All interviews were taped and documented.  They are available through the Reference Department of the Teaneck Public Library.  The Library is not responsible for the accuracy of the statements nor does it necessarily endorse the opinions expressed.

NARRATOR: John A. Williams
INTERVIEWER: Robbie Wedeen
DATE OF INTERVIEW:    March 7, 1984
TRANSCRIBER: Jackie Kinney (3/24/1985)

(I) When did you move to Teaneck?

(N) We moved to Teaneck in 1975, June of 1975 from Manhattan and we had been looking for a house here for close to a year. Some friends of ours who had lived in Manhattan, Joan and Bob Waite, gave us some advice and encouraged us about the town and were its biggest boosters as far as we were concerned and we finally found what we wanted and moved over in June of 1975.

(I) What were some of the things you were looking for in a community?

(N) Well we wanted basically an integrated community because we are an integrated family. We wanted something fairly close to Manhattan, a town that had good schools. We had a son who was very young at that time and had gone to a private school in which he was not learning too much. The philosophy there was that when he is ready to learn, he will settle down and learn which we didn't agree with because we knew that if that was the case, he would be playing with a ball until he was 105 years old rather than knuckling down to study.

(I) How old was he at that time?

(N) About seven, about six. So and also there were elements of the town that reminded me of the town that I grew up in in Syracuse, lawns and trees and whatever. As a matter of fact, when I was a kid, we had neighbors on one side of us whose name was Levy and when we moved here, we found out that one of our neighbors was named Levy and it was sort of like, it felt just right. So we have been here ever since.

(I) So it felt like your home town. Were your expectations satisfied.

(N) Largely I would say. I do think that we came in at a time when there was some subtle stress in the community between various ethnic groups but I think overall the town administration and the school system dealt with that in a commendable way. The year after I was here, I worked with the Little League baseball team.

(I) That would be in 76?

(N) In 76. And since I was the new kid on the block so to speak, I had a collection of kids who had the least time to train and practice and they were all Jewish kids because they were going to schul not only Saturdays but one or two days during the week so we had a difficult time in getting any kind of a team together and I thought about that after a while and I figured that I had gotten stuck because I was the new kid on the block. But we had fun and that, after all, is the intention but I was aware even then of some political things going on.

(I) Well what were the nature of the stresses?

(N) I think they were racial and ethnic in the sense that we tried to schedule all the games at times when there were no religious training obligations. Sometimes it didn't work out. Sometimes there was a conflict with games and with practice because kids were going to school for religious training so that sometimes we just didn't have enough kids to field a team. I don't think we ever had to forfeit but what we had left as a team was the next thing to forfeit. And I had a kid on the team who was kind of a smart kid and he called one kid on another team a nigger and I overheard him and I told him he would not play again until I spoke to his father and I did speak to his father, who was a rabbi. His father didn't understand where he learned language like that but I just let them know I was not going to tolerate it and for my first year there, that sort of put me on the edge a little. It made me more aware of things than perhaps I otherwise would have been. But those were the things that we encountered, not that they were all that serious, but at least they were, we knew we hadn't escaped anything by moving from the west side of Manhattan to Teaneck and I suppose I would say that was fair enough.

(I) Was your son on that team?

(N) My son was on the team with this other guy and I think we had, yes we had one other black kid on the team that I was coaching.

(I) Do you think it effected your son in terms of getting along with the other kids?

(N) Oh, not at all. Most of his friends are white and the group that he travels in seems to be peculiarly unaware or unmindful of or at least they are not paying any attention to any ethnic differences that pertain to the town.

(I) Was the Little League your first activity in the town?

(N) That was my first and I worked in the Little League for I think it was three seasons and my wife was a volunteer at Whittier, working in the library with books and guiding kids and so on.

(I) Did you find any changes in those three years that you coached in attitudes of kids or would you say they, or did your feelings change in any way in that three year period?

