In the spring of 2015, at my desk in London, I received an email from a DJ/producer in Detroit. Aaron ‘FIT’ Siegel wanted to know the answer to two questions: was I related to Joe Flusfeder, of Lened Inc., the company that used to manufacture automated record presses in New Jersey in the 1960s and 1970s; and if so, did I know where he could find spare parts for Lened machines, because the ones at the pressing plant he uses keep breaking down.
The answer to the first question was yes: he was my father. The answer to the second was originally no. It gave me a thrill that was in part sentimental and nostalgic, and in part something else that I couldn’t quite identify, to hear that the vinyl revival is being enabled on heritage machinery, that my father’s machines are still in operation. I liked it too that the email had come from Detroit, with its reputation for being the exemplary ruined post-industrial American city. Aaron and I had a subsequent email correspondence in which we talked about cities and ruins and the possibilities of recovery. I told him that the Lened patent had gone into the public domain a decade or two earlier, that my father had died in 2008 and that the last time I had seen one of his machines was in 1980. The factory closed down in 1982. I wished I knew of a cache of spare Lened parts to give to Aaron. I thanked him for getting in touch. I wished him luck.
And then, a few months after the original email correspondence had subsided, I got back in touch with Aaron Siegel. I told him I was planning a visit and asked him if he would take me to Archer Record Pressing in Detroit. I had done some further research in the intervening period. I thought I might have a lead for him.
I have a framed LP from 1964. On the white label is typed the following information:
october 29, 1964
this record was made on the
first day of operation of the
new automatic record press
designed by j. flusfeder & l. palmer
built by lened manufacturing co., inc.
elizabeth, new jersey
The pianist Glenn Gould gave up performing live that year, preferring the technology of the recording studio. In 1966 he wrote: ‘Whether we recognize it or not, the long-player record has come to embody the very reality of music.’
It may be embodying it again, in a surprising post-postmodern reaching for authenticity. Thomas Edison’s phonograph, in which sound waves were etched onto the surface of a rotating cylinder, was invented in 1877. The first records made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) rather than shellac were manufactured in the late 1930s, but PVC only became standard in the post-war plastics surplus that also enabled the washing-up bowl and the hula hoop. The first LP was pressed in 1948. An entire classical symphony could now be contained on a single disc. ( The symphony is the unit of cultural value that the recording industry uses when it wants to boast about innovation: the compact disc’s seventy-nine-minute length was chosen as being sufficient for Beethoven’s Ninth.)
Joseph Flusfeder, c.1945
Like many of my father’s decisions, his decision to get out of the recording business in 1982 was a shrewd one. In 1975, record sales in the USA had totalled approximately 460 million dollars. By 1978, that had gone up to around 500 million dollars, of which about two-thirds was made up of album sales and the other third of singles. But by 1982, vinyl was on the way out. Cassettes became more popular than records in 1985. CDs took over in 1989. By the 1990s vinyl records had become twentieth-century curios, a niche market kept alive by ageing audiophiles and a few purists’ genres like Detroit techno.
In 2006, 900,000 records were sold in the USA. There was a slight rise to a million the following year; and then something happened. Every couple of years or so, the figure would double, so that by 2015, nearly twelve million records were sold, a rise of just under three million over 2014.
Archer Record Pressing in Detroit was one of the few plants to have survived the slump and it was now profiting from the unexpected boom.
I searched online for Leneds, and for my father’s partner, and eventually I found a death notice for Leonard Palmer, who had died in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, in 2012 at the age of ninety-five, after suffering an aneurysm on a golf course. He was survived by two children and four grandchildren. His daughter was listed under her married name along with her husband: Nina and Steve Sheldon. Nina, under her maiden name, is the National Sales Manager for Ross Ellis Packaging, which produces most of the album covers for the record industry in North America. I had come across Steve Sheldon’s name before: he’s the president of Rainbo Records in LA, which has maybe the largest number of working Lened machines anywhere.
And now I had a plan. I would drive from the old Lened factory in Elizabeth, New Jersey, then on to Detroit, where I would visit Archer’s to see my father’s machines in operation. And then fly to LA, to meet Steve and Nina, and broker a deal to help out Archer’s.
