CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY
Ron Blizard's writings
In August of 2009 Ron Blizard e-mailed in the stories below, concerning people, places and experiences he had as a young man growing up in East Camden in the 1950s and 1960s. After reading them I am sure you will agree with me that it would be a wonderful thing if Ron wrote some more! In the meantime, I am hoping to provide a bit more background on "Tony the Barber" and "Mrs. Molotsky".
I grew up in East Camden during the 1950’s. Unlike the suburbs, most of the essentials were within walking distance of home. One of those places was Tony the Barber's, a storefront on the 2900 block of Westfield Avenue. It had a white barber pole out front with spiraling red and blue ribbons, two chairs, but only one barber. From the time I first needed a haircut and had to sit on the special booster seat placed across the arms of the barber chair, I got my haircuts from Tony. All the men in the neighborhood including my dad did too. In those days a barber shop was a ‘men only’ place.
Tony was a thin man with a thin face and a prominent roman nose. He had dark olive skin that looked perpetually sun tanned, even in the middle of winter. His wavy receding hair was black mixed with flecks of silver-gray and combed straight back. He was also a quiet man and never said much, and worked silently and meticulously, snipping each hair carefully and evenly so that that each hair lay perfectly. Tony had electric clippers, but only used them on the back of necks and for trimming sideburns. He used scissors over comb for the majority of his work. When you left Tony’s, you knew you had a haircut. In the style of the time your hair was closely, almost microscopically cropped, with sidewalls going up that got progressively longer, but the effect was so even and precise that it was a work of art, a labor of love.
As a young lad, going to Tony’s was uncomfortable. First, it was unbearably quiet, almost like being in church. In those days children were to be seen and not heard, especially in Tony’s barber shop. It was an unspoken rule that only men were allowed to speak, and then only in hushed voices. Boys never said a word. It was something we just intuitively knew and understood. The only sound that was to be heard was the snip snip of the scissors and the soft clacking of scissors against comb as Tony lifted each hair and cut it to his exacting standard.
Secondly, you had to wait an interminably long time for any other men and kids in line ahead of you. Tony never rushed or gave you less than the best haircut no matter who you were or how many were waiting. On long afternoons of waiting, occasionally the aroma of garlic and fresh homemade spaghetti sauce would waft in from the kitchen in the back. Tony’s wife was rarely seen or heard, respecting the sanctity of Tony’s workplace, but the aroma from her labors was deliciously inviting.
I was about 10 when I was enticed and fell away into barber shop apostasy. There was another barber shop that opened 3 blocks down Westfield with 4 chairs and no waiting. Better yet, they had an AM radio tuned to WIBG or "wibbage" as it was known, the pop radio station. There was conversation and laughter. The barbers were younger and talkative, but the truth was they didn’t know me, didn’t know my father either, and didn’t care. They used electric clippers over comb, so hair cuts took a lot less time, but the results were never as good, which my mom noticed and complained about. Still, to me it seemed a good tradeoff. I continued to go to the other shop, passing by Tony’s and occasionally looking in as Tony performed his work on his faithful clientele. Our eyes would meet and I would feel that I had betrayed some primal code, like abandoning one’s religion.
Sometime after I graduated from high school for some inexplicable reason, I returned to Tony’s. He ushered me to the chair and draped the sheet around me as if I had never been gone. Men’s hairstyles were different by then and my hair was much longer. Tony didn’t complain. His only terse comment was that what he lost on me, he made up for with my dad, who was bald and only had a little bit of hair around the sides of his head. At the end of this haircut, Tony performed a service that he reserved only for his adult customers, strapping a hand vibrator onto his wrist and rubbing my shoulders. Although I was only a freshman in college, I felt I had passed through a door on my way to manhood. I was now worthy to be accorded this service, now a man among men who had put their shoulders to the wheel.
Within a year or so my parents moved out of Camden and I never saw him again. He probably did not survive age, cigarettes, and the rapid decline of Camden for much longer. I like to think that Tony didn’t have to witness the rise of unisex hairstyle salons in the seventies. There is nothing more detestable to a man than to have one’s hair cut by a woman as she insistently regales you with stories of the difficulties her girlfriend is having.
Tony was one of those men that I didn’t understand or appreciate at the time. Today I would give anything for a haircut by Tony, but barbers with Tony’s character and commitment to his craft are very rare in my generation.
"Tony the Barber" was Anthony Farsaci, who passed away in June of 1977. Mr. Farsaci owned and operated his Blue Ridge Barber Shop at 2938 Westfield Avenue as early as 1943, after moving from 2406 Federal Street, where he had done business from the late 1920s through at least 1940.
