By Matthew Hennessey
Where have all the characters gone? When I was a kid, Morristown was full of them.
Father Greco was one tough priest. Two guys tried to mug him one night when he wasn’t wearing his collar. They had a knife. Unimpressed, Father Greco calmly asked which hospital they wanted to be taken to. He then took the knife, subdued them both, and sat on them until the police arrived.
Hans Tailgate was a window-washer. He carried a bucket and a squeegee pole on his rounds. He also had a Hitler mustache. I wasn’t the only one who wondered if he had somehow escaped the bunker and crossed the Atlantic as a stowaway.
Willie Walton owned a mechanic’s garage on Washington Street. He had red hair and a leprechaun-style beard. We’d sing a song about him to the tune of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman.” “Willie Walton/Walking down the street…”
The Egg Man looked like Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath. He delivered eggs to our house from a farm near Somerville. He’d ring our back doorbell and announce “Eggs today?” One week he didn’t show up. “Sorry I about last time,” he explained. “My wife upped and died on me.”
You could tell some characters just by looking at them. Others were simply regular guys with irregular hobbies.
Stewy Toms was a world champion senior weightlifter. Joe Walsh worked for the Sheriff’s Department, but he was better known as the world’s fastest gun. Richard Kreimer brought the national press to Morristown in 1989 when he sued the public library for violating his first amendment rights.
But most of Morristown’s characters never made it to CNN.
Johnny G. suffered from cystic fibrosis. He lived well into his sixties, becoming the oldest American with the degenerative disease. He may have been a medical miracle, but he never let it keep him from enjoying a few drinks. Johnny V. called everyone “Goomba.” Whether in church, at the supermarket, or at the post office, his greeting was always the same: Hey, Goomba! I met his seven-year-old son once. “Nice to meet you, Goomba,” said the kid.
Morristown has changed a lot. When the Midtown Direct train service came to town in 1996, the small-town drug stores, book stores, and record stores around the Green disappeared, only to be replaced by banks, cafes, and condominiums—the cultural infrastructure of the upper-middle class.
Between 1930 and 1990, Morristown experienced relatively little population growth, gaining only about 1,000 new residents. Although the population of surrounding Morris Township nearly tripled in the 50s and 60s, it, too, remained constant between 1970 and 1990.
Since the mid-90s, however, the population—along with incomes and home values—have been on the rise. Today, Morristown is a prime destination for young, single commuters with good jobs in the City. I’m not saying it’s a terrible thing, or even necessarily a bad thing. In fact, on balance, Morristown’s transformation has probably been a great thing. But it has come at a price.
You can’t import characters. You have to grow them.