By Brian McCullough
It was the first night we were all home for Winter Break, so, naturally we all congregated to Purvik’s basement after dinner with our families. Mid-way through our third year of college, we had fallen into a rhythm in our reunions. It only varied by amplitude. A low-key night was spent at home- maybe with a local friend (local meaning living within walking distance). The next level was gathering at a friend’s house- usually to watch a movie, play video games, or watch sports- in a small group. When we wanted to crank the night to 11, we found ourselves at Purvik’s house. At Purvik’s, anything goes and anything was possible. It was as true in 8th grade as it was now.
Such is life in suburban New Jersey.
“Know what would be awesome right now?” Bobby idly mused as the closing credits for ‘Dazed And Confused’ rolled. “A bacon cheddar double Whopper…” He posited, as if Purvik hadn’t stolen a sign for a bacon cheddar double Whopper Value Meal, mounted it on a light box, and hung it on the basement wall across from where Bobby was lounging.
This was all within the regular rhythm of our evenings at Purvik’s- the party would begin to peter out. Weed would come out. Chris would be eager to defend his title as (self-proclaimed) ‘best blunt roller in Glen Rock.’ Someone would come up with the idea to watch Dazed And Confused. We’d all parrot every line in the movie. Then it’d be time for a late-night food run.
“BK and Wendy’s are closed, dude.” Even in their current state, most of our friends could recall Burger King and Wendy’s weekday and weekend schedules.
“Diner?” Someone threw out there.
“Nah…” Everyone agreed. Too much work involved. Picking a booth. Navigating an endless menu. Dealing with a waitress. Splitting a bill. No one wanted any part of that.
“We could just go to White Castle…” I threw in. I wanted to make it sound as easy and nonchalant as possible. BK and Wendy’s were just as far away, but these guys had made that run so many times, it felt much easier in their current state. A 24-hour White Castle in Paterson had only recently been discovered by Purvik and had yet to make its way onto our list of go-to late-night establishments (for several reasons that will become obvious very soon).
Just a few moments earlier, the room was on the verge of losing all its momentum- but now a nervous energy cut through the weed smoke and Dazed And Confused soundtrack.
“Fuck yeah, dog!” Jeff was all in. He was always all in. Everyone else remained hesitant.
“How are we gonna get there?” Billy asked? They still weren’t comfortable assuming I’d be the designated driver. I would have driven to BK or Wendy’s, so there seemed to be some subtext to that question.
“I’ll drive.” I made clear.
“I’m good to drive, too.” Mark was in, as well. He was always up for an adventure, and he and I were usually the wheelmen.
We had made the run several times already, and the stories that followed us back didn’t do much to dispel our friend’s misgivings about venturing into Paterson late at night.
Paterson has a long and proud history, but it never really recovered once the textile factories left. It used to be called ‘Silk City’- a tremendous city nickname that is largely forgotten now. Paterson’s East Side High was the setting for the movie ‘Lean On Me’ starring Morgan Freeman. As a consequence of Northeast New Jersey’s high population density, Paterson- one of New Jersey’s most economically depressed cities, sits across the river from Glen Rock- ostensibly a Norman Rockwell painting. Many of Glen Rock’s municipal workers, and Glen Rock High School’s custodial and cafeteria staff are from Paterson. So am I.
Most of my Glen Rock friend’s interactions with Paterson was through the town’s service employees, and periodic grizzly news stories. The best-attended Glen Rock High’s boys’ basketball team home games were against Paterson Catholic, as PC would regularly defeat the Panthers by 40 or 50 points and feature several players with NBA aspirations.
Mark and I knew we had to be directive, otherwise the general reticence and weed lethargy would win out. We both got up and motioned to the door.
Fortunately, Purvik and Jeff were strong enough champions to marshal the posse. “It’s hard to yell with the barrel in your mouth!” Jeff dropped a random rap lyric as he bounced out the door. His enthusiasm was infectious.
