Stranger in a Strange Land

Posted on 20 July 2009


Nineteen years ago, my husband’s corporation, headquartered in New York City, distributed booklets to their workforce in preparation for the influx of their Asian brethren, both co-workers and new clientele.  A primer for understanding the mores of India, China, and other Eastern nations, the booklets were a proactive move to facilitate the integration of distinctly different cultures.   Unfortunately, when Corporate deigned to ship their employees out to New Jersey, no manual was provided to instruct die-hard New Yorkers in the art of integrating into what I had then referred to as “the wilds of New Jersey.”


Anticipating the relocation, my husband dragged me repeatedly to South-Central Jersey, journeying deeper and deeper into the Garden State in search of the perfect home.   Along routes that were then largely undeveloped, we whizzed by sights and other sensory slaps upside the head unseen in the City that Never Sleeps. Men sporting long beards and riding tractors through cornfields, horse farms juxtaposed with large manufacturing facilities, the air redolent of an odd mix of what makes the grass grow green and whatever the factories were spewing.  We passed strip malls, which did nada for me, for my battle cry had been, “Give me Lord & Taylor (Fifth Avenue) or give me death!”  In utter denial of the impending move, I’d shove a punk-rock tape into the car’s deck, using The Pogues’ rather earthy lyrics to belt out how I felt about leaving my beloved New York.


But leave I did.  My husband embraced home ownership, including that gleaming new barbeque grill and lawnmower, with glee.  Me?  I felt like a clam pried out of its shell …while still alive.  What strange land was this that existed a relative stone’s throw from the greatest city on Earth?   When I accidentally bumped my shopping cart into that of another consumer, she was the one who apologized profusely.  When I slowed my car to admire at the lamas (lamas!) living up the road from me, another vehicle pulled up beside me, its occupants asking sweetly if I were lost and needed directions.  I was lost, all right.  If someone pulls up beside a savvy driver in the city, she will roll up her windows and get the hell out of Dodge, or at least off Seventh Avenue.


When we drive, in fact, it’s a common practice to flip someone the bird.  The use of one’s middle finger has evolved, in the city, into a sort of tribal greeting, an obligatory ritual. It translates as, “I cut you off and you cut me off and now we’re even, so have a nice day.”  Here, such a gesture is akin to road rage, and was in fact pooh-poohed by Jersey’s then-incumbent Governor who benefited, ahem, from her private chauffeur.


Transplanted into the most congested State in the Union, I had to learn that “jug handle” was a sort of U-turn, and not what one particular and rather offensive relative-by-marriage gripped when chugging down his mass-marketed Chianti.  Yes, in Jersey, jug handles abound and are usually blocked off by accidents or construction.  Witness Route 1, from New Brunswick well through Avenel.  The Romans had to have built the Coliseum in a shorter time span than it’s taking these crews to widen and modern this *#$%*^ road!


When you really need all this traffic and car honking, it’s nowhere to be found. For the first month as a new homeowner in Jersey’s heartland, I could not sleep.  It was too damned quiet.  Birdsong rent the air, as did the gentle whispers of the pines in my backyard.  Gone was my nightly, familiar lullaby of screams, curses, boom boxes, and arguing beneath my window.   By daybreak, the quietude of the ‘burbs left me a wreck.


Bleary-eyed, I’d enter the supermarket for a yogurt en route to work, only find the entire process of food shopping also foreign.  Instead of going from store to store, as city dwellers shop for the best bread, the tastiest cheese, the freshest fish, etc., here I could get everything under one roof, everything but gourmet food, that is.  Gone also were the amazing bookshops such as the Forbidden Planet on the outskirts of the Village and the tiny independent book peddlers I’d patronized. Gone was the magazine shop in Grand Central Station, purveyor of journals on a dizzying array of topics from nations worldwide.  Gone were the little record stores where I could put my mitts on the hottest new artists as well as some truly fine literature written just for musicians.  Gone were the hot dog vendors, the pretzel hawkers, the dudes pushing the designer handbags that had just fallen off the truck, and oh, those guys selling warm chestnuts on a bitter cold Manhattan night.  Gone were the lights of Broadway, the lights of the Brooklyn Bridge.


