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Here Be Mobsters! 13 Ways of Looking at New Jersey, Part 1

November 1st, 2010  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  2 Comments

[Editor’s note: We’re happy to have Todd Pruzan do some guest blogging here on DadWagon. He’s kicking things off with a series of 13 Ways of Looking at New Jersey—extra points if you get the literary reference!—because New Jersey is where he lives, for some reason. Read more about Todd and other DadWagon writers here.]

image via Jersey Journal

Where I’m Calling From. Not long after we moved to Maplewood, New Jersey, in summer 2009, my wife discovered a wry wooden sign in a charming local knickknackerie. There’s our former life, summed up in four words of Copperplate Bold, on black and weathered gray: PARK SLOPE 17 MILES. Is that all? Just 17 miles between us and our former homeland?

We bought the sign, of course, but we keep it with the arrow pointing in the wrong direction: out west, toward Scotch Plains, maybe, or Long Valley, or…oh, c’mon. Let’s get real. I don’t have any more of a clue where the arrow’s pointing than you do. I haven’t learned my New Jersey geography yet.

But I’m getting to know Maplewood. Towns like Maplewood are both overwrought, overfarmed land and terra incognita. And that name! What could be a tidier, more gently satirical moniker for a New Jersey suburb? I’d have sent the name straight back to the branding department: “Let’s not be so obvious.” Maybe I’m being too strict, though. In his imbecilic 1998 satire Happiness, Todd Solondz even chose the name “Dr. Maplewood” for a suburban New Jersey pederast meant to represent the director’s oh-so-shocking indictment of white-bread conformity. Actually, Maplewood’s a varied little town, at least on paper: Much like Evanston, Illinois, another of old hometown of mine, Maplewood gets high marks from sociologists for its high standards of diversity.

Of course—as I recently told a pregnant young couple on a fact-finding mission, sitting in an idling car with New York tags—Maplewood’s no Fort Greene. That was my first Brooklyn neighborhood, in 1998, an era when couples would pause after I told them this, and then glance at each other with condescending good intention. “Honey… we should go to Brooklyn.” (“Honey… we should go to Nairobi.”) I’d smile and nod, and I’d think: Sure, enjoy, whatever, who cares. I’m not going to pat you on the back for taking the subway into the 718 for brunch.

Now, only the most aristocratic tourist would leave Brooklyn off the itinerary. It’s been years since Brooklyn was Beyond—that edge of the map off the continent of Manhattan, where grinning sea serpents frolicked in the towering East River waves. Today, Here Be Monsters means the Hudson. The land beyond that is an unknowable mass of asphalt, shopping malls, diners, headache-free parking, good public schools.

I’m genuinely surprised to say I love it here. Surprised, because does anyone really grow up dreaming of becoming a New Jersey dad? I used to really pine for Brooklyn, but I recall an essay Martin Amis wrote about how differently he felt before and after having children, when his New York morphed from Carnaval to creep-show. Now, finally, I understand. And as my daughter, Nora, closes in the Big 4, the look on her face as she learns to navigate the world in a classroom and on a cedar-chip playground, roaming down the street on a plastic scooter or on training wheels—even trick-or-treating with the delight of discovery (Whoa! People do this!)—it all makes Brooklyn feel a few years away.


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