2020 in review — Good riddance

Here’s a little mind game to play.

Think about, if you can recall, what was on you mind on Dec. 31, 2019. Even if you can’t come up with your thoughts from that day, no doubt, none of us was thinking, “The year 2020 is going to be a nightmare of epic proportions.” Instead, we were all probably hoping for a 2020 that would be better than the year just gone by.

And here we are, at the precipice of 2021 — and it’s a safe bet we’re all ready for it, with the hopes COVID-19 will become a hated memory, that facemasks will be something only sports players will need when they hit the ice of the turf, that we’ll be able to hug each other again, eat at a restaurant and not worry about the table nearest us … OK you get the picture.

So as is tradition at The Observer, in the last edition of the calendar year, we take a look back at the stories that made headlines on the print pages of the newspaper, on www.theobserver.com and in live-video reports over the last year.

While some of the recap (anything Coronavirus-related) may be things some would rather forget, it is nonetheless important to remember that it did, indeed, happen — and that it will soon, in totality, be of the past as we return to some semblance of normalcy.

 

  1. The Novel Coronavirus or COVID-19 takes hold of New Jersey and the world

So after all that, we start right with COVID-19 (as a reminder, there haven’t been 19 versions of the virus; instead, it gets its name from its year of origin — 2019.) That, of course, was a myth started on talk radio and that fortunately didn’t spiral out of control as many other COVID myths did from the beginning.

We began hearing about this virus in late 2019 — and as 2020 progressed, one could tell, perhaps as early as February, that this thing, though in China, was going to find its way to our shores. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what occurred and by March, TV outlets were starting to broadcast statistics of deaths that even at that time seemed unfathomable.

But it was all real. And by the second week of March, it was seemingly right here in our backyard. That week, for example, Observer Co-owner Lisa M. Feorenzo made the decision that for customers to enter the newspaper’s office, hand sanitizer had to be used before entering — and all payments would be taken by credit card only. Accept cash? Yeah, no — who knows whether this beer-sounding virus could live on paper money.

That policy, itself, was short lived as Gov. Philip D. Murphy soon thereafter announced what to that point was just unthinkable. New Jersey (many places elsewhere, too) was going to be shutting down everything considered to be “non-essential,” with a curfew that after 8 p.m., unless you were working, you were to be home, inside, isolating, keeping safe.

Newspapers are considered essential, so while we were in the office on weekdays, a change was made and we conducted business with those seeking adverts (especially classifieds) over the phone or online only. It was a grueling decision many businesses had to make to keep pace with the virus.

And, one by one, local businesses considered non-essential, began to close. Restaurants, many who rely on their liquor licenses to maximize profits, would not be able, at first, to serve booze to go. Instead, it was takeaway only — with absolutely nothing after 8 p.m.

The same was for other businesses that were allowed to open. When the clock struck 8 at night, it was time to close up shop — and head home. None of this was fathomable before 2020 — and yet it was now a reality. And it led to such a bizarre society.

This journalist, at the beginning of the pandemic, would travel from home in the north of Harrison to The Observer’s office, at 39 Seeley Ave., Kearny, with Facebook Live running through the phone. Whether the journey was along Frank E. Rodgers Boulevard, Kearny Avenue, Davis Avenue, Schuyler Avenue or wherever, there were days few other vehicles were on the road and many days, finding an out-and-about human being was what one might consider a rarity.

There was a greyness to the area. It was quite eerie. It was depressing. It was hard to describe, at times. Thousands of locals and those who once called this area home, would tune in for a glimpse. What they saw was nothing short of shocking.

There were few buses. There were no school buses. Save for Harrison, crossing guards were gone. In Harrison, most were still on the job as many children would travel from home to school to get their grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches.

So now what do we do? Should we be wearing masks? What about gloves? Where does one find hand sanitizer we’re told so vital? (At first, one couldn’t find it on shelves.) Where did all the paper towels and toilet paper go? We can go to supermarkets, but should we? Could we get the virus by touching a cart once driven by an infected person?

