Postcard from the End of America: Riverside, NJ

Though Riverside has successfully reinvented itself before, it is now stuck. During the middle of the 19th century, it was a resort town, a place for the well-to-do of Philadelphia to mellow during the sultry months. They chugged up the Delaware by steamboats. Some steamed into town on rails. There were summer homes here, and a grand hotel with a ballroom. When the train reached the New Jersey Shore, however, Riverside couldn’t compete with the Atlantic Ocean, and so it slumped into irrelevance, a forgotten fork in the river, but then it picked itself up and morphed into an industrial center. For a tiny town that never had more than 9,000 souls, it became a leading manufacturer of watch cases, worsted fabric and hosiery.

These industries lasted for decades, but with the invention of wrist watches and cheap, synthetic fabrics that could be churned out in countless other places, they petered out. Once more, Riverside lay on the canvas, with its mouthpiece knocked into the fifth row, and it was snoring loudly (in a darkened arena) when the housing bubble arrived, affording a decade-long reprieve. Coinciding with this, there was also the opening of the RiverLine. For only $1.50, one could go all the way from idyllic Camden to picturesque Trenton, thus throngs of shoppers and diners would get off at the Riverside stop, so went the local daydream, but of course, this conveyance has also been whisking money away. In any case, outsiders who do detrain all seem to head for the Madison, a rather upscale pub in a brand new building. They don’t go anywhere else.

On a recent Friday afternoon, I strolled down Scott Street, Riverside’s main drag, and pretty much had the sidewalk to myself. I passed a closed Golden River Restaurant (despite its Chinese-sounding name, it advertised classic diner fares), then a kaput Beadscape, “Beads and a bit of déjà vu,” then a tits up American Clothes, “AMERICAN STYLES FOR ALL WOMEN AND CHILDREN.” In its display windows, there were trophies and a potted plant where clothing should be, and painted on a wall was an ecstatic cartoon face surrounded by musical notes and a G-clef, all to disguise, sort of, that the business was dead. In front of its door, a trash can had been placed to prevent anyone from lying there. Franco’s Taqueria, however, was open.

Continuing, I encountered a storefront sign offering walk-in zumba and yoga instructions on Mondays for only $5 per class. I’m assuming these lessons are conducted separately, for it would be difficult to hold, say, a pincha mayurasana “feathered peacock” pose, with one’s arms jackknifed on the floor and one’s feet straight up in the air, while rhythmically thrusting one’s hips to salsa or samba. With persistence or prayer, however, all things are possible, I’ve been told. The tropical pink and green of this display led me to think it was a South American operation, but no, the proprietor of Pizzazz, “Fitness with Flair,” was a discernibly blonde and pale Karen Lightfoot, and she would turn up again, just two doors down, as co-pastor of the Riverlution Church.

Lightfoot’s bio declares that she is a “prophetic minister” who has been “trained by the Holy Spirit with a special anointing in ministering with flags.” With her husband, Ken, a mailman by day, Karen is semaphorically steering lost souls into the Kingdom of God, provided it’s not too foggy. The 3,000-square-foot of the Riverlution Church was, not that long ago, occupied by Barbara Shropshire, Riverside’s last bookstore. In neighboring towns, there are Christian booksellers and one that purveys African-American literature.

Though I had seen few signs of commerce on my walk, downtown seemed neat, dignified and pleasant, and the kids leaving school were all calm and cheerful. Seeing a crossing guard, I chirped, “This is a pretty town.”

“What?!” She broke into a huge smile at the apparent absurdity of my assertion.

“This is a pretty town.”

“I’ve never heard that before.” She could barely refrain from laughing. “This town has really gone downhill, though it’s picking up a little.”

“From what I’ve seen, I can tell that it was once really beautiful, but it’s still nice. Are you from here?”

“Been here my whole life, either in Riverside or Delanco, across the creek.” She was about 40-years-old. “Where are you from?”

“I live in Philly. I just took the train up to look around. I’ve read about this place.”

“You have?!”

“You said this place is picking up, but how?”

“Immigrants. They’re bringing some life to Riverside. Most of them are Brazilians.”

“But what brought them here?”

“Construction. You see these white trucks all over? They belong to contractors. There are a lot of contractors here.”

