Shop Local for the Holidays

As much as I tried to deny it, the summer is long gone. Now that the clocks have changed and it is dark before you get out of work, everyone has turned their attention to the holidays.

The problem this year, however, is the ongoing supply chain issue. Cargo ships wait out in the Atlantic and the Pacific to unload goods. The ongoing shortage of truck drivers across the nation. It’s enough to make you batty.

Or is it?

Every year I remind people to shop local for small business Saturday. With everyone starting to shop earlier this year due to all the panic, this reminder to shop local comes earlier than usual. And the great thing about Jersey is that there are plenty of special places to shop with a unique Jersey flair.

Just Jersey

The best place to start is at Just Jersey in Morristown. This special shop presents unique art, craft, food, and more from over 200 Jersey-based residents. From jewelry, to homemade jams, to glassware, you will find a great variety of unique items in any price range. Best part is they all come with that special Jersey flair we have all come to know and love.

Peters Valley School of Craft

If you have never been to Peters Valley, I highly recommend it. It is not just a great place to visit, you will enjoy a beautiful ride on the way there. Their facilities are located within the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, once the farm village of Bevans. Before that, it was the tribal ground of the Lenni Lenape people, whose ancestors were the first craftspeople and makers of the land. Bevans was lost to the Tocks Island Dam Project of 1960-70’s through eminent domain. Eventually the project was scrapped and the name Peter’s Valley was reinstated in remembrance of early settler and surveyor Peter Van Neste.

Peters Valley offers not just beautiful surroundings, but onsite classes in a variety of crafts. Know someone who always wanted to try blacksmithing or weaving? Consider paying for a class for them to attend. Looking for something handmade? Visit their two unique galleries and leave with a beautiful gift that is sure to create a lasting memory. The Holiday Market begins November 20th.

West End Garage

One of my favorite places in this state is Cape May. And the West End Garage is a really cool place. Filled with funky gifts, you’ll find something for even the hardest person on your list. Check out original art by Maggie May Oysters, who uses locally sourced oyster shells in her artwork or Patricia Jackson Jewelers, highlighting their Exit Zero collection.

Pretty Handy

Belleville mug from Pretty Handy

This great little Nutley shop takes “shop local” a step further. Not only are you shopping Jersey, you are shopping Essex County. Pretty Handy offers town swag for Nutley, Bloomfield, Newark, Clifton, and of course, my beloved Belleville. If you are trying to show your town pride, this is a great place to check out.

Reddie to Burn

Of course I can’t finish out this post without a mention of my favorite candlemaker, Jersey Girl, and Goddaughter, Alyssa Lyn Reddie. Reddie to Burn offers all-natural hand-made candles in a variety of scents. Each soy candle has plenty of scent, from pumpkin soufflé, to apple and maple bourbon, to plenty of others, there’s something to please every taste.

Get shopping!

No matter what you decide, I hope you will consider shopping local and supporting local small businesses and artisans. You are helping those right in your community; no supply chain issues!

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Frankie Valli

“Newark, Belleville; Frankie Valli walks on water. As he should. Frankie Valli has been around so long he’s attached to everything and everybody. And they are very proud.” ~Steve Schirripa, Talking Sopranos podcast.

Belleville has been home to plenty of talent over the decades. Connie Francis, Joe Pesci, and of course Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, known to the world as Frankie Valli.

Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, aka Frankie Valli
Credit: discogs.com

As Schirripa says, he’s attached to everything and everybody. We all have a Frankie Valli story. For me, I have two. Castelluccio grew up in Stephen Crane Village on the border of Belleville and Newark. My Uncle worked as a maintenance man at Stephen Crane Village. He took the bus from our house in Belleville early every morning and came home every afternoon. As kids we were allowed to walk down to the end of the block and wait for him; but no further than the manhole cover!

His first single “My Mother’s Eyes” was a favorite song my Uncle Chubby would sing with his own band, Chubby O’Dell and the Blue Mountain Boys. To this day whenever I hear that song, I think of my Uncle Chubby and smile.

The music of The Four Season was part of the soundtrack of the youth of not just North Jersey, but America. Songs like “Can’t Take my Eyes off of You” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” are engrained in our memories. Castelluccio’s original inspiration was another Jersey boy, Francis Albert Sinatra.

The 45 of My Mother’s Eyes
Credit: Roots Vinyl Guide

A new generation was introduced to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons in 2005 when Jersey Boys opened on Broadway and was an instant hit. Bob Gaudio, an original Four Seasons member, sought to make a musical from the discography of the band. He hired book writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, and director Des McAnuff. Brickman suggested creating a show about the band’s history, instead of repurposing their songs. Sharing the group’s “rags to riches” story. Everyone fell in love with their music all over again.

