The Time I Went to Trenton State Prison

prison1I was reminded today of the time I applied for a job as corrections officer at the Trenton State Prison. What reminded me was the news that people who had done well on certain written tests in the early 1960s were less likely to be suffering from dementia today than those who had done badly. “That’s a good thing,” I thought to myself. “I’ve always done well on tests. Probably I’m safe from losing my wits in my rapidly approaching old age.”

Of course, doing well on tests didn’t always mean that I had good sense. There was one test I took that I hadn’t any business taking to begin with, and the fact that I did well on it caused a lot of trouble.

It was 1974. I was a single mother of two boys, making $4750 a year as a clerk in a stationery store in Trenton, New Jersey, weighing in at 107 pounds due to poverty, misery, and general lack of appetite. Meanwhile the State, that source of infinite bounty, issued a fat book every month filled with remunerative jobs. All one had to do was qualify for them.

I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree then, nor was I proficient in typing and shorthand. But I was good at taking tests. So when the State employment book announced a walk-in test for Corrections Officer, no qualifications needed, salary $8500 a year, I hustled right down to the old Arnold Constable building and took the test.

I forget what the questions were, something along the lines of, “When an inmate gets out of line, should you hit him? how hard? or should you try reasoning sweetly with him?” It seemed easy enough, and indeed I aced it, as we used to say, coming in third of all the people—let’s face it, most of them were men—who took the test. Mired as I was in my own troubles, I did not realize that this was the first time the position of Corrections Officer had been offered to women, that it had been offered to women because a new law said it had to be, and that the people who hired Corrections Officers did not want women. Civil Service regulations mandated that whenever a new employee was hired, the first three candidates to place well on the test had to be considered.

As a result the post card arrived at my door, the one that the State used to send out for job interviews. Report to the Trenton State Prison on Saturday morning, it said. Oh, boy! $8500 a year!

The prison atmosphere seemed curiously familiar. It smelled like the gym at North Plainfield High School. So I sort of felt at home. I entered a large room full of tables and chairs with a ladder running up the middle into a opening in the ceiling. On the left was a counter behind thick bulletproof glass, and behind the glass was the only woman in sight. She greeted me and gave me some papers to fill out, sliding them through the slot under the glass. I found a seat at one of the tables among a sea of young men and began to fill them out. $8500 a year. Whoopee.

As I labored on my papers I was dimly aware of an officer announcing that the first group of men must line up and go downstairs for a physical. I thought, “You don’t suppose I’m going to have to—nah.” But before I could start worrying about that, three uniformed Corrections Officers came running into the room carrying shotguns and swarmed up the ladder that led to the roof. I was alarmed to see the way they carried their shotguns as they followed each other up the ladder. It seemed to me that the slightest jostling might cause them to blow each other’s behinds off. Careless. Would I really be safe, working with these people?

A murmur went around the room. “Molloy is out.” “Oh, Christ. Molloy.” “He killed a guard last year.” The officers disappeared through the hole.

“Well, that’s interesting,” I thought, and turned my attention back to the employment form. About then a little red-headed fellow in uniform came over and addressed me by name, inviting me to come with him to a desk in the corner. Ah. Special treatment.

“I wonder,” he said, addressing me by name again, “whether you understand what this job actually involves.”

I smiled and nodded. $8500 a year.

“This is the Trenton State Prison. The worst bad guys in the state of New Jersey are locked up here.”

Well, I thought, they could hardly be any worse-behaved than my boys.

“You would have to strip search them. You would have to take them to the showers.”

At last the penny dropped. “You don’t think I would be right for this job,” I said.

“I would never say that,” he said. “But if you think that’s true, would you mind signing this release?” and he handed me a pen.

So there went my dream of wealth and prosperity. Fortunately I was able to land another State job a few months later as a clerk-bookkeeper, saving us all from starvation. A story for another day.

Clean Sweep

Last month I tidied the attic/guest room once again to prepare for visiting guests. This time instead of the usual job, where I gather everything and stuff it into the cupboard under the eaves, I gathered everything, took it down to the second floor, and crammed it all into my office. Armload after armload. It took a couple of days.

