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The Blues in Trenton

November 13, 2017

Trenton Makes

(Here is an excerpt from my book, THE EDUCATION OF A WHITE BOY)

Two miles northeast of Levittown is a small bridge spanning the Delaware River that, along its south side, bears this rickety message: “TRENTON MAKES THE WORLD TAKES.” I never met anyone in Levittown or in Trenton, New Jersey who was able to explain this locally famous blurb except to joke, What did Trenton ever manufacture, aside from poor quality drugs, that was so coveted by the rest of the planet? The real story was that the sign was affixed to the bridge in 1935 as the result of a contest as to who in the area could come up with a catchy slogan that would flatter the Trenton Chamber of Commerce.

The most famous resident in Trenton’s history was Ruben Carter, the former world-class middleweight boxer who languished in Trenton State Prison from 1967 to 1986 on a trumped-up charge of murder. White cops, white lawyers and white judges had assumed that an angry black man, Carter, must have committed the homicide, and if not, he should be incarcerated anyway for being black and angry. To get a better idea of what Trenton looks like, rent the movie Hurricane, a biopic of Carter starring Denzel Washington, and study the scene in which Dan Hedaya, playing the cop who set up Ruben, confronts friends of the accused man right outside the prison. Take the street and neighborhood as framed in the background and multiply it by eight square miles, and there is Trenton. In other words, Trenton is not a very attractive city.

In 1978-79, I worked just over the Trenton-Makes Bridge in the New Jersey State House as an apprentice printer. I was eighteen-years-old, and, to me, Trenton was an urban paradise to be explored in the same spirit as would a Victorian British gentleman traipsing into Central Africa – if, that is, I spoke proper English and this sentence did not sound so racist. The print shop was located downstairs from Governor Brendan Byrne’s office, which added another level of romanticism to my white trash imagination.

In Delhaas, I was one of a handful of students who had not partaken of drugs and alcohol. I had been obsessed with staying clean and healthy. Now I became obsessed with undoing the non-damage, of sowing the oats that had lain dormant in my loins – assuming that the loins are the storage unit for oats — while my Delhaas comrades were over-plowing the fields of drugs and alcohol. The drinking age in Jersey back then was eighteen, and so I began frequenting dive bars with the dedication of a first-year medical student whose long-term goal is to cure cancer. What better way to go slumming than in the greatest of slums, the anti-paradise called Trenton?

This also marked a lightening in my attitude toward African-Americans – for a number of reasons. 1) I was out of Delhaas. In Trenton, I met and consorted with older blacks, who, unlike my former black classmates, did not launch metal objects at my ass from homemade cannons, or conduct other terrorist activities toward little white boy, Jim. 2) I became close friends with two black co-workers. 3) To repeat, I beheld Trenton, a black town, with the same teenage romanticism that convinces high school girls that early pregnancy will transform them into the star of their own movie. And 4) this was when I first learned of the blues. The result of all these factors was that I stopped saying nigger, at least for a while, thereby reducing my vocabulary to thirty-two words, seventeen of which were slang.

My first day on the job, the Italian foreman asked for my last name. When I told him, he snorted: “Johnson? Ain’t that a jigaboo name?” That was the last racist comment I was to hear in the shop, as everyone stayed on their best behavior, given that, of our eight-man crew, two were black and one was Puerto Rican. The oldest of the brothers was Jason, a recent honorable discharge from the Navy. We worked side by side in bindery. He had sailed around the world twice and regaled me with oceanic myth, of exotic locales, of international ports so seedy as to make Trenton look like Beverly Hills, and of wine, women and song. Everyone else in the shop paid him no mind, whereas, to me, he was Marco Polo and Alexander the Great wrapped into one black skin. He was always trying to win me over to the adventurous life. If the military was not for me, then there were other ways in which to see places beyond Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Jason’s sales pitch grew more eloquent with each passing day. My imagination became inflamed with the prospect of meeting strange new people in dramatic settings and thereby attaining mystical knowledge. Travel would be my way of breaking the chains of my narrow, steel mill town environment and reach Nirvana. Then one day, as if inspired by his own evangelism, Jason quit the State House to join the Merchant Marine. His last words to me were: “Do it while you’re young. Time is short.”

