There are some places that have a romantic hold on the imagination. Sometimes they’re imaginary places — Camelot, say, or Shangri-La — or exotic, faraway ones, with long, evocative vowels in their names — Mandalay, maybe.
There are the cities whose near mythological status draws people — New York, London, Paris, Jerusalem.
And then there’s — Newark?
Newark is a real place, a city that has suffered through poverty and trauma, not to mention disrespect and neglect. It’s been home to huge numbers of people; for our purposes, it was the first stop in America for generations of Jewish immigrants. Weequahic looms as solidly over the inherited memories of many Jersey Jews as the Lower East Side and Brooklyn do for others.
It’s also a place where real connections can be made, and real help can be given and taken, and real growth can be achieved.
Daniel Marks of Basking Ridge has what many people would consider a dream job — at 29, he is the manager of prospect information for the the Milwaukee Bucks. (For the non-athletes among us, that’s an NBA team. They play basketball.) He’s also the son, grandson, and great grandson of a family shaped by Newark, so when the pandemic kept him working remotely, and he realized that he wanted to do something to help people hurt by the crisis, his thoughts went to the city immediately.
Daniel’s father, Bill Marks, a lawyer who has devoted his practice to reparations work for Holocaust survivors, is from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn. Newark comes from his mother’s side. Ellen Marks is the daughter of Lenore and Irving Halper. “My great grandparents on both sides immigrated from Eastern Europe and went straight to Newark,” Daniel said.
“My grandpa was born in 1930 — he’s 90 now and my grandma was born in 1937. They met in Newark.” Irving Halper was one of 10 siblings, and with many of them owned Halper Brothers Paper Company. One of his brothers was Louis Halper, a prominent welterweight boxer.
“I grew up hearing stories about Newark and Weequahic,” Daniel said. His grandmother is fond of telling him that “Weequahic has the highest number of Ph.D.s among its graduates than any other public high school in America.
“I don’t know if that’s true any more, but at one point I think it was,” he added. “She was very proud of going there.”
One of his grandparents’ favorite stories is about his great-uncle the boxer. “In the 1930s, he got into an altercation with the German Bund,” the German-American pro-Nazi group that took root in the United States before World War II. “It was very prevalent in Newark then. He and four other men broke up a Bund meeting in Irvington, and they got arrested.
“My uncle gave the police a fake name. He said ‘I’m John Smith,’ or something like that. And the officer said, ‘No you’re not. You’re Lou Halper, and you’re a professional boxer, and we are arresting you for assault with a deadly weapon.’”
The deadly weapon was his fists.
“He did not go to jail,” Daniel continued. “He was fined for the incident. And the judge who presided over his hearing was Ralph Villani, who later became the mayor of Newark from 1948 to 1953. While he was mayor, he held a ceremony honoring people from Newark’s boxing history. My great uncle was among the people who were honored, and the mayor said to him, ‘Do you remember being in my courtroom?’”
Of course Lou Halper remembered his hearing, but why did the judge remember him, from so many years and so very many hearings ago? “My great uncle was really a very prominent boxer,” Daniel said.
His grandmother tells a story about Weequahic High School in 1951, when she was a student there. The school’s football team had made the game that would decide the city championship; it was playing against another local high school, Barringer. It had never gotten that far before, and wouldn’t again for more than a decade.
The game was on a Saturday; the day before, a school-wide PA announcement told students not to go to the game. “There were concerns about anti-Semitic violence against the team and the fans.” Supporters stayed away from Barringer, where the game was played. Weequahic won, and “alumni and parents at students at Weequahic came and tore down the goalposts in celebration,” Daniel said his grandmother told him.
She also remembers Philip Roth; “she knew him a little but they were not close,” Daniel said. He might have been a brilliant writer but according to Lenore Halper “he was very reclusive and not that well liked socially, because he was a bit of a snob.
“She says that the thing about him that was so controversial among the people who grew up around him is that the names of the characters in his book were the names of real people.” The one that was most jarring was the Swede, the nickname of the main character in “American Pastoral.” “People who grew up in Newark knew who he was talking about,” Daniel said.
So although he grew up first in Washington DC and then, from the time he was 9, in Basking Ridge, Daniel always felt connected to Newark.
When he was in high school, and then in Vanderbilt, where he went to college, Daniel was torn between his two passions, politics and sports.
