Letters from Trenton

While striving to become a travel writer in the years after Watergate, Thomas Swick discovered that although writing for a newspaper was educational, there was more to be learned through romance with a foreigner.

Thomas Swick | Longreads | July 2018 | 19 minutes (4,829 words)

 

In the fall of 1976 I returned home to New Jersey after a year in France. I had been pursuing my dream of becoming a travel writer by studying French in Aix-en-Provence and working on a farm in Kutzenhausen, Alsace. Now I needed a byline, preferably a steady one. Making the rounds of newspaper offices, I stopped one day at the two-story brick building of the Trenton Times. I wasn’t allowed to see anyone. This was the state capital’s leading newspaper, after all, and I was simply handed a job application. There seemed little reason to play it straight.

What was your last employment?

“Working on a farm.”

What were your duties?

“Picking cherries, baling hay, milking cows.”

Why did you leave your last employment?

“I got tired of stepping in cow shit.”

May we contact your last employer?

“Sure, if you speak Alsatian.”

A few days later I got a call from the features editor asking me to come in for an interview — my reward for being original, and knowing my audience, or at least guessing at it correctly.

I drove the river road south from Phillipsburg, where I was then living with my parents, back to Trenton. The features editor looked like a young Virginia Woolf in tortoiseshell glasses. She told me the paper was owned by the Washington Post and that one of her writers, a young man by the name of Blaine Harden, was exceptionally talented. The gist of the interview was that the editor — who, I later learned, had posted my job application on a wall in the newsroom — could not hire someone with no experience, as everyone else had come to the Times from other newspapers. But they would give me a three-month trial writing feature stories.

This suited me fine for, without a place in the newsroom, I was able to conceal the fact that I still wrote in longhand. I was possibly the last American journalist to do so. I knew how to type, but the typewriter was not a friend to the undecided. It was good for deletions — a quick, brash row of superimposed x’s — but for additions, I had to scribble with my pencil between immovable lines and on virgin margins.

In the evening, back home in Phillipsburg, I would write my stories. Then in the morning I’d get in my mother’s car and drive the river road through Milford and Frenchtown (whose bridges I’d worked on during summers in college), Stockton and Lambertville, the docile Delaware often visible through the leafless trees. The scenery was not as dramatic as in Provence, and the towns were not as picturesque as in Alsace, but there was a quiet, unassuming beauty to the place that suited my temperament, no doubt because it had helped shape it.

Once in the newsroom, I’d borrow a desk and type from my half-hidden handwritten pages.

After I was hired full-time, I bought my first car, a sea-green Datsun, and rented a studio apartment in Trenton. Most of the people at the paper lived in the more attractive surrounding towns like Yardley, Lawrenceville, and Princeton. Daisy Fitch, a fellow feature writer, had grown up next door to Albert Einstein. She was one of a dwindling minority of locals at the paper, as it was increasingly being written by out-of-staters who swooped in for a spell, then left to careers at the Post or someplace equally grand. Many were Ivy Leaguers — this was a few years after Woodward and Bernstein made journalism as sexy as it was ever going to get — and some, like Daisy, had interesting backstories. Celestine Bohlen, a young reporter, was the daughter of Charles “Chip” Bohlen, who had served as the American ambassador to the Soviet Union in the ’50s. Mark Jaffe, a former fencer at Columbia, was living with the daughter of Lyle Stuart, the publisher made rich and famous for putting out the 1969 handbook for women’s sexual pleasure The Sensuous Woman. David Maraniss, who exuded a kind of drowsy gravitas, and for whom everyone predicted glory, was the product of a marriage of editors: mother, books; father, newspaper. I was told that I had just missed the Mercer County careers of John Katzenbach, soon-to-be crime novelist and son of the former U.S. Attorney General, and his wife, Madeleine Blais, both of whose auras still flickered in the brick building on Perry Street.