The other African-American printer was a kid named Peter. We were the same age and shared a more equitable relationship than the grasshopper-to-master way in which I bowed to Jason. Peter was a native Trentonian. He was forever in dress clothes, not advisable in the printing industry, and was soft spoken and had an easy, unruffled manner. We were inseparable for the better part of a year. I valued his calm, smooth personality, and he my ability to make him laugh. He was under the impression that I was not quite right in the head. I would provoke him into laughing jags so long as to take valuable time away from his clothes shopping, after which, once he wiped away the tears, he would say: “Jim, you’re crazy.” He was such an easy audience that all I had to do was yell “motherfucker” at my rickety press and he would go into hysterics.

Peter was Virgil to my Dante as we explored the alcoholic Inferno of Trenton. We would sit down at a white bar with the regulars who would not know what to make of our salt and pepper friendship, and especially what to make of this dapper young nigger. But Peter’s irresistible charm would soon allay their suspicions. They would even, at times, buy him a beer. On the other hand, when we entered a black tavern, my chalky skin was forgiven thanks to my partner. If a brother, in this case Peter, thought the white boy, me, was cool, then the white boy was all right in the eyes of the black assemblage, no questions asked.

Delhaas had brainwashed me into regarding all African-Americans as the same – wild and sadistic maniacs. Now, during my jaunts with Peter, I came to realize that there really was no difference between black and white people – yes, I know that sounds like something from the mouth of a West Virginian Baptist following a dinner at the home of a “colored” member of the congregation – but the point here is that I was heretofore a total ignoramus. It really was a revelation to see that black people had regular lives, a steady diet of ups and downs, grim duties toward job and family, and each personality was distinct from the rest (this last revelation being the most violent assault to my previous worldview). Not one black Trentonian seemed bent on grinding my face into the wall and kicking my ribs in for sheer amusement, as in high school. There was the businessman, who, quiet and severe, brooded for an hour over a gin and tonic preparatory to going home to the nuclear family; the two chefs talking shop and getting passionate about sauces and the correct way to marinate a steak; the female college student determined not to follow the path of her two beaten down siblings; the matron supervisor of an N.J. State department, who, knowing my difficult boss on a first name basis, told Peter and me that she felt bad for us.

Sometimes we would include our Puerto Rican co-worker on our itinerary. We became a Welcome Back Kotter episode in which the classroom was a seedy tavern, and the Mr. Kotter character was played by a pockmarked African-American bartender spitting tobacco into a soda can. Nor did we, the kids, fit our respective stereotype. I was a white kid who did not aspire to a mustache, a pick-up truck and a child out of wedlock. Peter was a black kid who sucked at basketball and whom even I could beat in a fight. And the Puerto Rican had not an iota of Latin animation, and, if truth be told, he was more boring than a Rotary Club president, AND, to prove it, he wore thick glasses. This was not the Mod Squad.

Another of our crewmates was a fifty-year-old white man named Joe. He saw himself as someone not defined by his trade as a printer. He was a photographer, an artiste, Trenton’s answer to Walker Evans. He had won a trip to Hawaii in a contest sponsored by Kodak during the previous year. Now he was groping for a new idea for the next competition. One day he announced that Peter and I would be called on to pose for his next masterpiece. The photo would feature two hands, one black and one white, reaching toward each other in a rescue effort of some sort – yeah, a total cliché. It would signify how we were all brothers, blah, blah, blah, in need of a helping hand, a hallmark message that just so happened to coincide with Joe’s own need for a free, all-expense paid vacation. Peter and I started to back away until Joe offered to reward us with food. At lunch break, the three of us drove across the Trenton-Makes Bridge to find a suitable location.