And this time it isn’t going back. The showdown is now, today. It’s me or my stuff. Thirty-three years we’ve been living in this house, maybe thirty-four, during which time we’ve raised a child and showered him with toys, taken up and dropped a number of hobbies, inherited more stuff, written a number of books and saved all the notes and the foul matter (as the publishers call the old galleys and whatnot), and put everything we didn’t know what to do with in the attic. Harold has been more disciplined about getting rid of things than I have. If I didn’t watch him he would throw out my stuff.

But I can do this. Death cleaning, the Swedes call it.

I hardly sew anymore, and yet I have bushels of yard goods. I’m thinking I’ll make maybe two more projects plus some things for the church.  Saturday is flea market day at St. Andrew’s. If you’re looking for interesting yard goods you will find them there.  Also yarn. Maybe even knitting needles. So that’s one class of stuff I’m getting rid of: craft supplies. The end of an era, folks.

Still, I’m going to hang on to the art materials.  I might paint some little pictures, maybe make another puppet or two. And I can’t bring myself to get rid of the toys, We do have visiting children from time to time.

But the papers–!

The wretched papers. For the old bank records I’m going to crank up the shredder, even though those banks no longer exist under those names and the account numbers on the charge accounts were changed every six months due to somebody hacking the bank’s databases. Shred the old bank records! Shred the old gas bills!

Probably I won’t shred the old galleys. I’m too vain for that. Besides, my first editor, Ray Roberts of Little Brown, told me to keep that stuff. He thought I would eventually be famous. In the old days one’s editor got excited about one’s work and prospects.


The most interesting item I found while clearing out the attic shelves was a box of papers that I can’t recall ever seeing before labeled, in my handwriting, “Kate’s Grandparents’ Things.” I opened it up to discover a jumble of folded papers, some of them dating back to the early nineteenth century. Deeds, grants of land, grocery bills. How elegant was the handwriting of the ancestors, with their quill pens and oak gall ink.

And more recent things as well. A program from my high school graduation. A book of half-used ration coupons with my grandmother’s name on it. Then, mixed up among these antique documents, the letters my father wrote to my mother the year before they were married. In the depth of the Great Depression the Sullivan Machinery Company sent him all over the east coast selling rock drills and drill bits. He was sad to be so far away from his dearest, my mother. He wrote all the time, every letter on the stationery of a different hotel. It would break your heart. He wasn’t sure that Sullivan would even give him time off to attend his own wedding. But they did, luckily, and it took place, and here I am after their long life together, happy ever after, cleaning my office.

Jay Broadhurst Stinks

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Well, of course Jay Broadhurst doesn’t stink, wherever he might be these days, any more than he did when he was eight years old and I was seven. What calls that offensive phrase to my mind is the sight of the newly paved street in front of my house. It stretches forth in its flat blackness like a newly washed chalkboard, begging to have something written on it. Just like our street in Woodbury right after World War II, when the domestic economy was picking up and all the towns were having their streets paved.

There was no traffic on the street. People weren’t so prosperous yet that they had cars to drive around in. Mr. Lammert still had the car that he drove to Deb’s elementary school, where he was the principal–the car whose right front tire I had destroyed in my wickedness, but that’s another story–and Mrs. North’s son Louie had a Jeep he brought home from the war. These vehicles were kept in garages that faced on the alley, though, and they went in and out by Cooper Street, not Woodland Avenue. At dawn the milk wagon drove on the glorious unmarked blackness of the street, and later the bread wagon. But by the time Deb and I got home from school the street was empty. You could lie down in the middle of it in perfect safety. Or you could crouch down and write things.

“I have a piece of chalk,” Deb said.

“Give it to me,” I said.

“What are you going to write?”

What, indeed? “Kilroy wuz here” would have been good, but the humor of it was too subtle for my second-grade mind. Maybe I would write something about Jay Broadhurst, my sidekick. Who am I kidding? I was the sidekick in that relationship. It was Jay who had put me in a cardboard box and dragged me all over the neighborhood in his red wagon, boxed in, unable to see a thing. It was Jay who had said you could start a Jeep by pushing the starter button. We were sitting in the front seat of Louie North’s Jeep at the time, in Mrs. North’s garage.

“Bet you can’t,” I said. So he pushed the button. The Jeep started right up, chugga-chugga, and although it didn’t move except to shake from side to side the effect was terrifying. I never ran so fast in my life. Or Jay either.

