Twist and Shout

Twist and Shout
Life is never straight (Joey Kulkin photo)

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Guns. Food. Dickie Thon. Celery. (Or how I spent a day in Mercer County)

SKS is not an AK-47

UPDATE AT 12:20 P.M. MONDAY: Paul Raynolds of PBR Firearms Training sent me an email to correct my mistake about the SKS that the Trenton detective is holding. "An SKS rifle is not an AK-47 or even a variant of the AK as you suggest. Rather, it is a semi-automatic carbine style rifle," he wrote. "As a matter of interest, the SKS was designed by Sergei Gavrilovich Simonov and was never manufactured as a "select fire" rifle thus it is not even a true "assault rifle". The SKS was in use prior to the introduction of the AK-47 which replaced it as a front line battle rifle. On the other hand, the AK-47 which was designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov, is a true "assault rifle" as it was manufactured with a select fire indicator." He said reporters get false or misleading information when talking to cops about guns. He also echoed Trenton's Jim Carlucci, and others, by saying Trenton's gun buyback (OK, it was a food-for-guns exchange) is a farce of an exercise.

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TRENTON -- Nothing in life is better than getting out of Trenton sometimes. Perhaps if I escaped Little Baghdad more often on days off I wouldn't feel the crushing need to leave for good. The only reason I moved into Trenton from Morrisville, Bucks County, was to be able to say I live where I work. Six months later I'm not so sure that was the best idea, even if I was burned out on Morrisville. Should've chosen Hamilton or Lawrence.

The day began with aimless driving around the hoods looking for something to eat. Not sure what led me to Perry Street but I remembered the "Food For Guns" exchange at the Fire Department. I knew that unless I covered it in one form or another it wouldn't have been covered at all. So I spent an hour in the guts of the TFD and then in the back parking lot watching mostly old people walk up with mostly decrepit firearms. Oh, sure, there was the SKS -- better known as an AK-47 that you might see in Saddam's Baghdad or in South-Central Kabul, or right here in Trenton! -- and other strong pieces, but most of the guns people exchanged for $100 ShopRite gift cards were junk. Missing parts. So rusted that cops couldn't check the barrels for ammunition. One man returned a rotted rifle that he said he found in the basement of an Island-section home after a big flood years ago. It was so rotted that it looked like a prop gun kids might use in a school play. But he got a $100 food card for it. Goddamn, I should've found a few cheap guns this week, broken or otherwise, and returned them for gift cards. Another man brought in a '68 German .22-caliber that looked like it hadn't been fired since '69. The funniest exchange occurred when an old black woman handed a box of Russell Stover Chocolates to Detective Matt Przemieniecki. He opened it with an amused look and went Gumpian on the crowd after pulling the gun out. "Life is like a box of chocolates," he said. "You never know what you're going to get." The pictures I've attached were taken between 10 o'clock and 11:45, when most of the guns came in -- at least 145 by the time Mercer County Prosecutor Joe Bocchini arrived. Later in the day I read a text from Juan Martinez that said 204 gift cards were given out, which means just 59 guns were returned from noon to 2.

I had my fill of guns, though I considered driving to a used gun store to buy a couple of $20 pieces and returning to get two $100 gift cards. Unfortunately, Trenton has no gun stores. Wait, I think that's a good thing. So, I drove downtown to find a cell phone charger at Sound of Trenton. The employee found one that matched my phone, but he didn't just sell it to me. No, he walked over to the spot where a car-lighter thingy is hooked into the wall and tested the charger. And that's why I'll shop at Sound of Trenton again. I didn't even know stores would be smart enough to install a car lighter for this kind of situation. It's the little things.