I attended Garfield Elementary School in Camden in the 1950’s. My fourth grade teacher there was Mrs. Molotsky. She was a short dark-haired woman with glasses and a strict demeanor. Though matronly, she had a youthful vigor about her. Opening exercises at the beginning of each school day included a reading of a Psalm out of the Bible. She would read slowly and distinctly, so that we could catch each syllable and appreciate the majestic cadences of the King James Bible. One of her favorites was Psalm 24:
“Lift up your heads, O ye gates;
And be ye lifted up ye everlasting doors;
And the King of Glory shall come in.
Who is the King of Glory?
The Lord strong and mighty,
The Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads O ye gates;
Even lift them up, ye everlasting doors;
And the King of glory shall come in.
Who is the King of glory?
The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.”
We were thus lifted up out of our mundane circumstances and had our imaginative understanding of life enriched. Though we did not understand the words and could not understand the meaning except as fleeting dream-like images, we were given to understand that life consisted of things that transcended the circumstances of our daily existence, that there were things at stake in how we lived our life and in how we achieved whatever we were going to achieve that were more important than what our immediate circumstances were or how we might have felt about things at any given point in time.
The other thing I remember from that time of my life is that my buddy and I were fascinated by WWII and used to draw planes, ships, and battle scenes depicting the things we had seen on TV, like Victory at Sea or Navy Log. One afternoon as Mrs. Molotsky was walking the aisles as we did our class work, she took notice of a Messerschmitt 109 I had drawn on a book cover with a swastika on its tail and invited me to stay after school.
After all the other kids had left, she walked over to my desk and gently asked me if I knew that the Germans had killed millions of Jews during the war. Thus it was that I first learned of the unimaginable evil of the holocaust. As she spoke to me of the horrors and inhumanity I was dumbfounded. It marked a turning point in my understanding of evil in the world, that people with power could be not just illegitimate, but also profoundly and irretrievably evil. I didn’t, of course, fully comprehend that at the time, but the most immediate effect was that I never drew another swastika.
One of the facets of city life was the availability of a near-by corner deli or grocery store in every neighborhood. Many of them were dim, dirty, unremarkable places, but one stands out in memory: Brands. It was located on Dudley Street, one block south of Federal. The proprietor, Mr. Brand, was a portly, patient, and kind man who always wore an apron while he worked. I remember as a kid how my buddy and I, in order to scarf up some spending money, scoured the neighborhood for empty bottles to return to collect the deposit. We showed up at Brands with a wagon load. Mr. Brand frowned at us at first, but then paid us for every bottle, even though many were from bottlers and companies he did not do business with. It was a bonanza we never tried again.
I attended Woodrow Wilson from ’65 to ‘68, and Brands was a welcome respite from the school cafeteria. I don’t think anyone could produce food more loveless and forlorn than what they served up in the cafeteria. Who knows what horrors it had undergone in production, transportation, or preparation, or what payoffs suppliers had made in order to keep delivering the wretched stuff.
Brand’s was conveniently located just one block from school and was always crowded at lunchtime. All the usual high school social games were played out as guys stoked their egos, girls casually flirted or subtly tried to get noticed, complaints about teachers and homework were shared, jokes and wisecracks rang out, and furtive, longing glances exchanged.
Brand’s hoagies were truly remarkable. Always prepared on a fresh roll, they contained thinly sliced
cooked salami, never ham, and always provolone cheese, never American singles. The tomato slices were
The corner grocery stores have been largely superseded by convenience stores, particularly in the suburbs. It is the character and personality of the proprietors and the uniqueness of each store that sets the progenitors apart from the impersonal convenience chains of today. Convenience stores are always located on main arteries and intersections, never deep within neighborhoods like the stores of my youth. They require the use of an automobile to access. They’re impersonal and they rarely become gathering places for kids in the neighborhood. They’re not places to linger or socialize. I doubt that a future generation will find them worth remembering.
Although under different ownership, the corner grocery store that was Brand's for so many years is still in business as of this writing. - PMC
Growing up in East Camden during the 1950’s was a time unlike any other in my life. It was a time when the effects of ages past were still present in society. Women and men still obeyed the norms and assumptions of the Victorian age. With the exception of the automobile, which was now well entrenched in the consumer culture, the lives of my parents, their neighbors, and the values they lived by would have been readily understood by previous generations. There was a broad and strong consensus on what was right and what was wrong. My parents as well as the neighbors around us were all products of the depression, which had left its mark on them in their frugality and their eschewing personal luxuries, even later in life when they could afford it.
though Camden’s economy was long driven by the industrial
revolution, as a young boy in the early to mid-fifties, I can remember
horses and wagons would occasionally be seen on the streets.
Farmers would show up in mid-summer from that vast agrarian exurb
outside Camden, selling fresh vegetables from their wagons and flatbed
trucks. In our neighborhood, a “huckster” named Beaumont was
especially esteemed. He was an individualist, colorful,
unselfconscious, like a character actor from an early Hollywood
western, a man with an unusual sounding voice and manner of speech.