(N) Well I can't say that I was terribly upset but I was determined that wherever I could find a kid who I considered out of line, that I was going to jack him up which that was the only time that that ever happened that first year it did. Never happened after that. And then of course you know kids have a way of working out their differences. I did talk to one black father who complained that his son should have been selected for something or other and he felt that the reason why he hadn't been was because he was black. And I tended to agree with the father. I mean you have politics in every situation whether it is Little League or not. Really the kid was such a fantastic athlete that I, anything that occurred in Little League was not going to deter him his full potential in athletics as indeed it hasn't.

(I) What other activities have you participated in in the town?

(N) Well I think that is about all on that level. In 79, the summer of 79, working with a group, I think it was called the Columbia University Desegregation Unit which was called in by the Teaneck Board of Education to work in terms of integrating the curricula in English and the social sciences and maybe some other things, I am not sure. I think those were the main targets. So I worked with that unit and with the teachers over in the high school that summer. We went over a lot of books, suggested a lot of books, discussed the contents of those books and in the fall of that year through the winter of 79-80, I did an in-service course on comparing black authors and white authors in American literature terms, trying to show those areas in which they were very much the same in terms of philosophies and aspirations and whatever. I have to say that the Teaneck High School at least, I was most familiar with that, had a fairly well integrated curriculum before I became involved. Far and away better than most colleges or other high schools. And we made some changes in the curriculum which I assume is still still stand.

(I) What kind of changes?

(N) Well, for example, Adam is now in high school and we went to parents night and we went to Parents Night. In the English class, II one of the teachers who had been in the program began the semester comparing Oedipus and Things Fall Apart which is by Chinua Achebe.  Now there was some resistance to this comparative, actually it is comparative literature, if you forget the ethnicity involved, that's all it is, we know there is still some resistance on the part of some parents to studying like this and one of the parents was there that night and she herself is a teacher. She could not understand why Oedipus had to be related to an African story, perhaps by an author she never even heard of. That was a problem. But it opens up a whole new way of looking at Oedipus at the same time it opens up our interest into authors and situations that we may have been completely ignorant about. But I suppose that you are always going to have that kind of resistance from people who are interested in "traditional literature" which is the same old people in the same old situations and we just never see the possibilities that other people are involved in the same thing.

(I) In this particular case, what you are saying is that your input was almost more in terms of an approach to literature rather than to the specific changes in the curricula, in terms of

(N) Yeah. I would say that. Yes.

(I) And you worked with the English Department at the high school? 

(N) English and I believe there were some social science teachers involved too.

(I) And I think you had mentioned that the chairperson at that time

(N) That was Floyd Perini who was supervisor of the English Programs and Ed Reynolds who's supervisor of Social Sciences. One of the teachers in the program Len Vogen became a teacher of my son's at at B.F. and I don't think he told Adam that he ever studied with me but he told him, you know I read your father's books and he is always sending notes home to me. Adam found it all quite embarrassing, you know, to know, to have to study with a teacher who knew his dad but it was one of, Len was one of the best teachers that Adam had. As a matter of fact, Len Vogen and Mr. Gruber in the Social Science Department at B.F. and Ron Wolf who was teaching, coaching the tennis team at B.F. and who had also sponsored a Little League team, I think he still does, and at Whittier I think his favorite teachers were Mrs. Delefo and Mrs. McCarren so school has really been his relationship to teachers and his studies has been the backbone of our situation here of because the first couple of years we moved here, I was still teaching in Manhattan at the City University, one of the units there, and then I decided I had had it with that eight o'clock in the morning traffic on the G.W. Bridge and I was teaching up at Boston University once a week, a graduate course. I'd fly up in the morning and come back and fly back in the afternoon or maybe stay over with friends and come back the next day and then I started down at Rutgers in Newark and then Lori started working at F.D.U. in their speech theater in communication so it was a pretty studious or collegiate or educationally involved family, if only in terms of employment and what Adam has done. Through some of the activities in all of the schools that Adam has been to, we got to know a lot of people in the Parent/Teachers Associations. And in a social sense as well. Some teachers we've met. And what else was I involved in? The Magnet School Program and the planning committee. I guess I went to two or three meetings over in Tenafly, that hotel there at the crossroads of everything. The Clinton Inn. And what else have we done?