It was all so unclear at first, but eventually, it became more clear how we should operate our lives while protecting our own selves and others from spreading or getting the virus. Yes, we learned. Or, at least some did. Most did. Wear a mask. Social distance (I hate that term so much and cannot wait for it to be in the past.) Keep 6-feet away from anyone. Only go out if needed. All of this should help keep us from getting the virus.

And yet, week after week, for the first few months, this newspaper reported statistics provided us by various municipalities and counties. And those numbers were staggering. Each day, the number of cases rose. Then, the first death was reported in Belleville. One death was enough. But those numbers, in all of our towns except East Newark, continued to grow day after day after day.

It was only March and April.

The obituaries in this newspaper sometimes needed three or four pages to complete. One would come in. Then another. And another. On average, we get about three obituaries a week. At the height of the pandemic, we would see anywhere from 17 to 22 per week. That was difficult in and of itself. We all couldn’t help but wonder the toll it was taking on the families and the funeral directors.

For many weeks, funerals were limited. There were no Masses or services. People couldn’t come in for viewings. It was nothing short of brutal.

But as the spring turned into summer, things began to improve. The curve was bending downward. Restaurants and bars could open at 25% capacity. Churches could have worshippers again — and that led to a slew of belated memorial Masses and remembrances. The lockdown was over. Life returned to the streets yet again.

But yet again, as the cold weather returned, it was a new round of COVID, which leads us to this month of December. A vaccine is now available, though not to all. Science and medical experts predict the worst is yet to come and that there could be a lot more death. But as more and more people have access to the vaccine — it’s impossible to predict exactly when it’ll happen — we’re told, perhaps, by the final quarter of 2021, we might see a world we once knew, where masks won’t be needed, where we might be able to be closer, literally, to the people we know — and much more.

But is there any doubt this was the biggest story of 2020? Heck, it might be again in 2021.

Let’s hope it’s because we’re celebrating its ultimate demise.

 

  1. Baby found dead in Kearny

Normally, this would have been the top story in a different year. But because of COVID-19 — and because of an absolute lack of information about the incident — it falls to No. 2 on our list.

To recap, here’s what we know.

According to the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, on Oct. 25, 2020, the lifeless body of a newborn baby was found in a trash bin at a residence in Kearny. The Regional Medical Examiner is performing an autopsy on the baby. To date, this is the only information the HCPO has released to the public.

For the last eight weeks, since the baby was found, The Observer has made phone calls and has sent email inquiries to Jennifer Morrill, the spokeswoman for Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez. Each time, the response has been the same — the cause and manner of death is still under investigation by the ME’s office.

We’ve asked the HCPO to make a statement that says more than just this, the allay the concerns of residents who question the length of time the investigation is taking. However, we did not get a response. With that said, we’ve spoken with a law-enforcement source who says it is not uncommon for autopsies to take this long (eight weeks to date.) In fact, it could be even longer before we know anything more than we do now, the source says.

To date, no charges have been filed in the case. But, keep in mind in New Jersey, when a homicide occurs, while local police departments assist with such investigations, it is the county prosecutor’s office where the crime occurs that has full jurisdiction. As such, if a crime was committed, charges will be filed by the HCPO, not the Kearny Police Department.

As we enter 2021, The Observer will continue to follow up on this story and we will share any new or additional information as soon as it becomes available to us.

 

  1. Nutley’s nightmare — teens’ video casts black eye on otherwise tranquil town

A video posted to social media had an entire community scratching its proverbial head in January.

The Nutley Police Department announced it had been advised several girls posted a video with racial epithets, which immediately went viral.

Nutley police, along with the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, reviewed the video and deemed it “completely inappropriate and in poor judgment,” but not illegal.

Although the actions of the juveniles did not rise to a criminal level, their actions were in poor taste, police said.

The Observer reviewed the 30-second video, which is believed to have originated on Snapchat and then recorded for use on other social media platforms — and it’s as bad as police described.

It features three high-school aged girls, all of whom are white.

A source with knowledge of the case confirmed to The Observer that all three girls were 14 and freshmen at Nutley High School at the time.

“I hate ni***rs,” one girl says to start the video off. “We hate ni***rs,” a second girl then says. “I love them, I love them,” the second girl then says with some inaudible talking ongoing in the background.

