Characters of Ark

Since Ark was published, quite a few readers, especially Rutgers alums, have come running up to me at RU basketball games, and said, this or that character was this or that player.

My response has always been, if you want to interpret the character that way, go right ahead, it's your enjoyment, and money at stake here.  However, I have to repeatedly insist, all of the characters are composites of college and pro players I've admired over the years of my watching, enjoying, and paying to see games.

I'll just throw some character names out there.  If you're a Rutgers fan, more of the names will stick with you, since that was my experience also.  Here goes.

"Sampson", "Bird", "Quincy", "Barrett".  These samples reflect my experience within the professional and collegiate ranks.  Also, mannerisms and ethnicity stand for certain players, and certain teams.  

I guess I could explain 'til I'm blue in the face, but that's really the way I structured the book.  It's my homage to the game, as I've watched it over the years, and that's the truth.

Bahrs Landing

I have a freshly minted Medicare card in my wallet, so you can guess my age.  As a kid growing up in Northern New Jersey, most of my memories are stored long term between my ears, and of course, with a bunch of old photographs, and a few home movies.

One of my old memories, I'm fortunate to say, is not just alive in my head., or on an old post card.  It's alive and well in the real world, Bahrs Landing Restaurant in Highlands, NJ.

I have to take you back to the early fifties, when as a youngster barely able to see over the back seat to where my father was driving, quite often next to my maternal grandmother, Nana (see other stories).  Some of my earliest thoughts were plunging down a steep hill before the Sandy Hook Bridge, and rolling into Bahrs parking lot, joyfully each time we went.

Here's the thing, when we moved back to the area four months ago, I took my now elderly parents back to Bahrs, entering through the front door like a time tunnel.  As best I can recall, most, if not all the nautical artifacts were still in place, like my mental snapshot from the fifties, including a salty looking old sea captain (life size), and a diving suit which looked designed by Captain Nemo himself.  

The effect on me is to feel like a kid again, as I told Jay, the great grand son of Jack Bahrs.  He and his wife, Becky, have kept Bahrs riding on a perfect wave in every respect, and they bend over backwards to keep it that way.  Aside from consistent, superb food, someone will even pick you up a the ferry from New York City a mile away is you like.  Have a boat?  Dock it at Bahrs pier.

We've been back several times the past few months, and this last time a few days ago we were treated to a show by the seagulls hanging around the fishing boats adjacent to Bahrs.  One way to characterize seagulls is they're flying rats with good PR, but they sure aren't dumb.  On one side of the boat dock is a flat roofed storage shack.  The gulls were dropping clams onto the roof, which cracked them open, then the gulls would swoop down for and easy meal. 

My grandfather used to tell me, if I wanted good seafood, the best chance was at a place where I could see the ocean, and I haven't found a place better than Bahrs.

As I said, FOUR generations riding atop that wave.  So I have my two favorite restaurants:  Berta's for Turf, and Bahrs for Surf.

Also, in case you're wondering, no apostrophes.  Jack Bahrs is the founder's name.


Ark: Truth in Fiction

How many times have you said, or heard someone say, "You can't make this stuff up," or "Truth is stranger than fiction."?  More times than you can remember, no doubt.

People at book signings often ask me why I became a fiction, as opposed to a nonfiction writer.  I answer by telling them two short stories.  Both of them seem reasonable, but, I say, there's a catch.  Only one of them is true, which do you think is?  So far, I haven't had a unanimous vote.  Fiction gives me the ability to use an actual event in the story, and most readers probably think I made it up.

Here's an example.  In reality, Cal, my real life friend, and character in the book, were driving to a Summer League basketball game.  My cell phone kept ringing, but I don't like to answer the phone in the car.  In New Jersey, it's against the law.  Finally, I thought, this may be important, I should take the call anyway.  As I reached into my pocket for the phone, it slipped out of my hand.  As I tried to grab it, I swerved the car, which  startled Cal, enough to give him the shakes.  I pulled the car over, like the law suggests, made the call, which turned out to be nothing.

The incident found it's way into the book.  Again, I'm driving in the car with Cal, and I'm toying with the idea of letting him know what's going on between me and the ghosts.

From the book,

"We were almost at the end of Route 20.  A couple of minor roads and side streets and we'd be at St Mary's High School gym where the games were played.  I was about to change the subject, but before I could speak, 'Tell No One else!'

I swerved the car slightly, but enough to give Cal a start.  He looked over at me and fidgeted in the seat.  It was a good thing the top was down, for his head's sake.

I'm OK.  I thought I saw a piece of glass on the road (fib).  Sorry, Cal"

There are quite a number of events in the book, which if aren't outright truths, are heavily based on it.

To find out, read the book, and come to one of my book signings to ask me!