Elsewhere, white contractors employ Mexicans, but since many of the Riverside builders are Portuguese, they hire Brazilians, most of them undocumented. The tension over this influx boiled over when Riverside passed laws penalizing employers for hiring illegal immigrants, and landlords for renting to them. Though these laws were challenged in court and never applied, they did chase many of the Brazilians away.

Leaving downtown, I strayed into the residential neighborhoods, and notwithstanding a handful of boarded up houses and many For Sale signs, all was, again, tidy and dignified. Hinting at Riverside’s former wealth, there was a number of huge homes. Flags fluttered on poles or were furled over porches. With the country fighting wars after wars, one is bombarded with an infinity of patriotic symbols, signs and declarations. Every couple of blocks, there was a flyer taped to a pole, advertising a yard sale, for as our military contractors gorge on billion-dollar contracts, we are reduced to selling whatever we have left to make ends meet, be it silverware, DVDs of movies no one has ever heard of or broken toys. We take our gold bracelets from dealer to dealer, hoping for a slightly better price. Some even sell wedding rings.

Making its partial withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States is leaving behind seven billion dollars’ worth of equipment. To take these home would be too expensive, and since anything that’s left intact may possibly be weaponized, Uncle Sam is destroying everything before selling it for scrap. Suddenly filled with foresight, Sammy doesn’t want a Special Force grunt or CIA dick blown up, two years hence, by some ingenious Taliban contraption made up of a microwave timer, a high-tech ice cream scoop, an SUV fan belt and a Katy Perry standee.

Doubling back to downtown, I saw, in a window, a baseball trophy with an American flag stuck on it, so I took out my camera, tried to find the proper angle and adjusted the ISO, aperture and shutter speed. With its scratched sensor and erratic software, this beat up machine is just about ready for a Kabul junk dealer. Oh Lord, will you buy me a new Canon or Nikon?

“Taking photos, eh?”

I turned and saw some beefy guy with a beard, in his mid 50’s, so I said, “Yeah, I’m taking a picture of this flag.”

“Right on!”

Since he seemed a friendly sort, I asked, “Hey, I’ve walked a couple of miles and haven’t seen a single bar. Where can I get a drink around here?”

“See that flag down the street? There’s a bar right there. In fact, that’s where I’m going!”

So that’s how I met Steve. The RaceTrack 75 Sports Bar appeared newish, with all its barstools shiningly upholstered in checker flag pattern. There were seven televisions, but only four were beaming and babbling. The two up front showed American sports, while those at the rear had on Portuguese programs. Behind the bar, a sign touted, “RISSOIS. CAMARAO E CARNE. PASTEIS DE BACALHAU.” Another, “FRANCESINHAS A MODA DO PORTO.” Four dapper men at the back conversed in Portuguese. Ragged by comparison, I sat at the front near Steve and a white-bearded gent in a tan baseball cap, blue flannel shirt and gray sweat pants. He seemed cheerful enough, but worn out. A bottle of Bud was only $2.50, but I didn’t know this, so ordered Yuengling, which set me back four bucks. This space was too open and bright for my taste, but thankfully there was no music to disrupt conversation. I said to the tired man, “I was told Riverside is filled with bars, but I walked all over town today and couldn’t find any.”

“There used to be lots. There was one across the street.”

“Why are they gone?”

“I don’t know… Money.”

“How many bars are left now?”

“Let’s see, there’s the Beer Factory, the White Eagle, JD’s, McCrossen’s, this place and Towne Tavern, which is more upscale. I can’t afford to drink there. There’s also Casa Brazil. So that’s, what, seven bars? There used to be at least twenty.”

“How long have you lived here?

“I was born here, and never left until I joined the service. I was in Vietnam for two tours. When I got out, I moved to Florida and stayed for nearly forty years. 9/11 brought me back.”

“What do you mean?”

“I had a business doing laundry for these big hotels, but the tourists stopped coming after 9/11. I’m old anyway, so it was time to come back. I live off my social security now. Each day, I come here and take it easy.”

“They pick him up each day at noon,” Steve chimed in. “Each day! Then take him home in the evening.”

“Who do?”

“Her husband.” Steve nodded to the bartender.