He had a passion and enthusiasm for the vegetables he grew and his
calls announcing his arrival rang through the neighborhood. His
fresh tomatoes and ‘shoe peg’ corn sold from his farm truck were
eagerly bought by the neighborhood wives and mothers. Fresh
corn-on-the-cob was a summertime treat. TV dinners were in their
infancy and women prepared their meals from scratch.
remember gray-haired old ladies pulling two-wheeled wire baskets on
their weekly treks to the Food Fair (on the 2700 block of Federal
Street) to buy their groceries for the week. They all wore
sensible (and one would presume comfortable for the time) lace-up
shoes, the kind you used to find in a Vermont Country Store catalogue.
Their attire was also something that one used to recognize from
a VCS catalogue
were still called ‘ice boxes’. Ice deliveries, though
rare, were still made for those who could not afford refrigerators.
Coal heating was still used and coal trucks were still seen in the
neighborhood making deliveries. My elementary school – Garfield
- was heated with coal shoveled by the ironically named Mr. Shivers.
It was probably some malfunction of that ancient heating system that
caused the fire that destroyed the school in January of 1960. It
was a school boy’s dream come true and I had visions of an early
start to summer vacation, but within a week we were all transferred to
or Vet's for the remainder of the school year.
was not unknown in those days, but unlike today, it was the rare
exception rather than the rule. Divorces were viewed as
something done by the morally deficient. People were reserved
and kept to themselves, and whatever miseries they suffered, little
was said about them. Certainly as kids we were sheltered from
the more shocking forms of human failure and misery, unless, of
course, it was within our own families, but even then truth was
concealed and secrets kept. There was more community life, as
one can see perusing the pages of this website. E Pluribus Unum
was the rule rather than diversity, and the result was a more cohesive
I was 5, I met the kid who would become my best buddy for the next 8
years in the back alley that bisected a half block between 30th
Streets near Federal.
His name was John Fitzgerald, or Fitz as I called him. He
lived on North
Dudley, and I on North
30th Street. The entrance to this alley can be seen just to
the right of the tree in the picture below:
park was our second home. Early in our boyhood we spent
afternoons after school building roads with our Hubley dump trucks,
constructing bridges with popsicle sticks. We pushed our
miniature toy cars over the dirt metropolises we built. We
climbed the trees, starting with the low pines and advancing to the
maples and tall oaks as we got older. My buddy could shinny up a
tree trunk without any assistance, a skill I was never able to learn.
walked the railroad tracks that ran adjacent to the northeast edge of
the park, always being careful to listen for approaching trains,
sometimes putting our ears down on the rails to detect the faint
sounds of a far off train. We put pennies on the rails or
sometimes nickels if we were feeling extravagant and watched as they
were flattened into thin oblong shapes by the passing trains.
Our worst nightmare was what would happen to us if we were caught on
the tracks and were not able to get off.
Dudley Grange Library was another great asset. We spent many
afternoons browsing its shelves for any book that looked interesting
to us. My favorites were war stories by Quentin
Reynolds and the Hardy
Boys series by F.W.
Dixon. We drank the rusty water from the stone water
fountain located in the circle next to the library on hot July days.
We roamed and explored every square inch of Dudley Grange, acting out
our boyhood fantasies and dreams of glory.
were rarely driven anywhere. Fitz and I walked or rode our bikes
to get around. Our bicycles had one speed only, and stopping was
accomplished by reverse peddling to engage the coaster brake. We
regularly locked up our rear wheels leaving skid marks on the pavement
as our signature. Fitz named his bike “Pistol Packin’
Mama” and painted that on the center tank. We must have logged
several thousand miles on our bikes before we got our licenses.
were two days in our calendar that were pure unalloyed joy:
Christmas, and the last day of school in June. Those were true
holy days to us and were avidly anticipated and looked forward to.
on summer evenings, my buddy’s dad would take us in his black ‘50
Studebaker to the Cooper River Park to sail our sailboats:
watched as our little boats plied the great waters of the Cooper
River, anxious to eventually retrieve them. Those were
never-ending summer days when twilight seemed to last all evening and
we would reluctantly trudge to our beds and instantly fall asleep.
remembers being shocked and scared as a boy on a shopping trip to the
Food Fair with his mom. He came face-to-face with a large
tarantula unexpectedly hiding among the bananas. It seemed ready
to adapt to life in East Camden
and haunt the arachnophobic dreams of little boys. Not that we
were especially afraid of spiders, at least the normal sized ones we
found in the neighborhood. We would capture them in jars, put in
some twigs and leaves for habitat and keep them as pets, feeding them
ants, fly’s, or other insects.
center of our bliss was the hobby shop located on 2700 block of Federal
Street, next to the Food Fair Parking lot. Everything that
we desired and that we deemed necessary for boyhood fulfillment was
there: plastic models, electric trains, battery powered boats, Jetex
rocket engines, Cox .049 powered model airplanes, and every accessory
to go with it. Oh, the calculus that ran through our souls as we
measured our limited resources against the fulfillment of each choice.
