Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

December 28, 2003 Trip to the city

Train through Newark and the Meadowlands

The tracks go through the backstage of Newark – or maybe through the real life of the city. Old brick warehouses with windows broken, dirt lots, rusty trucks parked behind wire link fnces. Yellow-painted tire shop with iron grill pulled down over its face to keep out the city. Old painted brick McDonalds. Skyline of 1930s office buildings, towers stepped back to let the air and light flow around their windows. New glass structures rising over old tenements and an old chimney, backdrop to tracks and platforms. On the right, the new townhouses of the Ironbound, built over toxic soil, the yards paved solid to separate poisons from children.

Newark Penn Station – only recently did I realize that they are all called Penn Station because they were built by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. It’s wonderful inside, the great hall decorated far above with illustrations of the history of transportation, ending with silver trains and small prop planes, the height of modernity when the station was built. People rush through, looking cross, tired, fed up, cold, hungry. But at least the station remains, it has been saved from the watery home in the Meadowlands to which its sister from across the river was banished.

Going over the Passaic into Kearney, seventeen miles of toxic river that can’t be cleaned because removing the old waterlogged trash would stir up the sediment and make the toxins even worse. A city of old buildings, weedy lots, small patches of brown and red wilderness of trees and grasses between the tracks and the highways. Somewhere beyond what I can see, there are small clapboard houses, and this is home to someone, but it’s hard to imagine from here. Railroad cars, tracks, cranes, a hill of landfill, water running alongside the tracks. Then marshes, grasses, water everywhere. Telephone poles growing in the water, seagulls perched on top. Cormorant perched on a snag in the water, surrounded by trees and tires and old shopping carts and crates. Gulls and mallards in a pool, next to landfill with roads. The Hackensack and its marshes, a dozen bridges crossing it in parallel. The bend in the river with the abandoned boat on the shore and factories that we inspected from kayaks nearly a year ago, pretending this was Iraq and a war was beginning. And now more train tracks, endless tracks all through Secaucus. The road off to the left, more marshes, warehouses, water, a few houses, an empty lot with a few trucks at the edge. In the embankment below our train birch trees grow, white trunks shining through bare branches. High intensity power lines march across the marsh – and now suddenly we’re in the tunnel to New York, to come out in a moment in a completely different world.

Ninth Avenue shops

It is a different world on this side of the river, walking up Ninth Avenue from this side’s Penn Station – the new one, after her beautiful elder sister was drowned in the marshes decades ago. Dirty sidewalks, grimy, sooty, gummy. Small cluttered shops pressed one against the next.

The Gourmet Café, windows steaming, rows of bright flowers outside protected by walls of clear plastic. Inside the glass counter with tubs of tuna salad, fruit salad, tortellini, cream cheese, hams, pressed turkey, coleslaw, pickles. Racks of muffins, black and white cookies, slices of pound cake wrapped in plastic, cherry Danish, cheese Danish, plain bagels, packages of three oatmeal cookies in cellophane. Coffee that’s been sitting all day, regular and decaf and hazelnut and vanilla. In refrigerators with sliding glass doors are plastic bottles of coke, pepsi, sprite, a dozen kinds of mineral water. Iced teas with kiwi, iced teas with mint, iced teas with mango or Japanese herbs or grass seed, yellow teas, red teas, all kinds of drinks that call themselves tea. Sports drinks in blue, orange, electric green, muddy lavender. In another refrigerator milk, yogurt, American cheese, each slice in its own plastic sheath, three ounce blocks of cream cheese, quarts of orange juice. On a shelf, packages of cookies, saltines, Skippy super crunch, grape jelly, marshmallow fluff, mayonnaise, hamburger buns, ketchup and mustard and sweet relish. On the other side of the shelf toilet paper, soap, band-aids, toothpaste, instant coffee, teabags. Between the shelves is the section for the upscale part of the neighborhood, the salad bar replete with sesame noodles, sushi, cold chopped kale in oil and spices, black beans with red peppers and cilantro. Behind the counter, cigarettes and rolling papers and chewing tobacco, films and batteries. The core of New York’s basic needs in the holiday season, when most places are closed. Nothing quite good, but in a pinch it will all do if it has to. Out on the sidewalk, metal grates open up to stairs down to the basement, where supplies are kept. Cardboard cartons stacked on the curb, trash piling around them, dogs marking them and leaving their offerings next to them.

Down the street a newsstand-candy store is open. It’s a tiny place, just a single narrow aisle with magazines on the wall, newspapers out front. Inside there’s a rack of candies – m&ms and milky ways and a dozen flavors of lifesavers and packs of gum. The cigarettes are behind the counter where the owner, a middle aged immigrant from Pakistan or Puerto Rico or some other place, gazes out the window looking bored, listening to the radio. On the side of his door a history of posters glued on, torn off, and pasted over each other tells what has been happening in the neighborhood. A musical act, a show, a missing person, a zoning hearing.

Up on the upper west side the feeling is very different. When I grew up here forty years ago it was like Ninth Avenue, cluttered and busy and grubby and alive. Now it is cleaner, fancier, whiter, richer. Broadway is no wider than it was in 1964, but it feels wider, with the trees in the middle and the benches where old men used to mutter in Yiddish, men straight out of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story. Now the shops are cleaner, the sidewalks less cluttered, the trash in the cans instead of on the street. The stores are less interesting, chains like a suburban mall. This place has come up in the world, but the life of the world has moved to Ninth Avenue.

The Meadowlands at Night

Returning home – but is it actually home, what have I said? - the occasional gleam of lights on water is all that is left of the Meadowlands. And a wide black expanse that must be unlit marshes, golden street lamps in the distance marking acres of rail yards strewn with stacks of forty-foot containers. Crossing the Hackensack the scene opens out, black water rippling softly as our train passes over it. From outside we are a long yellow snake, our lighted windows warm and inviting as we roll past. From closer up the yards are ominous, rings of floodlights high up on poles like prisons or concentration camps, long low buildings surrounded by fences, no one in sight among them. Coming into Newark the Passaic gleams below us, a cross and a cadeusis in lights on top of a building marking a hospital as we pull into the platform.

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