate its Centennial, is known for her work with cast off objects: a wall mural made of well-worn computer keys, houses constructed of scratch-off lottery tickets, a billowing sculpture made of umbrellas.  But “Host” is unique in that it touches upon an important connection to the natural and cultural functions of familial society: the act of breaking bread together.  It is how we physically sustain our human bodies, an avenue for teaching culture to our children, and a way to connect with our loved ones at the end of a long day.

In a typical American suburb, perhaps the act of sharing a meal together often involves more plastic sporks than unique pieces of flatware long missing their place setting mates.  But in Montclair, a town that boasts a fabulous farmers market, several community supported agricultural associations, even a Chicken Keepers Collective, the more formal flatware fits.  Beautifully.  We feed our souls as well as our bodies here, fabulous restaurants of various ethnicity abound, and local authors write about the importance of good food in their own families.  (For a feast, pick up a copy of Laura Schenone’s The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken.)

The donated silver is imbedded in an allegorical tree whose three parts represent a larger reality.  The stump signifies the tragic but necessary fallout of felling one, and Shin’s representation contains carefully bent knives curling around in circles that shape its imagined history.  An observer of the piece as physical object can’t help but wonder who used the simplistic butter knife or the one with the curlicued handle to smear his or her lemon curd onto a freshly baked blueberry scone, clotted cream onto a buttermilk biscuit.  It might have been difficult for the person to part with what might have been once construed as an heirloom, but did so in excitement that it would become part of a larger reality, a literal piece of art.  Perhaps the formerly cherished piece of flatware pitted from being placed in the dishwasher with everyday stainless pieces.  The silver plated pieces, with the floral motif,  no longer held the same warm significance after a difficult divorce.  Yet together, the cast-offs have changed in shape and significance.

The silver log is destined for celestial building projects.  Representing the Christ-like quality of a tree as gift to humanity: its own life so that others may live.  The branch is the tree in its original, natural and awe-inspiring state, its off shoots symbolizing the family and life itself.  One branch culminates in a fork, another a soup spoon, suggesting autumnal changes in its life cycle, having shed some of its “leaves”.  True to natural forces, the viewer is teased into wondering if in the Spring, the spoon bud will burst forth in full-forked bloom by May in Montclair celebrations.

Certainly none of David Schiller or Asa Miraglia’s flatware went to Shin’s work.  Unique Hosts in their own rite, David and Asa throw dinner parties for charity, charging attendees a small fee, all of which go to local food pantries to feed the hungry in our community.  “Sharing the Table” they call their movement, by which they serve their fabulous cooking with “friends new and old” over a leisurely dinner that offers a “unique vibe” at every party.  Interested parties should join their e-mailing list and be quick on the reply button; dinners fill within an hour of the e-mail invitation landing in the in box.  Which is why David and Asa need ALL their superfluous flatware: for their own works of art, delicious and representational of our charitable and life-loving community.

The James Howe House: A Local Manifestation of the Failure that Was Reconstruction

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The James Howe House, also more commonly known as the (misnomered) slave house at 369 Claremont Avenue, is largely agreed upon as the first piece of property in Montclair to be held by a freed slave. Howe’s story may offer a touchstone of understanding of race relations in this town, which is largely known as having made great strides towards integration, despite  its checkered past. Even though New Jersey is north of the Mason-Dixon line, neither it — nor Montclair — was a stranger to slavery and other forms of involuntary servitude. Holding slaves was commonplace in New Jersey until as late as 1866, when the adoption of the 13th Amendment made it unlawful for one man to hold another as property. In fact, in 1690 nearly all the inhabitants of (a much less populated) northern New Jersey owned slaves, according to historian Simeon Moss (See The Persistence of Slavery and Involuntary Servitude in a Free State (1685-1866)).

Unfortunately, Montclair was not innocent to the slave trade, although no mention of this unseemly aspect to its history is mentioned on the Township website historical page. Yet most of the members of the founding Crane family held slaves as did the Speer family, of what is now Upper Montclair. According to one town historian, Ken Cleary, the English and Dutch settlers encouraged the purchase of slaves to support the foundation of the colony and handle the hard labor. Moss goes even further to argue that the slave trade was actively encouraged by the crown to make for a healthy, hearty and prosperous — albeit amoral – Royal Africa Company.

