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For the philosopher Kierkegaard, life presents an either/or proposition. We can either live as aesthetes and pursue pleasure, or get married and prioritize morality. You may disagree with how he broke it in half, but that’s what the man said.
In his engrossing newly published memoir, The Boy Becomes a Man: Confessions of an Honest Politician, Irvington North Ward Councilman David Lyons draws a similar conclusion about his own life’s journey, which began in Thomaston, Georgia, ran a tough luck and hell-raising gamut, and reached full expression as a public official in Irvington, New Jersey and proudly married man of 30 years to Charmin Lyons.
With considerable texture and attention to detail, Lyons describes what it was like to grow up in a little Southern factory town, endure the traumas and temptations of a young man on the move in the big city when he came north, including numerous intimate collisions with women, and find his destiny as an unlikely family man and leather-jacket-wearing tenant advocate in Irvington.
There’s a lot of sex and pot in the early part of the book; you might call it a haze of sex and pot with a little violence thrown in.
Here’s one encounter:
“Because he was so big, he thought I was scared, but he didn’t know – I fight to win, not to look good. I spotted a shovel with a broken handle by the bathroom door and said, ‘After you, motherf-cker.’ He went in the bathroom first, and on my way in, I grabbed the shovel. When I got inside, I hit him with the shovel and he backed up. ‘You have to fight dirty?’ ‘I’m fighting to win. It’s your move,’ I said. That shovel had hurt him.”
The coming-of-age book stands on its own as biography (related in a way to Get Up, You’re Not Dead, by former Newark Assemblyman George Richardson) and in the second half has a lot to recommend it to insiders who love Essex County politics. Lyons takes time in the book to chronicle the wars between the county party machine and his ally state Senator Ronald L. Rice and his own political battles with Team Irvington and former Mayor Wayne Smith.
Lyons always loved being in the system but not of it.
He holds to that line of thinking throughout the book.
He peppers The Boy Becomes a Man with jaded general observations about the political process. “Politics is a profession full of egotistical misfits making decisions that are usually based on their own selfish thinking, as opposed to decisions made with the people in mind,” the councilman writes. Then he contextualizes those observations into the bloodstream of his own local experience.
“I am of the belief,” Lyons writes, “that most of the council people who I have served with have not worked in the best interest of the people of Irvington. They have looked away at times to the actions of those who did not have Irvington’s interest at heart. It is one thing if you don’t know, but it is unforgivable in my eyes when you support those who do harm to my community for your own gain.”
Unlike his friend and ally sitting Mayor Tony Vauss, who loves and reveres the memory of L. Bilal Beasley, Lyons doesn’t have much good to say about the late councilman/freeholder who ran against Rice and lost in the 2007 Democratic Primary. “I was ecstatic [when Rice beat Beasley] because Beasley would have been a lousy senator,” Lyons wrote. “He would have sat there and simply drawn a paycheck and nothing else, just as he was doing as a councilman and freeholder. His main claim to fame was sleeping on the dais during meetings.”
The Rice-Lyons alliance against the county found Lyons on the front-lines of several significant fights to keep his North Ward seat. But finally, Lyons found in his wife and in her strength a life partner and fellow warrior. He details their respective health issues (he had a heart transplant in 2010 and Charmin Lyons sustained more than one aneurysm). She was the one who got him into politics to begin with, told him he won his first race, and steadfastly supported him through the hazards of a local political life in one of New Jersey’s toughest towns.
To those who appreciate one of New Jersey’s enduring local political iconoclasts (others who come to mind in the vein of Lyons include former Ward 2 Paterson Councilman Aslon Goow), The Boy Becomes a Man gives a different perspective on politics to a culture in New Jersey top-heavy with gluttons who look at the world from behind tinted glass.
Lyons’ work is philosophical, from the standpoint of a man schooled on the street.