Copyright © 2019  by John Dandola, Ltd. All rights reserved.
The Absurd Pitfalls Encountered When Writing About West Orange, New Jersey
I  will  begin  by  stating  my  love  for  my  hometown  of  West  Orange, New  Jersey.  Most  of  that  love  stems  from  my  roots  since  more than two centuries ago my ancestors settled in what eventually became West Orange. My childhood there was rather idyllic within what, at the time, was an outstanding school system. But outside of that school system, West Orange has never been intellectual or well-read. It's blue-collar-ness overrode most things making both intellect and creativity highly suspicious. The last book club at the West Orange Public Library ceased to exist in the mid-1960's and the library itself always proved inadequate in resources for researching high school term papers forcing students to avail themselves of neighboring public libraries in order to complete such assignments. Those are unfortunate and indisputable facts.

What's more, West Orange has always been rather medieval in its opinion of books. The perception is that anything in writing will expose something about the town or its citizens which shouldn't be known. It's a town so uncomfortable with its own (rather interesting) history that it manufactures historical events as they are needed for political gains.

It should have come of no surprise to me when I began writing my mystery novels set in 1940's era West Orange that I would run across not only a lack of appreciation but rancor. That lack of appreciation even trickled down to friends and citizens. Whereas a great many mystery novelists hold contests for readers to get their names included as characters in a storyline, West Orange finds it unsavory. In fact, like a great many novelists, I often include the names of people I knew or grew up with (in a purely fictional sense) as a tip of the hat to our friendship yet, in West Orange, such thoughtfulness and generosity is bizarrely twisted as something inappropriate and sinister.

Imagine, going out of one's way to mention long-lost friends in books and all but a very small handful of them are not only unwilling to read about themselves but they don't so much as utter a "thank you" for  being given a copy of the book in which they appear. Lack of courtesy is also a foible seemingly passed on by imbibing too much West Orange water.

Possibly the weirdest incident was when the first novel appeared. The Mayor of West Orange during the 1940's was named Bernard M. Degnan. He was a friend of my family. I still often describe him—quite accurately—as the last honest mayor of the town and he left office in 1952! When the novel debuted, Degnan's son—a man well into his fifties if not older—would only read the novel in the library during multiple sittings hidden in the stacks instead of using his library card to take the book home. When asked by a mutual friend why he was going through such nonsense, Degnan's son explained that he didn't want anyone to see him reading the book. When asked the follow-up question as to why that was so important to him, he further explained that, "My father's name is in it in writing and I don't know if that's good." After the mutual friend explained that Mayor Degnan was a personal friend of my family and why would any author spend time to paint a bad picture of him in such a case? (In fact,  Mayor Degnan was pretty much played up as a hero in the story.) The son's reply was still centered on, "But his name is in writing!" As I said, the medieval mind and its fear of words casting spells still resides in West Orange.

On the same subject of Mayor Degnan, I gave a talk about the book and mentioned Degnan, using his nickname "Bernie", which is how he was always referred to by my family. During the talk, out of nowhere, the mother of an acquaintance verbally accosted me that I was wrong to call him "Bernie". At first, my conclusion was that the woman thought it disrespectful for me as a young whippersnapper to refer to the man by his nickname. But no, the reason was much more idiotic than that. It seems that this woman called him "Benny" Degnan and because that is how she addressed him, I was obviously wrong. Of course, my trying to reason that "Bernie" is the natural shortened form of "Bernard" and the way he was called by anyone else I ever met was a lost cause. It never dawned on the woman that maybe her bastardization of the nickname into "Benny" was what was incorrect but it wasn't worth trying to discuss because by then everything in her argument had segued back to my original sin of using his name in the first place. Going into the fact that Mayor Degnan was long dead and even if he wasn't, he had been a "public figure" so I could say anything I wanted without repercussions. That would have proven far too complex for the woman to comprehend so, regardless of her reputation as a ‘know-it-all', I withstood her onslaught mostly because she was the mother of an acquaintance and she was doing perfectly well in making herself appear like a raving lunatic in front of a great many people in the audience.

Then there was a woman who had gone all through school with my mother and whose family had owned a green-grocer she begged to have included in a story. I granted her wish and had one of my fictional characters notice the store with its name painted on the front windows. This should certainly have satisfied my mother's schoolmate and it did—sort of. The woman actually bothered to read the novel and then she asked me who the fictional character was and where that character had lived. I explained that the character was made-up. This seemed to confound the woman so I further explained that there was no such person in real life because this was fiction. "Fiction" seemed a new word for her. I explained that the whole story was not true, it was just a story and the only part which was true was how I described West Orange during that time period. To which the woman responded, "You know, none of those things you reported on ever happened here." I just smiled, "I know..." I was getting very good at not winning arguments and very aware that a great many of these conversations could have been held in Mayberry with Gomer, Goober, Barney, and Floyd.

Comparison to the Mayberry boys also brings up the issue of reading comprehension—or lack thereof. I became quite friendly with a man who had gone through school with my youngest aunt and had been best-buddies with my wife's much older cousin. He was a good-looking man who used to joke about his 1950's high school days by saying, "I used to be handsome back then until I had to start wearing glasses." Those were the days when the saying was, "Guys don't make passes at girls who wear glasses." And it was true because no matter how old you were, male or female, your only choices in eyeglass frames were identical to those your grandparents wore. I know; I've been wearing glasses since the fourth grade. This gentleman really liked my novels and the way they captured West Orange during his youth so I transported him back to that time as an adult and gave his character a role in a mystery plot. As part of his description, I wrote that he would have been considered handsome if he didn't wear glasses. He got a big kick out of it. His wife, on the other hand, did not and she confronted me at a barbecue. "Who do you think you are writing my husband is not handsome?!" I was caught completely off-guard. "I never wrote such a thing," I explained and recited to the best of my recall how I had written the sentence. "No, you did not. You said he wasn't handsome!" At this point, the gentlemen intervened and since it was at his house, he went inside, returned with the book, found the page, and read the description aloud. "See what I mean," his wife insisted. "He said you weren't handsome and you're going to let him get away with that?!" He looked at me, I looked at him, and his daughter led me away to safety. I think a part of this whole lack of comprehension stemmed from a little too much alcohol on the wife's part but it was definitely combined with the usual West Orange singsong of "Who do you think you are that you can write a book?" In other words, "You think you're better than us!" Of course, exercising one's talent has absolutely nothing to do with thinking you are any better than anyone else. Talent is just not being able to help yourself from creating something from nothing and maybe doing a little bit of good along the way. Regardless, it was another mind-boggling and embarrassing West Orange moment.