In the 18th Century, the main port of entry for slaves in eastern New Jersey was at Perth Amboy, now a gritty old port town, about 30 miles south of Montclair. Moss offers a grim picture of their entrepôt:

Negroes were brought from Africa to the West Indes where they were seasoned, that is, acclimated to the more temperate regions, instructed in the rudiments of the English language, and shipped to the American Colonies. On their arrival at the port [of Perth Amboy] the slaves, usually chained in groups of two, were led into a large barracks where they were kept until auctioned. Slaves were usually imported in small numbers, consequently they created no problem at the ports of entry. Here they were sold soon after their arrival.

In later years, as the War for Independence approached and the influence of the Quakers from Western New Jersey and Pennsylvania grew more influential, anti-slavery sentiments became more widespread. In 1792, the Quakers were the first group of people to protest to slavery on humanitarian grounds. Governor Livingston unsuccessfully urged the General Assembly to pass an ordinance for mandatory manumission. He personally freed his own slaves during the Revolution.  He saw avowedly Christian slave holders – those, who he said, “almost idolized liberty” — as particularly odious. (Moss, ibid). There were also economic arguments against slave holding, mainly ones that came from the Raritan and Minisink Valleys, where large plantations were on the out because their owners could no longer afford to keep a large number of slaves.

Howe was purchased by one of the descendants of Montclair’s (formerly Cranetown) founding family, Major Nathaniel Crane, in 1813 for $50. It is unclear if Crane had other slaves at the time or afterward, but the wording of his 1831 last will and testament, as paraphrased here by Philip Doremus in his 1908 book Reminisces of Montclair, suggests that Howe was a survivor of former slaves of the family, and perhaps others were freed:

He made provision for his old colored servant, James Howe, who was a survivor of the former slaves of the family and was known as Uncle Jim. He gave him a good tract of land on the north side of Clairmont Avenue running west from North Mountain Avenue, where he lived many years. A part of the house he occupied is still standing. As children, we used to enjoy visiting the old man who had become blind, and listening to his stories of our ancestry. Major Nathaniel Crane had no children and made the West Bloomfield Presbyterian Church the residuary legatee of his estate, which amounted to about ten thousand dollars. This fund the will requires to be held in trust by the church and the annual income to be used in support of the gospel in this church. He died April 18th, 1833. In recognition of his gift to the church, The Society erected a suitable monument over his and his wife’s graves in the Rosedale Cemetery. (<em>Reminisces of Montclair</em>, by, Philip Doremus. 1908. Excerpt can be found at Rootsweb.)

Although Livingston’s pioneering efforts to outlaw slavery in the Garden State were premature, the Legislature eventually addressed the problem, although it continued to recoil from outright abolition.  According to Moss, New Jersey passed  a series of three Acts with the goal of gradually abolishing slavery by making manumission easier for slave holders.  Through these piecemeal efforts the number of people held in bondage in1850 New Jersey diminished to about 200, still a deplorably large number but an improvement nonetheless.  Crane’s act was not unusual in the grand scheme of things, although it is also speculated that Howe held an entirely more intimate connection to Major Crane in that he may also have been his son. ( “Montclair’s Hidden History,” by, Stacey Patton.)  Doremus is clear to point out that Major Crane had no children with his wife, Hannah.

New York Times Op-Ed Contributor Stacey Patton, who is also a history professor at Montclair State University, says “the house itself is an uncomfortable remnant of history for a town that has regarded itself as the epitome of a progressive suburban racial utopia.” She has unearthed scathing recollections about what is largely construed as the failure of Reconstruction following the Civil War, where the freed slaves were discriminated against out of fear they would swallow up jobs, amongst other cruel and inconceivable arguments. Montclair wears the shame of having segregated restaurants in the 1950s and 60s, although was never considered a Jim Crow town. Churches were also segregated, and blacks were known to “break off from white churches that made black parishioners sit behind black curtains and in basements during services.” (Patton, ibid).  While no one today equates Montclair with the cruel depravations of what we like to think as Southern-style segregation, Jim Crow was alive and well in Monctlair.