It was astonishing to find this assembly of near and future luminaries in Trenton, a city I had associated mainly with Champale, whose brewery we used to pass on family drives to the shore. Add the fact that everyone had previous newspaper experience and you can understand if I say I felt a bit out of place. All I brought to the party was an irreverent job application.

What we all shared was a love of writing. Many of the reporters burned with Watergate dreams, but a good number of them read The New Yorker, which in those days was less political. Nixon was gone; the Vietnam War was over; the country had just celebrated its 200th birthday. Climate change was not a topic, nor was the idea of the decline of newspapers. We would discuss Kenneth Tynan’s stylish profiles — of everyone from Tom Stoppard to Johnny Carson — and the less flashy though generally more admired stories of John McPhee, the woolly high priest of creative nonfiction who lived and worked just up the road in Princeton. McPhee’s approach — lulling readers with layers of meticulously researched facts delivered in effectively unadorned sentences, as opposed to dazzling them with arcane words and brilliant aperçus — adhered closer to the journalistic ideal of authorial self-effacement and reinforced an idea I had long ago realized: I didn’t want to be a journalist.

The professionally limiting vocabulary was a deterrent. I would sometimes drop uncommon words into stories, usually humor pieces. It was partly my attempt to show that I belonged in the same room with people from Harvard and Yale. Unlike them, I had come to books late; now, trying to catch up, I made lists of new words on yellow legal pads. And, like any nouveau riche, I took every opportunity to show off my recent acquisitions. Sally, the Bloomsburyish features editor, questioned the appearance of “wamble” in one of my pieces, and I defended it by citing its use in a story by S.J. Perelman. (She quietly suggested that not many Trentonians read S.J. Perelman.) Blaine expressed disapproval when I used the word “ululation” in a humorous essay. He was a graduate of journalism school, where he had been taught the importance of being easily understood. I was a former English major and assumed that other people would be equally delighted to increase their vocabularies. We both, however, cherished our copies of E.B. White’s Here Is New York, which we had discovered in a secondhand bookstore downtown and which I thought should replace The Elements of Style on every editor’s desk.

I had been pursuing my dream of becoming a travel writer by studying French in Aix-en-Provence and working on a farm in Kutzenhausen, Alsace. Now I needed a byline, preferably a steady one.

But a bigger problem for me with journalism — surpassing simplicity and invisibility — was its ephemerality. News was fleeting and so, inevitably, were the stories about it. And I didn’t want to spend my life writing things that appeared and died; I wanted to write words that lived on, or at least had a chance to.

Writing features was, at that point in my career, the closest I could get to this ideal and still make a living, and I felt extremely fortunate to have been given the opportunity, from the start. Just how lucky I had been was brought home to me one morning when, for reasons long forgotten, I was asked to cover the funeral of a teenage girl in the Italian section of Chambersburg. I don’t remember if she was murdered or killed in an accident, but I do remember calling the story in to the newsroom from a phone booth, and the sensation I had at that moment of doing real journalism, and the relief I felt knowing I would probably never have to do it again.

No one would want to read that story today, while there might be some takers for my essay on Evel Knievel, whom I interviewed in a Philadelphia hotel, or my profile of Ray Birdwhistell, the father of the study of kinesics. At Princeton, I found an English professor who had written a paper on talking dogs in literature, and I interviewed the sculptor and boxing coach Joe Brown. Trenton State College provided me with a sociology professor who had researched the linguistic and cultural history of the hoagie.

My life was not all academics and daredevils. After President Carter’s embarrassing trip to Poland — he announced upon arrival that he had left the United States for good and hoped to get to know the Poles intimately — I wrote a story about simultaneous interpreters at the United Nations. They were bright, curious, necessarily knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects and, many of them, studying to add still more languages to their arsenals. “If you have everything it takes to do this job,” one man told me a bit ruefully, “then you waste it on this job.” Writing features was giving me the perfect training to be a travel writer, getting me out into the world (in this case, New Jersey and its environs) to meet some of the interesting people in it.