Castelluccio still tours and recently recorded a new album, A Touch of Jazz, which is his iconic voice singing his favorite tunes from the Great American Songbook.

So Castelluccio started singing in the early 50s and all these decades later, he is still growing strong. God willing, he still has a lot of music left in him.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Connie Francis

When I thought about who I should highlight first this year during Italian Heritage Month, I wanted to go with a local hero. Yes, she is a favorite daughter of New Jersey, but she is also a favorite daughter of my hometown, Belleville.

Connie Francis, 1961; Credit: ABC Television, under Creative Commons License

Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero, known professionally as Connie Francis, was born into an Italian-American family in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark. She attended Arts High in Newark for two years before attending Belleville High School, where she graduated as salutatorian from BHS Class of 1955. The high school auditorium is now named in her honor. Additionally, “Connie Francis Way” can be found at the corner of Greylock Parkway and Forest Street in Belleville, near the house in which she grew up.

Students sitting in that auditorium today may not know the importance of Concetta Franconero to our “Beautiful Village,” but those of us of a certain age certainly do. Early in her career, Arthur Godfrey made two recommendations to her. First that she drop the use of her accordion in her act. Second, that she change her name from Concetta Franconero changed her name to Connie Francis “for the sake of easier pronunciation.” So she officially became Connie Francis to the world.

Her life has been full of triumph and tragedy. She’s had many top songs we all know and love. I am particularly fond of Where the Boys Are and her rendition of Mama. She also acted in several movies during her young career. In the late 1960s, Francis went to Vietnam to sing for the troops. Through the years, she has performed charity work for organizations such as UNICEF, the USO and CARE.

Deep sadness struck her life several times, unfortunately. The first time was in Westbury, New York, following a performance at the Westbury Music Fair. Francis was the victim of a brutal rape and robbery after an intruder broke into her hotel room and held her at knifepoint. She nearly suffocated under the weight of a heavy mattress the culprit had thrown upon her. Her attacker was never caught.

In 1977, Francis underwent nasal surgery and completely lost her voice. She went through three more operations to regain her singing voice, but it took four more years to regain that lovely voice of hers.

In 1981, further tragedy struck Francis when her brother, George Franconero, Jr., with whom she was very close, was murdered by Mafia hitmen. Franconero, who had twice given law enforcement officials information concerning alleged organized-crime activities, was fatally shot outside his home in North Caldwell.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan appointed her as head of his task force on violent crime. She has also been the spokeswoman for Mental Health America’s trauma campaign. She worked hard to turn her personal tragedy into a story of triumph and inspiration for others.

In 1984, Francis published her autobiography, Who’s Sorry Now?, which became a New York Times bestseller.

Francis continued to perform and record and prove what Belleville and Jersey tough means. That’s why I felt she deserved to be the first person I honored during this year’s Italian Heritage Month.

It’s About Being Better

I started this blog to share with the world all that is wonderful about New Jersey. And I would say almost all my posts are positive and highlight what I love about the Garden State.

Sadly, this is not one of those posts.

Absolutely everyone who knows me knows I grew up a dedicated band kid. It shaped my young life. It taught me important skills beyond music. I learned about teamwork, pride, confidence, and the brotherhood that exists among all band members, no matter where they are located.

I am a proud kid from Belleville; what we lovingly refer to on our Facebook group as the Motherland. We may not have always liked each other, but we could always count on each other.

This is why I feel compelled to stick up for my fellow Belleville High students and, more importantly, my fellow band kids.

On September 10th, Belleville played our local rival Nutley for the Mayor’s Cup. I’ll be honest; I never paid attention to the game. I was there for halftime. While I didn’t get to the game in person, I was excited to see someone uploaded the halftime show to YouTube.

Well, I was excited.

Belleville, NJ Marching Band
The Belleville Marching Band with the Nutley football team warming up in the background and the referees chatting off to the side. Credit: Mitch Zoltowski

Excitement turned to immediate outrage. Not because of the band, but because of the Nutley football team. The band just started their halftime show when the Nutley football team appeared and actually had the audacity to start warm-ups ON THE FIELD! To make matters worse, the referees had a nice coffee clutch around the 20 yard line. The final insult is that this all took place on Belleville’s home turf.

I was completely appalled! These kids work just as hard as anyone else. They deserve respect. Where was the coach on the Nutley side? There was not one adult on the Nutley side that thought “this isn’t right?”