The Writing of Ark

Readers, and other writers have asked me how the idea for the story came about.  It was really quite simple.

The Prologue of the book is a true story.  I remember standing on the corner of Bayard and George Streets in downtown New Brunswick, NJ, talking to Calvin, when the main idea of the book got my attention like a splattering bucket of rainwater.  It wasn't raining, but the idea of a story about ghosts who weren't really dead, ie, their persona's  still alive today, occurred at that moment.

Just like THAT was how it hit me.  The angle, the pitch, whatever you want to call it, the unique premise of the book is what grabbed me first.  The rest of the story hit me more like a bucket of nuts and bolts, or a bucket of loose change dumped into a coin counter, which I had to process and order in my head before I fingered the keyboard.

I reference Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect, a few times in the book out of deference to this same practice he employed.  Before searing the pencil lead onto paper, before one stroke of genius after another, all the major elements of the project were already in his head.  His brain was a tuning fork with the same pitch as Nature, and he couldn't proceed until keyed into the latter.

I started to write when I organized the beginning, and the ending, and I had a "feel" for the middle ground.  I decided to proceed, with a few notes I had jotted down as to structure and pace.  I was excited to start testing my creativity, to maneuver through the forest of the middle pages of Ark.


"Why did you call it Ark?"

I can't remember how many times this question has been posed since the book's been published.

As I've gone out onto the marketing trails of bookdom, it keeps up with me.  Almost like I've just stepped on the claw part of a rake, and I have to grab it before it smacks my nose.

As I said in the book, an ark can be defined as "a place of refuge or asylum."  The ghostly characters inside are allowed to exist and cavort at a time in their prime.  However, I was really intrigued by the range of meaning of the two words, refuge and asylum.  Either word could connote a good situation, or a bad one.  For example:

He sought and gained refuge from the storm in the old building.

The asylum protected him from coping with the real world, until he could regain his health and well being.

As I began thinking of the possibilities for the second and third books in the middle Ark Trilogy, the range of meaning of just these two words presented many ways to go, not to mention the more common associations that come to mind when the word "ark" is mentioned.

Still, I've been approached by alums from my Alma mater, Rutgers, asking,

"You're talking about the old Barn here, aren't you?"

Yes and No.  

Was I inspired by the old gym nicknamed after a farming structure?


Was that enough to allow me to tell a story larger and more significant than the mostly mundane chronicle of an average guy?


I'm happy for my fellow alums if they want to inject themselves into the story, and their time "on the Banks." In fact, for the careful reader, I've paid homage in the book, much the way a mapmaker puts a fictitious street onto his work to protect his copyright (look for a word out of place, that's all I'm going to say).

However, I was reaching, while writing, for a wider appeal, and more applicability to a greater number, but that doesn't mean I'm not willing to die for dear old Rutgers.


Berta's Chateau

There's been a very unique restaurant since 1925 in Wanaque, NJ, which makes me feel sorry for fine diners not within driving distance of the Northern Italian cuisine served at Berta's.  Sure, there are a gazillion very good establishments in Northern New Jersey, but none of them have the feel for delivering a cocktail to nuts, 3 to 4 hour service the way Berta's does.  To prove my point as to their method, the cardinal rule for business success is location.  Berta's is in such a remote area, you have to be careful with the directions, or come equipped with a GPS.  Even so, you'd probably be better off following someone who's already been there (I'll offer, if you'll buy the drinks).  Since 1925, enough people have found it to take the business into the third generation (thank God the adage, first opens, second milks, and the third generation closes the business doesn't apply here).

As it turned out, among the many good reasons for marrying my wife, was her family took her to Berta's since she was 2 years old.  That wasn't the reason for marrying, but in retrospect, it could have been the deal maker.

We've been to Berta's just a party of two (this past weekend) up to a party of fifty, which afforded me one of my well timed zingers.  The father of one of our friends, who was notoriously "tight" happened to be handed the check.  While he had a horrified look on his face, I yelled out,

"Thanks, Ralph!"

Before chest pains set in, a couple of us did the math, then presented Ralph with his fair share.

Another time, George, our son. was a few years old, still in shoulder strapped shorts, knee high socks, saddle shoes, and ants in his pants, so to speak.  Between each course he would grab my wife's father, or my mother (his two favorites) to go for a walk in the back yard of the restaurant.  A few minutes, George was banging on the window to the dining room, mortifying us, disturbing the other patrons, and causing belly laughter from his grandparent.

There are many more stories, but this is a blog, not Beowolf.

Berta's has always had a knack to hosting, and I believe that has been the secret to it's longevity, not just the high quality of the food.  All these other places have great food also, but Berta's has a lock on hosting and service, which I haven't seen duplicated anywhere else in the area.  Joe and Peter are our duo of waiters who have both been at Berta's more than thirty years each.  It's a tie whose better, and I haven't found a close second, ever.