***

One day in the newsroom a reporter by the name of Bob Joffee stopped me and asked if I had read The Great Railway Bazaar. “It’s by this American,” he said, “who takes trains through Europe and Asia and makes fun of everybody he meets.”

I confessed I hadn’t read the book. I vaguely remembered seeing the review of it in the New York Times Book Review a couple of years earlier. I was envious of the globetrotting author — I had not been outside Europe, or west of the Mississippi — and I was somewhat put off by his reported ungratefulness. In France, I had devoured Evelyn Waugh’s When the Going Was Good — one of the few books in English I allowed myself that year, leaving me even further behind in my reading — but the persona of the wry, imperious traveler seemed to fit a Brit better than an American.

When I finally picked up The Great Railway Bazaar I devoured it as well. Theroux’s trains were filled with characters — he was uninterested in sights — and his sentences crammed with the small, seemingly insignificant details that bring a place to life. I could see the influence of Waugh, but he possessed an American frankness and an irrepressible desire to provoke.

That spring, as the new feature writer, I was enlisted to write the annual story on the seasonal opening of the Great Adventure theme park in Central Jersey. Before heading out, I ran into one of the photographers — “the jocks of the newsroom,” Mark had called them the day he’d given me a tour of the facilities.

“So,” the portly man scoffed, “you gonna write the same old Great Adventure story?”

I hadn’t been at the paper long enough to discover the cyclical nature of certain feature stories (somewhat similar to the predictable nature of most news stories). But I could imagine their numbing sameness year after year. And I was determined not to feed it. All day at the park the photographer’s taunt ran in a loop through my head and helped me to focus, like Theroux and Waugh before him (visiting the Spanish-American Exposition in Seville in 1929), on the subtle and the unexpected. I concentrated on aspects of an amusement park on opening day that previous writers might have overlooked. Then, back in the newsroom writing the story, I added my personal stamp. Problems with the log flume ride produced a line about “flummoxed flumers,” a perhaps overly fanciful but heretofore unidentified group.

In a room full of crack editors and wannabe authors I had received the best writing advice from a photographer who didn’t know he was dispensing it. Wherever I am on assignment, I still hear his jaded, challenging voice.

One weekend in July I was sent to Atlantic City. Gambling had recently been approved, and my story was to be about the “last summer” of the fading resort. I stayed in one of the grand, doomed hotels that lined the boardwalk like ghostly vessels that summer, and I wandered the streets, looking for people and scenes to write about.

Back in Trenton, I struggled with the story. The fact that I was now writing on a typewriter was only part of the problem. It was easy to write about opening day at Great Adventure, when nobody was expecting much; it was something else to describe the death of a great seaside resort. I forced my words to reflect the grandeur of the subject and wrote one overheated lede after another. I grasped at generalities and obvious symbols — rolling chairs, rolling dice — when simple, sharp-eyed observation was called for. I stuttered and gushed, overwhelmed by significance.

***

I had more success writing in longhand in my studio apartment. On my way home from France I had stopped in London, where I had met a young woman from Poland. Our letters — crossing not just the Atlantic Ocean but also the Iron Curtain — kept our tenuous relationship alive. Hania’s letters carried beautiful stamps and an unfathomable and literary (though I didn’t yet know it) return address: ulica Mickiewicza. She wrote of coming to the States for a year, and as happy as this made me, I felt obliged to tell her that Trenton was not the most desirable place — unless you were an ambitious young journalist. She was an econometrics major, with a charming epistolary style (in a language that was not her own).

Hania arrived on a Friday in August. I picked her up at Kennedy Airport and drove her to New Hope, where I was cat-sitting for my friends Mark and Sandy. Once we reached the Delaware River, I drove on the more sylvan Pennsylvania side, where the road often dipped under canopies of trees. The groggy passenger said the trees reminded her of Poland. Even at the end of a 12-hour journey, she looked beautiful, with her intelligent brown eyes; her short brown hair pushed behind delicate ears; her small, sharp features softened by pellucid skin.