So I felt impelled to honor him in some way on this virginal street, my crony, my sometime partner in crime. I wrote his name, in the boldest print I could manage with Deb’s piece of chalk. JAY.

“Jay what?” said Deb.

“Just Jay.”

“You wrote your boyfriend’s name.”

“He’s not my boyfriend.”

“Yes, he is. Katie has a boyfriend, Katie has a boyfriend…”

“Is not.” I finished the inscription. JAY STINKS. It seemed hilariously funny. We both laughed and laughed.

After that I had to make myself scarce for two or three days when the word went around the neighborhood that Jay was looking for me to beat me up. That was an unusual thrill. I used to have dreams of fleeing and hiding out, mostly inspired by sensational radio dramas. Still I hadn’t ever had a real threat to run from that I can remember other than the nuns, who never actually laid hands on me. But Jay Broadhurst was going to beat me up.

He finally found me in Barry Hurff’s back yard, across the street from my house. Face to face, we stared at each other. Now what? All the kids were watching. Honor must be satisfied. Closer and closer he came.

Finally he gave me a good punch on the arm, turned on his heel, and left. Did I cry? I can’t remember.

I guess I took a lesson from that. We who are writers must be careful. A good insult is a delicious thing to craft, satisfying, meaty. Still, it can cause you trouble if you put it in the street.

(The above picture is of Deb, Mary Liz, and me enjoying life in Woodbury.)


More about Woodbury


To go on with my Woodbury stories, I have to confess that I was a very wicked child when we lived there. I mentioned before that I went to Catholic school, St. Patrick’s, to be exact, which is now a good-sized school as I can see from Google Earth. When I attended there was less of it, the school building (a mansion that had belonged to the Greens, patent medicine millionaires in the olden days),  and the nuns’ quarters, the Greens’ old stables and outbuildings, I think. I remember a garden out front of the nuns’ quarters and maybe a stone wall or an iron fence. Behind the mansion was no garden anymore, only a trampled wasteland where the brutish children frolicked during recess.

The thing is I wasn’t Catholic.

I was made to attend St. Patrick’s instead of the public school because it was only three blocks from my house, with no dangerous streets to cross, and I could walk there by myself even as a kindergartner. We did not keep a car. It was wartime. Rubber and gasoline were rationed. My mother neglected to make friends with the other mothers, still less with the nuns. I don’t remember trying to befriend any of the little wretches in my class, but I certainly had no friends there. I hated the nuns. The nuns hated me. As part of our moral education Sister used to draw diagrams of The Soul on the blackboard and then color in the stain of venial and mortal sins. “We’re all going heaven some day if we keep our souls spotless,” Sister said, “Except for Katie here, who is not of our faith.”

Well, what the hell, right? As long as I was destined for The Pit I might as well be perfectly bad. I knew I was developing in the right direction when I was able to lie to Sister to her face without laughing.

Next week: How I Became a Juvenile Delinquent

Early Murders

murder5The Mystery Writers of America is (are?) gathering materials for another swell anthology, a YA this time, I think they want to call it My First Murder. The premise seems to be that dealing with murder, or committing murder, is a normal part of coming of age these days. They have sent out a call to members to submit short stories to be selected. I twitch,  competitive animal that I am, and reach for my word processor. But, adolescents and murder. Do I want to write about this? Have I got the experience? Have I got the right attitude? (Have I got the chops?)

It’s true that I just finished writing a book about an eighteen-year-old girl who killed three people, but they were German agents in 1915 and they deserved whatever happened to them. It’s also true that I know the stories of a number of real young people involved in murder. Their stories are too sordid to write about. A young girl wakes up to find her mother beaten to death, probably by her father. She remembers nothing of the event even to this day, forty years or so later, while the father goes free. (Actually he’s dead, but he was never brought to justice.) Another young girl, after seven years of sexual abuse by a family “friend,” walks in on the “friend” in bed with her father and shoots him. Impossibly sordid.

And then there’s young Skakel. I once collected a dossier of online writings of inmates of Elan, the so-called school his family sent him to to keep him out of the public eye after he murdered Martha Moxley. How the “students” were treated at the “school.”  Sordid to the thirteenth power. I found it fascinating, in a horrible way, but I could never write about it, never sit down with these people’s lives long enough to write even a short story.