When the first novel appeared, West Orange had its first and only real public library director. She was in place for almost a full decade and she actually liked and valued books. She also valued me as the local author which so many towns don't have. When the first novel debuted, she purchased eight copies: two were for circulation; two for back-up circulation when the first two wore out; and four to be kept in permanent storage (labeled as such) because she reasoned that their value might increase over time and that would benefit the library in future. When the director retired, the person who took her place wasn't a book-lover or a people-person and she was not embraced by staff or patrons. Within a few months, she stumbled upon the books placed in permanent storage; promptly discarded the note explaining why the books had been set aside; and then placed them in circulation. The kicker is that those first editions were by then selling for roughly $300 apiece. She deprived the library coffers of $1200 when she could have simply bought second or third editions as needed for $15 each. West Orange is a town of no foresight and no grasp that creative property can have monetary value.

The town's unimaginative views originate from those in charge—the politicians. Politicians have long been a problem for me and their theft of my West Orange histories without asking permission or giving me proper credit have led to more than a few legal wranglings which I won. The politicians' method of striking back for having been caught in the act of such infractions was to interfere with any newspaper coverage my books would receive. Imagine their ignoring novels and histories which paint an accurate and/or charming portrait of how the town once was. New Jersey state newspapers have carried lengthy articles about my work. Other states' newspapers have carried lengthy articles about my work. National magazines have carried lengthy articles about my work. But the town newspaper and the local online news outlets have been pressured by the mayor and town council not to carry stories about me or my work even though such stories would greatly benefit the town. Yes, it's petty and spiteful but it's to be expected in West Orange's overly-political, short-sighted, and always defensive atmosphere.

The worst occurrence came from The Alternative Press, an online news outlet which uses the preposterous acronym TAP. Why preposterous? Well, first of all, the acronym makes it sound as though they are sounding "taps" about themselves and their subject matter. Second of all, the acronym is grammatically incorrect since words like "the" are not to be included as a letter used to create an acronym. Regardless, The Alternative Press seems to be a franchise purchased or leased or whatever by individuals in various towns throughout northern New Jersey. The first franchise-holder was a public-relations professional with whom I meshed well and who gave my books publicity as needed and she did so within a very short amount of time because she realized that books, like movies, have to be publicized as soon as they debut. When the public-relations professional relinquished the franchise to someone new, I still thought I was circumventing the town's political interference because the new owner was someone I had gone out-of-my way to do a huge favor while she was in high school.

The new franchise-holder is the daughter of a woman who worked with my wife. I had known her since she was a young teenager and during her senior year in high school, in order to avoid writing a term paper for English, she asked to interview me, a professional author, on videotape for her assignment. I even postponed several out-of-state booksignings to accommodate her project. I don't go around reminding people that they owe me but she owed me—big-time. Or so it would seem to honorable people.

The first book which debuted under her auspices, took three months to receive a mention. This is an internet outlet not requiring waiting time for print. It is rather immediate. I am a professional. I supplied a precise press release in a usable format which only had to be posted. Instead, the so-called editor (who emblazons her every column with her Sears portrait studio glamour shot) chose to re-write and butcher the content of the press release. After a little research on my part, the three-month time lapse had nothing to do with being inundated with other local stories (as was claimed) but it had everything to do with pressure from West Orange politicians with whom the editor had gotten too cozy. The only reason the press release appeared at all was because I kept on the franchise-holder.

A year and a half later, when the next book debuted, I went directly to the franchise-holder and told her that I knew what was going on with the editor and I wanted it stopped. She assured me it would be handled and the press release about this newest book would appear quickly.

After three weeks, when all it took was to copy and paste the properly formatted supplied press release onto the site, it still had not appeared. I contacted the franchise-holder only to be told that as "journalists" they were flooded with current "local news" which took precedent. Of course, owning a local news outlet  franchise doesn't make anyone a journalist just as owning a sports franchise doesn't make anyone an athlete. And slapping the title of "editor" after someone's name doesn't make that person an editor especially when that person displays extremely poor writing skills.

The pressing news they felt so compelled to pursue? Posting  the senior citizen jitney schedule which had already been posted for weeks on the town web site. You really can't make up such utter and complete stupidity. They weren't even capable of a plausible excuse. It was then that I ceased and blocked any more communication with The Alternative Press because I live in the real world and I was done putting up with their "alternative" universe.

Do I still love West Orange? Yes and no. I love the shell of it and the history of it and my ancestors' place in it. I don't love it's current over-expansion, it's over-population, it's over-taxation, or it's misdirected playing at being a metropolis instead of a town. It's lost sight of itself. People once stayed there for generations; now it's become transient. Mine is the last generation lucky enough to remember it as it was—warts and all, it was better than it is now. Yes, I will continue to write about it so that such things can be remembered.

—John Dandola
CLICK HERE to read about John's upcoming West Orange mystery novels
This title could also be used to sum up its author's experiences
in his hometown.