The house in New Hope became our honeymoon cottage. We’d take evening strolls through the town whose storybook sheen our romantic idyll enhanced. Sometimes we’d join the tourists waiting for exotic ice creams on South Main Street, then lose them as we made the short climb across the canal and back to our “home.” One day, I returned from work and Hania showed me the copy of The Sensuous Woman she’d found, part of her personal discovery of America.

When Mark and Sandy returned from vacation, I brought Hania to stay with me in my studio apartment. We slept together in my single bed. Evenings, I’d write at the desk a few feet away while she read atop the covers. (I gave her, to complement The Sensuous Woman, White and Thurber’s Is Sex Necessary?) She discovered Fair Isle sweaters and frozen foods; at the Polish meat market in Lawrenceville, I was introduced to kabanosy. She made endless cups of tea. Sometimes on Saturday evenings we’d go out for dinner, often choosing rustic restaurants on country roads with stone fireplaces and French menus. In one such place we ate our first snails as Hania reminisced about her days at Catholic boarding school collecting their Slavic cousins for export to France.

Occasionally Sally, the features editor, would invite us over. She lived with her husband, Sam, in a large house near Cadwalader Park. The living quarters were on the second floor; you’d climb the wooden staircase, greeted by a framed cartoon of a woman in a red beret firing a rifle and saying, “Now, mes petits… pour la France!” (I knew the French but not the artist, who of course was Lichtenstein.) Upstairs, two high-ceilinged rooms overlooked Bellevue Avenue. The one on the right was lined with bookshelves that climbed the walls and overflowed with novels, essays, history books, art books, photography books, architecture books, opera LPs, as well as a record player and a radio that was perpetually tuned to the classical music station in Philadelphia. More volumes teetered in piles on the floor. Buffy, the smiling Samoyed, wandered in at seemingly regular intervals. The house had such a warm, cultured, cluttered feel that, invited for dinner, Hania and I would often be there to hear the opening notes of Fauré’s Pavane signaling the start of WFLN’s “Sleepers Awake.”

I had never been happier. College had been a joy, especially for a new convert to books who was majoring in English, but it had lacked in extracurricular activities. Now, just a few years removed from it, I had a job and a woman I loved; this seemed the straight American man’s recipe for bliss.


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The one dark spot was the fact that Hania had a boyfriend, a veterinarian-to-be by the name of Adam. Never having met him, I found I could usually put him out of my mind, but she worried about the pain she was causing. He had suspected that there was a reason behind her coming to the States; that, as a presidential interpreter might have put it, she had wanted to get to know an American intimately. She found a job as an au pair in Princeton — work she’d done previous summers in London — and returning the first day she told me, in a voice already familiar with life’s cruel ironies (what I would come to think of as an unmistakably Polish voice), that the baby’s name was Adam.

She rode the bus and quickly learned that anyone who heard her name — on the bus or off — would reproduce it as “Tania” (preconditioned by Patty Hearst’s nom de guerre). While in the newsroom, I continued to write my feature stories and humorous essays, some of which, I learned from Sally, had a conceit.

***

For the holidays we drove the river road north, passing through the bridge towns festooned with lights. My parents were happy to see us, of course, though my father had not warmed to Hania; she was too independent and forthright for an American man of his generation. She relished a good argument, which she saw, in the European tradition, as a lively discussion, and the two topics that were unwelcome at the American dinner table — religion and politics — were the two that Poles lived and breathed. At the same time, she adhered to Old World ways, allowing — teaching — me to open doors for her and, on visits home, using my father’s kit to shine my shoes. My married brother walked in once while she was vigorously buffing a pair of my loafers and gave a look that suggested he couldn’t believe my luck.