In Morrisville, along the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, was a steep embankment of giant flattened rocks. There we set to work under Joe’s perfectionist lash. Peter and I had assumed that the shoot would take all of five minutes and that the free sandwiches would be ours in ten. It takes only a second to snap the shutter, right? Wrong. We were there well beyond our one-hour break, most of which, for Peter and me, was spent lying head to head on frigid stones extending our hands toward one another like some Northeast Corridor version of God touching hands with Adam on the Sistine Chapel. Meanwhile, the fifty-year-old Joe scampered up and down the slope imploring us, like a mad movie director, to invest our hands with more emotion, more sincerity. He suggested that we imagine ourselves in a life and death struggle. We told him that, with our stomachs now shrinking to nil, imagination was no longer necessary. Joe’s added to the grind with his uncertainty as to which hand should be reaching downward to save the other from sliding into the raging waters. This required that Peter and I alternate positions so as to give our taskmaster a strong visual. Soon we were yelling up into the hovering monomaniacal face of the artiste to just – pah-leeze! – take the motherfuckin’ picture! At last the shutter clicked, but it was not until the next day that Joe bought us lunch, one that should have included an extra order of fries for the overtime. The result of our grand sacrifice to art was a black hand offering succor to the white. It won Joe and his wife a second trip to Hawaii. And who said racism wasn’t lucrative?

Before Jason and Peter became a part of the crew, we in the shop had been in the habit of annexing the word boy to the name of whomever it was being accosted in the hardy, slap-on-the-back way fashionable in the unfashionable blue-collar world. For instance, I was hailed as Jimmy-boy, while our bindery supervisor was met with Freddy-boy. Even Joe, who had reached the half-century mark in age, was referred to as Joey-boy, though on the day of the rocky slope I wanted to call him Fuck-head-boy. Yet toward Jason and Peter such a display of camaraderie was off limits, however much they were looked upon as comrades. One usually refrains from calling a good friend with acne “Pizza Face,” and so with an African-American buddy sensitive to the not far distant past when boy meant chattel. What had been a fun and unifying custom became a source of group discomfort.

…………………..

 

I was now accustomed to the Trenton ghetto scene, which emboldened me to test the gritty urban waters without Peter’s Virgilian guidance, as if Dante had retreated from Purgatory and went back, alone, into the Inferno. This was not as dangerous as it may sound to those reading this in Iowa. I had learned in Delhaas that to act crazy, like someone who may, with the right emotional trigger mechanism, run a stake through the heart of a vending machine, was to be draped in protective armor. As long as I showed no fear and behaved in a direct manner, with no phony apologies, the patrons at the black bars in Trenton, upon my walking in unescorted by a black sponsor, would defer judgment and a good ass-kicking. There was also the chance that I was a cop. This suspicion would dissipate once I got to talking with everyone and it became clear that not only was I not the Man but that I was a boy, a kid, who hated the Man as did their patron saint, Ruben “Hurricane” Carter. Toward the end of the night, my newfound drinking companions would bestow on me the ultimate accolade: one crazy white boy – and that was my ticket anywhere in the city.

My favorite Trenton hangout was located right smack in the middle of the darkest slum, though its regular nighttime clientele was of mixed hue. It was called Billy Dee’s The Rum Runner, which, in its heyday, when giants walked the Earth, featured on its creaky stage the greatest blues guitarist ever to remain in obscurity — Joe Zook, short for Joe Zookarelli. Perhaps the world was ready to accept an Englishman, Eric Clapton, as an heir to T-Bone Walker and Elmore James, but not an Italian from Trenton. That did not stop our little clique of Jersey-ites from putting him at the top of our list.

How I came to The Rum Runner and the blues was simple: The inclination had always been there, needing only time and various hints to point me in the direction of the holy mountain. The inclination was the huge melancholic streak that had plagued me since birth, and the hints were supplied by my two favorite rock bands: Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. On Zeppelin’s maiden album, two of the songs, “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” were written by an old black Chicago bluesman, Willie Dixon, and the name “The Rolling Stones” was lifted verbatim from a tune from Dixon’s mentor, Muddy Waters, called “Rollin’ Stone.” When Mick Jagger and Keith Richard did “You Gotta Move” or “Love in Vain,” all covers of old blues standards, they struck an instant chord within my somber teenage head.

At the time, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters were, to me, just mythological names in parentheses on Zeppelin and Rolling Stones records. They were old black guys who had done something bluesy on the other side of the Rock n’ Roll Great Divide of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, and, in my then ignorant opinion, it had taken the superior talent of Jimmy Page and Richard to transform their primitive songs into something palatable, if not grand. That they had been working musicians playing to wild crowds, albeit not on the scale of football stadiums, was too farfetched an image to be comprehended by this child of the Beatles, as how other children refuse to believe that their parents once had sex on top of car hoods. I was wrong.