“I’m not kidding,” the first girl then says. A third girl then says, “No, no kidding, because ni***rs fu****g s**k d**k.”

Then, one of the girls — it wasn’t clear which one — said, “ni***rs kill people” as the video came to a close.

The girls in the video all appeared to be holding beverages, though it’s impossible to tell whether they’re alcoholic beverages.

 

  1. Leave Kearny Alone! Bill would replace namesake’s statue in Capitol with Alice Paul

The Town of Kearny was in an uproar again, just weeks after word came down that the Keegan Landfill would be closed and capped forever, as word that a bill headed to the state Assembly that already had the stamp of approval from the state Senate would remove a statue of Gen. Philip Kearny from the U.S. Capitol and replace it with a monument to women’s rights advocate Alice Paul. The three state senators who sponsored the proposed move are from South Jersey — and have no connection to the Town of Kearny.

As this was all occurring just before the outbreak of COVID-19, there is no update to the story presently.

But at the time, it really got local leaders fired up.

It’s wasn’t that anyone was averse to honoring Alice Paul, either, just in case there was any doubt about that. It’s just that there’s a strong belief it shouldn’t be at the expense of our general and town’s namesake.

“Ms. Paul is perfect for the New Jersey Statehouse,” Council President and Third Ward Councilwoman Carol Jean Doyle said. “Should she replace Gen. Kearny? No, he was a war hero and made the supreme sacrifice. Congress voted to have Gen. Kearny have this place of honor in 1866. This general was against slavery and fought hard to keep Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Stonewall Jackson off Capitol Hill and the general did that at the expense of his life.”

Mayor Alberto G. Santos, meanwhile, who was first to alert The Observer about this bill on Feb. 10, Senate Bill No. 1369, said he was “stunned” by the Senate’s somewhat covert move.

“(There was) no notice,” Santos said. “(It came) just out of the blue … The Legislature is pitting an important woman’s rights advocate against a war hero who led the New Jersey Brigade for the Union in the Civil War and was killed in battle. So is the implicit judgment that what Ms. Paul represents is more important to New Jersey history than Kearny? Is this what happens when you apply relativism to history? If so, then the state Legislature should consider a regular rotation of statues.”

 

  1. two men nabbed with ½-ton of pot arrested & thanks to bail reform, they walked!

It was one of the biggest pot busts in Hudson County history — but it didn’t really matter in the greater scheme of things.

Nearly a half-ton of pot with a street value of $1.5 million was taken off the streets thanks to a massive bust in South Kearny carried out by the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office, but the two men who possessed the illegal drug were both free the very next day because they didn’t meet the criteria to be held on remand or on bail, thanks to bail reform, the sheriff, Francis X. “Frank” Schillari, announced.

On Friday, Jan. 31, the HCSO, with the assistance of the United States Department of Homeland Security, intercepted a tractor trailer shipment of marijuana as it made a delivery to a Kearny warehouse.

The tractor was loaded with 737 pounds of marijuana.

“This is one of the biggest single marijuana busts in Hudson County history,” Schillari said at the time. “Our detective bureau deserves all the credit for an excellent job. I’m proud to have them in my department serving and protecting the people.”

Despite all this, they were back on the streets less than 24 hours after being taken into custody.

 

  1. Bags banned — Kearny says stores may no longer pack in plastic

Stores in Kearny will no longer be able to use plastic to bag items sold as an ordinance that banned the distribution of single-use plastic bags at most businesses in Kearny was unanimously adopted by the governing body at a meeting of the Mayor and Council on Feb. 18.

The new law goes into effect in April 22, 2021.

According to the ordinance, single-use bags will be prohibited except:

  • Bags, whether plastic or not, in which loose produce or products are placed by a customer to deliver such items to the point of sale or checkout of a retail establishment, such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, candy, cookies or small hardware items.
  • Laundry or dry-cleaning bags.
  • Newspaper bags.
  • Bags used to contain or wrap frozen food, meat, fish or other items, whether prepackaged or not, to prevent or contain moisture and cross contamination with other food products.
  • Bags provided by pharmacists to contain prescription drugs.
  • Bags sold in packages containing multiple bags intended for use as garbage, pest waste or yard waste bags.
  • To contain or wrap flowers and potted plants.
  • Contain items where damage to a good or contamination of other goods placed together in the same bag would result.

