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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Swartswood: I was a Teenage Garbage Man

Swartswood State Park was once a lake retreat, a super-swank vacation place for the upper echelon of society during the 1920’s.  Its once-forested shoreline stood mostly unbroken.  The real recreation took place on Dove Island, a little breakwater knoll which gently crested the surface of Swartswood’s 500-acre lake.

Dances held on the Island had a special quality not found “on the mainland,” only a few hundred yards away.  The distance offshore was more of a formality—any one of the wealthy patrons could have built a floating boardwalk over—but the physical separation lent the place an air of mystery.  It was the happening place of its time, a destination to which the privileged would gladly travel a dozen or so miles across rutted farm roads to spend a night or weekend.  Pale yellow squares of light shined each night from the main hall onto the lake’s placid surface, while echoing laughter and live music called out to the locals and raccoons watching from the shore.  It was a place which I would only know in my imagination, for Dove Island was long gone, and my Swartswood was a hole. 

Busloads of city kids dropped wrappers by the hundreds each day.  Fat Italian mothers nagged sweaty Italian fathers and smacked obnoxious Italian children on the backs of their greasy heads.

“Put some LOTION on, Tony!  Look how RED you are, CRIPES that’s gonna hurt!” 

They were Catholics, and weren’t going to walk around taking the Lord’s name in vain, Bob-dammit.  They’d just quietly hope the Blessed Mother (sign of the cross) didn’t crack their knuckles for calling out phrases which rhymed with things that heathens had the audacity to actually say.

“SWEET REGIS, Who finished the PEPSI?” 
“Leave a Tastycake for your SISTER, Anthony!”
“You’re dripping ICE cream on my TOWEL, Vincent!” 

Half the summertime patrons were local, loud, and second-generation Italians.  Besides the occasional Michael, you could safely wish a good morning to an Anthony, a Tony, or a Vincent—there just weren’t that many deviations from a good traditional name. 

The other half were day-tripping city people.  People who had never ventured outside of Hoboken seemed magnetically drawn to Swartswood, and it was my job to pick up every piece of crap they couldn’t hold for another five steps till they could find a trash can.  Wrappers, condoms, batteries, diapers, half-eaten sandwiches crawling with flies, and the occasional adult magazine:  these were the realities of every day I spent as a kid working his first summer job.  I was a teenage garbage man.

I spent four summers working for the State as a seasonal garbage picker.  Recently, while going through some old journals and reading about things long forgotten, I came across notes written in the mid 90’s, which I’d jotted down for a rainy day laugh.  Like Dove Island in the 1920’s, it’s likely that if I hadn’t ever written them down, I would never have thought about The Phantom Dumper, Swartswood Stimpy and the Stolen Keg, or even The Inappropriate Name Tag ever again.  I’ve forgotten more than I can remember, but these notes jogged my memory enough to tell their stories in future postings.

I’m struck by one last thing—how much of a prick I was as a kid.  I’ve moved a lot further toward the center (both geographically and philosophically) since my time at Swartswood, but one thing remains the same.  My eyes still pick out every piece of litter I pass, and my ears sometimes still even hear that fat Italian mother loudly complaining, “MARY and JOSEPH—can you believe they couldn’t walk FIVE more steps and find a frigging TRASH can?

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