Saturday, April 30, 2016

It's Complicated (My Relationship With Social Media)

Blame my cat for this.
It's not even 7 on a Saturday morning, but the cat woke me up and I couldn't get back to sleep, so I checked my phone...

On Facebook -- where, by mutual agreement of family members, I neither took nor posted a photo of our dinner the previous evening (although, for some reason, I checked in at the place on what's left of Foursquare... because, like Kilroy, I want to leave a mark that I was there) -- I was directed to a post by a very talented, social media-savvy colleague.

It pointed to a story about why the new "Ghostbusters" trailer is the most disliked movie trailer in YouTube history. And, by "disliked," it apparently means, a license to post misogynist comments about the all-female leads.

Because I read this story, any subsequent website I visited (thanks, Google) featured suggestions to click on stories posted on "ZergNet," an aggregator of stories such as: "9 TV Shows That Should Have Been Cancelled By Now," "The Real Reason Meg Ryan's Career Was Ruined" and "Daniel Craig's Harsh Words About The Kardashians." This is just a random sampling from this morning. There's much worse on the site, which seems to cater to Baby Boomers who like a cesspool of snark disguised as "celebrity news." I was rescued by a popup alert from Medium...

On Medium -- where I reposted my prior post from here (the one about the abandoned asylum... more later) -- I was intrigued by the headline, "F*** You, I Quit — Hiring Is Broken" -- a long read about a programmer's interview experience in the tech industry. It was a fascinating look into how bizarre the tech business has become, including mentions of the hiring process at aforementioned Google and over-my-head inside-baseball programming references. The author posted his Twitter handle...

On Twitter, I was alerted to an even more bizarre long read: this piece about Yelp Girl. The title explains it best: "The Revelations of Lady Murderface -- Talia Jane wasn’t any naive Millennial when she outed Yelp for its low pay and triggered raises. If you’d had her bizarre life, you might overshare, too." This made me think to check in at work...

On email, my company is currently involved in a labor dispute. The issues involved are important, complex and clouded by so many people having so many agendas that workers wound up caught in the middle. I see today that the striking unions have hired a former White House spokesperson who has launched a parody site where there are photos of six executives aligned like the Brady Bunch. They have been labeled the Greedy Bunch, and you can roll over each photo to view anonymous, sophomoric personal insults.

Seeking refuge, I turned to a place where people can only post if they create something, and it's usually filled with stunning photography, often accompanied by heartfelt or funny commentary...

On Instagram, I had recently posted photos of the abandoned asylum in my old hometown -- mostly because it evoked a deeply learned boyhood lesson about compassion, which I tried to capture here.

You almost always get likes on Instagram or simple expressions of encouragement, but this morning I noticed that someone I don't know had made this comment about my Totowa photo collage:

"I can tell you care about the place, so you should know that posting stuff like this is bound to bring the site negative attention. Vandals, thieves, and even security & police have access to anything you post publicly. That's why most of us never discuss the real names or locations of these places."

Point taken. And, I don't know, maybe I shouldn't have posted it. Too late now. In the meantime, just let me say this:

I do care. Very deeply. And, ultimately -- despite everything I've read this morning -- I have faith in goodness. I have faith in vandals and thieves, in the strikers, in the executives, in millennials and job-seekers, in entertainers and artists, and in all the people laughing and taking selfies and raucously singing "Happy Birthday" in the crowded and noisy restaurant last night.

It's complicated, but I have faith.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Found in NJ: Totowa's Abandoned Asylum

This is the North Jersey Development Center, a 188-acre compound of buildings, forever shrouded in mystery and permanently closed in 2014.

The property overlooks and abuts Echo Glen, a suburban development in Totowa where my parents bought their first and only house. A high fence, which was topped with barbed wire when I was a boy, separates the center from this neighborhood, which was built on top of swampland so that none of the cookie-cutter houses have basements.

According to, the Development Center opened in 1928, preceding Echo Glen's construction by 30 years. Originally known as the North Jersey Training School, the center served "625 mildly retarded females" in 1953 and included a 275-bed nursery, making it the only one in the state that housed children. The source here is a 1969 study published by the "New Jersey Association for Retarded Children."

One anonymous post on Google Books claims that many locals in the 1950s considered the center to be a school for promiscuous, wayward girls or an experimental asylum where a variety of psychology trials were staged.

By the 2010s, the facility housed nearly 400 adults, dwindling to 190 residents before being shuttered. Some residents were moved to the Hunterdon Developmental Center, which offers care for a wide variety of neuro-developmental disorders, including Down syndrome.


When I was a boy, Totowa's Training School housed men, women and children in several dozen dormitory-style cottages. There were 35 buildings in all, including a school, chapel, healthcare facility, auditorium and swimming pool. 

I know this first-hand because I once attended a packed performance by Bozo the Clown at the auditorium there. Also, as an altar boy, I spent one summer assisting Fr. Lynch from nearby St. James parish as he celebrated Mass at the chapel.

Fr. Lynch was a tall man who rested his elbows on the pulpit and crossed one leg casually behind the other as he delivered his folksy sermons. He thought it might do me good to accompany him to the Training School every Sunday.

After folding himself into his compact car, Fr. Lynch would drive us down Minnesink Road and into the compound, past neat rows of cottages. Upon our arrival, the chapel was always packed with a well-dressed crowd of young residents and their families.

I was always intrigued by the congregation's responses during Mass. Prayers were loudly half-sung by the residents, who enthusiastically emphasized all the "thees" and "thous" in the Our Father and Hail Mary. At that point in Catholic Church history -- in the years following Vatican II -- there had been a concerted effort to encourage people to recite all prayers using "you" and "your."

"Why does everyone here pray the old way?" I asked Fr. Lynch.

"They pray the way they were taught," he replied. "It's comfortable and reassuring."

Today, decades later, at St. James itself, everyone prays the old-fashioned way, anyway.

I don't remember much about Fr. Lynch beyond that summer. He left St. James soon afterward, and the priesthood too. He married, according to one rumor. He died in Vietnam, according to another. In the pre-Internet era, there was no way of knowing for sure.

In the 1980s, the state changed the Training School's name to the more-PC "Development Center," but the name outside the main entrance has always stayed the same.


Visiting my Mom the other day, I noticed that even the front entrance of the place is now enclosed behind a chain-link fence.

I stopped to take these photos -- and, in doing so, a couple of things occurred to me.

For one, everything in Totowa looks smaller than in my memory. It always does.

For another, I can't remember a single word of any one of Fr. Lynch's sermons, but I still, to this day, recall his kindness to everyone I saw him interact with that summer.

And finally, standing outside the locked gates, I heard no ghostly cheers for Bozo the Clown nor any echoing petition that Thy kingdom come or Thy will be done.

Instead, in 2016, the only sounds haunting this place can be traced to the traffic in the near distance, as everyone else speeds past on Route 80.


A 2018 update to this post: "Totowa Under Attack."

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Roosevelt Island, Google Style

Google has once again taken it upon Itself to make an automatic video of some time I spent taking photos.

And who am I to argue with my peripatetic search-engine friend?

So here's the short video, featuring photos I took on a beautiful late Saturday morning in New York. Nancy and I were walking past Tram Plaza at 60th Street and Second Avenue, when I suggested that we get a close up view of the intriguing, abandoned Smallpox Hospital (aka, The Ruin) we see on Roosevelt Island when we sometimes walk along the East River at Peter Detmold Park.

There was a tram approaching overhead, and we knew we'd be on the island in just minutes.

"I'm game," my wife said.

Yet another reason I love her.

PS- The Ruin has its own Instagram account and website.