What would you have me say from five minutes and a handshake? My meeting with the mayor did not especially deepen my insight into him. His Honor held open office hours in the basement of a church. The affiliated hospital was across the street, its neon cross glowing over a deserted entrance, a gilded portrait of Our Lord between the elevators. I went because the year I’ve lived in Newark has been spent in woeful ignorance of the local political climate, though the latter largely describes my whole life, apart from a brief Nader fling in 2000. I inhabit a 20th floor studio in a decaying Mies van der Rohe monolith (one of two facing each other across a lawn and reminiscent of Detroit’s Lafayette Park) in what was once Newark’s Little Italy, and from my eyrie survey with sovereign aloofness the downtown skyline. Since I moved in, two neighboring buildings have been demolished—one a Westinghouse factory—with no new construction announced. I took the Light Rail to the main station and crossed into the largely Lusophone Ironbound. The travel agencies, the shops that advertised check cashing, phone cards, and international parcels were closed, the churrascarias slow on a Tuesday night; a few people still sat in clusters in the bakeries. Off the main drag houses with old siding crowded narrow alleys. Snow from two days ago lay banked against the curb, and in a fenced lot moonlight glinted from the cars. The church looked like a suburban elementary school, brick with oblong windows and fin awnings. The cops were all white (Cory is known for increasing their number on the streets). The interns at reception spoke accented English and seemed easily confused. They didn’t know Newark well enough to do what I’d never, in my year of residence, bothered to either: place my address in the correct city ward (“North”: a nearby cop guarding the men’s room stepped in to help). The basement waiting area, with its free coffee on a back table and a flaking curtain wall, reminded me of the public library all-purpose rooms where as a child I’d have violin recitals. It had that exhausted, amateur air of community to it. Chairs were desultorily scattered about and, along the walls, political groups without discernible sign or banner sat in conference at folding tables with people passing the time, fingering arrayed and photocopied brochures (the only Kinko’s in downtown Newark closed two months ago). Here was a family in puffy jackets (Latino), there an elderly couple (Polish). A young woman, stylishly dressed, quizzed a boy in bright tones on arithmetic as if his tutor, mentor, or the supervisor to some afterschool program he attended, then stood and tottered off in her heels; I was startled by the gauntness of her arms. The Mayor himself exuded presence and energy. Fit bald men have undeniable integrity; those domes gleam and glower, a pole of command like the core of a plasma lamp. Dare I say he had a grip reminiscent of his days as a Stanford tight end? Handsomer than Obama, if you like the rugged type. He comes by his reputation for fearlessness honestly, deliberately living in notoriously unsafe areas. But his smile made him seem more optimistic than combative.
Cory Booker, Open Office Hours, Tuesday January 13, 200819 01 2009