I feel coach Vick of the Nutley football team owes the Belleville Marching Band and their director an apology. He should lead by example and teach his kids that band kids, regardless of the town they are from, work hard and deserve their time on the field.

Coach Vick, you need to be better. And you need to teach your kids to be better.

Shame on you.

9/11: Twenty Years Later

Where were you on 9/11?

It’s a question all of us have asked each other; for those of us who were alive and old enough to remember.

Americans seem to find themselves asking that type of question every so often when a major event happens.

  • The Pearl Harbor attack
  • The assassination of President Kennedy
  • The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr
  • The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

Just like everyone else, I remember every single moment of that day. The perfectly blue sky. The confusion as we tried to understand what happened. The panic as we realized we had colleagues on planes that morning. The relief when we knew they were safe. The profound sadness when we learned two colleagues from different offices were on the hijacked flights. The shock when word made it around the office that the sister of another colleague was in one of the Towers. The focus when I drove to School 9 in Belleville to check on the mother of one of my best friends from high school; her father worked in the Towers and thankfully made it home that day. As I drove down Greylock Parkway in Belleville, I couldn’t believe the Twin Towers just weren’t there. Memories run together and are separate at the same time.

A few days later I sat in shock as I thought about a job interview I had at the Towers not long before the attack. I was excited. My friend’s father coached me on how to maneuver through the security checks. I don’t remember the name of the company I was interviewing with or the name of the person from Human Resources. He was emphatic when he explained the job would be in the Towers; that it wasn’t a remote job. He told me there were people who didn’t want to work in the Towers after the first terrorist attack. I remember clear as day saying “lighting doesn’t strike twice.”

9/11 Memorial World Trade Center
A photo from my one visit to the Memorial.

Oh how wrong I was.

If that job had worked out, I could’ve been right in the middle of that chaos. That thought still gives me shivers.

Growing up in Belleville, my house backed up to Hendrick’s Field; the Essex County public golf course. Planes would fly overhead all the time as we were on the approach to Newark Airport. I rarely paid attention to the noise overhead. When I was little, however, I do remember having nightmares of planes crashing on the golf course and seeing the fairways on fire in my dreams. Once the planes started to fly overhead again and that familiar noise was in the sky, I now look up every single time.

I’m lucky. The person I was most worried about came home that day. I know thousands of families will never be complete again.

I’ve only been to lower Manhattan two times in the last 20 years. Once after “the pile” turned into “the hole.” Once after a seminar that was a few blocks away, I walked to see the memorial. I haven’t been to the museum yet.

All these years later, I’m still not ready. I can’t tell you why. I flinch when I hear someone use the term “ground zero” and they aren’t referring to the attacks. I get annoyed when I see people planning events – happy events – on 9/11 each year. I don’t understand.

We all have feelings about that day; sadness, depression, shock, anger. We felt it then and many still feel it.

But I’m here to tell you, we need to keep talking about it. You see, we have an obligation. We made a promise to never forget.

We now have an entire generation that were not alive when that horrible day happened. Just like how I wasn’t alive when Pearl Harbor was attacked. To me at first, it was just a date in history. Then I heard first-hand accounts from survivors, from men who enlisted to fight in WWII, from family members who did what they could to support the war effort. It wasn’t just history anymore. I understood more.

Just like our parents and grandparents had an obligation to us to provide their first hand accounts and talk about what they experienced, no matter how painful it may have been, we have an obligation to future generations to share our stories, no matter the pain it causes.

We promised to never forget. I intend to keep that promise.

Belleville Loses a Favorite Son: Tommy DeVito

Music is a huge part of the history of New Jersey. The Boss. Bon Jovi. Southside Johnny.

The Four Seasons early in their career, from left: Bob Gaudio, Frankie Valli, Nick Massi and Tommy DeVito. Credit: via The Four Seasons

There is another part of music history that goes back a little further. Those greats include Francis Albert Sinatra, Bucky Pizzarelli, Connie Francis, and The Four Seasons. Straight from Essex County, and more specifically, my hometown of Belleville, Gaetano “Tommy” DeVito was one of the original members.

This week, Tommy’s voice fell silent as he was lost to complications from Coronavirus.

“It is with great sadness that we report that Tommy DeVito, a founding member of The Four Seasons, has passed,” according to a statement released from Frankie Valli & Bob Gaudio. “We send our love to his family during this most difficult time. He will be missed by all who loved him.”