Billy brought up the rear. I could tell he was apprehensive- he wasn’t the partier some of our other friends were- but he was just drunk enough to not be able to break himself away from the adventure. Even though Purvik was coming with us, we were leaving several friends behind who were either too far gone, or were still smoking and/or drinking. That’s the kind of town Glen Rock was. It wasn’t uncommon for friends to stop by a friend’s house even if they weren’t home. Maybe they were picking up where they left off in a video game. Maybe the friend had a specific DVD or access to TV channels others didn’t. Some just had hot moms.
We exited the basement into the backyard, and as we turned the corner towards the street, it began- the frantic dash to the cars and proclamations of ‘Shotgun!’ Peter, always on his game, declared shotgun first and dashed to Mark’s passenger-side door. The pursuit was now to not get stuck with the ‘bitch’ seat- the middle seat in the back. Andy made a leisurely B-line to my passenger-side door, never bothering to call shotgun. As he reached for the handle, Jeff- his twin- victoriously shouted ‘SHOTGUN.’ Andy paid no attention and casually situated himself in the seat that by the rules should belong to Jeff. ‘What the FUCK Andy?? I called shotgun!’ Jeff was incensed. He banged and screamed at the window to no avail.
‘I didn’t hear you, sorry.’
The battle-within-the-battle between the twins once again went to Andy. So with Peter, Billy and Ron in Mark’s car and the twins and Bobby in my car, we took off. Fortunately, no one had to be subjected to ‘bitch’ seating.
As everyone got settled, I peered at Jeff through the rear-view mirror. “Jeff…”
“Ugh! OK…” He opened the door, and pulled out the two unopened beers he had stashed in his jacket pockets, leaving them on the sidewalk.
We made our way through the slumbering suburb, passing only a few fellow young folk wandering home and a couple police cruisers with not a lot to do. We crossed into Fair Lawn, renowned for their overzealous police force. There wasn’t a person in those two cars who hadn’t had at least one run-in with FLPD. In fairness to the police, nearly all the run-ins were warranted. We passed Rivaras, the local watering hole everyone found themselves at the night before Thanksgiving. It was such a circus that, this past Thanksgiving, I showed the bouncer my actual license that says I’m 20 and I was still let in.
Over the river and into Paterson we drove. Midway through planning out Paterson, the city planner got fed up with the corruption and mismanagement and took the plan for the city down to Washington, D.C. instead. A little-remembered fact; Washington D.C.’s layout is based on Paterson (mostly).
We turn onto 2nd Ave and drive past blocks of houses with foreboding metallurgy protecting the 1st-floor windows. To our left, we pass Segundo’s, our favorite alcohol store. It’s where we’ve been buying alcohol and kegs since we first got our learners’ permits. Purvik had been going there so long, he had to make up a story for his prolonged absences when he began going to college. ‘I told them I was doing time.’
A few more blocks and we approach Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard. The closer we get, the more populated the sidewalks become. We are listening to HOT 97 and I make a point to roll the windows up- more to protect the Patersonians from Jeff’s random outbursts than anything else. He will not hesitate to use the ‘N’ word. Never in malice- it’s usually as a ham-fisted means of bonding. I’ve found that it’s just easier to avoid having to explain it in the first place.
At a stop light, a larger woman who’s very clearly on the clock saunters across the street in front of our car. Now I lock the windows closed. I was more worried about Andy than Jeff now. For whatever reason, I’ve never seen Andy not hit on a larger black woman when he’s drunk. ‘Hey ma! Where you going?? Are you hungry? We’re going to White Castle!’ he shouts through the closed window. She obviously takes the hint that she’s dealing with a couple carloads of intrepid white boys and gives us a little shake and a maid’s smile as she passes.
Despite it being 3 am in the middle of the week in late December, the sidewalk traffic only gets heavier. ‘Where are they going- I mean, don’t they have jobs to go to?’ Bobby wonders. We try to count the number of fried chicken joints between turning onto MLK and White Castle, which is roughly 5 blocks. We always come up with a different number. It’s always in the neighborhood of 7 or 8, though. Seems like a lot. The burnouts back in high school used to say that All-American Fried Chicken was the best. They also said there were special code words for ordering drugs. Drugs seemed easy enough to get, I’m not sure why you’d need to go retail.