“I always played sports growing up, but I knew that I wouldn’t have a career as a professional athlete,” he said. “I managed the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team, and I interned for a basketball magazine called Dime. One summer I wrote a story about the Bucks for Dime, and it got picked up by the Bucks’ Twitter account, and then the general manager reached out to me. I was a college sophomore at the time.” He’s been with the Bucks ever since.
On the other hand, Daniel majored in American studies; “I’m a big history buff,” he said. And there was always the pull of Newark. His grandfather followed politics closely, and he paid even closer attention to local politics; he often talked about the event-filled career of Newark’s five-term mayor Sharpe James.
In 2012, when Cory Booker, who now is one of New Jersey’s senators, was the mayor of Newark, Daniel interned for him.
“At City Hall, they have a little café down at the basement level where you can go get lunch,” Daniel said. “It’s very simple, not gourmet by any stretch of the imagination. The other intern in the economic development office and I were eating lunch there, and all of a sudden Sharpe James walked in to have lunch, like he still owned the place.” That was all the more striking because Mr. James had been released from prison after serving 18 months of a two-year sentence; he’d been convicted of fraud.
Newark is a larger-than-life place.
Once he’d decided to make sports his career, Daniel enjoyed — and continues to enjoy — it. “I’ve worked in the front office for the last seven years, in a variety of different roles,” he said. Before covid, he would go to colleges to watch prospects play, a sort of pre-scouting job that involved finding out as much information as he could for the manager. “A lot of my job is researching, googling, reading articles about players, talking to coaches and team managers and trainers,” Daniel said. “And then watching a lot of film and games on television.”
Now, of course, during covid, all that has changed. “There are a lot of Zoom interviews with players who are in the draft this year,” Daniel said. “I watch films and discuss it in groups; we talk about what we think of different players. We try to simulate what we would do in a normal year over Zoom. It’s obviously not ideal, but you have to make do with what you have.
“Hopefully college basketball will happen and we will be able to get on the road. They say it will start on November 25. I don’t know what will happen — the Ivies aren’t going to do anything until January at the earliest — and we’ll just do our best and see what happens.”
When he was on the road, Daniel started to notice how much waste there is in hotels. “A number of years ago, I had seen a tweet from someone who covered the Yankees — I wish I could remember who it was but I can’t — who said that during the season he would collect unused toiletries and donate them.
“That stuck with me, but I never really acted on it. And then, for some reason, I remembered that tweet when I was in Las Vegas in December scouting, and I thought that I would start collecting them and donating them. Through my seven years I have made a lot of contacts in the NBA and college basketball and the minor leagues, and I thought that I should ask some of my friends to do that. So I created an Instagram page and had people send me pictures of them with the supplies, and I’d post it. I tried to make it engaging.”
That’s how Scouting and Scavenging was born.
“And then covid hits in March. I was in Nashville when everything was shutting down, and I saw the way that New York and New Jersey were hit so hard so early. I had all these supplies that I and others had collected, and I thought that it could be put to good use in New Jersey right now. So I asked everyone who had participated to send me what they had collected.”
The plan had been to have all the supplies distributed at the end of each collector’s sport’s season. “But since everything had stopped and no one was traveling,” that wasn’t going to work. Instead, Scouting and Scavenging held a fundraiser to buy more supplies, and local hotels donated some of their stock as well.
Daniel knew that in just the first six weeks of the pandemic, eight Newark public school employees had died of covid. “We wanted to figure out a way to get these supplies to people in Newark,” he said. “Given my history and my connections to the city, I reached out to people, but I wasn’t able to get traction.
“And then Emily Manz, who interned at City Hall the same summer I did, and now runs a tour company called Have You Met Newark, put me in touch with Al-Tariq Best, who runs the HUBB Center in Newark.”
There’s a great deal of unpacking to do with that sentence.
“In November, my mom and I did a tour that the MetroWest foundation sponsored,” Daniel backfilled. “It was a history of Newark bus tour, and Emily was leading it. We had lunch at Hobby’s Deli and then went to the only active synagogue in Newark, Ahavas Sholom.”
Al-Tariq Best is a community activist; HUBB stands for Help Us Be Better, and it specializes in helping young inner-city residents overcome the trauma that has marred their lives. “The center helps children and families deal with the effects of intergenerational trauma through art and music,” Daniel said. Mr. Best is “a member of a group called the Brick City Peace Collective, and that’s an initiative of Mayor Ras Baraka and it’s about ways to work on violence prevention in the community. Their philosophy is that the police are overtaxed. They’re not therapists or social workers. They’re there to solve crimes.” Brick City’s director is Dawn Haynes; Daniel thinks she’s doing stellar work.