The youngest of nine, Tommy was born in Belleville into an Italian-American family. At eight years old, he taught himself to play his brother’s guitar by listening to music on the radio. He quit school after the eighth grade and by the time he was 12, he was playing for tips in a variety of local hangouts.

His professional career began officially in the 1950s with his group, The Variety Trio. The group went through several incantations until it turned into The Four Seasons after childhood friend, Joe Pesci, introduced him to Bob Gaudio. In September of 1962, the single “Sherry” hit number one. This was the first of three consecutive chart-topping hits from the group. Other hits included “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man.”

As a little girl I remember going upstairs to my Grandmother’s and would listen to The Four Seasons records on my Uncle Sonny’s stereo. It is a wonderful memory.

After Tommy left the group, good friend Joe once again helped him get parts in movies like Casino. He also recorded an album of Italian folk songs.

“Jersey Boys” opened on Broadway in November 2005 and highlighted the history of the famed group. At the beginning of the show, there’s a shoutout to Belleville; and anyone in the audience from the town gives a yell and applause on its announcement.

Belleville has been home to many favorite sons and daughters. From medal of honor recipients to musicians. Tommy DeVito is definitely among our favorite sons.

Remembering September 12th

Tomorrow is the 19th anniversary of the most horrific attack on United States soil. Like many, I remember every minute of the day. The report on the radio that there was “some kind of accident” at the Twin Towers. Searching feverishly for the flight information for two of my colleagues that were flying out of Newark Airport that morning. The panic I tried to quash in my heart as I waited to hear word on my friend’s father. Watching the smoke rise as I drove to School 9 in my hometown of Belleville to check on my friend’s mom.

The 9-11 Memorial in New York City

I remember my husband calling to check on me from the school where he was teaching at the time. I told him I was going to School 9 to check on my friend’s mother. He said one word; “good.” He said he was staying at school until every child was picked up and to see if anything else was needed to be done.

I grew up seeing those two gleaming buildings as I drove down Division Avenue in Belleville. There’s a picture somewhere of me and my “lil’ sis” on her front lawn and you can see them far off in the distance. Now, her father’s 9-11 pin is proudly framed and hangs on the wall in our home.

We watched police, fire fighters, and EMTs rush to the site, never to be seen again. We watched people help each other try to get out alive. We watched people go their local hospital and wait on line for hours to donate blood, anticipating tens of thousands of wounded. The wounded never came.

We all talk about the shock and horror of 9-11. But this year, more than any other year, I choose to remember 9-12.

Within a short period of time, we started to hear the stories of people staying behind with those who couldn’t get out. Men carrying down those who were handicapped. Others who went up the stairs to try and help evacuate those who were trapped instead of running to safety.

America came together to fight back.

We said with one voice – no. We said we stand together as Americans and we refuse to be afraid. We were Americans first. Not Democrat, Republican, or Independent. Not liberal, conservative, or moderate. Not black or white.

Americans.

It is safe to say 2020 has been an incredibly tough year. Frustration. Loss. Sadness. Confusion.

Today, we are a fractured nation on many fronts. There’s a lot of yelling and not much listening.

I wish everyone could remember our nation’s response on 9-12 this year.

Every year, many of us utter the words “never forget.” May we never forget 9-11, but even more, may we never forget 9-12.

Rambling ‘Round: Respectrum Books

Like most Jersey kids, I spent many of my teenage hours at the mall. Before my friends and I could drive we would take the public bus to Willowbrook and just wander. After I had my license, I was officially set free to go whenever I wanted (almost). Whether it was sitting with a slice in the food court or going over to the arcade in the Sears wing, you could spend hours at the mall and hardly spend any money.

However, when I wanted to actually make a purchase, most of the time I would go to the stores near my home. I lived only a few blocks away from a small shopping center that had everything a teenager with only a few bucks needed. I could go to Plaza Chemist, a placed I eventually worked for a year in high school, and pick up my two local papers; The Belleville Times and The Belleville Post, I could get a cone at the Carvel, buy a gift and card for a family member’s birthday at the card store, and then bring home a mozzarella and roasted pepper sandwich at Esposito’s. While it didn’t seem significant at the time, I was supporting local businesses in my community.

Now as an adult, I understand how special it is to have those stores in local communities. The big box stores are pushing more and more of those “mom and pop shops” out of business as we continue to look for a good deal and do everything we can do stretch every dollar of our budget. While I can still, quite easily, drop a fast fifty bucks at Target, I do what I can to support local businesses and buy in those locations whenever possible.

Enter Respectrum Books.

