Friday, May 22, 2009

Friday Flashback: In a Jersey state of mind

My father's side of the family hails from Elizabeth, New Jersey. As a kid we used to make the trip from Connecticut to Jersey at least three or four times a year.

The four of us--me, my parents, and sister--would pile into the station wagon and make our way to the highway--eventually. Papa Cat was a huge fan of winding, country back roads, and we'd spend a good 45 minutes on such roads before we even hit the highway. And when we did hit the highway, it was a two-lane road filled with nothing but trees.

We picked up 84 west in Waterbury, and would drive it to Danbury, where we picked up 684 west. Eventually we'd hit the Saw Mill Parkway, which led to 87 and 287, the highways that led to the Tappan Zee Bridge. That bridge was a childhood symbol of going to Jersey. I thought it was the ugliest bridge in the world. I still think it is. As we crossed the span, Sister Kitten would be crying the whole way because she was terrified of bridges--particularly that one. It's a fear that has stayed with her, and has only intensified now that the bridge is much older and in need of repair or replacement.

Anyway, we'd all breathe a huge sigh of relief once we made it over the Tappan Zee. We'd get off 87 and 287 to pick up the Palisades Parkway, and from there we picked up the New Jersey Turnpike.

I don't consider anyone to be an expert in highway driving until they have driven the New Jersey Turnpike. It is the most interesting road on the eastern seaboard. First of all, there's the traffic. We'd get on the NJT at Fort Lee, just as the other drivers were getting off the George Washington Bridge. Here is where a driver becomes proficient in the art of merging.

Then there are the sights along the way. As you travel south, to your left, you get this amazing view of the Manhattan skyline. We loved looking for the Twin Towers (RIP), the Empire State Building, and especially the Statue of Liberty. To your right, there's...well, it's not a pretty sight. There are landfills, more highways, and lots of litter. That's about the best I can describe it. So as you drive down the NJT, and you see all of this, your goal is not to get distracted by everything.

And let's not forget about the Meadowlands, kittens. Yes, those Meadowlands, home of Giants Stadium, the New Jersey Nets, and the New Jersey Devils. Never travel southbound on the NJT on game day. Consequently, never travel northbound if there's a Yankee game, as hundreds of cars pile into the Bronx, causing major traffic jams getting on to the GWB.

Finally, there are the factories. At our exit, there was this huge oil refinery with a flame coming out of it. Papa Cat used to ask us if we thought the flame was pretty. That was our signal that we were ten minutes away from our grandparents' house.

My grandparents lived on the bottom floor of a two-family house--the same house where Papa Cat and his brother grew up. They owned it, and rented the top floor out. It was a one and a half bedroom apartment. You'll find out why I say this in a minute. Their living room had this white couch with a strange green, orange, and brown swirl pattern on the cushions. My grandmother ordered the couch in 1973, and had custom-made plastic covers over the entire thing. I hated sitting on it during the summer, when the heat from my legs would cause them to stick to the plastic.

Sleeping arrangements were tight. My grandparents had the one bedroom. My sister and I slept on a really tiny fold-out couch in the half bedroom, which was really a walk-in closet/storage space. We never slept well on that couch for two reasons: 1. There was a big metal bar in the center of the matress (which was really thin and flimsy), and 2. My grandmother, in later years, could not fall asleep without the TV on. She was hard of hearing, and kept the volume LOUD. Meanwhile, my parents slept on the fold-out couch in the living room.

And then there was the pink bathroom. Sister Kitten took pictures of the house right after grandma died, and I wish I had a copy to share with you right now of this gaudy, pink bathroom. There was a pink carpeted toilet bowl cover, a pink rug in the middle of the floor, a pink toilet brush, pink towels, a pink skirt that went around the sink, and a pink shower curtain so big that you had to wrestle with it every time you took a shower. And may I add, that this was Pepto Bismal pink we're talkin' bout here. Barf.

There was a playground right at the end of the street. Papa Cat used to take us there so we could use the swings. He was the director of that playground one summer--but that's another story for another time.

Whenever we visited, we'd see our aunt, uncle, and cousins. They all lived in the same town. My aunt and uncle lived three blocks from my grandparents; one of my cousins lived across town with her husband and four kids. My aunt and uncle also lived in a two-family house, and rented out the top floor. They had a series of dogs as I was growing up, most memorably, a German shepard named Brando.