This de facto segregation ultimately led to legal action.  In the 1960s a discrimination suit was brought against the Montclair School Board, seeking to correct an unjust imbalance in the composition of the schools. The result is a nationally-lauded magnet system that has attempted to integrate our schools. The concept is that providing a forward-thinking curriculum makes the requisite bussing inconsequential, since what’s at the end of the ride is so appealing. Yet even today there is grumbling about the tracking of students that is unfair to our black population. Integration has not been fully established. (Please see Lise Funderburg’s “Integration Anxiety” from the New York Times Magazine, November 7, 1999).

The James Howe House is a tangible example of where we went wrong in properly addressing the full story of an entire section of our society who was struggling to find their way in an entirely new world after the Civil War.

As recently as 2008, there existed a heated debate about the fate of the physical structure. Formerly known as the Washington Wayside House because General Washington himself passed it on his way to another Crane-held property further down Claremont on the corner of Valley Road during the Revolution, 369 Claremont Avenue is now a rental property belonging to Robert Van Dyk. Van Dyk also owns an adjacent nursing home and expressed an interest in donating the structure to the Montclair Historical Society, freeing up the land for a more substantial, lucrative structure than the 800 square foot James Howe House, which currently houses a mother and her young son.

The Montclair Historical Society wanted to move the structure to its present grounds on Orange Road. And the society has experience with such big moves.  In 1965, the Society moved another Crane House which originally was situated on Glenridge Avenue and had a colorful past. At the turn of the 20th Century, the Crane House was the “Trinity Presbyterian Mission for blacks who left Virginia and North Carolina in search of better lives in this northern suburb.” (Patton ibid). In 1920, it became an African-American YWCA, serving a variety of civic purposes. Patton notes that W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Booker T. Washington all spoke here, and most astonishingly, the house even served as a dormitory for black female students who were denied housing on the campus of Montclair State University.

The Historical Society has been criticized amongst many of the more liberal minded citizens of Montclair for having failed to relay this important piece of the Glenridge Avenue Days of the Crane House’s story to visitors patronizing its present site on Orange Road. It instead has been more of a showplace for antiquities; the second floor is now a reconstructed one room school house that caters mostly to students from the elementary schools. Many feel that an opportunity to educate our school children of the full story has been missed.

Most of those against moving the structure simply argue that moving James Howe’s home, bequeathed to him by his master, next to his master’s family house would be a cruel irony. They also contend that moving the house might jeopardize its structural integrity, and that the historical significance is best understood on the original site. Those in favor of moving the house point to the problems with the current site, which is now a busy thoroughfare, its five original comfortable acres swallowed up by suburban development and encroached by other structures, and with poor accessibility and parking.  The Montclair Kimberley Academy owns the land behind it, playing fields destined for improvements over the summer, and leaving the back of the seemingly inconsequential James Howe House closed to the public.

Seeking to preserve this piece of living history, the Township Council passed an ordinance in January  2008 designating both the house and the property as landmarks.   Some contend that this amounts to an unlawful seizure of property, imposing an unreasonable hardship on the present owner who clearly bought the property to provide rental income or to expand his business.

Today, the house looks rather forlorn, not exactly well maintained, but dignified in its old age and significant past. Its 19th century inhabitant was finally given what he must have strove for all his life: liberty. What remains of his former domain has great potential to educate our citizens to the story of our town.  It is a story that may not be easy to hear, but most certainly should be told. The failures of Reconstruction that are evident in the segregation stories in our own seemingly cosmopolitan town, where blacks struggled to find their own way in society without much help. They arrived here against their will and yet were never officially given the start in a free life that they most assuredly deserved.


Nostalgia on Edgemont Pond

Before there was Uncle Sam, predating Lady Liberty, there was Columbia, a personified symbol of America not unlike Marianne of France or Britannia of the United Kingdom.  A maternal beauty with a buxom figure, she is clad in classic Greek robes, flowing untaylored around her able, athletic and youthful form.  Her feet are strapped into classic sandals, but there is a hint of aboriginal American features to her cheeks, her sloped liberty cap that falls forward in a nod to something once plumed.  Often her vestments are adorned with the stars and stripes, holding a shield or flag representing the Union.

First coined by of the author of The Gentleman’s Magazine in England as a code name for America, Columbia is the female version of the name Columbus, the reputed discoverer of America (which is a falsely endowed distinction, as outlined previously on this blog in Lenni Lenape Day).  As reports on debates in Parliament were illegal to publish in the United Kingdom, Edward Cave worked around this rule by using a thin guise, calling them “fictional” Reports on the Debates of the Senate of Lilliput.  Columbia frequented those pages until 1746.