Christmas Eve we headed across the river to Easton for the midnight service at Trinity Episcopal Church. It was where I had been baptized, confirmed, and recruited as an altar boy, often for this service, during which, in my early teenage years, I fantasized about the girlfriend I would bring to it one day. Nancy Stableford, Roger Angell’s sister, sat two pews in front of us; she had married a biology professor at Lafayette College and given the church a cherished (at least by me) literary connection. Father Gill climbed the steps to the pulpit, where he quoted Chesterton and Charles Schulz. I exulted in the music, the incense, the candle glow, the hint of E.B. White (Angell’s stepfather), the nearness of Hania, who, I now noticed, was silently weeping.

It was, she reminded me afterward, her first Christmas away from home.

In the new year, David Maraniss left to the Post, and Sally’s cousin, the most swashbuckling of the newsroom characters, headed off to Africa. One of his letters home was read aloud to me by Mark, who noted the recurring theme — a steady diet of bananas — and pointed out how it was judiciously, not excessively, repeated for ideal effect. “Now that’s comic writing,” he said, implying, it seemed, that what I had been doing wasn’t. Blaine, who would soon join Maraniss at the Post, wrote a story about a Stockton quarryman that began with the sentence: “Stash Gorsky busts rocks.” I thought it a perfectly banal lede, but it’s the only one from those days that has stayed with me, outliving even my own. Dan Laskin, one of the city reporters, got a job at Horizon in New York, which led to his becoming the first person of my acquaintance to eat sushi — a distinction that, along with the magazine job, seemed to suggest that, gastronomically and professionally, he had left us all behind. Like many of the reporters, I was still eating a good number of my lunches in the newspaper cafeteria, whose cheese omelets I always followed with a Kit Kat, savoring each miniature girder so intensely that the undressed wafers scraped the roof of my mouth. Also staying in-house were the investigative skills of one reporter who got his hands on a salary list and revealed it in protest of what he considered our unconscionably low wages. Not surprisingly, my name appeared at the bottom. “Yes, but you have to understand,” one of the editors apparently explained to Celestine, “hiring Swick was like hiring a cowboy.”

I admittedly have no head for business, but it would have seemed churlish to ask for more money to do what I was so happy doing.

Though, I was beginning to see the repetitive nature of feature writing, as the same events from last year demanded coverage again. The beauty of travel writing, it seemed, was that you were always seeing new places (despite the fact that most newspaper travel sections returned repeatedly to a confoundingly limited number of seemingly approved destinations).

On my way home from France I had stopped in London, where I had met a young woman from Poland. Our letters — crossing not just the Atlantic Ocean but also the Iron Curtain — kept our tenuous relationship alive.

One evening early in our relationship, Hania and I had stopped at the pancake house in Princeton and sat at a table by the front window. During a lull in the conversation, I looked out at the people walking along Nassau Street and thought, This is the person I’m with now, to the exclusion of all others. For a shy, single young man, it was a daunting prospect — not because I was antisocial, but because I dreamed of being the opposite. Loneliness, if it’s not depressive, comes with an active sense of possibility, the everlasting hope of the new. Companionship is the fulfillment of that hope and if it’s tied to commitment it eliminates the thrill of anticipation. Life becomes fuller, richer, but also, in one important arena, decided, and robbed of enticing potentialities. You’ve found your desired place, and you’ll travel no further.

These were not my thoughts, though, as Hania prepared to leave that spring. I knew I might never see her again. The fear lingered that, after a few weeks back in Warsaw, reunited with her boyfriend, she would view all this as a harmless escapade. (Once, when I told her that I would always love her, she cautioned me not to say that, because one never knew what the future held.)

I drove her to Kennedy, and we said our goodbyes in the Pan Am terminal. I stood and watched in despair until the blurred plane wrenched back from the gate. As it rolled inexorably toward the runway, I headed inconsolably down the corridor, the two of us now moving in opposite directions. When I got in the car, the sight of the empty passenger seat produced a new wave of tears.