(I) The Magnet School concept had some interesting goals, one of which was to foster understanding among the different ethnic groups in town through the arts which you, in effect, had been doing prior to that and which that curriculum also, I think, attempted to achieve. Did you have any role in the development of the programs in the Magnet School?

(N) No, that surprised me because I understood it was going to be in a couple of steps. One, we would have the planning committees and come up with information and whatever and two, we would see who was going to be involved in the actual performance of the Magnet School. But after we got through with the planning for it, I never heard from anybody and in a way I was glad because I'm always into two or three different projects of my own and you somehow feel, or at least I do, sort of obligated to put something into the community and it is very difficult sometimes to say no. On the other hand, very often you say yes and you find that when it comes to the time, it is just not there which upsets people too. So I'm not unhappy that I wasn't involved.

(I) Are you saying that through your participation and through your son's involvement in the school and your involvement with your son, that actually you have developed your own community of friends in Teaneck?

(N) Well more through him than through our own efforts. For example, we know people here who moved over from Manhattan, OK, that's one level. Basically our real friendships still go back to Manhattan. We see people for dinner parties and things of that sort, theater, shows, but the people that we have made friends with in Teaneck basically have come through my situation at the high school and Adam's situation at his various schools and through the people Lori knew when she was at Fairleigh Dickinson University although not all of those people lived in Teaneck. Some lived out of town. But basically it's been through some of following up Adam, being the good parent.

(I) But it also seems to suggest that one advantage of Teaneck is its location in terms of your being able to maintain friendships and connections to the city, to New York, and at the same time widen them here.

(N) Yes, it still is very important to us. It doesn't work on the other end as you probably know. Everybody who lives in Manhattan has a certain dread of crossing the Hudson River. I mean you can beg them and plead with them but it takes almost an army to make them cross the bridge and come out. It's a psychological barrier as well as a physical barrier that is not so great physically.

(I) No, we just get them to move here so that you can see them. Are there any other issues in the community that are of concern to you or have been of concern to you that you'd like to touch upon?

(N) Well I guess only one and that is taxes. Our understanding was that taxes ultimately would go down with the business at Glenpointe. Then you know we went through that period where they brought in some California people to assess the properties and everybody hit the roofs. There seems to be a degree of instability in the financial picture for this town. I understand the school population has dropped wherein some schools have to be closed or at least they think they have to be closed but I would like to feel better about where the tax base is going. It seems to me that once it starts up, it never comes down. Although they can juggle the figures all they want to, the taxes still seem to creep upwards. And I think that services are not as good as when we first moved here. This would apply to street cleaning, some of the taking care of the roads in the wintertime, they're small things but over a period of years, you think, gee I remember that road used to have stuff on it when it was icy. They haven't been up here in a week now. So we notice that and we wonder what the future is. We understand the economic situation. Not many people are buying houses. We understand that we have a growing orthodox population, Jewish Orthodox, and kids are not going to schools which means that again the school population shrinks. I don't know. I would like to, well I am glad I am not a very young person having to face a future where things don't seem to stay too stable for definite periods of time.

(N) Do you feel that you entered the community at the point where things were fairly stable?

(I) Just barely, yes. And in a matter of nine years, you know, they've become relatively unstable.

(N) Do you think that applies to Teaneck specifically or sort of across the board in the country as a whole?

(I) Well it may apply across the board, but I live in Teaneck so it concerns me more than say Los Angeles where my mother lives and is undergoing the same problems with particularly with medical care, housing the same situation, which is why I could never understand why they brought those dodos in from California where the housing situation is just incredibly, well it is weird.