“I come, drink my twenty bucks, then go home.” The tired but cheerful man chuckled.

“Wow, these people are really nice if they pick you up at your house each day.”

“They are, and I don’t even tip most of the time. I’d start out thinking I’d tip, but between having one more beer or tipping, I’d choose the beer. They don’t mind, though. Do you, Teresa?”

“Do what?” She was at the cash register, with her back turned.

“Do you mind that I’m so cheap?”

“No, I love you, Joe!”

“They’re the nicest people. Some of my friends say, ‘Why do you drink at that Portuguese bar? You should be at the White Eagle!’ But they treat me very well here.”

Leaning closer, Steve confided, “Many people here don’t like the Portuguese or the Brazilians. They come and take our jobs, you know. A few years ago, we passed a law to get rid of illegal immigrants.”

“Yes, I’ve heard about that.”

“There was this Brazilian café owner, he got mad, so he put a sign in his window, ‘No Americans allowed.’”

“That guy’s not Brazilian, he’s Portuguese,” Joe corrected Steve.

“Yeah, you’re right, but after he put this sign up, the sheriff came and told him to take it down.”

“Wow, that’s pretty weird, that sign,” I cringed.

“That guy owns a few apartments,” Joe added, “so he was also mad because these new law were chasing his tenants away. Hey, you’re not Portuguese, are you?”

I laughed out loud, “No, I’m Vietnamese.”

“If you turn your head this way, Joe, his eyes become rounder and he does look sorta Portuguese,” Steve joked.

We all just sat there for a moment. I then asked Joe, “When were you in Vietnam?”

“Sixty-seven and sixty-eight. I was just eighteen years old. Just got out of high school. I fought in the Tet Offensive,” and Joe just stared at me, his cloudy blue eyes clearly seeing what wasn’t in Riverside, New Jersey, that day or ever. After the weightiness of it all had settled again, Joe continued, “My father fought in World War I and World War II, and four of my brothers were in the service. I was a baseball prospect, you know. After high school, I had sixty scholarship offers.”

“Six?!” I interrupted him.

“No, sixty.”

“Sixty! You must have been great!”

“I was. I was a catcher, and I hit .400 in high school. I could probably make it as a professional, but my father said, ‘We have a war now,’ so I enlisted. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had a small life. We were into bebop and Elvis, and next thing I knew, I was killing people. Your people!” Joe started to tear up. I put a hand on his shoulder and moved it back and forth. The red-eyed vet continued, “The government put us into this terrible situation. All of a sudden, we were there. Our first day, we saw two American corpses, and they had their genitals cut off and stuffed into their mouths.”

“What?! I’ve never heard of anything like that.”

“But that’s what we saw. And now, I’m thinking I’m not sure who did this. I’m thinking maybe it’s our own government that did this, to get us riled up. They did it so we would hate the Vietnamese.”

Steve hadn’t really paid attention to what Joe was saying, for he had probably heard it before, but suddenly he interjected, “I spent twenty years in the Army, and I was in Desert Storm, but now I’m not sure what it was all about. The politicians don’t care about us, man! They’ve sold this country to China! Look at this,” and Steve took off his watch to show me its backside. “What does it say?”

“The spirit of America.”

“And you know where it was made?”


“Bingo! Of course, China, and I bought this watch from the VFW magazine!”

“This used to be an industrial town,” Joe jumped in. “Half the clothes in the world was made here. Now we don’t make nothing. What we need is a tariff on all this made in China stuff. That’s how we level the playing field.”

Higher tariffs mean higher prices here, plus a cut in profits for all the US firms who have moved their manufacturing to China, not to mention a hurting for America’s real first family, the Waltons of Walmart. Since our bought politicians lick these fat cats’ asses, it ain’t gonna happen, OK? So we sat there and shot the cow pies (to dust, until dusk). Joe asked my age, then kidded, “You know who your daddy is?

“Dad!” I shouted.

“You two look exactly alike,” Steve opined with a straight face. To prove this to all and sundry, I asked Steve to snap a photo of me with my head clumped against Joe’s. Steve then showed me his dent nose, a result of a punch in mean ass Tennessee, “And I wasn’t even screwing his wife!”