So if you're within driving distance ( we are seventy minutes away), go see Peter, the grandson, his wife, Sandy, Joseph, their fourth generation son in training, and Joe and Peter the waiters.

I guarantee a fond memory.


Growing Up, Jess the Giant

After World War II, most of our fathers were so happy to be alive, to have cheated Death, they fearlessly pursued their dreams creating little heavens on Earth with whatever time they had left before the real Heaven was ready to accept them.

The tide of ex-GI's began sweeping across the burbs, converting former farm land and orchards into carbon copy housing developments across the country, never receding as other oceans do.  Our little corner of the world in Bergen County, NJ was no different.  The former soldiers who became friends and neighbors raised their families at a fairly consistent rate, which was great for us kids, having extended brothers and sisters, as well as enough members to fill baseball, football, and basketball teams, with extras for substitutions.

It was great growing up in the 50's.  This was a lower middle class neighborhood, but what we didn't know about wealth made it easier to be happy with what we had, and that was all that mattered.  I have a list of stories about my neighborhood friends, and the first one I'm going to start with is Jess, who was the biggest kid on the block.

Jess's parents were both very tall, his father also very skinny.  Jess's mother was best described as an amazon.  She was well over six feet tall, well proportioned, not skinny or full figured.  When he was around 11 or 12, Jess was also around six feet tall, and never seemed to have lost his baby fat.  Compared to the rest of us, he could best be described as a biclops, since he had two eyes.  He was also very strong, with a temper, which increased his strength during anger.  I saw him once overpower his father while enraged, only to have his mother intervene.  She grabbed Jess by the back of the neck, like a lioness would her cub, and marched him home, he limply walking in front of her.

I guess the onset of puberty and racing hormones had Jess feeling his oats around the rest of us twerps, and he was starting to bully more than be civil.  One day he started picking on me about something, so I just left to go home, and started to plot my revenge.

I waited until Jess passed my house on his brand new two wheeler bike when I took a broom handle, and threw it spear like through the spokes of the front wheel.  He flipped over the handlebars, cutting his nose in the process.

With the potent combo of anger, rage, and tears, he said,  "Johnny, if I catch you, I'm gonna to kill you."

He would have, if I couldn't run like the wind in those days.  I could have killed him, ended up in a juvenile detention center where things would have turned out differently for me.

However, Jess lived, and I'm sure he still has the scar on his nose today, but we became the best of friends, sort of like a cat and dog seeking their own level.  In fact he sort of became my protector, intervening on my behalf when a confrontation was brewing.  I guess we did have our own laws of the jungle.

Over time, we all moved out of the neighborhood to where ever, losing track along the way.  I'd like to think, where ever we are, we from time to time think amusingly with fondness of these escapades, which somehow, we survived them.


Moving Mom and Dad

I moved my elderly parents ( 85 and 87) to be closer to me should (when) the inevitable starts to happen.  They were about an hour and a half away in the Atlantic City area, but moving them to about ten minutes away seemed like the right thing for the both of us (them and me).  They were until five years ago in North Carolina (see earlier stories), and they were, and still are, in very good shape.  I've given them the same supplements that I take, and I kid my doctor, that they are his "out patients".  My doctor and I believe exercising, eating right, and taking supplements the body no longer produces in enough quantities minimizes painful declines.

As the doctor says, "The idea is to stay in the best shape, then have all the wheels come off at once."

I agree, and so far, it's working for me, my wife, and my parents.

However, a Ponce De Leone the doctor is not; just, it seems, a close second.

As if to prove this point the hard way, my parents announced to me just two weeks ago, they were moving to a better location in the apartment complex.

I was glad to be sitting down.


They explained they were too close to one of the entrances, which one had to pass through three doors, each slamming behind the occupant before entering the common hallway.  The dog, Candy Sue, the long haired chihuahua affectionately known as my baby sister, would bark like a good watch dog protecting her turf, and food supply.

"Okay," I said, "but I want to hire movers to do everything this time."  I recalled the last move from Galloway, NJ, which I really thought would be the LAST move, really.  I spent one or two days a week at that house to help them pack and get organized, when in fact they seemed more interested in serving me lunch, than working my tail off.  I noticed a pattern of much more work being done when I wasn't there.

"Oh, we don't want you to work so hard," they would say.

They were treating me as if I were the parent!

This time, they said, "We just need the movers for the furniture, we can pack everything else."

Well, I was able to get over there because of the short distance, and to help ferry their "stuff" as George Carlin would say, to the new unit, but they still did work, to my worry some chagrin, after I left each day.

It's now a day after the movers, and my parents are in their new unit, almost unpacked.  We just have to rehang the pictures tomorrow, and were done.

It seems the wheels are still on the cars those two energizer bunnies are driving.