It is only natural that our English-turned-American colonists would adopt the coinage in more glorified terms.  The maternal imagery of Columbia personified suckled a fledgling country as it weaned its way to more adolescent ages, searching for an identity all its own.  Phillis Wheatley, an African slave of Boston who was educated by her owners, encouraged to write, and even published in England and New England, was the first to poetically refer to Columbia as our nation, powerful and righteous against Britannia’s long-seeded strength:

One century scarce perfom’d its destined round,

When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found;

And so may you, whoever dares disgrace

The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!

Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales,

For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.

Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,

While rond increase the rising hills of dead.

Ah! cruel blindness to Columbia’s state!

Lament they thirst of boundless power too late.

Phillis Wheatley in a letter to George Washington, 26 October, 1775.

Columbia became a very fitting symbol of our new country, its spirit and idealism during the American Revolution, and ironically was brought forth with grace by none other than a Bostonian slave whose real home was Senegal in  West Africa.The slouchy cap that became standard issue for Columbia derives from Roman tradition, used by priests to present to freed slaves and now regularly used as a symbol of liberty. What hope must have burst in the heart of Phillis Wheatley, a woman who did find personal liberty in 1774.   (http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/sectionfront/life/hail-miss-columbia-once-a-us-symbol-shes-lost-out-to-uncle-sam-lady-liberty-385432/).

Columbia later lent her name to the prestigious Kings College in Morningside Heights in Upper Manhattan, as the name of our nation’s capital district, as well as many other city names throughout America.  Film Companies, recording companies borrowed its renowned name.   Columbia reigned, and  Hail Columbia tolled as our national anthem from 1777 until 1931.  A Library of Congress recording can be heard here, and remains a tribute piece to announce the Vice President at State Dinners.

She sadly, or perhaps justly, fell out of favor after World War I, a conflict that left our relatively new nation painfully understanding the costs of that Great War.  Disenchanting after a conflict with no real justification, the same pleading Columbia from propaganda posters that urged our citizens to take up arms and to buy war bonds looked tarnished and lacking in her original righteousness.

Montclair, New Jersey lost seventy-one of her sons during the misnomered War to End All Wars, a devastating loss incomprehensible to a generation of people who have gratefully not known war on that same gruesome level.  To pay deserved tribute to those fallen, the townspeople collectively raised funds to pay for the towering monument that now is lent to our township as its trademark.  Its surrounding park acts as a quasi-town green, welcoming its citizens to enjoy a swath of land that was bravely defended, indirectly, by those 71 dead, amongst many others.

Appropriately, Columbia graces the monument and is forever perched at the base of our obelisk, a nod to America’s former image.  On the original program of the Unveiling Ceremonies is her description, a mother figure to a young nation whose eyes were painfully opened to the dangers of nationalism:

As her sons press eagerly forward where duty calls, Columbia, wafted as though on the wings of the morning, follows, her countenance aglow with love for her children, her great mother heart reaching out to encircle and protect them with the power of her might – the Shield of the Union, carried on her outstretched left arm, even while with a light touch of her right hand she urges them on in the cause of Freedom and Right.

Description of Charles Keck’s sculpture of Columbia and her two Dough Boy sons, Edgemont Memorial Park’s WWI Monument, Unveiling Exercises program, November 11, 1925.

Now she stands unrecognizable to most who pass her, an aged figure with an oxidized complexion.  Columbia was once America personified, but now stands as an historical reference, less powerful than Uncle Sam or Lady Liberty, but righteous all the same.  Her original purpose can be rediscovered, rather like a scorned politician who history has treated well, but whose legacy has to be researched in a long-forgotten text book.

A book about her story is forthcoming, from Ellen L. Berg, an affiliate Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland.  A sneak peek into her research can be found on the Opinionator Blogs on the New York Times web site.

The Unbreakable Branch

We Montclair townsfolk are no strangers to bad storms and their crippling aftermaths.  In the last six years we’ve had four “storms of the century”, resulting in days-long power outages and expensive clean-up.  Generators whir a rhythmic, annoying hum while wood chippers noisily chew up the remnants of the violent tempests.  Centenarian trees in our parks that once stood stately along our roads now lie exhausted on their sides.   Their feet of roots, tired and compromised by their neighboring pavement, stuck in swaths of earth that have torn patches of turf a dozen feet wide now seem to defy gravity in a crazy perpendicular angle.