I’m no good at writing short stories anyway. So there’s that. When I was younger and had a thicker skin and less understanding of the meaning of life and death I suppose I could have tried my hand at writing about adolescents and murder, but I’m too much of a snowflake now. Contemplating young people and murder causes me to feel distress. I prefer peace and quiet. Good luck to the other writers, blessings on you, knock ’em dead and all that good stuff.



Woodbury Revisited

mom1945When I was a small child I lived in a town in South Jersey that I moved back to later as a young housewife. I was reminiscing about some aspects of the place to Harold this morning. He told me I should write an essay. Truly my experiences in Woodbury are worth a number of essays. The differences and similarities between the Woodbury of 1943 and the Woodbury of 1963 are worth talking about all by themselves.

Bad plumbing is the first thing that comes to mind. When I was little my family rented the first floor of Doctor and Mrs. Harney’s house on Woodland Avenue, a neighborhood respectable enough to please my mother. The Harneys lived upstairs. The household sewage would back up at inconvenient times and rise up in our bathtub, usually when my mother was about to give a party for the neighbors, or worse, for my father’s fellow naval officers. For some reason I thought it was my fault, because I had dropped some pebbles in a drain in the back yard. For weeks I lived with a crushing sense of guilt (did I mention I was going to Catholic school?) until I dreamed that I confessed everything to my mother and she spanked me. Children were spanked in the old days. That was life.

But bad drains were endemic to the town. Not my fault. Twenty years later my first husband and I rented a second-floor apartment where the landlords lived on the first floor. In a fit of go-go mod enthusiasm I painted the little bathroom in many shades of pink, from deep shocking to palest petal, and it was a sight to see. People remarked on it. To complete the effect I used to buy pink toilet paper until I noticed shreds of pink toilet paper appearing in the gutter out in front of the house. Whatever they used to do for sewage disposal in that town was not awfully effective. Nowadays you can’t even buy pink toilet paper, nor would you want to. It’s bad for the environment, you see.

The tap water, at least the delivery of the tap water, was as bad as the sewage. From time to time the pressure would fail and the water would run backward out of the pipes. Then the air in the pipes would compress. When you turned on the tap at the kitchen sink it would fire a charge of water strong enough to blast whatever you were holding underneath it right out of your hand, smashing it in the sink. And yet I kept forgetting. That’s why I only have three Wedgewood cups left out of the four that my Canadian aunts gave me for a wedding present, along with a teapot, cream pitcher, and sugar bowl, together with instructions on smuggling them all across the border.

One afternoon as I was washing my hair, lathering it all up nicely, the water pressure quit. Luckily I found the landlady at home downstairs when I knocked on her door in my bathrobe. Being on a lower level she had water, and she kindly rinsed my hair out for me in her bathroom sink. Neighbors should take care of each other. If you live in a place where the neighbors don’t take care of each other you should move.

And here I leave you, dripping but squeaky-clean. Perhaps I will continue this reminiscence next week.


The years of strange research are over, the obsessive collection of the memoirs of WW I spies, the painstaking scrutiny of subway maps, elevated railway maps, street maps, and neighborhood maps of 1915 Manhattan, the writing, rewriting, and finally the deleting of embarrassing sex scenes.

Also the heart-in-mouth approach to agents, those all-powerful gatekeepers to the publishing world, and the three-day depression that comes with each rejection, no matter how encouraging or polite. I’m self-publishing this puppy. It feels like a fifty-pound weight off my shoulders.

I don’t expect commercial success, I just want my friends to read it if they like. Here is the book, FREDDIE ZORN AND THE DARK INVADERS. It will be available as a Kindle on February 10, and you may pre-order it if you so desire. I think $5.99 is reasonable. For $15 I will send you a paperback copy, if you send me the money first and let me know your mailing address, but I have to tell you that the paperback copies are pretty scarce, so you’re probably better off with a Kindle.

If your book club wants to read it and talk about it, I’d be happy to show up, as long as they’re not too far away from Lambertville and they don’t meet on choir night. But I’m not getting on a plane and flying to Houston. I’m not even getting on a bus to go to New York. I’m perfectly comfortable right here. *Sighs contentedly*

Anyhow here it is.