Thursday, April 28, 2016

Plainfield, NJ

It's been called The Queen City, though I don't know why. In the 19th century, it was THE place to live...probably before the boondocks of the rest of the state developed from farmland. There are still some lovely huge Victorian homes there, though most, regrettably, have been cut into numerous apartments and painted all one color. Usually white with green or black shutters.

But once Plainfield was the place to see and be seen.

When I was very young, we used to go there maybe once a year. My mother always chose the hottest day of the year to go shopping for my winter coats and when it wasn't New Brunswick, it was Plainfield. There were some big stores there--Bambergers and Teppers and lots of other smaller, but nice stores in a long main street. There was a Woolworth's and another five and ten cent store I can't remember the name of now. I would go into Woolworth's and immediately come upon the candy counter. Since it was hot outside, there was no chocolate for sale. If we went there in cooler weather, Mom would buy chocolate covered peanuts for my father and some sort of glass container, shaped like a car or a telephone or something, filled with round candy pellets for me. I don't remember what they tasted like. I may never have gotten around to tasting them because I would save that little glass bottle just for the look of it.

McCrory's. That's the name of the other five and dime.

When my mother had to get a new dress for something important, some dinner dance with my father, she'd go to Bambergers. I guess it was elegant. Back then, dress lengths were set. Fifteen inches from the floor. If you were short, and Mom was, well, she had rather long dresses. Taller women, well, they showed more leg.

What brought on this whole thing was remembering something special. A Chinese restaurant, the Queen's Palace, that we would go to sometimes. Rarely. But I remember having to walk up a steep flight of stairs to get odd that it wasn't on street level. The waiters never spoke a word of English and the men had their black hair slicked back, their maroon cutaway tuxedo jackets contrasted with their starched white shirts. Black ties and black trousers, of course.

We would have chicken chow mein and drink Chinese tea with loads of sugar because they did not have soda or milk for kids.

But the really coolest thing of all was when my brother Jack came with us to celebrate his birthday. He had lots of his own money...from his Newark Star Ledger paper route. We climbed the stairs to the Queen's Palace and went inside. The rows of tables with crisp white tablecloths ranged before us. Maroon or dark red booth seats. Waiter showed us to a table.

Mom orders chicken chow mein of course.
Jack, after carefully perusing the menu, ordered a lobster for himself.

Thought I was going to pass out! Nobody ever ate anything but chicken chow mein there as far as I knew in my relatively short lifetime.
But here, my older by three years and a few months brother was going to have lobster.
He reassured our mother that he would pay for it himself. I'm sure she was greatly relieved because it was probably going over budget as it was to eat Chinese food at a restaurant.

So. We get our bowls of white rice, the tea, and silvery covered servers of CCM.
The waiter leaves, returns with a gigantic plate displaying a magnificently huge reddish dead lobster.

Jack's trophy.
Jack's ambition.
Jack's folly.

He was maybe thirteen or fourteen. He'd never seen a cooked lobster in his life, except perhaps on television, but I doubt it.
I will never forget the look on his face.


Nobody in our family had ever ordered or eaten lobster before this time. Nobody
It was pretty risky for him to attempt to manipulate the claws and what to do with the green stuff and the grey stuff.

I don't remember how or if he managed. I have no idea whether he liked it.
All I remember is seeing that gigantic red monster on the platter being set before him and the range of emotion crossing his face.

Plainfield has gone through far too many ugly changes. It is edging its way out of obscurity and trying desperately to regain its status and respectability. We must credit urban renewal and the desires of the citizens to bring back the Queen City.  The Palace isn't there, hasn't been for decades. The two movie theaters are long gone as are the department stores.

But the Queen City isn't dead yet.
The heart is still beating.


  1. There were three movie theaters - The Strand, The Paramount, and The Liberty. Hard to believe. Through most of high school, my friends and I would ride the bus on Union Ave. which turned into Front St at the Dunellen border, to indulge our sartorial vanities at one of the three mens' haberdasheries - names all effaced by time. I lived in Plainfield for a couple of years in the 1970's. We rented half of the old Dumont mansion on Stelle, at the corner of Field. I dated a girl whose father was an FBI agent. They live in a thirteen or fourteen room castle on Woodland Ave. in the very best part of town (Sleepy Hollow). Her mother was fond of dropping the names of Congressmen and other august personages who were coming to dinner that week. The house had been built around the Civil War. It had a panic room.

  2. Totally forgot the Paramount! There was the Strand store, too, that had wheat colored Levis--a trend through high school if you were a teabagger. Plainfield had become a place of adventure until 1967 and the riots. Pity, that, for all concerned.

  3. Thank you for such a great post!