I drove out of Manhattan in a rented Ford to visit my father’s grave at Beth David cemetery in Elmont, which is one of those suburbs of Queens that blurs into Long Island. I was last here seven years ago, at his funeral, and, predictably, as the lack of a sense of direction is one of the few things that I unmistakably shared with my father, I couldn’t find his grave. I wandered around the fancier parts of the cemetery, the tombs and vaults, some of which have windows, ‘for the dead to look out’, as my father said, when I drove him and my stepmother out to the cemetery to see their death plot a couple of years before he died. The comedian and provocateur Andy Kaufman is buried here, despite the rumours that he faked his own death. I didn’t see his grave and I couldn’t find my father’s, even with the photocopied map that an anxious woman at reception had furnished me with. She’d looked my father up on the computer system and scrawled a yellow blot with a Magic Marker on the map.
‘He’s right there,’ she said.
Except he wasn’t. I’d circled around for a quarter of an hour or so before returning to the office.
‘I haven’t been working here long,’ she told me.
She came out of the office to help me. We tramped around together for a while before I did come across a little scrub of a hedge and a stone to mark my father’s grave. loved, mourned and deeply missed it says, which doesn’t give much sense of who he was. More eloquent are the places and dates of his birth and death: warsaw jan. 7 1922 – new york city nov. 16 2008 and his name: joseph (izio) flusfeder.
I’ve written about my father before and each time I’ve thought I was done with it. He was the idol and enemy of my youth, the smartest and toughest man I’ve ever known, and I fought against him harder than I’ve fought anybody.
He survived being a Jew in the German occupation of Warsaw in 1939; survived being a prisoner in a Siberian forced labour camp for sixteen months from 1940 to 1941; survived being a Polish soldier at the battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. Originally called Izio, which is a Polish version of Israel, he adopted the name George in his attempt to carve out a life as an immigrant in London after the war. He had hardly any English and his accent was heavy and when he met my mother at an East End dance organised by the Polish Ex-Servicemen’s Association, she misheard his ‘George’ as ‘Joe’ and he didn’t have the facility to correct her, so Joe Flusfeder he became.
Joe Flusfeder didn’t like life in London. He was poor and he was made to feel ‘like a dirty foreigner’. He had a flair for working with machines and was offered a place at the University of Nottingham to study engineering, but couldn’t afford to take it up. Claiming experience with plastics moulding equipment, he was given a job in a spectacle-frames factory where he learned the job by doing it. Then he worked in a factory that manufactured plastic clasps for handbags. Sometimes he slept on the factory floor. Generally, he lived in rooms in east and north-east London, often sharing them with other Jewish Poles displaced by the war.
His brother, who I’m named for, was shot on a street in Warsaw by a German soldier. His father died in the death camp of Treblinka. His mother committed suicide in the Ghetto. His cousins all had similar fates and only two other members of his family survived. Searching displaced-persons camps in Italy at the end of the war, he was reunited with an aunt, his father’s sister, Ruth. In London he met up with his father’s brother Jerzy, who was now also called George. This George had converted to Christianity, managed to take out Dutch nationality and was on his way to live in South Africa, because he was sure that it would all happen again.
My father didn’t award himself any special status for having survived. The odds had been against it. Better people than him had died. He didn’t believe that there was anything meaningful to this. He had survived because he had got lucky, because the world turned in the direction it did. ‘There is just a matter of simple coincidences,’ he later told me. He did not like to talk about these things. Who should I talk to? His son, for example, was living a life of unquestionable soft privilege, and could surely not understand what might be said. And why should he seek out the company of others who had had, if not similar, at least parallel experiences? So they could congratulate each other?
In 1951, my father and mother, recently married, emigrated to the US, sponsored by his aunt Ruth, who was already in Brooklyn. In New York City, he believed, it didn’t matter how foreign you were: if you were smart and worked hard, you could get on in life. He continued to work in plastics factories. At some point, in the late 1950s or early 1960s, he got a job in a small manufacturing plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey, called Lened.
The company was named for its original partners, Lenny and Ed. Of Ed I know nothing other than his name, because he was the man my father replaced. Leonard Palmer was also a Polish Jew who had come to the United States via London. He had also been in Siberia, and had also joined up with General Anders’s Polish battalion that formed in the USSR and made its way through Iraq, Iran and Palestine to Italy as part of the British 8th Army.