This week our nemesis Sandy brought four such trees down in our beloved Edgemont Park, and left ominous cracks around a half dozen others.  Weary, un-showered neighbors walk gingerly and curiously to survey the damage, to find comradery amongst other storm survivors.  It was reported on one television station that Montclair saw the highest winds of the debacle, a window shattering 88 miles per hour, which obviously took its toll on our trees, smashing cars, fences and swing sets, and in one case, a classmate’s entire house on Essex Avenue.  One can see the teenaged boy’s bedroom exposed to the elements, eerily opening the private world to the gawking public one, astonished by not only horrific news reports out of neighboring, watery Hoboken, but in the darkened houses of our own leafy town.

There are no reported deaths from Montclair, yet we all stand stunned as the death toll in surrounding communities rises.  Certainly the New Jersey Shore or New York City was not vulnerable to the same devastation Cuba or the Dominican Republic was: our infrastructure is stronger, our physical structures better built.  Yet we still read shocking stories of babies being swept away in storm surges right out of a mother’s arms, trees falling on teenaged boys, outer burrough basements, seemingly protective from high winds, becoming watery graves.

Many feel the vulnerability has existed all along.  The New York Times reported that Staten Island had become over developed in the last 25 years, dangerously covering up their protective “sponge” of sand dunes and grasses with homes, hardscaped malls and parking garages.  Long Beach Island, a narrow barrier island perhaps should not be as populated as it is.  To paraphrase Joni Mitchel: we paved Paradise and put in a parking lot. But the parking lot was not as protective in sustaining human life than the more bucolic sand dune, ironically.

The inevitable debate about Global Warming will continue.  We will speculate how climate change is making our storms more severe; perhaps it even caused that wonky wave of a Jet Stream take a sharp turn to the north, attracting our tropical pisser of a storm.  That Irene spanked us East Coasters just one year ago are making us all question: are strong tropical storms the new norm for New Jersey?   If that is the case, the new and improved New Jersey Shore might have to bow more respectfully to Mother Nature and her power.  Think more sand dunes and less parking lots.  Think more reverence to all-powerful nature.

James Wright, a well respected contemporary poet of the last century, wrote a compilation of poems in awe of nature and its ability to protect man in 1959, entitled The Branch Will Not Break.  Peter Stitt, editor of The Gettysburg Review called this work his happiest, and one whose “major affirmation [is] – the faith that nature will endure and continue to sustain man.”  One might guess that the same respect is necessary to pay Her in return for that sustenance.  He writes:

In a pine tree,

A few yards away from my window sill,

A brilliant blue jay is springing up and down, up and

down,

On a branch.

I laugh, as I see him abandon himself

To entire delight, for he knows as well as I do

That the branch will not break.

From “Two Hangovers, Number Two: I Try to Waken and Greet the World Once Again”, The Branch Will Not Break, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 1959.

The metaphoric branch remains unbreakable, regardless of the physical mess that greets us at Edgemont Park.  We birds will have to judge which are the righteous ones on which to jump.  Meantime, joggers will tip toe over the extension cords that run from lighted houses on Edgemont Road to the darkened ones across the street, a symbol of the giving creatures we are at core.  We will pray for those who were hit the hardest and hope that recovery has ended.  While we wait in long lines for gas to power our generators we will remark at how lucky we all are for precious gifts that were ours all along, but perhaps faded to near unrecognizable in the glare of electric light.  We will rebuild, with a reverence for that which is larger than us and with knowledge that the branch, if respected, indeed will not break.

Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette Slept Here (and So Did George)

In the Spring of 2003, there was ample coverage of the animosity felt between Americans and the French over the Iraq War in The International Herald Tribune. Manifestations on the streets of Paris were not unusual; one of the more memorable “manifs” was grand marshaled by an individual in a skeleton costume burning an effigy of George W. Bush. On more than one occasion, complete strangers in French cafés recognizing my American accent would ask me if I had seen Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9-11 and what I had thought about it. Conversely, I heard reports from back home about talk of a boycott on French wines, parties where individuals dumped their perfectly aged, liquid investments into the rivers for the media to see. Freedom fries, instead of french fries were served in American cafeterias.