The ban applies to businesses including, but not limited to, mercantile establishments, department stores, food-service establishments, restaurants, pharmacies, convenience and grocery stores, liquor stores, supermarkets, clothing stores, seasonal and/or temporary businesses, jewelry stores and others.

The law also mandates businesses provide paper bags that may be recycled — or reusable bags at a cost of no less than 10¢ a piece. Said reusable bags may not be provided, by a business owner, to its clients and customers, for free.

In order for a bag to be considered reusable, it must have the capacity to be utilized 125 times, carry 22 pounds and travel at least 175 without breaking. It must also be cleanable and it must have the ability to be sanitized, also.

However, businesses may apply for a hardship exemption. According to the ordinance, “the mayor and Council may approve a request for an exemption or deferral from the requirements by any operator of a retail establishment, with or without conditions, upon a showing of substantial hardship or other good cause.

Exemptions or deferrals should be granted only for the minimum time necessary to accommodate the reason for the request.”

The Kearny Health Department will be charged with enforcing the new law.

And, for businesses that violate the new law, after April 22, 2021, there will be fines, including:

  • First incursion: Written warning by the Kearny Health Department.
  • Second incursion: $100 penalty per instance.
  • Third incursion: $250 penalty per instance.
  • Fourth incursion: $500 penalty per instance.

 

  1. Mom, her son, 7, die in Park Avenue blaze in Nutley

Immediately upon their arrival at 320 Park Ave., Nutley, on a cold, somewhat snowy Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, firefighters knew this blaze would be anything but ordinary. One man was already outside the home with burns — and there were immediate reports of two people being trapped on the home’s second floor.

Tragically, those reports were correct as a mother and her son died in the fast-moving fire.

The scanner traffic at the fire revealed an absolute seriousness — yet brave calmness — as a fire lieutenant called for EMS assistance. “Put a push on those ambulances,” he said, sternly. When all was said and done, another man had suffered burns. He got out alive, however.

His daughter and grandson, sadly, did not.

Perhaps the most stark realization of what this fire did came in the form a Facebook post from a neighbor, Joe Caprio, who was in his vehicle right around the time the blaze broke out. His words explained how in an  instant, everything changed for one family.

“As I sit here on Park Avenue in Nutley, unable to move my car due to emergency vehicles, I write this post. Today while just going about our lives, Sandra Caprio, Leo Cap and I witnessed one of the most tragic house fires ever. I immediately called 911, got out of my car and started banging on all the windows and doors around the house to see if anyone was home.

“No one was answering until one final moment, when I was trying to kick the front door in, I saw a hand through the window on the door trying to unlock it. An older man emerged covered in soot and burns. He said to me, ‘my grandson (7) and daughter are in there.’

“I looked up the stairs and saw it engulfed with flames. There was nothing I could do. Would a braver man have ran up the stairs, I don’t know… I’m torn. Just as I was wrestling with the idea, the fire department pulled up. I screamed at them that there were people still in there, and I saw them spring into action.

“I helped the man out of the house, and he was obviously in shock. He told me he was preparing breakfast when he noticed smoke from upstairs. He went upstairs and said the fire was in his grandson’s room. He was unable to open the door, not sure why …

“As I helped the man to the ambulance, the fire department ran into the house with a hose. Moments later, the grandmother of the little boy came walking down the street, coming back from the market. Oblivious to everything, she wondered why all the firetrucks were on the street. She then realized it was her house and she just broke into tears. It was a terrible thing to witness.

“The lesson: Anything can happen in our lives at any time. Do not take what you have for granted. You never know when one moment will occur that will change your life forever.”

 

The Shirt Found Round the World

Every so often, a story comes round that is a once-in-a-very blue moon. This was one of them.

In the history of the Kearny Police Department, there are surnames that are almost synonyms with the KPD. There’s a long list of families who dedicated their lives to protecting the town — Corbett, Dowie, Wilson, Bloomer, Gouveia, King, Plaugic, are some of the first that come to mind.