(N) Is you unease such that you would contemplate moving at this time?

(I) Oh no. No, we wouldn't move. Adam wouldn't allow this. I don't think we have the energy. And besides we have another place upstate which is like the retreat that we go to and we have friends that we can visit on the beach. We prefer the mountains. So we are not interested in moving and our neighbors have made us swear not to move too so it's kind of nice being wanted.

(N) That certainly is. The question is if you are concerned about a problem, such as services, such as direction or policy of the township, did you feel that you had access to changing that policy or

(I) Well I probably have but frankly I have not written a letter, I have not made a phone call, I've made a couple of, I've asked a couple of questions when I've been over at the office but that's about it. My situation is the same, I am sure, as it is for lots of other people. I am trying to survive. And sometimes I find that between being involved in those projects that keep us afloat, in other things that I really want to do for myself artistically, I just don't have the time and I feel that sense of frustration that I don't. It is like a Catch 22.

(I) Well at this point, we certainly should make clear that in addition to your activities in the community, that you are engaged as a novelist, a journalist and a teacher so that that certainly is a wide variety of activities to juggle all at one time. Do you feel that as a writer that living in town has effected you or living in Teaneck has effected you in any particular way? I'll ask it in that broadest way first?

(N) Well no, I learned long ago that in order to survive, I had to be able to work any place and I've managed to do that. It does give me a great sense of pleasure to go out into the study which is attached to the house but you have to go out of the house in order to get to it to have my own space there. The ambiance helps me. But

(I) Which ambiance?

(N) The one of the isolation and yet the nearness to the family. I can sit at my desk and watch my neighbors sitting out on their chairs and if it is a nice day, I may think, boy, I'd like to get out there with them and sometimes I do. So I have the options. I think it has probably helped in ways that I can't now define. In Manhattan, I worked in the bedroom. The scenery was not so nice, not as restful, nothing. I love the chimes from the church. When I was growing up in Syracuse, the chimes used to play at the University up there. So in a sense, it is really like being back and I think psychologically that's a help.

(I) Do you find that there is a community of other writers in town that you have connection with?

(N) Well I know some other writers. We don't have connections other than that acquaintanceship or maybe meeting at parties. Robin Brancato who is John Brancato's wife; Bob Lipside who lives over in Closter, has a lot of friends here; we know a television producer; one person we know, a writer, went back to London; as a matter of fact, Adam works for Dan Balaban over in the bookstore once a week; and there are some others whose names I can't think of but we know pretty much who they are.

(I) Do you think that is important to you?

(N) No, no. I mean there are no writers up in the mountains where we go. They are all farmers or were, now we are getting some sculptors and dentists and doctors who have, and art gallery people but that's all right.

(I) Which mountains are they?

(N) The northern slope of the Catskills, not far from Oneonta. But basically it is all dairying country. And most of the people are farmers so we are not inundated with artistic types which I can do without. It is nice to know other artists but you must know this, you get too many artists together and boy, it gets pretty dull after a while.

(I) Do you have any favorite haunts or activities in town just by nature of being here, recreational activities?

(N) Well not really. We like to, if I have the energy, I skate on the pond at Andreas Park in the winter or over at Votee when they were flooding it. I have enjoyed walking from one end of the town to the next when I have to take the car into the shop and rather than ride a bike or take a cab, I would just as soon walk. It is a lovely walking town, particularly in the spring and the fall. I like the relationship that the town has with Fairleigh Dickinson because of the tennis courts and the tracks which people can use. And the Votee tennis courts where I usually play with my friend Ed Tita who teaches in the City University system. He is a man about my age and he doesn't run me as tired as my son who is no where near my age. But the whole town is nice for walking and after a while, even Main Street takes on a glamorous look. You know, after you've hiked from one part of the town up there. Lovely, isn't it?

 

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