The French were protesting the unilateral waging of a war without international support in a global community, and jumpy Americans, still licking their bleeding wounds sustained in the massive attacks of September 11th were slowly starting to understand just how successful that attack was, terrified and debilitatingly imagining weapons of mass destruction bound for their borders, believed to be cleverly hidden under Saddam Hussein’s stolen Kurdish tribal rugs.

Other than an incident of my son’s baseball cap, a casquette, that was stolen off his head, cursed with an epithet reserved for we Yanks, and thrown into the garbage in the cour of the école maternelle, we survived unscathed. Startled by the intensity of the demonstrations on the street, perhaps, by their boisterous and loud presence, we simply understood them to be a culturally genetic trait of a society formed at the broken ramparts of the Bastille. Vive la France! No offense taken. Many a sympathetic American would have take up banners beside you. We just weren’t among them.

It was not long after that my parents came to visit and see how their grandchildren were faring in the Land of Gaul amongst all this perceived animosity. A military history buff wanting to see the beaches of Normandy and the museum in Caen, my father would often enliven our dinnertime conversations with the inevitable present day politics, but also that of the past. We once enjoyed a very tight American – French alliance, one that was integral to our formation as a nation.He told a terrific story about the World War I Commander-In-Chief of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing, who later went on to serve as the Army Chief of staff and author a Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography.

Pershing was called to duty after the Americans declared war against Germany, arriving at a time when American presence was a much-needed lift to the French psyche, which had understandably suffered a fierce blow embattled in the trenches for three years, suffering innumerable casualties. On July 4, 1917, the city of Paris amiably and with honor celebrated the Day of American Independence, featuring a parade which concluded at the Picpus cemetery. Pershing was to lay a wreath at the grave of the Marquis de Lafayette, but not being fluent in French, asked Lt Colonel Charles M. Stanton make the brief remarks. He reputedly said upon facing Lafayette’s grave, “Monsier le Marquis de Lafayette, nous sommes arrivées!” They had come as Patriots to endeavor to chink away at the enormous debt of gratitude that we as a nation owed Lafayette by aiding France in arms against Germany.

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General John J. Pershing saluting the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette, Cimetière de Picpus, Paris, July 4, 1917.

The debt was huge. Most Americans know that Le Marquis de Lafayette was 19 years old when he came to America in 1777 to take the post of General George Washington’s aide-de-camp. Most can report that the French gave financial support to a fledgling America not-yet-born, a gesture that was invaluable to our success in forming a new nation. We simply would not have won the war for independence without their support. What many don’t know about Lafayette was that he was an Idealist, a military mind who believed so deeply in the cause of American Independence that he actually had to find passage via Spain to get to America, as the French monarchal support had not yet been garnered, putting himself at great personal risk. Because British spies were paying close attention, he had to disguise himself as a woman. Because the cargo ship was bound for a trading stop in the West Indes, he bought all the cargo in the hold to avoid stopping and eliminate the risk of discovery. He fought ably and with distinction against the British on American soil for no pay for years. Yes, he was an aristocrat, but he actually helped fund the cause with $200,000 of his own fortune, paying the salaries of many military hands. During the two year hiatus (1778 – 1780) he spent in France during the war, he helped Benjamin Franklin lobby King Louis XVI for more financial support, supplies and men to be sent to America.

I dare say that with no Marquis de Lafayette, there may not have been a United States of America. Incidentally, while browsing an antique book fair in the Place Saint Sulpice in Paris, I came across the first map ever printed of the New World, referring to that eastern chunk of North America as “Les États-Unis d’Amerique.” The book seller told me that it was the first ever printed with our new country’s proper name, and it was optimistically printed before we actually won the war. Merci beaucoup pour votre confiance, nos amis!

Marquis de Lafayette

Lafayette returned to America in 1780, right around the time when General Washington was fighting to keep his New Jersey stronghold and Benedict Arnold infamously defected to the British. In October of that year, the two generals had their temporary headquarters here in Montclair. In 1938, the Eagle Rock chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution installed the stone that was the doorstep of that house in a nestle of shrubs, marked by an American flag at the site of the house that once served as Lafayette’s headquarters. It is located just next to 551 Valley Road, presently home to a photography equipment shop, Photo Cullen. About a mile due south is the site where Washington garnered his own headquarters, on the north west corner of Valley Road and Claremont Avenue, on October 26, 1780 “while on the march from Totowa now Patterson to support Lafayette’s expedition against the enemy on Staten Island.”

