When I was a kid struggling through an epochal, mid-60s-early 70s stint in a Southern New England Irish Waterfront “out-port”–where I grew up with Eddie ‘Legs’ McNeil, then known as the ‘swamp rat:’ fellow altar boy/miscreant Legs went on to invent punk rock’s inextinguishable esthetic–our television-viewing options consisted of Channel 3 (Hartford CBS affiliate), Channel 8 (ABC-New Haven) and Channel 30 (NBC’s ‘UHF’ outlet).
And then there were those fleeting magical moments–enjoyed more regularly by pals whose families occupied higher ground or the south side of town–when two among New York City’s rich multitude of TV stations reached out to us: Channel 5, home of the madcap, insurrectionary Soupy Sales and Chuck McCann (cf. Legs McNeil), and the ‘educational station,’ Channel 13, whose most notable feature to me was its fine print identification as a ‘Newark’ licensee: city of my mom’s origins, home to a feisty brigade of “Honan Girls,” Gracie’s indomitable, fun-loving, take-no-prisoner aunts. By the time I came in the Honan Girls had buried each and every one of their husbands (“characters” all, in the multivalent vernacular); they remained proud to the end of cousin Charles P. Gillen, whose ascent in Newark’s Democracy culminated in a post-World War 1 era mayoralty.
Home too, was Newark, to Sarah “Sassy” Vaughan, Dionne Warwick, Philip Roth, Amiri Baraka, Woody Shaw, Corrado “Junior” Soprano, and Abner “Longy” Zwillman, a gangster of enduring notoriety who knew his way around waterfronts throughout the Port (and makes his cameo in the book as patron of Phil Regan, the “singing cop”). Reflection on these “characters” alone could self-propel a public-TV outlet for eons. Founded in 1948 with studios and offices in the historic Mosque Theater, 1020 Broad Street, Channel 13 indeed covered its host city and state for a couple decades, until Gotham’s manifest-destiny-like yearnings for its very own VHF educational station led to deals, then lawsuits, then deals which resulted in WNET-13 becoming the finest NYC public television station licensed to Newark, New Jersey. It’s kind of like the Port Authority in reverse: Jersey real estate was always the asset most coveted by this bi-state agency, yet it took fifty years to add “New Jersey” to the, uh, “bi-state” agency’s official handle.
Yet two weeks ago, was Jersey Jim here ever delighted to learn that WNET’s studios are now located on W. 33rd St. near Tenth Avenue! It meant I could hustle down there between my classes further up the West Side; shoot a really enjoyable lively interview then run back uptown in plenty time for my 6 p.m. session, sporting make-up and stories to launch a class just right. The folks at Channel 13 were wonderful; I’ve done some TV in my day (albeit the bulk of these gigs treated the demise of one pontiff and election of his successor): Channel 13 is one classy operation.
That interview airs on the MetroFocus program Thurs. evening at 8:30, just as we’re wrapping an event at Saint Peter’s College over on this side of the North River. My talk at SPC celebrates the Jesuit tradition in Jersey City, which by definition engages heroic rugged priests and visionary labor schools; clerics on the take and hand grenades lobbed into the longshoremen’s union hall right across Grand Street from St. Peter’s Prep. Taken together, promise of a memorable night in the great port.