***

The first few weeks after Hania’s arrival I had found it difficult to concentrate on my work; now my work was all I had. A section of the newsroom was given over to new machines that looked like deep-set televisions with keyboards. When I saw the letters I typed appear on the screen, I did not rejoice at my coming emancipation from the typewriter. I resented the cumbersome log-in process and the stubbornly blinking cursor, which seemed as hostile to slow, ruminative composition — Come on. Let’s go. Hurry up. I’m waiting. — as the typewriter was to revision. (Neither of which, of course, newsrooms had much use for.) The device threw up another wall between the thought and its appearance on the page, and it seemed horribly unsuited for anything literary. I was such a traditionalist I could not embrace the thing that would make my writing life immeasurably easier.

At home, I started reading Anna Karenina. I wanted to learn about love, the emotion that had consumed me for the past 10 months, and a Russian master seemed the ideal instructor. He had me, like so many others, at the first sentence. I wondered if it could have been written on a word processor.

Letters from Hania arrived, to my enormous relief. The plan was that I would leave the paper and go join her in the fall. It was a purely personal decision, but it came with ancillary professional benefits: I would get to see a country hardly anyone had written about. My one frustration with my year in France was that I had spent most of it in Provence, which had been done: Lawrence Durrell, James Pope-Hennessy, M.F.K. Fisher, Cyril Connolly. (Of course, one decade later, this all-star line-up would not deter Peter Mayle.) Poland gleamed as an unknown, an enticing potentiality.

I started taking evening Polish classes at a local college. The teacher was an elegant, soft-spoken woman, which was fortunate, because the language was a beast. About the only word I had learned from Hania was siusiu, which is what she would go off into the woods to do on long car trips after drinking lots of tea. Krystyna (the “tyn” pronounced like “tin,” not “teen”) increased my vocabulary, mostly through greetings and polite expressions. Poles, I was learning, were a very punctilious people. (“What the hell does ‘punctilious’ mean?” one of the non-Ivy reporters once shouted to me in the newsroom while reading one of my humor pieces.) But the grammar was beyond teaching, or rather learning, in a classroom. Polish, like Latin, is an inflected language, so words change depending on how they’re used in a sentence. The word for dog is pies (pronounced like the French pièce), but if you say you have a dog it becomes psa. If you go for a walk with your dog it becomes psem. If you give your dog a bone it becomes psu. And so on. If you want to describe your dog, the adjectives change as well. God help you if you have two dogs.

I asked Krystyna for the names of contemporary Polish writers and, without hesitation, she mentioned Marek Hłasko. Princeton’s Firestone Library, in those days open to the public, had some of his work in translation. His style was spare, sort of the way Hemingway might have written if he had been working-class in a socialist country and in possession of a (bleak) sense of humor. Of course, the political undertones were lost on me. In fact, I found myself, thanks to Leo, sidling over to where the universal Russians sat: Chekhov, Turgenev, and Vladimir Nabokov, the playful, erudite, Slavic lover of language(s) I had been looking for.

One day I nervously traveled to New York to apply for a visa at the Polish consulate. It occupied a beautiful Beaux Arts mansion at the corner of 37th Street and Madison Avenue. Inside, my queasiness intensified, despite the high society touches that, of course, were unbecoming to a people’s republic. These people, barely visible behind glass, were our enemies, and I had come to ask them for a favor. A really big favor. My fate, without exaggeration, lay in their hands.

For some unknown reason, they allowed my life to follow the course I had besottedly chosen for it. Though only temporarily — through a tourist visa.

I gave my notice at the paper. Leaving a promising career in journalism to pursue a woman behind the Iron Curtain was, for some in the newsroom, the most remarkable thing I’d done since filling out my job application. My days at the Times were bookended by radical acts.

* * *

Thomas Swick is the author of three books, the most recent being The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them. His work has appeared in numerous magazines and quarterlies, as well as six editions of The Best American Travel Writing. He lives with his wife, Hania, in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

Editor: Sari Botton