Dixon and Waters operated on the future side of another musical Great Divide, the one separating their own Chicago blues style of the Fifties from the Mississippi Delta blues of the Twenties and Thirties, the origin of the blues. Its deepest roots were in slave and Jim Crow culture. Blacks chanted their sorrow in the fields and at home in their shacks as oppressed people with no recourse to anything except their voices. At a time when psychoanalysis was inventing ways for bourgeois whites to complicate their psychic pain, these folks opted to embrace their troubles and turn them into art, into beautiful stirring music. Then black professional singers and musicians took up the mantle and began spreading the blues gospel. They were not human chattel like their parents, but Jim Crow was in the process of consolidating its hold over the South, especially in the Mississippi Delta, and so the pain in the words and voices were no less real.

In 1920, Mamie Smith recorded what many call the first blues song called “Crazy Blues.” Three years later her rival, the great Bessie Smith (no relation), did “Down Hearted Blues.” The vaudevillian, Ma Rainey, had influenced both these ladies. This triumvirate represented the era when the blues was voice-driven, usually female.

That changed in the Twenties with Charlie Patton, followed by Son House and Robert Johnson. Enter the guitar as a key accompaniment to lyrics that had by now become standardized: the first line was recited twice and then answered by a qualifying second line. Fifty years later, Led Zeppelin would amass post-perestroika-oil-baron-like riches by filching ideas and, in some cases, whole sentences from these musicians who had all played and died in utter poverty. One of my all-time favorite tunes by Plante and Page was “When the Levee Breaks.” It turned out that it was based on a number of old blues songs inspired by the Mississippi Flood of 1927. Charlie Patton’s best-known tune was called “High Water Everywhere — Parts I and II.” In another so-called Zeppelin original, “The Lemon Song,” Plante groans “…squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg…” – words lifted verbatim from Robert Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues.” Bob Dylan, the greatest lyricist of modern times, in “Corrina, Corrina,” says: “I got a bird that whistles, I got a bird that sings…” Johnson crooned the exact same declaration in “Stones in My Passway.” At least Eric Clapton had the decency, when recording “Crossroads,” to credit Robert Johnson.

Then came the aforementioned Great Divide separating the Mississippi and Chicago blues. It started when the acoustic guitar was replaced by the electric guitar. The pioneer in this transition was T-Bone Walker, a Texan who made his way out to California and then the world. He was as much a showman as a musician. He would jump around on stage making his guitar talk, prefiguring Chuck Berry. In 1947, he hit it big with the now classic recording of “Stormy Monday Blues.”

The biggest change was when the blues and its practitioners of the Deep South migrated north, first to Beale Street in Memphis, then to Chicago. In 1943, a tractor driver from Clarksdale, Mississippi, got on a train bound for Chicago, with the urge to export the music that his native Delta seemed to grow with more productivity than cotton, though, in a sense, the latter helped nurture the former. His name was Muddy Waters, and he was an apostle of Son House. Throughout the Fifties he ruled the South Side. But Muddy differed from most kings, to say nothing of most musical artists, in that he was selfless and generous to a fault. He hired Willie Dixon as a writer and occasional band member, and was thrilled when the student took off on his own and became a mentor to others. All that concerned Muddy was that the blues, the good word, be preached to the masses. He also helped launch Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter, going so far as to convince the Juvenile Court to appoint him as guardian to the wild and talented Junior Wells to keep the kid on the straight and narrow so as to enable him to contribute to the blues.

It was the custom on the South Side that whenever a new talent arrived, usually from the Delta and other southern locales, Muddy was summoned to get a firsthand look. If he liked what he heard, he would do all he could to kick-start another career. In 1957, a kid from Louisiana showed up in town flat broke with the dream of knocking them dead as a guitarist. By now, Muddy’s reign had lasted longer than a two-term President’s. He rushed over right away to welcome the rube to Chicago and listen to what he could do on the six-string. But the most telling part was that Muddy – in a very un-regal-like act — brought along salami and bread in case the kid was hungry. The kid was Buddy Guy, who went on to inherit from Waters the role of the South Side’s Godfather of the Blues.

