Thursday, September 29, 2005

Ahhh, New Jersey

It never fails: whenever I visit New York City and sit in the back of a taxi cab whizzing through town, if I close my eyes I can instantly be seven again, back in East Orange, New Jersey, sitting in the back of my father's Chrysler somethingorother - a big, sky blue car that my two sisters and I never felt cramped in.

Of course, that's probably because we hardly ever rode in it. East Orange is a city. We walked everywhere: to school, to church, to family and friend's houses, to the store. I think I rode in my father's car (the only one our family had or needed) about once every two weeks, when were going somewhere far, like Newark International Airport.

If you're tallying up years formative and impression wise, I technically "grew up" in Atlanta. But I was never really a Southern Belle. I was a Jersey Girl (the fact that both places are natural habitats for Big Hair is very evident in my hairstyle choices, I fear).

I was born in East Orange (if my mother were here, at this point she would gently remind me that the hospital was technically in Livingston. But our house was in East Orange). The Oranges, as they are known (East, West, South and Orange. There isn't really a North Orange, but kinda), are what I like to think of as the sixth New York borough. A real New Jersey girl would never say that, but after twenty seven years away from the Garden State, I can have unpopular opinions.

My father worked in Connecticut, my mother was a nurse for East Orange General. We wore red jelly shoes that turned purple when the street lights came on at night (also the signal to get our behinds in the house). We ate now-or-laters, played hopscotch, and tried tricks to get our mosquito bites to stop itching (rubbing alcohol. Try it. It works).

New Jersey was a corner store with nickel candy and a twenty five cent pricetag on Three Musketeers. It was a trip across the bridge to get school or Easter shoes - mine were always from the Stride Rite in Manhattan. It was growing up in the distant shadow of two tall buildings you could make out on a clear day: twin towers we all took for granted. It was hot summers, cold winters, and peekaboo springs and falls, which to this day are among the nicest, weatherwise, of any I've experienced. For a long time, it was what I considered home. It was my parents being young, still speeding when they drove, and bragging about never having gotten a ticket. It was home.

When my father received his first big promotion, two things happened. The first was that my mother got a car for Christmas. That was telling about the second: there was no need for two cars in East Orange. My parents took their new money to Liverpool, New York. The 'burbs. A pitstop on the way to life in Georgia. We would never live in anything remotely resembling a city again; in fact, my mother would bristle at the thought of purchasing a home with a nearby bus stop. She had grown up in the country, and my father had grown up in parts of Baltimore which would turn anyone against city life. They relocated their family to the safety of yellow school buses and four bedroom colonials. We rode in cars all the time. There were no street lights.

These days, DC is my home. It is the first town I have felt strongly attached to since leaving East Orange nearly three decades ago. Home is certainly where your heart is - so I was indeed glad to be wherever my family was and I have good memories of those upstate New York and subsequent Peach State days, but the tug to return, the nostalgic smiles, that was all reserved for Jersey. I realize now that part of those developing feelings for the DC Metro area is just that: Living in a metro area. We have a bus stop at the foot of our community, we can walk to the store.

We certainly ride in cars daily, but I feel the life of a city where I live, something I'll miss when/if I go back to the cricket chirping nights of suburban life. And how does my son know when to come inside?

When the street lights come on. :)


Anonymous said...
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Tulips said...

Beautifully written.