During the past year, the Current has interviewed dozens of interesting characters from around the county. We've talked to Broadway dancers and struggling filmmakers, marathon runners and female impersonators, musical pig farmers and a record-breaking DJ. In our third annual year in review, we will reflect on some of our favorite characters from 2001. Thanks for the memories.
The Cake Diva
Despite being nicknamed the "Cake Diva," Charmaine Jones doesn't eat cake.
"When you're around it everyday," Jones said, perched next to a traditional four-tier wedding confection covered with dozens of palatable pale pink tulips, "it just doesn't appeal to you."
Nonetheless, when she describes her creations, Jones, who is the owner of the Hoboken-based company Isn't That Special - Outrageous Cakes, speaks with the exuberance and affection of someone who not only loves to eat cake, but who takes tremendous pleasure in bestowing the elemental joys of her sugary treats on others as well.
"I make vanilla, chocolate, yellow, banana, lemon poppy seed, tangerine orange zest, old-fashioned pound cake, pink champagne cake and traditional German chocolate cake," she said. "They're not exactly dietetic ... they're rich ... but they're goooood."
James Mastro has been a fixture in the Hoboken music scene since almost before it was a scene. The 40-year-old musician not only owns The Guitar Bar and The Pigeon Club (a recording studio), but he has also been the lead singer and songwriter of the Hoboken-based band the Health & Happiness Show for the past 10 years.
Alas, after three CDs and a decade of memorable performances, earlier this year the Health & Happiness Show decided to call it quits.
"When I started the band, I was 30," Mastro said last spring. "I just turned 40 and I've moved out of Hoboken. Life has really changed over the last decade and it seems better to go out on a high note."
Mastro started Health & Happiness Show with the drummer Vincent DeNunzio.
"Personally and professionally, it wasn't the best time of our lives," Mastro said. "I was 30, single and fairly miserable. So, Vinnie and I just started these kitchen table jams. We would get together, get some beer and play some Hank Williams."
Mastro and DeNunzio named their rootsy combo the Health & Happiness Show. And while the appellation was meant to be ironic, the real irony came when the union eventually brought its members not only health, but happiness. During the '90s, the band recorded three albums and toured extensively. They were even the subject of a seven-page Rolling Stone fashion/feature spread.
"The Health & Happiness Show started as a healing process," he said. "Vinnie and I were both really disillusioned. It's been 10 years and the therapy is complete."
Jeff Somers doesn't mind being pigeonholed as a Generation X author. In fact, he was ecstatic when Booklist magazine used the term to laud his first novel Lifers, calling it a "highly entertaining if chillingly accurate reflection of the apathetic work ethic and life disappointments of Gen X post-collegiate dreamers." Had they used that other more pejorative description, however, there might have been some trouble.
"What annoys me is when people use the word 'slacker,'" Somers said.
Perhaps that's because Somers is anything but indolent. The 29-year-old Hoboken resident works full-time at a medical publishing company, self-publishes his own quarterly 'zine entitled The Inner Swine and is the author of over 250 short stories. On top of all that, his first novel, Lifers, was published by Creative Arts Book Company, a small publishing house based out of Berkeley, Calif.
To defend his diligence, Somers cited some of the more ominous aspects of the human condition. "I'm obsessed with time and death," he said. "I feel like I don't have a lot of time, so I want to use what I can."
Somers' novel was later given a brief review in the New York Times book review section, and the diligent author gave a reading at the Chelsea Barnes & Noble.
The rock 'n' roller
Despite the humble disclaimer on the homepage of his web site, "BB GUN is not out to make literary history but just to be a little keepsake - a thank you (if you will) to friends and family and fans over the years," Bob Bert, the co-creator of the annual Hoboken-based music magazine, is often impressed with his own written work.
"I did a great interview with Elliott Smith right around the time when he was nominated for the Academy Award," Bert said without a trace of hubris. "We were the first magazine to put him on the cover. He told me all about the experience of playing at the Academy Awards. And he talked about his love life, and the time he took acid when he was younger. It was by far the best interview I've ever read with him."
Bert, who describes himself as a magazine junkie, started BB GUN in 1995 along with his wife Linda Wolfe. (Bert is responsible for editorial and Wolfe is in charge of the layout.) Along with music reviews and full-page pinups, the first issue of BB GUN features interviews with Boss Hog, Richard Kern and Howie Pyro of D Generation. Other issues contain articles on The Muffs, Lydia Lunch, and, of course, Elliott Smith.
After a three-year hiatus, Bert and Wolfe released the magazine's fifth issue last April. The much-anticipated edition featured Cynthia Plaster Caster, the legendary '60s groupie famous for making plaster casts of rock stars' penises, on the cover. The issue also included interviews with Nancy Sinatra, Jerry Stahl, Debi Mazar and Robert John Burck, a.k.a. the Naked Cowboy.
The pig farmer
Long before Donna Karan and Calvin Klein infiltrated Secaucus with designer fashions at discounted prices, the blue-collar suburban community was known for its pig farms.
"It used to be the hog capital of the East," explained Joe McKay, who was born on a Secaucus pig farm in 1946. "Anywhere you went in the world, if you mentioned Secaucus, people would hold their nose."
Up until the late 1950s, there were more than 30 pig farms sandwiched between the Hackensack River and Penhorn Creek. The McKay family's farm, a two-acre plot of land just off of Secaucus Road - more commonly referred to as "The Backroad" - was home to over 6,000 pigs.
"The Backroad was an unusual place," McKay said. "There were the pig farms and saloons. It was like something out of the old Wild West."
From whiskey-hazed wage-workers to Henry Krajewski (the notorious pig farmer who ran for president), Secaucus circa 1950, like the old Wild West, was overflowing with vibrant characters.
Ten years ago, McKay decided to capitalize on his colorful past. He attended a songwriters' workshop and began to write folk songs using his childhood as a leitmotif. Earlier this year, after countless nights spent honing his homespun ditties at amateur venues and open mic nights, McKay released his debut CD, Backroad Joe.
Laritza DuMont was born in Hoboken eight years ago when a young veterinary student named Robert attended a Halloween party at Excalibur. "I entered the drag contest and won first place out of 25 drag performers," DuMont said by phone from her apartment in Queens. "I thought it was just going to be fun, but it's turned into a career."
And quite a career it's become. DuMont not only hosts her own live show at several Manhattan night clubs, but she has also appeared in episodes of Law & Order, The Sopranos and Sex in the City as well as the 1995 movie To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar with Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo.
On Aug. 25, DuMont returned to Hudson County to perform at Jersey City's first annual Gay Pride Festival.
"The New Jersey crowd has always been very nice to me," she said. "Besides, it's a gay event and we have to help one another."