In 1978, I knew nothing of this history (much of which I later learned from the excellent book The History of the Blues by Francis Davis) and was oblivious to Muddy Waters, who, on the summit of the second Great Divide, hit the nail on the head when he sang: “The Blues had a baby and they called it Rock n’ Roll.” Still, Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, babies of the blues, had offered me a clue as to their mysterious mama. Now this short and stocky Italian from Trenton, Joe Zook, was shoving me even closer to the bluesy matriarch with renditions of songs straight from the womb.

In a book called Really the Blues, written by Mezz Mezzrow in 1946, the author describes his twenty-year quest to do the impossible – be a white man who can play the blues on his clarinet. The odds are stacked against him. He explains how the “white man is a spoiled child, and when he gets the blues he goes neurotic. But the Negro never had anything before and does not expect anything now, so when the blues get him he comes out smiling and without evil feeling.” With the white man, when “he’s brought down he gets ugly, works himself up into a fighting mood and comes out nasty. He’s got the idea that because he feels bad, somebody’s done him wrong, and he means to take it out on somebody. The colored man, like as not, can toss it off with a laugh and a mournful, but not too mournful, song about it.” For two decades, Mezz endures many hardships and yet is never able to play the blues in its purest form. Then, while in prison at the age of forty-one, he is marching through the yard and a feeling swells up inside him and he starts to play the real thing on his clarinet, as the other inmates take notice. Of this beautiful moment, he says: “I had been wandering for twenty years, looking for this fine fabled place, and suddenly I made it, I was home… All the rambling years behind suddenly began to make sense, fitted into the picture: the prison days, the miss-meal blues, the hophead oblivion, the jangled nerves, the reefer flights, the underworld meemies. They were all part of my education…Those twenty years of striving and failing had all gone down into my fingertips, so that now, all of a sudden, I could tickle the clarinet keys and squeeze out the only language in the whole wide world that would let me speak my piece…And you know what my piece was? A very simple story: Life is good, it’s great to be alive! No matter how many times you go hungry, how many times you get a boot in your backside and a club over your head – no matter how tough the scuffle is, it’s great to be alive, brother!”

I was no expert on the difference between authentic blues and cheap imitation, but, to me, a goofy eighteen-year-old white boy swaying in The Rum Runner, Joe Zook sure sounded like the real thing. Perhaps, as a musician condemned to play in every New Jersey dive from Paterson to Camden, Joe, like Mezz, had done the requisite hard time and could now hold his own with any Mississippi bluesman. His talent echoed throughout this fire hazard of a tavern and out into the bitter streets of the Trenton slum. The African-American half of the crowd seemed to appreciate his interpretation of their ancestor’s music, from Charlie Patton to Muddy Waters to BB King. They nodded with heavy eyelids and a cool somberness, in contrast to the white bikers standing alongside them who stomped around like hippos and tossed their heads about in spastic pleasure. Yet both groups drank as one under the banner of Joe Zook. The blues were all about tolerance.

One steady fixture at the Rum Runner was a brother named Francis. I had first seen him outside the State House, in the adjoining park, where every day at lunch hour he played an acrobatic game of Frisbee. It was obvious that he was a non-state worker, as evidenced by the gym shorts and no shirt he wore and the bicycle he kept chained to a tree to transport himself away while the rest of us filed back into the bureaucratic mines. He was balding with a well-manicured, gray-spotted beard, yet had the body of a middle distance runner. He could often be spotted pedaling his bike when not tossing a Frisbee. He was ubiquitous, a black Moby Dick cruising the waters of Trenton, north, south, east and west, sometimes all at once. I started to become curious about this silent man. Does he work? Have a home? Or is his bike both job and home? Was he a deaf mute? One of my co-workers, Markie-boy, had been telling me for months to check out this fantastic blues guitarist, Joe Zook. One Friday night I gave into Markie-boy’s advice and parted the plywood door of The Rum Runner and the first person I saw was Francis sitting by the pool table drinking beer in all his enigmatic splendor.

Joe Zook had yet to mount the stage, but even if he had, my new priority was to get to the bottom of this African-American bicycling freak. I challenged him to a game of pool. He answered: “Yeah, sure. Rack ‘em up.” I fell backward from the shock of hearing a real live voice when I had been expecting sign language, or a grunt. Francis ran the table, as I added excellent hand-eye coordination to his personality profile. The loser, me, bought us a round and so we sat down for some light philosophical dialogue.