Anyway, at that point I began to drive around like I could afford full tank of gas after full tank of gas. No one wastes gas like I do. I was somewhere near Raul Wallenberg Drive, at the edge of the train station, when Dan Toto called to see what's up. Nothing, bubba. He told me he was about to go have lunch with his boy, Teak, and from there they were going to Mercer County Park to watch the MCT baseball semifinal between Notre Dame and Hamilton High. He asked if I wanted to go. Yes. I needed to get out of Little Baghdad for a few hours. We drove into Lawrenceville to get a slice from TJ's, across from Lawrenceville School. The air was cleaner in Lawrenceville, and the colors of the flowers and the green on the leaves of the trees were more vibrant in Lawrenceville, and the pizza was excellent in Lawrenceville (OK, Lawrenceville pizza will never trump Trenton pizza), but the point is we were only 3 miles away from Trenton yet it felt like we were worlds away from Little Baghdad. After the pizza we went to a bike rodeo so Teak could get a bike helmet. There I met one of Toto's buddies, Carlos, who played shortstop at Rutgers years ago. We talked baseball, and for whatever reason Dickie Thon dominated the conversation. I don't remember Thon (who's part Indianan and part Puerto Rican) being strong with the bat during his stunted career, but George insisted that the Astros' shortstop batted .280 before that fateful Mike Torrez fastball broke his eye and all but ended his career. Speaking of Dickie, R.A. Dickey pitched for the Mets today, and I had no idea of that till after the Dickie Thon chat. Apparently today was Dickie Dickey Day.

After the bike rodeo the three of us went to JoJo's Tavern and Restaurant in Hamilton for a real lunch. Teak was hyped up. Dan and I talked about Trenton politics, and other stuff. The mini-tacos and wings at JoJo's are great, but the tortellini alfredo, especially the alfredo, is as good as it gets. The best part of the JoJo's experience is that I got Teak to eat celery for the first time. I dipped a stick in the bleu cheese and chomped on it and did the whole "mmmm, this is so goooood, Teak" and Teak was so intrigued that he touched the tip of a celery stick into the dressing and tried a bite and said "That's not bad." I told him he needed to put much more dressing on the stick. I did then he did, and he took another bite and liked the taste again. Dan was impressed. I got a kid to eat celery. First time, apparently. I think that proves I'm ready to be a dad! Or not. Who knows. Who cares. I was stuffed of JoJo's.

Next up was the main dish: high school baseball. I was a sportswriter for 17 years in L.A., New England (3 times) and Roswell. Local Sports was my thing. I was the George O'Gorman of the places I worked. In other words, everywhere all the time. But it had been 5 years since I watched high school baseball. Excitement crept up as I walked up to the field at Mercer County Park, my first time there. Kudos to the politicians and other people who brought that place to life 30 years ago. Anyway, it was Notre Dame v. Hamilton in the first of two MCT semifinals. Dan was there because several Hamilton players play for his Titans travel team during the summer, so he watches most of their high school games. Dan is a baseball man, a baseball psycho, and he always brags about his 4-year, 83 percent winning percentage as manager of the Titans; 83 percent winning percentage against teams from Hershey to Jupiter to the Cackalackees to Virginny and places in between. I always bust his chops and say "Sure, Dan, but against what competition?" But the Titans are legit. They play 70 to 80 games against teams filled with guys who go on to D-I schools or strong D-II or D-III schools. I'm probably going to take a week off in June and head to Jupiter with the Titans to watch them in a tournament at the same complex used by the Tampa Rays and St. Louis Cardinals. It'll be a working vacation most likely with drops of Jupiter being tweeted and Facebooked and chronicled for print and online. And, no doubt, Trentonian TV live from Jupiter! I want to understand the whole "Titans Baseball" thing firsthand. As for today's game, it was bizarre. Hamilton should have won that game 12-2. Hamilton should have led at least 9-0 after the 2nd inning. Instead, Hamilton led only 4-0. I don't know Jersey high school baseball from Adam, but I know baseball, and I knew Hamilton was in trouble by not taking advantage of Notre Dame's shaky early pitching; the starter couldn't find the strike zone. Top-1 and Top-2 took forever, it seemed, yet, Hamilton pushed only 2 runs across in each frame. And that spelled trouble because Notre Dame is full of seniors, so the Irish didn't panic being down 4-0 with a ton of innings to play. An Irish lefty wearing No. 19 came in and righted the ship a bit till the offense started to chip away. I liked the way 19 pitched, though everyone seemed a bit curious as to why he got pulled in the 4th.

