Inspiring tour of the Phillipsburg area… cats, dinosaurs and Edison’s concrete houses

I loved being a newspaper reporter and I adored working for weeklies the best. Weekly newspaper reporters typically had a geographic beat, whereas daily reporters had a topic-oriented beat. I worked in Phillipsburg (N.J.) School District (Phillipsburg, Lopatcong, Pohatcong, Greenwich, and Alpha) for several papers and Bethlehem (Pa.) Area School District for another.

I covered Phillipsburg from early 2000 to late 2005.

I know so many things about the region, its neighborhoods and its nooks and crannies. It’s how Maryann Ignatz of Steve’s Café on South Main Street in Phillipsburg ended up in the Parisian Phoenix anthology, Not an Able-Bodied White Man with Money. (Which Amazon has a ridiculous deal on right now. $2.60 each, limit four. I don’t think I can order them from the printer for that low of a price. So I ordered some. This also allows me to see if they really do have as many of my books in stock as they say they do. But I may do a Parisian Phoenix blog to explore this more. I ordered some books from Bookshop and Amazon, the kind I did not publish.)

But I digress.

Feline Urban Rescue and Rehab at Phillipsburg Petco

The cat rescue for which I foster originated in the Phillipsburg area “back in those days.” Mars, The Teenager’s foster fail, and his sister, the shy Minerva I mention occasionally, spent time in the Phillipsburg Petco to improve their socialization with a certain cat volunteer who I believe is the only person who has purchased, read & reviewed all of my novels. I call her my only true fan. She even bought some as Christmas presents for family. (I swear to this individual, I am writing the next installment. I am.)

So, when they have a “Meet the Kitties” event, someone from that crew usually invites Minerva.

Yesterday I received such a text.

I was in my bedroom plotting my catch-and-crate technique for the shy girls. I had two potential crates at the Petco, so if I could nab Minerva and tripod Louise, then they could share the crate on site, and eight month old kitten Jennifer Grey could have the other. Except Louise knew something was up and hid.

That’s when my friend and Parisian Phoenix photographer Joan Zachary texted.

“You going to be around later? I have some stuff I forgot to give you.”

I told her: The only place I had to go was to the cat event.

“I haven’t picked up my camera enough.”

Joan said she’d like to come photograph cats, as she hadn’t picked up her camera enough and could use the inspiration.

I don’t know what made me say it, but I asked her: “Have you ever seen the dinosaurs in Alpha?”

I warned her that they weren’t that exciting, unless you had a thing for dinosaurs or were five.

“I’m five at heart,” she replied.

So I told The Teenager that Joan would be coming over and we would go spend some time at Meet the Kitties and I might take Joan to see the dinosaurs.

“Can I come?!?!?!” she exclaimed as if she were five.

I have taken her to see the dinosaurs probably every three years since she was not-even-two-years-old. And she still acts likes the random metal dinosaurs are exciting.

G.J. Oliver’s Dinosaurs

We drove Joan to the Phillipsburg Petco where she took some kitty cat photos (“you need them for the new cat book,” she said). Then, with two cats and The Teenager in the car we headed to Alpha to the Industrial Park to see the dinosaurs. I heard the story about the dinosaurs at an Alpha council meeting, when someone was talking about how confused the MedEvac helicopter pilot was when a dispatcher told him to look for the dinosaurs to find the small municipality.

The story goes that industrialist G.J. Oliver built the life-sized metal dinosaurs, complete with a rather blocky, Minecraft-style caveman, for his grandson. Online research reports that the Oliver operation is a steel fabrication company, which makes a lot of sense. We did a photo tour of small town Alpha for the newspaper “in my day” and included another Alpha icon, the now defunct Charlie’s Pool Room which was primarily a hot dog joint run by two brothers with some blue plates, a crock pot, a skillet and their grandmother’s secret sauce.

The dinosaurs have been standing now for decades. The main display of dinosaurs in the field are now white. The Teenager insisted that they had to have been primed as the white was too even and perfect. The dinosaur by the gate is still deep green, which makes me wonder if sun damage may have bleached the others. (As of this writing, Joan has only shared her iPhone photos. She has not played with the real camera shots yet. And both the Teenager and I, having seen the dinosaurs a dozen times before, did not snap token photographs.)

photo by Joan Zachary via iPhone

Ingersoll’s Valley View Neighborhood of Edison’s Concrete Houses

photo by Joan Zachary, via iPhone

As we departed Alpha, some random information about my newspaper days started tumbling from my mouth.

“Did you ever hear about Thomas Edison’s patented, single-pour concrete houses?”

The Teenager, who has a fascination with all things built, leaned closer. Okay, maybe I’m being dramatic. But suddenly she looked up from her phone where she was probably engulfed in TikTok.

Phillipsburg has changed a lot over the years. The Ingersoll Rand tract has finally been developed into warehouses. When I still attended Phillipburg council meetings (before The Teenager was born), the town council constantly discussed the land’s redevelopment and finally took the parcel by eminent domain. Or maybe they just talked about it. But I’m pretty sure they did. I also remember one property on the site I may have visited in the first attempt to revive the site, but that might be my imagination.

So, it’s no surprise I lost my bearings among the warehouses and had to google Gino’s Market, the landmark of the Valley View neighborhood where the concrete homes (one neighborhood of only three in New Jersey featuring the experimental quick-to-erect, low-cost homes by early 20th century standards) stand. I don’t know why I didn’t google Green Street School.

I had overshot the neighborhood by a street and that’s how I confused myself. I had the Early Childhood Center in view the entire time but I was on the opposite side of the building where I thought I was.