I think Joe Flusfeder and Lenny Palmer met in London. It might have been at the factory that made spectacle frames, because Lened was involved in the grinding of lenses in its early days. And Lenny Palmer wasn’t Lenny Palmer yet. He had originally been Mendel Oblengorski. At some point in the war he took on the identity of a Sicilian sailor called Leonardo Palermo in circumstances unknown, perhaps murky.
My father flourished at Lened. The story I grew up with is that in his spare time he tinkered around in a corner of the factory floor, coming up with innovations and the beginning of an invention that moved Lenny Palermo to offer him a partnership.
Joe was tall and thin; Lenny short and stocky. In their early days as partners they lived next door to each other in Fresh Meadows in Queens; each had a wife and a baby daughter. They might even have seen themselves as friends. Lenny took me to my first baseball game. When I knew him, he had close-cropped grey hair and an all-year tan because of his love for tennis and golf. Both men wore dentures. Lenny frightened me slightly with his confident robustness, but he seemed sincere in his friendliness.
My aim was to drive from Elmont to Elizabeth to see the factory building at 489 Henry Street. I was six years old and my sister was eleven when our parents separated, my mother bringing us back home to London. On subsequent summers in the States, I would spend some afternoons at Lened, the bored child hanging around a parent’s workplace on school holidays. I would read in the reception area, where the two secretaries, Valerie and Barbara, worked. Valerie was large and friendly and wore sweaters with patterns on them. Barbara was younger and very thin and wore brown polo necks and slacks and big round-lensed tinted glasses. She smoked More cigarettes and was, I thought, extremely glamorous. Barbara looked Italian and had a low brittle voice and did everything quite slowly as if the world was distanced from her behind glass.
Or I would sit in Lenny’s chair in the office the partners shared, with its heavy furnishings, the pair of identical mahogany desks. Lenny, who was now invariably referred to as ‘that horse’s ass’ by my father, was seldom there. Highlights of my visits were if Pepe, the factory foreman, had any spare time for me. Pepe could sometimes be persuaded to play ping-pong in the recreation room, which was a light blue linoleum room off the main factory floor, where the machines were built. The factory floor itself was a hot, hellish place that I tried to avoid. It made me ashamedly aware of my narrow boyishness to enter this loud dirty world where bare-chested oily men laboured over machines.
I liked Pepe. He had made a dangerous crossing to leave Castro’s Cuba and even though I disapproved of this, in a boy-Marxist kind of way, I forgave him. The last time I saw him was when I was sixteen and he took me drinking, the giddy rush of afternoon Heinekens, and everything he said, other than on political matters, seemed to me to be apt and wise.
Towards the end of the summer, my sister (retrieved from a romantic entanglement in the Catskills) and I would be taken by our father to All Disc, which was a pressing plant in Roselle, New Jersey, that used Lened machines. And there, in the din and the heat generated by the presses, we were given licence to gather up as many records as we could carry. Back in London each new album I bought was a sort of magical act that required much preparation. But here, at All Disc, this was the closest I could come, at the age of twelve, thirteen, fourteen, to the orgiastic. A new Lou Reed album? Put it in the cart. Cat Mother? Why not. A double-album anthology of someone called John Coltrane? I’d read about him in a Ken Kesey novel, so that went into the pile.
This was about the time when I declared that if my father thought I was going to join him in the business then he would have to think again. He didn’t seem especially disappointed by the news. He didn’t have a very high opinion of my likely capacities for engineering or business and he said if Lenny’s son was anything like his father then he wouldn’t wish a second-generation partnership on anyone. He had a higher opinion of Lenny’s daughter Nina, but neither my father nor Lenny would have envisaged passing on the company to their daughters – and anyway, Nina was reported to be going off the rails at this point, working as a hot-pants-wearing waitress in a go-go bar – which made her rank in the same glamorous company as Barbara in my eyes.
My father did not have a gift for friendship. If there had ever been any sense of companionship between him and Lenny (‘the horse’s ass!’), Polish Jews who had survived the war, who had made the same journey, via London, to New York, then that was quickly dissipated. But my father was always complimentary about Pepe. He seemed to like him. He praised his work. Pepe was lifted away from the factory floor; his overalls were gone, he wore a business suit to work now; he took care of some of the clients, both at home and abroad. And then, abruptly, Pepe was gone. And when I asked my father what had happened, all he would say was, ‘The man’s a thief.’