“They invited me to speak about my cause on a webinar, and I told them my story.
“The city had put together a program during covid where they packaged food for families of students who need it.” During normal times, students can get breakfast and lunch at school, but the schools were closed. “They packaged meals every week at the JFK Rec Center and then volunteers delivered them. Dawn and another woman, Jennifer Kohl, who is a special assistant in the mayor’s office, said that they’d love to have us distribute those supplies in the food packages. We had more than 21,000 kits, with soap, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and lotion. We packaged them with the meal kits and distributed them throughout the city.”
Although toiletries are not as important as food, they are meaningful, Daniel said. “When people think of helping the less fortunate, they think of food or bottles of water, but a lot of people don’t have access to soap or shampoo or hand sanitizer.” Those are important for two different sets of reason. First, it is always true but even more true during covid that it is vital to be able to wash your hands. “Lots of people take it for granted that everyone can just wash their hands and be clean, but that is not the case,” Daniel said. And then there’s the issue of dignity and self-respect. It’s easier to keep yourself going when you can face the world feeling clean. That also matters.
“We wanted to to get some attention to what Newark was doing, so I invited a number of local sports figures to come out and volunteer. About 15 of them” — including the head basketball coaches of teams from Rutgers, Princeton, Fairleigh Dickinson, Seton Hall, Monmouth, and NJIT — “came out, and the mayor came.” Local news outlets were there as well. “Newark continued the food delivery program until October; now they’re trying to get people back into the schools, although that got pushed back again,” Daniel said.
Even after his toiletry supplies ran out, “I went back every Wednesday to help pack supplies,” Daniel said. “The coach, Greg Herenda, has come back every week.
“It’s been a way to give back to the community.”
He’s learned a great deal. One of the many lessons is how physically taxing —how just plain hard — it is to do good work. It’s not sitting thinking good thoughts. It’s picking things up, packing them, carrying them, moving quickly, moving competently. Doing it fast and right.
“I learned that people who have to work on assembly lines in plants have a really hard job,” Daniel said. “I would do it for about an hour and a quarter once a week, and it gives you a real appreciation for people who do it for eight hours every day. It can be exhausting. Putting chicken in the bag. Passing the bag. Putting chicken in the bag. Passing the bag. Chicken. Pass. Chicken. Pass. Chicken. Pass. Chicken. Pass.
“You gain such an appreciation for grocery story clerks, for people who work at cash registers and were deemed essential. I am lucky. I get to watch basketball for a living. I volunteer an hour and a half of my time to work that may not be the most intellectually stimulating but is taxing.
“My parents came to volunteer a couple of times. My dad was there a few weeks ago, and when he was done, he was like, ‘Man, that is exhausting.’ You have to move so fast. And if somebody has to go to the bathroom, you have to do their job too — you have to do two things at once.’”
Each food package would hold meat — chicken, beef, or pork — seasonings, sour cream or dressing, a vegetable, and sweet potatoes. Someone would pack information in there as well — “maybe about the importance of doing the census, or a PSA about wearing a mask” — and then it would have to be sealed and put into crates, 10 packages per crate. Next, it would be loaded into volunteers’ cars, and they go out on their routes. “It was a meal for a family of four,” Daniel said; they were distributed just once a week, but it was not enough food to last for that week.
“There were hundreds of thousands of meals throughout the course of the program, and I would say there were between 50 or 60 volunteers on slow days to over 1,000 over the summer.” The volunteer ranks thinned as the summer ended, he added.
Daniel plans to keep his Scouting and Scavenging going. “We started an ambassador program, where people sign a pledge to collect toiletries throughout the season,” he said. Once the pandemic restrictions are lifted, and travel — and collecting — are possible again, he hopes that they can be distributed in teams’ local communities. “We do monthly newsletters; one was on sports and sustainability,” he said. That’s an outgrowth of his other reason to collect toiletries; he worried about the wastefulness of all that plastic.
Beyond that, he hopes to consider “using sports as a platform to create change in the community.”
He hopes that anyone who is interested in sending toiletries, getting involved in his project, or learning more about HUBB or the Brick City Peach Collective will email him at email@example.com. His website is www.scoutingandscavenging.com.
And it all goes back to Newark.