What happened after the 4th is interesting. Notre Dame came to life, and right about now is when Hamilton's starter lost his stuff. Hamilton's best pitcher, who struck out 9 in 4 innings about 36 hours earlier, warmed up in the bullpen. Dan saw that the kid was tight and sore as he stretched. I walked over to where the kid warmed up. His velocity was decent, but several pitches sailed, so he probably should not have been the No. 1 choice to stop the bleeding. But the Irish loaded the bases, so he got the call. Hamilton led 4-2. One out. The kid walked his first batter on four pitches, 4-3. He did get the next batter to ground to the second basemen, but he flobbed the ball to the shortstop. They got the force but had no chance at the 4-6-3. Not even a throw. But, the shortstop is savvy, and he saw what was happening at third base -- the runner had rounded too far -- so he gunned the ball to the third baseman, who put the tag on to complete a 4-6-5 double play. Great baseball play; it's no coincidence that Hamilton's infield at this point was full of Titans, minus the second baseman (pitcher, catcher, first, short, third). Dan said his guys practice these kinds of maneuvers throughout the summer. That being said, the runner who was third at the time of contact scored before the 6-5 part of the DP was completed, so Notre Dame had tied the game 4-4. I knew it was over at that point. Notre Dame was going to win the game. The Irish had all the momentum, and Hamilton squandered too much and had no mojo. Anyway, Hamilton's star pitcher found himself in another jam in bottom-5, runners at the corner, but escaped. He was living on the edge, however, and throwing too many pitches. Hamilton's coach should've pulled him and put in a new arm in bottom-6. Hamilton's offense, meanwhile, did little at the plate against the fourth Irish pitcher, or maybe it was the fifth. Notre Dame has a ton of arms, so why not use them all, right? Into bottom-6 and Notre Dame loads the bases against Hamilton's star pitcher, who can't find the strike zone. And yet Hamilton's coach doesn't pull him. The kid's arm was cooked. Bad high school managing. Too stubborn. What happened next shocked every person at the park, especially Dan Toto. If you want to know happened, read the story at I feel bad for the kid. He's one of the better high school pitchers I've seen. He's going to pitch in college. Hey, maybe he's the next Jim Hoey -- a Hamilton High kid who makes it to The Bigs. But on a sexy day in Central Jersey, it wasn't meant to be. Truth be told, this wasn't about a star pitcher. No, the better team won because the better team showed more poise not only when it was 4-0 but when it mattered most with the game on the line. Notre Dame has a nice little team.

Anyway, I felt really bad for Dan. He has talked this kid up to me for the last year. And here I am to watch him for the first time and this kind of thing happens. Don't worry, kid, it's just baseball. Shit happens. You'll probably throw a no-hitter in the state title game. Better this happen today then on that day.

After the game Dan and I went to Bill's Olde Tavern at 5 Points. I don't think a cold beer ever tasted this good. The Yanks were on the TV (was that a homer in top-9, or did the ball hit the padding, not the top of the right-field wall? Whatever, Yanks still won.). Our first bartender girl looked like she was from SoCal, where I grew up. Nope, she's a Jersey girl. Her shift ended, and the next bartender girl looked like she could be the daughter of Bebe Neuwirth, the Princetonian who played Lilith on "Cheers". The bartender girl said she wasn't mad when I made the comparison, but I can't be so sure. Hey, I thought Lilith was hot. It was a compliment. Poor Hamilton bartender girl. (Mental note: Don't compare girls to Lilith.)

After another quick spirit, Dan and I split. He drove me back into Trenton down Hamilton Avenue, and immediately the stench of Little Baghdad brought me down a bit. Idiots were trying to play Frogger in traffic -- one shmuck almost got hit -- and the air started to smell worse again, and within minutes I was back at my car in the dark heart of the Burg.

Anyway, here are the photos (click to enlarge) and a video from today's excellent adventures.

Early during the production

Rev. Darrell Armstrong of Shiloh Baptist Church

View from TJ's Pizza patio in Lawrenceville

Cheese shredder at TJ's