As I drove back into Manhattan to cross over into New Jersey, I was thinking of Pepe, and wondering what it was that he had stolen, and how foolish he had been to attempt it, because he must have known that my father never forgave a slight, let alone a robbery. I was planning to go across the George Washington Bridge, through Fort Lee, where my father and his second wife had lived for a while, and across to Elizabeth. There is still a manufacturing plant at 489 Henry Street; the same one-storey brick building where Lened had been is now a factory for American Hose & Hydraulics.
The fourth-ranking attraction on TripAdvisor for things to do in Elizabeth is to take the bus to Newark Airport. Elizabeth is a run-down post-industrial rust-belt town in northern New Jersey. It hasn’t recovered from the loss of its largest employer, the Singer sewing-machine factory, which closed down in 1982, the same year that Lened shut. I was already seeing plenty of post-industrial ruination on my drive out of Queens: the clumps of people idle on street corners, boarded-up buildings that had once been enterprises, the messed-up, potholed roads that the city hadn’t got around to repairing.
I hadn’t prepared well. It was the day of the New York Marathon, and I kept being detoured around the route. After an hour of this I was still waiting at a junction to get onto the approach road to the George Washington Bridge. I had reached the data limit on my phone, which meant that Google Maps was unavailable and I was unlikely ever to find Henry Street in Elizabeth. So I parked the car and took the subway to meet my friend Christopher for lunch.
When we first met, in our early twenties, we were both aspirant writers. Christopher was a poet, who was beginning to publish; I was a ‘novelist’, by intent rather than achievement. Christopher left poetry behind and has for many years been an adviser to and spokesperson for one of the richest men in the world. At the midtown office building where he works there is nothing to indicate what is transacted inside: no names on the door or in the huge white lobby with its fountain on the far wall, its travertine and glass and Mies van der Rohe chairs in the reception area, the cashmere-covered chairs in the executive suite.
The only thing on display, other than New York City itself through the office windows, is an installation created by James Turrell, sited across two floors. An elegant ovoid, it’s one of the artist’s Ganzfelds, an immersive experience in which your entire field of vision is solid and undifferentiated, with no horizon. We stood inside it and looked up, climbed to the next floor and leaned vertiginously over the edge. The lighting was set to blue, and it felt impossible not to have intimations of the infinite.
‘This might be the opposite of Detroit,’ I said, when we’d stepped out of the installation.
‘This might be why Detroit is broke,’ Christopher said.
This is how the world works: your rust belt is his travertine wall. Nietzsche wrote, ‘Mankind is not a whole; it is an inextricable multiplicity of ascending and descending life-processes . . . the strata are twisted and entwined together . . . Decadence . . . belongs to all epochs of mankind: refuse and decaying matter are found everywhere.’
It takes about eleven hours to drive from Manhattan to Detroit, where, according to its current reputation, a lot of that decaying matter is to be found. I’d read about lawlessness and murders and was determined to arrive in daylight. I left Manhattan at 6.30, stopping for breakfast in a diner in a small town in Pennsylvania, where I sat across from the Fire Chief, Paul. I knew he was called Paul and that he was the Fire Chief because he was wearing a blue T-shirt that said so. Paul the Fire Chief was magnificent. He was a big man, balding, with a large grey moustache and the appetite of a king. I watched, with some measure of awe, Paul consume bacon, sausages, fried potatoes, waffles, pancakes, scrambled eggs, toast and jelly, and a little white bowl of what I later realised were grits. There was magnificent amplitude to his appetite, and watching Fire Chief Paul consume his breakfast put me in a very good mood. Getting back onto the road, I admired the scenery, the November sun that was colouring everything green and gold, flashing through the trees like the lights of a patrol car.
I got over my guilt that I hadn’t made it to Elizabeth, that I’d allowed poor planning and the New York Marathon and telephone data usage and James Turrell to deflect me from it. Joe Flusfeder wouldn’t have minded. He was not a sentimental man. He never declared any feelings or curiosity or interest in Elizabeth, or Berkeley Heights, where he had, as they used to say, begun to ‘raise a family’. He had been in Elizabeth solely because of work, because Lenny Palermo and the unknown Ed had happened to set up a factory there. He chose, when he could afford to, to live in Manhattan. Elizabeth and Fort Lee and Berkeley Heights and Fresh Meadows, like London, like Monte Cassino or Siberia or Warsaw, were unavoidable steps on his way.
I turned left at Toledo and headed into Detroit. It was still daylight.