One other surname, Poplaski, also fits here.

Ed Poplaski joined the force in 1961 and retired as a detective in 1987.

Two years later, Richard Poplaski Sr. joined in August 1989 and retired as a lieutenant in 2019.

And Richard Poplaski Jr., Policeman of the Year for heroic actions he took on one of his first days on the job, is the most recent to join the force, having been hired in July 2015.

And the Poplaskis have a generational story for the ages, one that started in Newark in 1962 and which ended back in Kearny via Scotland.

Here’s the story and how it all developed, as told by Rich Jr.

We first found out about it all after Kearny Council President Carol Jean Doyle saw it on Facebook.

Rich Jr. has a presence on Facebook, and were it not for social media, perhaps none of this happens.

One day, checking his messages, Rich Jr. finds a peculiar note from a woman who claims she’s from the Old Country. (Parenthetically, there actually may be some who live here now who actually don’t know Kearny was once the Scotland of North America. In the 1800s, thousands of Scottish immigrants left their home and native land to find a better life in America and, in particular, in this small Town of Kearny, 9.33-square miles in area, but home to a booming manufacturing industry fueled by many originally from the north of the United Kingdom.)

To this day, it’s not uncommon to hear a Scottish accent. Heck, as recently as 1999, the town’s mayor, Peter J. McIntyre, had such an accent. But we digress.

When Rich Jr. gets this message, he says he is, at first, skeptical. After all, there are scammers across the globe, they prey for their daily bread regularly and they quite often use Facebook. So forgive Rich for being skeptical at first.

“As if 2020 hasn’t been weird enough, this happens,” he says. “But I looked her up and she didn’t appear to be sketchy.”

So he reads the letter — and the woman asks if he was related to an Ed Poplaski.

She didn’t know it because he didn’t volunteer it immediately, but Ed Poplaski is his grandfather, 81 today, and a member of the Kearny Police Department’s Academy Class of 1961. In fact, Ed is the second-eldest retired Kearny policeman still alive. Phil Reed, he says, takes the honors as the longest-surviving retiree.

So things are beginning to match — but again, who the heck is this lady — and why does she want to know of Rich’s relations to Ed?

Here’s where the story gets great.

The woman says, in her electronic message, that she spent about £4 — 6 U.S. Dollars — at a thrift shoppe in Scotland. Her purchase was of what is called a “dress blouse” that, to this day, though a bit different in color, is worn by police officers at special occasions. The patches on the sleeves — clearly Kearny Police Department.

You can’t mistake it — it looks almost completely the same as it did 58 years ago.

Inside the blouse is a nametag, from Lee’s Clothiers, Newark.

Typed on it: Ed Poplaski … 1/1962.

This piece of clothing, worth more in a sentimental value than the 4 quid this woman paid for it, was, indeed, Ed Poplaski’s dress blouse from his very first year on the job. And she found its owner’s grandson.

So here’s what happened next.

The woman says she’d like to send the uniform piece to New Jersey.

“I asked her how much she wanted for it, but she didn’t want anything,” Rich says. “All she asked for was a photo of the blouse with my grandpa holding it or wearing it.”

Unfortunately for Ed, it was just a little too small for him to wear today. He was a bit lighter in 1962 — but not all that much, really.

So when the blouse arrived at Kearny Police Headquarters on Laurel Avenue — almost 60 years later, it was back in the same location it got its start. After a trip of about 3,000 miles.

Speaking of that trip, we were wondering how it got to Europe.

“The uniform dress blouses weren’t cheap, so it was common for them to be passed down for new officers,” Rich says. “They were hung in the locker room for the taking.”

Rich says Ed wasn’t sure how he lost contact with his blouse, but it was likely because of the aforementioned scenario of handing them down to help new officers save the expense of having to buy one brand new.

Still, it was a great overall experience for the three generations of Poplaskis who have served the KPD.

“It was very odd at first but it had a great ending,” Rich says.

A great ending, indeed.

And a great ending to our 2020 Year in Review.

Happy New Year, one and all!

Learn more about the writer ...

Editor & Broadcaster at 

Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.