He was a dinnertime cook, which explained his shirtless afternoons and nights at The Rum Runner. His apartment, job and the bar were the only places that demanded his presence. A bike was more than adequate for such a lifestyle and helped burn off the Budweiser. He was married once, divorced, and in no hurry to again trod that path, or aisle. Life was good enough without the complications brought on by relationships. Soon Joe Zook plucked his first chord and Francis nodded toward the stage and ceased his monologue. The blues enveloped our table and helped add depth to the camaraderie already under way.

In the coming months, we met often at The Rum Runner. It was Francis who instructed me on the subtleties of pool so that I would never again embarrass myself as on that first night. He excelled in cutting the ball for a bank shot. He would often choose this difficult maneuver over a simple straight shot. This made me question his credo that life should be lived in the easiest and most direct way. Then, to silence my doubts, he taught me how to calculate the angle and to spin the cue ball, and, lo and behold, it was not that risky — and was the prettier shot. If the same objective could be reached just as easy in different ways, opt for the most aesthetic. Art over the utilitarian.

At closing time, I would sometimes offer to put his bike in the back of my pick-up truck (I was still a stereotypical working class Caucasian) and drive him home, it being so late. He would wave me off, saying he had to work off the Budweiser. At two in the morning? I would ask. “Two in the morning, two in the afternoon. What’s the difference?” he would reply, and then jump on the ten-speed and peddle off into the darkness, into the city.

I witnessed only one act of intolerance in all my time at The Rum Runner. Some white, drunk, multi-chinned slob had begun to shout and gesture at Francis. It was difficult to ascertain what had made this goon so mad, for the guy had the vocabulary of a Neanderthal and the delivery of a Neanderthal’s slow-witted brother. Nor did Francis seem to understand what he could have done or said to provoke such a row, as he looked at the cretin with the puzzlement of a father toward a son who has just declared that he hates sports. In an instant, Billy Dee, the white owner, swooped down on the scene, accompanied by every able-bodied guy in the place, and started lecturing this jackass about the ethos of The Rum Runner. It was about people getting along and listening to good music. The guy responded by pointing his thumb toward Francis and uttering the n-word along with a nonsensical qualifier, and, boy, did he ever wish he had stuck to just the qualifier. Everyone moved in on him. Billy Dee poked the guy’s flabby chest while proclaiming that Francis was a valued customer and, better, a good friend, and no one fucked with a friend, especially in his bar. The guy seemed astounded that a white man would come down so hard on a fellow tribal member in defense of a black man. His expression subsided from anger to perplexity to shame – and to him walking out the door with slumped shoulders.

In Delhaas, black and white socialized all the time, but when conflict arose, the line separating the races was thick and defined. Now I saw firsthand that to some adults the line dissolved when friendship was at stake. Billy Dee may not have been a Freedom Rider, but he was a Freedom Fighter. Here at The Rum Runner there would be no tolerance for intolerance.

…………….

 

My printing and drinking career (with no pension plan for either occupation) began in Trenton. Twenty years later, I retired from the drinking life, but not the printing trade. Now three decades have passed since toiling for the New Jersey Treasury Department, and each day I still continue to march off to my thankless job as a pressman to inhale chemicals in the hope that enough brain cells will survive with which to write a book or a screenplay that will free me from having to inhale more chemicals. At times, the days and weeks grow long and dispiriting, and it is then that I recall Joe Zook on that rickety stage, a little sad himself that his own dreams of musical stardom have not materialized in a record contract. His eyes are closed. The crowd goes silent. We are all in this together and the words that issue from an emotional Joe hit us working drones square in the gut. It is the T-Bone Walker’s classic “Stormy Monday Blues:”

 

They call it Stormy Monday,

But Tuesday’s just as bad.

They call it Stormy Monday,

But Tuesday’s just as bad.

Wednesday’s worse

And Thursday’s oh so sad.

 

Well the eagle flies on Friday

And Saturday I go out to play.

The eagle flies on Friday,

On Saturday I go out to play.

Sunday I go to church

And kneel down and pray.

(Visit my website: http://www.authorjamesfjohnson.com)

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