This photo was taken on July 10, 1935, outside the Sokol Hall at the corner of Lafayette and Pine Streets in Jersey City, New Jersey. The Sokols were an organization formed by Slovak immigrants to honor their heritage and provide opportunities to socialize. Marge Polacek, my mother, is seated on the front fender of the car. She is 17 years old and had graduated from Lincoln High School a year earlier--in those days if you were smart they let you skip a grade--sometimes two. Thirty years later, she enrolled in college, in four years earned a teaching degree, and taught elementary school for fifteen years before retiring. At the time of this writing she is 93 and lives near the high school where I'm the librarian. I stop over and see her nearly every day after school and sometimes we talk about Jersey City. She remembers events of 70 years ago more clearly than ones from last week. Time's a funny thing: most people assume once something has "happened," it's gone. I don't agree. I believe everything that has ever happened is still happening--we just can't access it, save for the imperfect vehicle of memory.
The photograph must have been taken by my grandfather, Joe Polacek, who has been pictured in other entries here. Joe only had a third grade education, but he had a reputation for being the smartest boy in his school up in the mountains of Czechoslovakia. He made it a point to note the date on the back of the photo. And it appears to be a day worth noting. My favorite guy is the one wearing his white hat at a rakish angle as he stands on the right side of the frame. Besides his sporting demeanor, how about the way the line formed by the brim of his hat forms an almost-perfect extension to the roof line of the house in the background? Subconscious acknowledgement of geometric synchronicity may have played a part in the choice of moment to snap the shutter of Joe Polacek's two-dollar camera. Amplifying the festive air, the man kneeling on the right side of the frame raises a just-drawn beer, its head still intact, while another empty glass graces the roof of the car.
My grandfather was a part-time bartender at the Sokol Hall--the only job he was able to find throughout my mom's four years of high school. She says she remembers him getting up every day he wasn't bartending and going out to look for work, sometimes traveling as far as Brooklyn. There were two other kids in the family, boys younger than my mom. My grandmother worked as a cleaning lady, first on Wall Street in Manhattan, later in Rockefeller Center, where she swore the faucets in the upstairs offices of the big shots were made of gold.
For years mom has wanted to go back to the old neighborhood, but I was always reluctant (okay, let's be honest, afraid) to take her, because from the 1960's until very recently the Lafayette section of Jersey City was one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the Metropolitan New York area. About five years ago, though, things began to turn around. And a misadventure led me back there and back to writing about these photographs. I'm a big believer in the value of misadventures.
A couple of weeks ago I drove out of Manhattan late at night, taking a different route than I usually do--this time through Jersey City. In the car with me were two people trying to give me directions from the GPS app on their phone. Each was saying a different thing, so it was like listening to two radio stations at the same time. Naturally, we got lost, and after a while I began to recognize street names I had heard my mom and grandparents talk about when I was growing up. I realized I was within a couple of blocks of the location in the photo, and outside the car, it really didn't look that dangerous.
The next day I went on Google Maps, looked up 232 Pine Street, and using Street View, explored the whole neighborhood. Last Sunday, I took a ride to Jersey City to have a look around, and found it perfectly safe. I got to talking with a guy who has lived a few doors down on Pine for the past four years and he told me about 40% of the buildings had been renovated. I also noticed new construction in each block. If the economy hadn't crashed in 2008, things would probably be a lot further along, but even as it is, there's a lot of cause for hope.
In this second shot, probably taken by my mom, my grandfather, Joe Polacek, joins his buddies. The composition of the image is remarkable for its geometry and organization of people and objects within the frame. From the peak of the roof in the background to the tip of Joe's starched white bartending apron, a kind of diamond shape is suggested. The front-to-back space is rendered beautifully, from Joe and the guy on the right's forward-leaning friendliness, through the reflection in the window above my favorite guy's hat, to the texture of the leaves on the trees climbing up the wall of the house in back. Cementing everything together is the man in the middle hoisted up by his chums. I wonder if he held some special place of honor that day, or was he just the lightest?
Somewhere, in another universe, it is still a balmy afternoon on July 10, 1935. Margaret Polacek has just snapped a picture. Her dad, Joe, is about to usher everybody back into the bar for one more round of drinks.