Up ahead there’s a big crowd in the street. It’s spillover from something going down at a gas station. As we pull up, we see a handful of guys throwing fists every which way. It’s hard to get a read on what’s going on and be mindful of the crowd. Honestly, all I want are some burgers, and to make some Caucasians uncomfortable.
So far, so good.
A big part of the White Castle experience for me is bringing my lily-white friends into colorful Paterson at odd hours. Call it social experimentation. Call it suburban boredom. No one was ever adequately prepared for the discomfort they always inevitably experienced. Typically, the rowdiest, most gung-ho ones were the ones that became the most uncomfortable. Although I never felt like we were in danger, it was definitely apparent (if only) to me that the locals enjoyed fucking with these white boys every now and then. I couldn’t blame them.
The crowd slowly parted to let us through, and as we came out the other side, shining a block away was the Promised Land. White Castle predates McDonalds and the other fast-food chains by several decades. I always wondered if the seedy neighborhoods sprung up around them, or if White Castle at some point began seeking them out. But questions like that are immaterial tonight. Tonight the only questions that matter are; how many sliders, and do I want fries?
The parking lot is mostly empty- save for a couple idling beat-up cars with guys sitting in them. This gives me some pause, but we park our parents’ SUVs nearby anyway. The White Castle isn’t crowded, but there is a short line. The guys had been silent since we passed through that street fight. I can see the buzzes being harshed before my eyes. The pallid complexions and bloodshot eyes of my friends aren’t all the different from the looks on the other customers’ faces. The main difference was the clear tension my friends were trying to conceal. After all, we were a block away from East Side High and it looked like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir just walked in. Mark was born in Taiwan and Purvik is Indian, but I’m not sure their added diversity really did us any favors.Harold and Kumar
This was Jeff’s first trip, so he had no idea how many burgers to order. We talked him into 20 in the car. We just wanted to see the look on the cashier’s face and then on his face when his order was ready. Jeff had other plans. I could see he was still buzzing with excitement, feeling none of the apprehension our other friends were. As we were standing in line, I could see the gears turning in his head, and felt something had to be said. He was first in line. ‘Don’t do anything crazy and get us chased outta here before the rest of us get to order, OK? Just wait till we’re ready to leave at least.’
‘Yeah, yeah- got it.’ He responded soberly.
A panhandler slipped in the door, trying not to draw the attention of the staff. He approached Billy, who was last in line. ‘Yo man- got a dollar?’ Billy shot me a look, not knowing what to do. I quickly shook my head.
Billy turned back to the man, pulled out his wallet and handed the guy a $1 bill. The panhandler thanked him and moved on to the other customers. I turn back around as the guy in front of Jeff completes his order and moves to the side. Before Jeff approaches the counter, he turns to me and, with mischief in his eyes, says ‘Check this out!’
Oh no. Fucking Jeff…
‘I’ll have 4 Crave Cases for myself please!’ He watches the cashier input his order and once she’s done says ‘Just kidding!’ then he dashes off to the men’s room, which is locked. The cashier is glaring at me in disbelief.
After watching him frantically wrench on the handle for a moment, I call after him. ‘Hey Jeff- the bathrooms are only for paying customers only.’
He returns to the register. ‘I’ll just have 20 sliders and a medium Coke please.’ and then he pays, as if nothing happened.
‘I’ll have seven Jalapeno sliders, fries, and a large Diet Coke.’ After placing my order, I notice White Castle is selling holiday-themed t-shirts. Gaudy, irreverent- just my style. ‘Hey- how much for a t-shirt?’
The cashier looks at me for a moment. ‘You’re not from around here, are you?’
‘Well, as a matter of fact- I grew up in Paterson.’ Finally! An opportunity to connect with a fellow Patersonian.
White Castle ‘Uh huh. Ten dollars.’
‘What sizes do that come in?’