We all used to get together for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we'd make a pit stop there whenever we returned home from vacations on Long Beach Island. Food was always plentiful; my aunt is an excellent cook. Conversations were always loud; we are Italian, after all.

As we got older, the visits slowed down. We were lucky to make it down to Jersey once a year. When my grandmother died, we didn't have any reason to keep making even the annual treks. We went down once last year, for my cousin's 25th wedding anniversary party.

Things changed a lot when we went down last year. My grandparents' house, which was not up to fire code, was torn down. The playground we used to go to has become a haven for drug addicts. There are many more ethnicities present in the old neighborhood. And we take the Garden State Parkway down now; there's much less traffic, and it's a more pleasant ride.

This weekend, we're trekking down for my aunt and uncle's 50th wedding anniversary party. We won't be staying over at anyone's houses, but we have a hotel room. I really have mixed feelings about going. My family has gone down to Jersey so many times over the last 29 years (when we first moved to Connecticut), but the Jersey clan has only made the trek up to see us four or five times. Let me put it to you this way: when my father moved out of the house to take a job in White Plains, New York--one hour away from where he grew up--and you would think that he was moving across the country. Distance has been the main factor that has driven my extended family apart. There are other factors, but I won't explore them now.

However, I'm really looking forward to just being in another state. Jersey has its own unique flavor, almost like an American sub-culture. New York has its own unique subculture. Long Island has a unique culture as well. Connecticut? We're so vanilla here. New York, New Jersey, and Long Island are all places that inspire people's passions and imaginations. People from these areas have great pride in telling people where they're from. Connecticut? Not so much. Tell people you're from the Nutmeg State, and they're like, "Oh."

So I will return either Sunday night or Monday afternoon, depending on my level of fatigue. In addition to the travel, we'll be eating a lot of food. It's an Italian celebration, after all.

But first, let's pray that we make it across the Tappan Zee in one piece...


Celia said...

Many kisses to you. After living in New Jersey for 34 years and having family in Long Island it is very hard for me to adjust to living in Pennsylvania. If for no other reason than a particular Jersey passion is mocking PA drivers. I am waiting for my turn signal abilities and lead foot to atrophy. I would never have thought it would be so hard for me to emotionally separate myself from my Jersey identity.

Missy said...

Kitten! About reading halfway through your post I thought to myself "she has got to be Italian"! You brought back many memories for me, too. I grew up in Westchester and traveled the NJT many times, had relatives with plastic covers on their couches and huge holidays filled with many cheek-pinching relatives. :)

Have a great holiday weekend!

RunninL8 said...

Hey! It's been awhile since I last checked has been TOO nice for sitting at the box..
But MAN did this post bring back the memories!!! I'm one of those ex-hairband lovin’ Jersey girls who often made that trek from Jersey to Connecticut to visit the fam! Other landmarks that stuck out for me-the wacky revolving restaurant way atop that building in Stanford… plugging our noses, averting our eyes and pretending to hold our breath as we passed through Bridgeport… and the New Haven Maritime center marked that fact that we were almost to Grandmas!!!. What a "trip" it was when I was finally able to drive myself! Makes Alaska driving a cinch. The Tappan Zee.... I had this strange obsession about what it must be like to jump off at the different points on the bridge... I would drive my dad nuts with the questions. "So, if I jumped from HERE, would I die?"
"YES, already!!!!"

I do dig New England, though. Miss it around the Holidays. A little bit.

Thanks for the flashback! And too weird that Springsteen has been popping up a LOT around here as well....Coincided with the realization that Silvio from the Sopranos(I KNOW, we're years after the fact...just got the DVDs from the Mom-in-law) is Miami Steve/Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul!
Enjoy your weekend-hope things are looking up.

Mammatalk said...

Have a great holiday weekend. I will be back to hear how it went.

Anonymous said...

My mama grew up in Jersey. My dad likes to pick on her and call her a "Jersey Jerk". I have a bit of her Jersey accent in some of my words and people are like 'why do you say that word that way??' Lol!
She grew up in Ramsey.