In Bayonne, things change but often not that much. Thirty-five East First St. is largely the same building it was in the early 1950s, except back then the roof was flat. A few blocks down, a corner candy store has lasted more than six decades, though where a twirling rack of comic books once stood, there is now a soda case. Ball-playing is no longer allowed in the courtyards that separate the low-income housing buildings across from Brady Dock, and there’s no longer an annual soapbox race down Lexington Avenue. But George R.R. Martin well remembers those times.
Martin is the author of the wildly successful fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire—known popularly as Game of Thrones since HBO adapted it in 2011. He might never have discovered his love for storytelling, were it not for those comic books, and his Saturday trips to the long-gone DeWitt Theater on Broadway and 25th Street. But when he returns to town to visit his sister, Darlene, Martin has no trouble picturing the Bayonne of his youth.
“I still like to go to some of the old places, like Hendrickson’s, but then today I was riding down Broadway and I noticed that Petridis Hot Dogs is now George’s. What the hell happened?” He expressed similar dismay that just across the street, a McDonald’s had replaced the old DeWitt.
Martin was born here in 1948. His upbringing was typical for a kid in Bayonne during that time. He came from a big, Catholic family, and spent his summers selling lemonade to ferryboat passengers visiting from Staten Island. His parents were both union workers. His father was a longshoreman, and his mother spent many years in the Maidenform factory. [See story page 18]. He grew up in low-income housing, though his mother’s family was prominent in Bayonne as far back as the mid-18th century. Brady Dock was built by, and later named for, Martin’s family, but when he grew up across the street, it was called City Dock.
On a recent trip to New York for the premiere of the fourth season of Game of Thrones, Martin agreed to be interviewed in his native Bergen Point neighborhood downtown. He suggested a walk-and-talk on First Street, so he could rediscover his childhood home. He said he visits Bayonne when he can but hadn’t stopped by the old neighborhood for years.
“This was the whole world, Bergen Point,” he said, noting that he never had to travel far from his first job, the lemonade stand, to his second job, summers spent operating rides at Uncle Milty’s Playland.
Down by the schoolyard
Martin recalled his school days, first at Mary J. Donahoe School and later at Marist High School. Standing in Mary J.’s courtyard, where it was once his job to keep older students from crossing paths with kindergartners on their way to class, he recalled how he once was forced to report a much older, much tougher student, a task he took to heart.
“Everyone at school was terrified of Michael Wiggins, but I wasn’t going to be intimidated, because I was a patrol boy. I issued a report on him … and thereby proved my courage and integrity,” he said. “Then about a week later he caught me down on First Street and beat the living crap out of me.”
Martin also talked to us about the food he used to eat. No surprise, when he comes back to town, he goes straight for the pizza. Sometimes he takes Darlene’s family out to eat, but usually they order a few pies and sit around the kitchen table, catching up.
“You know I miss the pizza,” he said. “Santa Fe, where I’m from now, you get the best Mexican food in the world, but the pizza can’t compare to Bayonne pizza, the bar pies of my youth.”
The written word
Martin also developed his love of writing in Bayonne. His first stories were inspired by the knowledge of a greater world beyond the city’s borders. From the shores of the Kill Van Kull, he’d spend hours watching oil tankers go by, all the while learning the countries of the world by the flags the ships flew. Afterwards, he’d go down to the corner candy store and pick out a few comics. He quickly grew to love reading, then writing.
There are no direct links between Bayonne and A Song of Ice and Fire, he said, though a character in one of his other works, an anthology of science fiction, is a telekinetic turtle who lives in his childhood building on First Street. But he said it’s possible that the underdogs in the Ice and Fire series, largely the “good guys,” could be inspired by his own childhood.
“The sense of being an underdog shaped my whole life, not only just being from Bayonne but also being from the projects,” he said. “There was always a stigma, nothing terrible, but you know you’re the poor kid. I always was selling lemonade to people getting on the ferry, but I was never the kid getting on the boat.”
Eventually Martin did leave Bayonne, not on a boat, but rather on a Greyhound bus to Chicago, where he attended Northwestern University. Afterwards, he moved to Iowa to teach, and then Santa Fe, where he owns the Jean Cocteau Theater and lives with his wife, Parris. The first volume of Song of Ice and Fire, A Game of Thrones, was published in 1996. Subsequent installments, each of which is close to 1,000 pages, were published in 1998, 2000, 2005, and 2011. There are two more books in the series left to write. The Winds of Winter is expected sometime in 2015.
Martin has sold nearly 24 million copies of his books in North America alone, an unimaginable dream when he was buying those penny comics from the First Street candy shop and reading them across the street at Uncle Milty’s. There are plenty of stories of broken dreams in Bayonne, young people ablaze with imagination and energy who fizzle as they grow old. That wasn’t Martin’s story, and it doesn’t have to be the narrative for kids like him today, who yearn for life beyond the Peninsula.
“Persistence is a big part of it, you have to keep trying,” Martin said. “I think you need talent, and a certain amount of luck, but you need a hell of a lot of persistence, the ability to handle rejection and push on through, and some sort of belief in yourself that no matter how people say you can’t do it, you say, ‘Well, forget you, yes I can.’”—BLP