The news that Charles Cummings died last week at the age of 68 strikes me as nothing less than a plot against Christmas. Cummings, a key member at the Newark Public Library for over four decades, was a walking, talking book of Newark history and New Jersey lore in general. He not only authored books on New Jersey history, he also served as right-hand research man to Philip Roth, who was born in Newark's Weequahic section and relied heavily on Cummings' bottomless store of knowledge while writing American Pastoral and The Plot Against America.
Roth wrote this valediction for Cummings in the Sunday Star-Ledger:
The density of my books about the lives of Newarkers was all the richer because of the many questions Charles answered for me and the many places in Newark that he alone knew of and took me to see. One winter day in the mid-'90s, we looked for hours for the proper building to serve as the setting for the Levov glove factory in American Pastoral. When eventually we found it on Central Avenue, Charles set out to photograph the abandoned old building for me from 10 different angles — fewer than 10 perspectives on anything in Newark would not do.
We walked all over the city together while I was writing American Pastoral, and when that novel received a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, I knew — and told Charles — that the prize was as much his as mine.
I can't claim to have had any great friendship with Cummings, but whenever my research took me to the grand old library on Washington Street, Cummings was unfailingly helpful and knowledgeable.
It seemed only appropriate that I met Cummings via an old newspaper clipping. I was going through a folder of articles about the Pulaski Skyway and came across a piece in which Cummings recalled screaming in terror as he crossed the Skyway. Now, terror is a perfectly appropriate response to driving conditions on the Pulaski Skyway, but something about the quotation was a little curious. I asked the librarian on duty if there was any way to get in touch with Charles Cummings.