Anytime we had money we would spend hours at the hobby shop making a
decision on how to spend it. Eventually we did sample a good
portion of everything offered there. Our bedrooms were filled
with plastic ship models and airplane models suspended from the
Being boys, my buddy and I often invented ways to prank or annoy
people. My older sister was a convenient target. One day
we got an empty medicine bottle and filled it with a sampling from the
medicine cabinet, mixing Iodine, Witch Hazel, Mercurochrome, Ipecac,
and whatever other nostrums that were kept in medicine cabinets in
those days. We labeled it ‘Love Potion #9’ and put it on my
sister’s dresser with a note saying, ‘Boy do you need it!’
snowballs at passing cars and trucks in winter from our hide in the
back alley was another such thing. We favored large tractor
trailers because they were easy targets and unlikely to stop. The
sound snowballs made hitting the side of a truck was very satisfying.
If no trucks were available, cars served as more challenging targets
for our marksmanship. Though no actual damage was done, car
drivers did occasionally jam on their brakes when we hit them and
irately exit their cars in search of whoever launched those snow balls
with the intention of doing us great bodily harm. In those cases
we would have to take off and run for our lives. We would split
up and each take a different escape route. We knew every short
cut and hiding place and were never caught. We would disappear
until the danger passed and then reconvene with the shaky glee of
having escaped certain death.
the summer time, instead of snowballs, we used the rotten pears from
Dr. McCarthy’s pear tree [2 North
30th Street- PMC].
We would hide on top of Dr. McCarthy’s garage roof and launch them
at passing cars from there. If we could find any pears without
worm holes, we would eat them, no matter how hard and unripe they
were. We were never discovered up there.
of our continuing quests was to create something that would explode.
Since the State of New Jersey outlawed fireworks or anything else that
was fun, we resorted to tearing out the center of caps with our
fingernails. We would spend hours doing this in order to amass
enough gunpowder to make one firecracker. We wrapped the powder
tightly in newspaper strip rolled into a tube with a small Jetex fuse
stuck in the end. We then wrapped the tube solidly with thread
or string and then coated it with furniture finish to further solidify
and seal the tube. We saved these for special occasions like 4th
of July or other times when a sharp explosion would satisfy our fun
Later on, we discovered that Rexall Drugs sold potassium nitrate in a convenient jar. We got sulfur from our chemistry sets, a brick of charcoal, and set about mixing and grinding the 3 ingredients together with a mortar and pestle to make our own gunpowder. The potassium nitrate was not pure enough to be explosive, but it burned brightly, and mixed with iron filings would produce impressive sparkles. On occasions when our parents weren’t home, we filled the basements of our houses with thick white smoke experimenting with it.
world of one’s youth is a magical place. It is a time when all
seems well in the universe, especially on warm languid summer days,
when forever seems to exist in the right now. Even though we had
regular air raid drills in elementary school, we were generally
untroubled and unconcerned about the world. The only exception
was during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, when it really
did seem possible that World War III was at hand and the blinding
flash of a nuclear bomb might destroy life as we knew it. It was
the only time that I can remember being afraid of a global
catastrophe. The only thing that quelled the fear is that life
continued as usual. We went to school and none of my classmates
seemed afraid or even concerned, so I adopted their nonchalance and
carried on as if nothing threatened our existence.
Cuban Missile Crisis passed, but then a year later came the Kennedy
assassination. I was in 8th grade at Davis
Junior High School and I will never forget the gruff voice of Mr.
Showalter coming over the intercom interrupting Miss Jackson’s
English class, as he announced the president had been shot and patched
in the live news report. We didn’t know it at the time, but it
was the day the Sixties really started. All the assumptions we
had about life and the values that were handed down to us would
subsequently be challenged and the convulsions of each new assault on
the bedrock truth of generations past would change us in unpredictable
ways. It was the end of innocence.
world of my youth came to an end. Fitz and I drifted apart
around that time, which was natural since he was 3 years older than me
and had discovered girls. Up until that time, we were soul
mates who explored the world of East
Camden in the fifties and early sixties. When we reconnected
in the nineties we found that we had both married the women of our
dreams, but that we were very different people from what we were then.
He had served in Vietnam and returned a married man. He
also became an excellent amateur photographer whose work can be viewed
. We still keep in touch and have a deep and abiding respect and
affection for one another. There is a bond that we don’t share
with anyone else. This recollection is dedicated to him for his
friendship and making the world of my youth such a special place.
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