Now, honestly, I don’t know if Joan really needs all my quirky adventures. I’d like to think she does. And The Teenager laments that she never knew me as a reporter and that she would love to experience all these strange tidbits I have floating in my head. I don’t know what made me think of the concrete houses today, but The Teenager loved them. I suppose it’s no surprise that I write fiction because sometimes my paranormal stories are less strange than my real life.

For more information:

Dinosaurs

Concrete Houses & another

Karaoke adventures

Both the Teenager and my blind friend Nan are musically-inclined. My daughter turned 18 in June and Nan turned significantly older than that in July.

I promised to take them to karaoke. It took a couple months to find an environment suitable for an eighteen-year-old that was also scheduled early enough for Nan and I.

Thursday was the night. After all, under my current schedule, Thursday is my Saturday night.

And it turned out there were two options in the same town. I found about one rather late in a new restaurant but hosted by someone I know. The other was at a more familiar location, one my family has visited since the Teenager was a baby. Literally, car-seat-on-the-table.

I picked SoMa Downtown Grill, formerly sports pub Delahanty’s on the Square. It will always have a soft spot in my heart because I remember when the building was a wreck and the owners received press coverage from my newspaper for their efforts to rehab it.

My favorite items on the menu were discontinued during their rebrand to SoMa but that has forced me to find new favorites on my visits. I knew this would be a family-friendly location for The Teenager to make her karaoke debut and one familiar enough for me to navigate with Nancy.

I even put a little effort into my outfit and wore my Stitch Fix jewelry. And my new “ultra flare” jeans from Target that I cut off at the bottom because they were regular and not “short.”

Meanwhile, Nan was practicing Leann Rimes in her new suite in her new independent living situation.

And I had no intention of singing.

The only time I ever sang karaoke it was with my friend Ken, who hosted the event (and DJed my wedding). I waited years to try and ended up singing Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t it make my brown eyes blue.”

The Teenager and I busted Nan out from her place and headed to New Jersey, where we arrived early and settled in for some dinner for The Teen and I, and an Angry Orchard for Nan. I joined her with a Yuengling draft. We ordered a goat cheese crostini appetizer for the table, which was a delight.

Nan was the second singer of the evening, with Leann Rimes’ “Blue.”

It took a while for the Teenager to commit, but she and I did a duet of Barenaked Ladies’ “If I had a million dollars,” of course, as Murphy would have it, her microphone was off and she asked me to take the part I don’t normally do in our car duets. So she tried again and drug me up there for “1985” by Bowling for Soup.

Khloe

And now that’s stuck in my head.

We spent exactly what I had in cash in my wallet without even trying and Yuengling was on special and I didn’t even know it. We were home by 9:30.

And of course, my cat Fog came running to chastise me for being out later than usual and Khloe leapt onto my chest as soon as she got the opportunity.

Feature: Jordan Sonnenblick’s first book (2004)

In 2004, author Jordan Sonnenblick was still a middle school English teacher in the Phillipsburg School District. At the time I et him, he was anticipating the release of his first book, Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie, from a small publisher, Daybue. I can’t believe that we’re approaching the ten year anniversary of that event. I forget how I heard about Jordan. I don’t know if someone sent me a press release or if I heard about his success at a school board meeting. I followed up because as a writer myself, his story intrigued me.

We met in a coffee shop across the street from my office. We talked about his past, his struggles as a writer and why he rejected an offer from a big New York publisher to go with a small independent publisher instead. I remember my own awe when he said his creative writing teacher in high school was Frank McCourt. Yes, as in Angela’s Ashes. I also enjoyed his sense of humor. Apparently, success found him when he stopped trying to write the next Great American Novel and instead used the voice of a 13-year-old boy.

Shortly after all this, Sonnenblick landed a contract for Drums from Scholastic. The book now has a sequel. I’m not sure how many books he has now. 9? 10? He has one available for pre-order and it could use some hubbub. Jordan is a great guy. I’ve read several of his books and I love them.

Author Jordan Sonnenblick

Author Jordan Sonnenblick

Feature: Behind the scenes at the circus (2001)

The Clyde Beatty/Cole Brothers Circus invited me backstage when they performed at the Phillipsburg Mall. I watched the clowns prep for the performance, talked with the lion tamer, interviewed a corps of Russian Aerial Ballet artists and even fed the elephants. I loved those elephants. The man who took care of them handed me a loaf of bread, plain old sliced white bread and directed me to slap it into their mouths.

Literally.

I had three or four slices of bread on the palm of my hand. The elephant would lift his trunk and I would stick my hand in his mouth and press the bread to his tongue. And he ate the whole loaf.

This feature appeared in the (Phillipsburg) Free Press in June 2001. I took the photos. I also photographed the show. I may have to dig those out and scan them another day.

 

circus1

circus, part 2

circus, part 2

Circus, part 3

Circus, part 3

 

 

Feature: Keep on Riding (bicycle commuting, 2003)

The part of being a journalist on a regular beat is the relationships you form with people. This feature on bicycle commuting featured a local business owner (Russ Padgett, Cycle Funattic in Phillipsburg, N.J.) and if I remember correctly, because it was a decade ago, the idea came from him.

To put this story together, we followed Russ on his commuting route, a good 15 miles, and our staff photographer literally hung out of my car like we were on The Dukes of Hazzard.

I like the way the story turned out, and I feel like it was a very timely piece for its day. Gas prices then were escalating, but not nearly to the extent we would see a few years later.

This ran in the Phillipsburg Chronicle, August 1, 2003 as a “Community Life” feature. For more information on Cycle Funattic, see their web site: http://www.cyclefunattic.com/.

Feature on bicycle commuting, section 1 of 3

Feature on bicycle commuting, section 1 of 3

Bicycle commuting, section 2 of 3

Bicycle commuting, section 2 of 3

Russ Padgett, bicycle commuting part 3

Russ Padgett, bicycle commuting part 3