‘Just the one.’ At that moment, it became clear. I had always made a point to specify that I wasn’t from Glen Rock, that I was really from Paterson. I said that to differentiate me from all my square Glen Rock lifer friends. It had more cultural cache. Someday I hoped to return to Paterson, and help work to make it has great as I thought it was. But now it was clear that Paterson had no birthright citizenship.
As we waited for our orders, I caught Ron turning to Peter and asking under his breath, ‘…why are we here?’
Once we all had our orders, we sat down to enjoy the bounty. Jeff quickly realized there was no way he could eat 20 White Castle sliders (nor should he, or anyone) and the surplus was divided amongst the rest of the group. The panhandler came back and asked Billy again for a dollar. Again, Billy paused for a moment, not knowing what to do, and pulled out his wallet. ‘Um… I only have a five left…’
‘That’s fine, I’ll take it.’ He said very apologetically. Billy handed him the five.
Once Mark and I finished, we figured the rest of the guys could eat on the drive home. There was no argument. We piled out- not a second too soon. As we passed the line to order, someone shouted ‘Wassup, China?’ I’m going to assume that was directed at Mark.
I looked back and caught sight of Billy, once again, the last one out. Behind him, someone shouted ‘Who da FUCK wears khakis in the HOOD??’ A strange allegation to levy. A lot of people? I’m pretty sure Dr. Dre and Jay-Z. Billy’s eyes got wide and he hurried his pace. This time everyone was too preoccupied with eating and their well-being to engage in car seat warfare.
At the first light, several cop cars flew by. Despite the red light, after they passed, I inched forward into a rolling start and ran the red. Another red light, another slow-down instead of a stop. Stop signs were brief rolling stops. The cops clearly had bigger fish to fry tonight than a bunch of white suburban kids trying to get outta town.
Just another crazy night for a bunch of bored college kids.
Or is it something more?
I always enjoyed seeing my friends twisted into knots in their discomfort on our White Castle runs, but I didn’t see the bigger picture till I got to grad school.
Here’s a thought experiment-
Let’s reverse the scenario.*
*For social justice novices, this is a great exercise to try to figure out if racism or privilege is at work.
Let’s imagine two carloads of drunk, high, rambunctious young gentlemen from Paterson made their way into Glen Rock in the middle of the night on a weeknight. There’s already a couple things wrong with this picture. For one thing, nothing is open in Glen Rock past 9 pm.
So this thought experiment is already so implausible it’s nearly impossible to carry out. What would a carload of almost certainly young men of color be doing in Glen Rock at any hour? A reasonable question. We really can’t blame the Glen Rock business community for not having anything to offer young men of color from Paterson in the middle of the night. We really can’t blame the Glen Rock Police for asking themselves this question either- or for presumably paying increased attention to a group fitting that profile (especially if they ran as many red lights and stop signs as we did).
But why is it fair then that our group can stumble into Paterson in the state we were in, at the time we did, with the assumption that we were harmless- while the other hypothetical group would immediately be suspect? This is the essence of White Privilege: the ability to go anywhere, and do anything with an inherent presumption of innocence.
Like I said- individuals are blameless in these situations. This dynamic operates at a level above individual interactions and decision-making. This is what makes it so hard to identify- especially if you are the beneficiary. In fact- a big part of White Privilege is never having to actually acknowledge it. The world is constructed for guys like me- white, male, straight, able-bodied, Christian, middle-class to succeed- and succeed with as narrow a world-view and as little self-awareness or empathy as possible. There just isn’t any tangible incentive for stuff like that built into the system.
My friends were uncomfortable because this was a rare instance where they came right up to the boundary of their White Privilege. They can never step beyond it, however. White Privilege travels extremely well- even all the way to the White Castle in Paterson.
Brian is a Brooklyn-based writer, actor, Licensed Social Worker, pacifist rugby player and retired child astronaut. He’s only interested in the things we were taught not to discuss in polite company; race, sex, religion, politics, and scientific inquiry. You can find more of his fevered screeds on on Medium @brianchristophermccullough, or on his blog, Mothership. He’s always looking for new projects and collaborations, so if you like what you’ve read, email him an email at email@example.com.