In the following article Lisa Kereszi tells the story of her family junkyard, a memorial to a particular failure of the American Dream. A dramatic story of drugs, violence, suicide and bankruptcy. The photographs range from family portraits to objects detail, from environment images to the various stuff contained in the courtyard, in an indissoluble interweaving of artistic personal project and intimate family photos.
Following text and images by Lisa Kereszi.
What was the junkyard like yesterday, Nannie?
Same as always – lousy. Not too many customers.
Eloyse Kereszi, Proprietor
As I was growing up, my father ran the family junkyard, and my mother, for a time, had an antique shop. I was surrounded by junk! My mom dragged us out of bed to go to the flea markets and yard sales, in the hopes of finding a treasure – a painting by a famous artist, a valuable piece of pottery, or an important document or large amount of money stowed in the backing of a frame. And my dad built one of his Harleys from the ground up, using parts he acquired in the business. I am truly a product of the idea of one man’s trash being another man’s treasure. Our junkyard was not the kind that crushes cars and recycles outright. We had a garage where we sold used parts and did repairs. Then once the shells of the cars were useless, we had a crusher come in to buy the scrap metal from us.
We couldn’t keep up with the competition, because we didn’t have the sophisticated equipment. The junkyard neighbors have this sophisticated equipment, and that’s how they, in leaps and bounds, they surged ahead. But we stayed there, at a steady grind, like the old Chinamen, moving it on with the plank and the wheel… And the economy went up and everybody started to buy these new plastic cars, all the new cars. And there were two new cars in every family, and they quit buyin’ and fixin’ up the old cars.
Joe’s Junkyard, named first for my grandfather, Joe, then carried on to my dad, Joe, Jr., was in business for just over 50 years. Joe, Sr. was the son of Hungarian immigrants, who settled in the coal belt of Pennsylvania, where they worked in the coal, oil and steel industries. Joe moved to the lively city of Chester, Pennsylvania, halfway between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware, and opened the gates to the junkyard. Business was booming in the Fifties and Sixties, and even early Seventies. The city became extremely depressed around that time, and is now a ghetto.
We were working til 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock at night, freezing to death down there. I was down there holding a flashlight so Uncle Mark could work on a motor… One night Mark had a dentist appointment, and your father was at a heated bar with Mickey, and I am there with my hands froze to the gate. Alone down there! I had to spit on my hands – my hands were frozen to the metal of the gate, it was so cold. I had to spit on my hands to get my hands so they wouldn’t freeze to the gate. I should never have been down there all alone.
I began taking pictures there as a teenager, and I began to realize that having such a place to roam in was sort of special. The “Yard” (as we always referred to it) was my dad’s life. He started working there after dropping out of high school at the age of 16. (Consequently, this was the age when I first began taking pictures there myself, around 1989.) It was his hang-out, and when the closing bell rang, his biker friends showed up to party. For a series of reasons – the economy, shrewd competitors who happened to be relatives, bad business decisions, illegal drugs, incarceration, thieves and vengeful enemies, not to mention the Department of Environmental Protection, The Tax Man and Town Hall – the business was a failure, and we barely kept our heads afloat. I didn’t identify with the “junkyard dogs” and the frosted-haired biker babes that were always hanging around. Embarrassed, I longed for a “normal” family, but later I realized that I was lucky, in a way.
The whole junkyard story is a long one, and it includes all the trappings of a dramatic novel or movie – money, near bankruptcy, family feuds, violence, drugs, death, suicide. A suicide is what the crowded office with the white tv is about. On the walls are funny signs, family photos, postcards from my sister and I, reminders, warnings, business licenses, my dad’s leather fringe biker Xmas stocking, his friend Randy’s airbrushing sign, old license plates, keys, an American flag. They ate lunch here, sat down and waited for customers, answered orders. The light from the old tv looks blown-out, because it was a several second exposure. Not to be dramatic, but to me it is a beacon – haunted. My father’s brother, Mark, killed himself in this office in 1998; I don’t know the exact spot. I know that he was on both phones arguing with his ex-wife and my grandmother at the time, so it couldn’t have been far from this spot. This photo has not only been a memorial to the Yard but to my Uncle Mark as well.
So, two of my relatives died there – my grandfather and my uncle – and rather than that happening prematurely to my father and my grandmother, the two finally sold what was left of the business to my second cousin, their longtime competitor, in the summer of 2003.
FOR SALE BY OWNER: 53 year-old PENNA. JUNKYARD, strategic location off I-95, convenient to NJ, Wilmington & Philadelphia, 6 acres, 6 bay garage and office, $600G OBO.
So, the project was over, save for following my dad to swap meets and flea markets in Florida and Pennsylvania. The bulk of the pictures were made between 1994 and 2003. The photographs survive (including vintage ones by family members, collaged and drawn on), as do some of the characters and their oral stories, and I hope this series is a fitting testament to the people who spent their lives there. A book would be a proud memorial to this particular failure of the American Dream.
I don’t want to put on my glasses, because I don’t wanna’ see this. I don’t want it, I can’t, I can’t read it anymore. I can’t. I can’t stand it anymore… I know, I know what I owe… Every day it’s costing me. I’m goin’ crazy with this. We gotta’ sell that yard – he’s gotta’ sell that yard. One hundred thousand dollars on taxes for that crummy dump that’s not even giving me income.
I can’t do it. I just can’t do this anymore. You know why? I don’t want to. I can’t stand it anymore. Amen cherries. I’m done with it.
I do not want this junkyard back. I’m done with it.