Shane Paul Neil

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This article reflects just part of the conversation in the latest episode of “Our Montclair,” a video and podcast series featuring the art, the activism, the outreach and the connections among people in Montclair. 

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By SHANE PAUL NEIL
For Montclair Local

Lou Hochman, in the middle of telling me I didn’t get the staff position I applied for at Montclair Local, pitched me an idea: “How would you feel about producing a monthly video/podcast series, and writing a column for it as well?”

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I just barely let him finish his one-sentence pitch before I said I was in. 

Two weeks later, we premiered the first episode of “Our Montclair,” and we’ve been flying by the seats of our pants ever since. 

The discussion, now live at MontclairLocal.news, at Facebook.com/MontclairLocal and on most major podcast services (search “Our Montclair”), marks the fourth episode of the show, which focuses on the art, activism, outreach and connections among people in Montclair.

Lou — who’s normally a bit more behind the scenes of “Our Montclair,” as Montclair Local’s editor — and I decided to take an opportunity to reflect on the show, discussing together how it got started, the conversations we’ve had so far, what we hope for “Our Montclair” in the future. And we discussed my own story.

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I moved to Montclair about six years ago with my then-wife and son. We came from Brooklyn, which I would soon learn is a peak-Montclair cliché. 

It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the town. Being a city kid, Montclair felt like the first place I had space to breathe. It struck the perfect balance between the proximity and convenience I knew and the openness I needed. 

The fairy tale, however, wouldn’t last long. 

A confluence of events that included divorce, unemployment and depression resulted in my homelessness. I will always remember the first several days of homelessness. I would sleep on the PATH train, then clean up at a friend’s house in the morning, then spend the rest of the day trying to figure out how to correct my situation while doing my best to hide it from the people closest to me. 

I ended up living in Cornerstone House, the shelter run by the Montclair Citadel of the Salvation Army. I would end up staying there for the next four months. It was as good as a bad situation could be. I shared a room with four other men who would tell me that Cornerstone was the Taj Mahal of shelters. It was clean, and the staff was respectful and understanding. Honestly, I might not be here today if it wasn’t for Cornerstone. 

I eventually found a job driving for a senior center in town. It didn’t pay much, but it gave me access to a car, a hot lunch and the feeling of being an active part of society again. Best of all, a co-worker introduced me to a woman who was renting a room in her basement. So I moved out of the shelter and into a small room with a tiny window, wood paneling and a private bathroom. That first night was the best sleep I’d had in more than a year. 

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I think that it is this experience in this town that informs my approach to “Our Montclair.” The understanding is that there’s a breadth and depth of stories in Montclair beyond the names and organizations that often get discussed. There are artists, activists, community organizers and educators that are at the heart of Montclair’s spirit who often get overlooked. The vision Lou suggested for this series and that we continue to develop together aims to address a need for these stories to be highlighted. 

We’ve spoken to the likes of visual artist Armando “OUTthere” Diaz and tap-dancer Maurice Chestnut about the power of art as a means of protest. We talked to Mike Bruno and Eleanor Walter of the Human Needs Food Pantry about the vital role food stability plays in the health of individuals and the community at large. We spoke to two young adults who’ve just graduated Montclair High School, Zuri Hilton and Zora Trope, about coming of age amid a pandemic and social upheaval, about how that changed the trajectory of their adult lives

These are stories that define as much as any other what it means to be a citizen of Montclair and the world at large. 

My biggest hope is that the show instills a greater degree of empathy and understanding among us. I want the stories we put forth to speak to all of our humanity. That can be a tall order for a town known for its liberal values and general acceptance of those who reside on a different intersectional corner.

But as individuals and as a collective, we can’t start to rest on our laurels. We develop blind spots we didn’t even know we had. Maybe you’re solid on the nuances of race but totally fall apart on trans issues. You are an advocate for women’s rights, but have issues when it comes to immigration. 

We all have failings, but maybe, just maybe, you’ll hear a voice through “Our Montclair” that gives a moment of pause, a moment of consideration. 

Thank you to those of you who have supported the show so far. The feedback I have gotten thus far has been awesome. With the support of Montclair Local I hope to make the show a touchstone for the town and all the truly special people who live here. 

See you next episode.