Chez George has long since been torn down, too, but the plaque commemorating the events is embedded into a boulder in front of a Dutch Colonial that was built some 150 years later. Interestingly, “Ripley’s Believe it Or Not” once listed it as The World’s Smallest Park, a coveted title now bestowed on Snow Park in Tampa, Florida. Ironically, Snow Park is located on Kennedy Boulevard, a rue that was formerly known as Lafayette Street.

Lafayette went on to have four children, two of which are named for his very personal American friends, cementing and indelibly marking his great fondness not only for the individuals, but the ideals they represent: Georges Washington Lafayette and Virginie Lafayette, after the home state of Thomas Jefferson. He even has two barrels full of Boston’s Bunker Hill soil on that grave of his in the Cimitière de Picpus in Paris, fulfilling his wish to be buried on American soil.

So I, in the interests of Patriotism and love for the Marquis, kept the fleeting politics of 2003 out of my better opinions, understanding that the same society that burns effigies can produce the most brilliant and loyal idealists. I am proud that if even for just a brief time, Lafayette called Montclair, New Jersey “headquarters” for the cause that so inspired this great Frenchman, and great American. For Lafayette was made an honorary United States Citizen posthumously by Congress in 2002, one of only seven in our country’s history, and one year before Georges Dubya sent troops to Iraq.

The Visitor

Last April, while playing with my kids in our backyard, we were visited by a strutting chicken wearing what appeared to be an afro of feathers.  In the middle of suburbia, this was a tad unusual, even with the ever-increasing sensitivity to Michael Pollan-inspired ethical eating in our very liberal-minded Montclair.  By some strike of extremely good fortune, the Pooch was not outside when our visitor arrived, but her keen canine sensibilities were ignited.  Flinging herself at the back door, fearfully close to breaking her neck on one of the glass panes, she whined as if in physical pain.

The inevitable followed: “PLEASE, Mommy, can we keep it?”  A simple point in the general direction of the convulsing animal trying her best to break our door down was answer enough.  Half the occupants in our house don’t even like eggs without a mound of cottage cheese to mask their existence.  And if we were in the market for any farm animals, it was a cow: a nice holstein who was much bigger than the Pooch and could provide a few less trips to King’s Supermarket, as we seem to have been going through eight gallons of milk a week.  That’s a significant monthly milk allowance, especially if you buy organic.  But I digress…

A quick facebook posting pleading all villagers to educate me as to near-by chicken keepers brought forth an unexpected response: there were far more than just one.  As a matter of fact, there is a whole Montclair United Chicken Keepers Collective — also known as MUCKS — run by the president of my son’s PTA, Grace Chow Grund.  (I can honestly say now that I have no idea where Grace finds the time.  She should probably be running the country, not the Renaissance School PTA, The Terra Tea Salon at our local library, the green team for the local Montessori Magnet school, all the while raising four kids.  She is also always cheerful, smiling and bright.  She is most aptly named.  A halo of gold literally shines above Grace’s head.)

Turns out, our feathered visitor lives just around the corner from us and is called Georgia, a Polish crested hen known for her delicious white eggs.  Her owner let my son carry her home to her back yard coop, where four other productive ladies had taken up residence.  My daughter inquired about a rooster, the possibility of tiny downy chicks being too irresistible to leave without inquiry.  The response was unexpected, turning my daughter’s complexion a distinct shade of green: “We ate him before the neighbors put their house on the market.  He was making too much noise at an unGodly hour.”

UnGodly indeed.  I have just finished hard boiling a dozen store-bought eggs to dye on Good Friday with my brood.  It’s seems logical enough that in our culture,  the holiest of Christian holidays is coupled with a Springtime pagan ritual of welcoming eggs back onto the table.  King’s Supermarket offers them all year long now, but when we were wholly self-reliant and bound by local cycles of life for our nourishment, eggs were unavailable during the cold months.  Georgia and her friends would not lay eggs during the winter; productive, regular ovulation is restored come April when the weather warms and the world welcomes new life, and when those preparing the table praises Everlasting Life.

Thomas Edison’s Beautiful Failure

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