I had business in Newark this week and happened upon a copy of the Jersey Journal, the newspaper I delivered as a child that I hadn’t laid eyes on in decades. News of Leiby Kletzky’s death, the 8-year-old Orthodox Jewish boy whose remains were found in the killer’s refrigerator and a nearby trash bin, was splattered on the pages on today’s edition.
The story is so horrific that it was necessary to take breaks between paragraphs, for every detail is exactly as you imagined it in your worst nightmares as a parent. You cry along with the live coverage of the rabbi’s bullhorn speech outside the temple that night, his voice breaking as he struggles to come to grips with savagery so deep it makes one question the very existence of God.
I was around Leiby’s age when I started delivering The Jersey Journal through the streets etched in the hillside of Jersey City Heights. My bike was wobbly under the weight of the papers as I would fling the latest news onto the doorstep by day and then knock on that same door in the evenings to collect the money for the weekly delivery.
I would be invited into countless houses as customers fumbled in their purses or wallets for tips and payments. You think how many times you could have met the same fate as poor Leiby as adults lured you into the parlor and you say a silent prayer in thanks that God kept you safe years ago.
I’m sure newspaper organizations are keenly aware of the liabilities and risks of putting a child in that situation in this day and age, which is why they now go the impersonal route of paper route management and bill customers in the mail for home delivery. Paper routes cover entire towns as less people get their news from tree pulp and if you would put my paper carrier in a lineup and ask me to pick that person out, I couldn’t do it.
You think of the neighborhood you were brought up in and how it so mirrors little Leiby’s environment. There is a tight-knit community of Orthodox Jews in his Brooklyn neighborhood that stuck to themselves while the outside world gawked at their black clothes, long beards, and stove pipe hats. The notion that his murderer emerged from that same community is simply incomprehensible.
Hudson County New Jersey might as well have been another county of Ireland back in the Seventies, with so many of the “folks from home” lining the shingled working class houses. The racist inclination in the phrase “those people” referred to the Polish Catholics and Italian Catholics that somehow snuck into your little Irish American enclave. How’s that for diversity?
I often wondered as a child what ran through my parents mind as they looked out the back window of our apartment; the lush patchwork fields and majestic mountains of Ireland replaced by a rust-dusted industrial landscape dotted with factories and tractor trailers instead of lambs. The Irish huddled tightly with one another in this new home and everyone watched over the community’s children, probably because they were all joined from their lonesomeness for home.
One of my earliest memories was being parked on the street of Central Avenue alongside other strollers as my parents joined other moms and dads for some shopping on Rosen’s Furniture showroom.
How did we get here? Parents never had to worry about parking the stroller on the busy street with nothing more than a milk bottle in the child’s hands. Now, your eyes dart nervously over to the car every 5 seconds when you chance leaving the kids inside while you take a few steps into the 7 Eleven for a carton of milk and even then, you wonder if some Child Services van will screech into the parking lot and slap cuffs on you.
It’s fashionable to say the world is a different place now and you can’t trust anyone anymore, but I’m not buying that entirely. Creeps and murderers didn’t just show up in the last decade. Let’s tell a nasty truth: we just made it easier for them to operate.
Despite the inner city dynamic, parents knew every kid in a two block radius when and where I grew up and they also knew faces and models of cars that didn’t belong on the street. There is a whole row of houses at the lip of my cul de sac and I couldn’t tell you any last names of the inhabitants.
A community kept the kids in line and if Mrs. Rossi yelled at you, your parents didn’t instantly pitch a fit and take the kid’s side of the argument as they do now.