Speaking of wife, Steve’s own showed up, but within twenty minutes, they argued and she stormed out, only to return 45 minutes later to ask him, sweetly, to come home. They left with this weasel-like character with a cane. After they were gone, Joe explained that the weasel had been jailed for about 13 years for murder, and was now stealing pills from Steve’s wife to get high. “Four or five of them killed somebody, but this guy got the longest sentence.”

Joe had reached his brew allotment, so I bought him two more Buds, but then he paid one last round with a credit card. “You know, I’m supposed to be dead,” Joe grinned. “I have liver cancer. Seven years ago, a doctor said I had six months to live.”

“So that’s your last beer, Joe!” pronounced nurse Teresa. “After you finish that, my husband will take you home!”

Cheating on death, or maybe just one doctor’s erroneous betting line, Joe will chug and chatter until his own factory shuts down, for good. During the height of the housing bubble, there were plans to turn the Tabel Mill and the imposing Keystone Watch Case building into condominiums. Needless to say, these schemes have been scrapped.

Before I left the bar, I met one more gentleman who filled me in on Riverside. Born in Portugal in 1962, Harold was two-years-old when his parents brought him to the States. They first settled in Newark.

“Why are there so many Portuguese in Riverside?” I asked. “What’s the attraction?”

“I don’t know. It’s like somebody moved here first, then the rest followed. The river may have something to do with it, and the hills. It reminds them of home, maybe? Most Portuguese are fishermen.”

“You know, my sister-in-law is Portuguese, and her family is from Stockton, California. They’re farmers.”

“Hmmm, I don’t know any Portuguese farmers, but there must be farmers, I suppose. Most of us are fishermen. The codfish is huge in our culture. The codfish is ninety percent of our culture!”

Later in the conversation, Harold gave me his take on Riverside’s immigration quandary, “First, the Brazilian men came, and they were living ten or twelve to an apartment. Each morning, you’d see hundreds of Brazilians coming out of these buildings. Then some of them brought their wives and children over, so suddenly, there were all these Brazilian kids in the schools. The locals really didn’t like that. They were saying, ‘These people are here illegally, they don’t pay taxes, and now we have to educate their kids too?’ And since these kids didn’t speak English, they had to be put in ESL classes. Even as a Portuguese, I can see why people were upset.”

“But you also hire Brazilians for your business?”

“How can I not? How can I compete if I don’t hire Brazilians? Everybody everywhere is hiring illegals!”

Eventually, the solution is for Americans to become illegal immigrants elsewhere. Living twelve to a room in Shanghai or Dubai, we can eat, speak and do everything very badly in a culture not our own. Still, it beats chewing air in Barefoot, Kentucky or Zigzag, Oregon. Each month, we’ll wire some renminbi home. “Where are you from?” we’ll be asked repeatedly by the locals, and each time, it will sting us anew because that’s another way of saying, “What are you doing here?” Even our foreign-born children or grandchildren will be similarly interrogated. “No place special,” they will answer. “My grandparents came from the United States of America. Ever heard of it?”

On our way to such banishment, we’ll pass through wars, riots, oppression and madness, though many of us are loony enough as is. Taking the RiverLine away from Riverside, I happened to sit in front of a raving man who, at first, I thought was on a cellphone discussing business matters. Sounding self-important, he spoke loudly enough so that the entire train car could hear. Most riders ignored his monologue, but some couldn’t help but smile at the inspired madness, “Yes, the Heifer Foundation does excellent work, but so does the Lactation Institute, with its bovine specialists.

No, there is no coordination between the tongs and the yakuza, but I’ll have to check with my Chinatown contacts before I get back to you. You have to keep in mind, though, that a tong is not necessarily criminal. The Duck Soup Tong, for example, is perfectly legitimate.

Yes, Schwarzenegger has gotten back into the news. He just cracked some joke about Iowa. I know that state well, and just this year, I was in Cyalis, Iowa, and Viagra, Iowa, and I can tell you that it is an invigorating state, and also very upright. You really should visit Cyalis and Viagra, Iowa.”

And this man was still delirious as I stepped off the train in Camden. Into the night, I walked, and into the dark he rode away. Good night, everyone. Good night.

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He's tracking our deteriorating social scape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America. Read other articles by Linh.