Faith, Writing, and New Jersey Diners


Theme Essay by Kathy Curto

Going Back to the Source—and the Boss


"Red Bank, New Jersey" © Jazz Guy; Creative Commons license

I confess: I’m a confused Catholic. I don’t go to church every Sunday, but I try to say Grace every night. Two strands of rosary beads hang from the closet doorknob in my bedroom. One was my mother’s; the other I bought in Palermo a few years ago from a little old lady who sold saint statues, beads, and prayer cards on the street.

I pray to St. Anthony when I lose stuff. Once in awhile, I say a Hail Mary or an Our Father, hoping for one of two things to happen: to feel the soothing rhythm and melodious predictability of the verse or to be transported back to the late 1970s and my hometown on the Jersey Shore, where I’d be seated with my mom in a pew at St. Joseph’s Church during Saturday Night Mass, dreaming of the new Earth Shoes or burgundy corduroys I'd pick out at Grant's department store later that evening.

(Back then, we had a Saturday night routine: Mass, Grant's, and then a Fishamajig at Friendly’s. My father went out on Saturday nights, and now, especially in my writing life, I spend countless hours thinking about the trickle-down effects of that setup.)

Many of my views are in stark contrast with those of the Vatican, but there are times I derive great comfort from sitting still, quiet, and alone on weekday afternoons in the big church in my small river town of Cold Spring, New York, watching the sun poke through stained-glass windows that offer the kind of gleam which can turn a day, a week, and even a life around.

And if it’s a particularly clear ray of light, I pull out a notebook and try to make sentences that sing, flow, and matter. Paragraphs, too.

The only thing I’m not confused about is the value of reckoning with where I come from. That kid in Earth Shoes dreamed of escape, not how to craft a paragraph that feels alive because the older me has had to sit with herself—my restless, anxious, risk-avoidant self.

Writing is reckoning, all right. It’s taking one, two, or a hundred thousand ideas and tossing them onto a blank page with the hope that at some point during the morning, or the heavy hours of the night, a groove will take hold and build traction. For the lucky ones, those ideas may even attract the attention of a dorky angel (or spirit or fairy or celestial superhero wearing reading glasses and carrying a hot cup of coffee) who sprinkles dust over newly formed sentences, miraculously making them sparkle with clarity, precision, and the kind of enlightenment that leads to damn good writing.

Speaking of faith in unlikely miracles, let’s talk about New Jersey.

On some dry days, when the reckoning looms and I’m not so lucky—when words aren’t landing on the page like I want them to and all my good ideas are hung over—I turn to another cherished mantra of mine: Go home, have faith, and be patient.

If the timing is right, I cross the Hudson River, find a different kind of church for that day: a New Jersey diner. I nestle into a booth and order a cup of coffee, two eggs over light, with buttered rye toast and home fries.  

And I watch. And listen. Maybe take a few notes.

Inevitably, they arrive: glimpses of tenderness and tragedy—a waitress with a magnificent hairdo and a Hello Kitty pen; a sticky-faced baby tossing dime-sized pieces of pancakes on the floor; the frail hands of a very old man cutting his wife’s bacon; breakups, hookups, tears and doubled-over laughter—the stuff of being human.

Angels. Coffee. Superheroes. New Jersey.

It’s a sometimes misunderstood place, home to sometimes misunderstood people, so I consider being born and raised there one of the reasons I write. Apparently, I’m not alone. “I think you tend to write about things you're trying to sort out,” Bruce Springsteen told Charlie Rose in a 1998 interview that’s stored in a sacred place on my hard drive for when I need some more divine writing inspiration. “I think you're trying to write about things that you don't understand and you want to understand.”

Amen, Boss.


Publishing Information

Art Information

Kathy CurtoKathy Curto teaches writing at the Writing Institute/Sarah Lawrence College and Montclair State University, where she is a 2015–2016 Engaged Teaching Fellow. Her work has been published in the newly released anthology Listen to Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now (Putnam, 2015) and in journals including Talking WritingJunkInquisitive Eater, Asbury Park Press, Italian Americana, VIA—Voices in Italian Americana, and Lumina. 


New Jersey, my birth state,

New Jersey, my birth state, born in Camden grew up in Sewell. Graduated from Washington Township high school. That part of NJ was all farms you could drive with in a few miles and find a farm stand. If the kids I played with were hungry we would just to to one of our families gardens and enjoy the vegetables and fruits. I was not a large woman till I got older and stopped eating a lot of the good stuff and found carbs. I miss home, I would not have left if not for the fact that I had no family left in NJ, my birth mother was in California, So here I landed and now live in the High Desert of Lancaster, CA. a very strange area, seems that all the criminals have moved here and the good people are fleeing. Maybe I should talk my son into moving to my heart home.


So nice to read this reflection--thank you.
Jersey does sort of settle in your bones doesn't it? I hope you make your way back at some point, for vacation or even longer. I live just over the river in the Hudson Valley and love my small town as well as the big city spirit of NY but work in New Jersey and visit my family (and the beach!) often.
Have a wonderful holiday season and thanks again!

For me it wouldn't be a diner

For me it wouldn't be a diner but rather a spot on the beach looking out at the ocean and finding myself totally lost in thought only to see the seagulls huddled together facing the wind and reminding me of the Angels on the beach in Wim Wenders' film, "Wings of Desire". There is something about going back to a time when you had little to worry about that brings comfort and most definitely unleashes "things" inside. I enjoyed your piece and am now headed south towards Asbury Park. All Hail Bruce!

Hi Vinny:

Hi Vinny:
Thanks for taking the time to read the piece and to send these musings. Yes, the beach is certainly a sacred place for sure. And, as you know, a Jersey beach is like no other.
Have a great trip to Asbury Park!

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