RespectrumBooks

Credit: Respectrum Books

There are few places I truly enjoy shopping. A yarn shop, a fly shop, a specialty foods store, and a bookstore are just about it on my list. I could easily spend half a day at any of those locations while chatting with the owner or other shoppers, and have a cup of coffee. I often turn to Facebook and Yelp when looking for these special places in my area. That’s how I discovered Respectrum Books. I started following this shop on Facebook and always enjoy their posts. They are both informative and fun!

Located on Bank Street in Sussex, NJ, this shop offers a unique blend of old and new. You can find classic first editions as well as new books. They host reading groups and provide lectures on different subjects. And if you want anything printed that is New Jersey-related, I’m sure you can find it here.

I picked up a few books while I was there on three vastly different subjects. A photographer’s pocket guide, a biography about Frank Lloyd Wright, and Zane Grey: Outdoorsman. My total purchase? Eleven dollars. While I was enjoying the shop, a few other individuals came in and spoke with the owner and made a few purchases. As I was paying for my selections, we chatted about why I picked these particular books and I signed up for their mailing list.

While this is probably a bit of a ride for most New Jerseyans (it was a 40 minute ride for me), I promise you it is worth the trip! It is also in one of the prettiest areas in the state. Make a day of it!

Researching History Using High-Tech

In my last post, I shared the story of a centuries-old dwelling in Paramus that is in danger of being torn down. I opined about my concerns when it comes to preserving New Jersey’s past. Well, I am happy to share a story about trying to learn more about individuals in unmarked graves in one of the oldest cemeteries in the country. And I am proud to say it is in my hometown of Belleville.

A team of researchers from Rutgers are using high-tech equipment, including ground penetrating radar, to search for Chinese immigrants possibly buried in the basement of the Belleville Dutch Reformed Church. This church, listed on the National Register of Historic Places as Reformed Dutch Church of Second River, was founded in 1697. The church was rebuilt in 1725 and again in 1807. The current church building was built in 1853.

belleville_reformed_church.jpg

Belleville Dutch Reformed Church Photo by Jim.henderson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58082293

Throughout its history, this church has been a place of significance. During the American Revolution, the church’s steeple was used as an observation post. There are over 62 Revolutionary soldiers buried in the adjacent graveyard – the most of any cemetery in the country. It was also used as a stop on the Underground Railroad, which helped those enslaved in the south find freedom as they traveled north.

Later on, Chinese immigrants made Belleville their home. Those immigrants believed to be buried on the church grounds worked on the Trans-Atlantic Railroad. After the work was complete, the immigrants returned to Belleville because of its growing Chinese community. Belleville was home to the original “Chinatown” in the United States. Earlier this year a marker was placed at the church to serve as a memorial to those who helped build the railroad and, in turn, expand America.

I am proud to call Belleville my hometown and am excited to learn what is discovered on the property of the Reformed Dutch Church of Second River.

Remembering the Haunts of my Youth

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

We all have favorite places from our youth. For me there were several. One favorite of mine was Mickey Music – a record store. One of my high school jobs was at a cigar store in the same strip mall as Mickey Music. I would work all day Saturday and was paid in cash. During my 30 minute lunch, I would walk down to Mickey Music and each week pick out a new album. I think it’s a GNC now.

Then there’s Muscara Music that used to be on Washington Avenue. It was down the

Muscara-Music

Credit: Ralph J Barone

street from Belleville Middle School (which was the original High School). Mr. and Mrs. Muscara started the instrument shop in 1951 and was visited by the likes of Connie Francis and Frankie Valli – two of Belleville’s own, by the way. I would go in and check out all the instruments as I would walk home from school and sometimes pick up some new sheet music.

It’s a Walgreen’s now.

Then there’s Jackie’s Lemon Ice. It was the BEST lemon ice. Period. I used to ride my bike down to Jackie’s on Union Avenue in the summer. The parking lot was the official hangout. You would always run into someone while you were there. Once I had my license, my friends and I would head there by the car full. You could get almost any flavor you could dream up, but I really only ever wanted lemon. Giacomina “Jackie” Rega’s lemon ice stand was open from 1951 and until his death in 2001. After that it became a Rita’s – common lemon ice. Nothing compared to Jackie’s.

 

Jackies-Lemon

Credit: Matt Kadosh/NorthJersey.com

Well, this past week, Jackie’s building was torn down. And when that building was torn down, there was a lot of sadness felt by the decades of fans of Jackie’s special recipe of lemon ice, complete with lemon zest. At least we all still have our memories. What will go up in its place you ask? A 7-Eleven.

And there goes another paradise.