I wake as Dan and Charlotte are on their way out of the house. She’s having that knee operation today so her next six weeks will be spent on high power painkillers and in a full leg splint. It’s always tough to go into hospital to have an operation when you’re feeling fine, but she’s definitely putting a brave face on it. I wish them well.
Today’s plan is to make a pilgrimage to Red Bank. For most folk in the world, this is a wholly uninteresting town in New Jersey, but not for me. Kevin Smith, famed director of Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Zack and Miri, Red State, Cop Out and a few others grew up in this area. It’s an unremarkable town in an unremarkable suburb, but has great significance to any Smith fan.
When I say “Smith fan” I should probably qualify this a little. I can’t claim to be an ardent fan of every one of his films (although I most certainly do love a couple of them). I am more specifically a fan of the man himself - his opinions, his attitudes, his personality. I’ve been a regular listener to his podcast for a very long time, and currently he’s up to about episode 190 or so. Given that these broadcasts are anything from 50 minutes to well over two hours, my back-of-envelope calculation is that I’ve listened to possibly about 300 hours of this man talking in a very personal way about his life. Yes he’s a funny guy and he’s out to entertain, but he does this by being very honest about himself. There are plenty of people in my life who I would consider as friends but have not come close to talking to them for 300 hours. I don’t, obviously, consider Smith to be a friend, but he’s nonetheless a human being whose story I care greatly about as I’ve just heard so much about it. So this trip out is to give me a taste of the land and the environs that he grew up with and talks about at great length. In much the same way that I find it difficult to remember people until I’ve met them in person, I find it difficult to associate with a place until I’ve been there in person. This day trip is to bring the View Askewniverse that little bit better into focus.
I head out to Penn station and miss my hourly train by five minutes. It’s infuriating as this will likely make me 15 minutes late for my meeting Mints this evening, but fortunately there’s free wifi in this underground station so I’m able to fire off an email to excuse my future tardiness. Penn station is underneath Madison Square Garden so is well stocked with eateries and distractions. I have my first ever Taco Bell and am predictably underwhelmed.
The train out through the New Jersey countryside is fascinating. As soon as I’m out of the tunnel the high-density urbanisation of NYC is gone and replaced by vast tracks of open swamp and brownfield land. The horizon is taken up with industrial facilities and power plants. There are huge bridges of steel rusting gently amongst the abandoned warehouses with smashed windows. There’s evidence of industry everywhere but not that much actually going on. The desolation thins little by little into houses, but there’s still an overriding feeling that things aren’t currently as good as they once were. There are many lots full of hundreds of cars or trailers, all not being used and reeking of overproduction. Eventually the houses thin out into swamps again and the train goes over the estuary into the peninsula area where Red Bank is. Finally there’s a hint of nature with herons and ducks swimming about and 6-foot high grasses buffeting in the train’s wake.
Red Bank - I’m finally here. The station is a level-crossing’d two platform affair. I disembark and take a deliberately roundabout wander into the town. It’s somewhat nicer than some of the areas I have just travelled through, with a few pleasant looking delis and a mall that looks more presentable than most. I hit Broad Street and spot Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, my first waypoint on this journey. It’s a comic shop founded (and owned still, I believe) by Kevin Smith and staffed by his friends, all of whom have appeared in his films in some form or another (SteveDave - That’s Walt Flanagan, the general manager here). The front windows are all covered in semi-transparent mirrored plastic, but there’s a reassuring “I ASSURE YOU, WE’RE OPEN” in the window (will make sense for the more filmic-minded) so I go in. I enter into a wondrous hall of comics and memorabilia, obviously skewed towards the work of Smith and his friends, but covering all comics and collectibles. I’m greeted by a guy with zombie makeup who comes up and shakes my hand, asking how I am and that “everyone’s here, just out back”. I twig that I’m talking to Ming Chen, one of the central guys of this little world. I take a wander to the back and see three or four other people being made up by a professional makeup artist. Walt Flanagan, Brian Johnston… the crew are all in attendance and getting made up for a photo and video shoot! I feel very lucky and deeply honoured. They’re filming a 6-show series for TV at the moment charting things going on at the shop, and this is the halloween themed shoot today. I ask about photos and it seems as though they’re keen to get all made up for the shots first, so whilst It’s all ok to take photos of the shop, they want me to wait to get photos of them. I have a brief chat with them about my travels around the world. The director then asks politely if we could clear the shop floor to take a couple of tracking shots, so as I’ve been hanging around for about an hour by this point I decamp to Starbucks. My original plan was to get the 834 bus to Leonardo to visit the Quick Stop (the location for most of Clerks) but I realise that it’s not every day that I’ll be able to see the guys dressed up like this and running around the street outside the shop, so decide to push that visit to another NY holiday. I set up in the Starbucks immediately across the road and get chatting to a guy who’s lived in this area for 20 years and has never heard of Kevin Smith or his films, and in explaining about who he is and what he’s done I realise quite how much I know about him. Future Mastermind specialist subject, perhaps?
Time ticks on and I need to ensure I grab the right train back to Manhattan so I finish of my coffee and head back in to grab photos and to buy a couple of little things. Sadly they’re all doing some filming in the stock room so not only do I not manage to get my fan photo with them all made up, I also have to get the cameraman who’s filming them to find someone who knows how to work the till. I do get a couple of bits and pieces eventually but it’s a bit of a chore and I have to run to catch my train. Well worth it though. I feel my Red Bank link has been fairly firmly formed.
The evening is to be spent in the company of the most delightful Ms Hyoji Kim, who I’m sure is my sister-in-law by now in a parallel universe. We meet outside her uni near Penn station, and after the customary hugs and smiles we head out to Jackson Heights, talking political activism and family news. Dinner is at a Nepalese eatery where the food is a curious combination of Chinese and Indian. Thali and steamed dumplings… it just feels like an odd combination. It is, however, excellent in the mouth, which is all that really matters.
Back to the flat now, and Ben and her design taste has led to a rather wonderful medicine-cabinet based bar in the entrance hall. Despite the quite enormous amount of alcohol, it’s a drinks setup setup for the refined and educated drinker who really appreciates the finer points of cocktail making. Lemon and lime trays, correct drizzling implements and all of the lesser-used ingredients (how many people have more bitters than the Angostura standard one? Not many, I assure you) meet my approval, although I opt for a cognac to see the night to a close over fine conversation and happy reminiscing.