Gone was St. Mark’s Place in the Village, where I could stroll unmolested long past midnight on a Saturday night, getting virtually anything I wanted (and everything I did not want) in a big city. (A warning to out of towners: for the love of God, do not attempt this on your own!).  Gone was the tiny lush pocket park tucked away beneath the shadow of the gorgeous U.N. building.  Gone, the miniscule ethnic restaurants up and down Third Avenue. Gone, the annex of the Whitney Museum, overshadowed by Grand Central, a little-known oasis in the Big Apple.  Gone, the buskers (musicians, singers, and stand-up comics) in the bowels of the subway, asking for nothing but an appreciative audience and some spare change from the commuters.


Nineteen years after my move to Jersey, I have gained a true appreciation for the State and its citizens.  All of that is best left for another article.  Appreciation notwithstanding, I remain a stranger in this still-strange land.  Manhattan flows through my blood like the water in the Hudson Bay, like the trains through the tunnels; it beats in my heart like the wild cacophony of the city streets.


Most of you probably choke when you drive through the Lincoln Tunnel.  Me, I cry.  I weep for the beauty of those aging tiles.  I weep with joy, I kid you not, when I am deposited into the gritty sunlight of the city of my birth, beneath the belly of the Port Authority’s mighty rabbit warren of a building.  I grin like a mad loon just to bop down the streets, shimmying like a frenetic ballet dancer fighting for a toehold.  The heart constricts in my chest when I pass the hole in the sky and the hole in our hearts where once rose the Twin Towers.  After countless plays on and off Broadway, I still thrill to see a show there, though a concert at the Beacon is more my cup of tea.  I still elbow tourists with not so quiet glee when clueless, they engulf me during my annual pilgrimage to the great Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center.  Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” still stops me dead in my tracks in Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), and every time my feet cross the museum’s threshold, I remember the day that I stumbled, speechless and humbled, upon the 90-foot canvas of Guernica, Picasso’s brilliant and disturbing masterpiece depicting the Spanish Revolution.


The dinosaur bones in the Museum of Natural History remind me anew that there were, and yet are, beings greater than myself to whom I am beholden for having been born into this magnificent city.  The sun coming up over Central Park, particularly in winter when it turns the starkly frozen trees to diamonds, still lifts my spirit inexplicably.  And the sight of that beautiful Lady of the Harbor, beckoning “your poor, your tired, and your hungry” makes me exceedingly proud to be linked to an old world that has made a new world struggling yet to reinvent itself.


To me, the ever changing and yet enduring face of New York City will forever be like the woman immortalized in the beautiful old Leonard Cohen song of the same name:


“And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers.
There are heroes in the seaweed.
There are children in the morning.
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror.”


Suzanne, or a die-hard New Yorker. 

This post was written by:

- who has written 225 posts on Write On New Jersey.

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16 Responses to “Stranger in a Strange Land”

  1. Teresa says:

    I can certainly relate to your story. I felt the same way when it was time for us to move to New Jersey from Virgina 10 years ago.I cried when we moved .Living in the south for 13 years did not prepare me for New Jersey because I thought at first that the people were pretty rude and hard to get to know.But eventually we adjust to our new envirorment and as each year passes it feels a bit more like home.But we are always happiest where our roots first sprouted.

  2. Wila K. says:

    I am not a New Yorker and truthfully, the city has always frightened me a little. I guess I’m not used to all the noise and congestion, for starters. But reading this article was almost like reading poetry, particularly toward the end.

    The author has a genuine love for her city and is making me think twice about seeing only those things that frightened or disgusted me. The next time I come to New York, I’ll look for some of those things that she mentioned so that I enjoy my visit more.

  3. Dark Eyed Cajun Woman says:

    I really liked this article. It humorously and yet poignantly highlights the differences between city dwellers and suburbanites and gave me a new appreciation for New York City from the eyes of a native.

  4. I think my favourite Van Gogh painting would be Starry Night and I love the Don Mclean song Vincent which is about this painting.

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