Tag Archives: NewJersey

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Well, just a bit earlier in the year, I experienced a gift of red sneakers. That story is told inside of Red Sneakers.

That tale I think of as yin. It’s soft, sweet, sassy, feminine in a quasi-original way. Plus it’s rebellious because it’s red rather than traditional white.

But it’s one half of the circle. The other swirl is classically black.

Its formation began on the day I received the red Chucks. My husband surprised me by taking me to California Pastrami – a tiny strip-mall restaurant that promised to satisfy my nostalgic hunger for a pastrami sandwich, just like the ones that I had in New Jersey as a kid.

So, you get the idea: the theme of the celebratory weekend was one of wistfulness and a yearning to look backward.

And it grandly succeeded. I don’t eat red meat, but, a secret craving had emerged and I sated it. All gooey and dripping with fats was the sandwich, and, I delighted in the entire mess.

After leaving the cafe, we walked a mere fifteen feet to our car and as I stood next to the passenger door, I turned to look back – to drink in one last vision-sip of the cafe that had time-traveled me back five decades.

That’s when I caught a glance of a blonde-haired, slender, little gazelle of a tween stotting across the sidewalk .  .  . heading into the pizza shop at the mall’s end.

Her movement was eye catching, however, it was her feet that stood me still.

She was wearing a pair of black canvas, knee-high Chucks. Something I’d never seen before, but, immediately fell in love with!

I shamelessly stared as she glided through the doorway with her family. Even more shamelessly, I told Hubby that I’d wait for her to leave, (just takeout after all), and get a better look at the prancing paws.

We waited. She was quick to leave. I took a mental photo and rhapsodized about them on our ride back to the hotel.

But I left it there. I searched for high-tops and nothing that tall appeared, so, I released the fantasy.

And then.

What should appear beneath the Christmas tree?

 

Sneakers -Black Knee-high Chucks

Yep. You guessed it: A pair of Knee-high black Chucks!!

Now I feel even more like a kid playing in a body that’s trapped in the role of an adult.

I just need to wait a few months for the snow to melt so I can go pronging outside and truly play in my new feet .  .  . truly complete the yin/yang experience of coveted sneakers.

 

 

 

Christmas Yin/Yang

My Childhood Theory of Relativity

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The time is the 1950s. I am a young child. Not yet in school. My mother is driving me in a powder blue 1948 Desoto. We are traveling north on Route 206 from Lawrenceville, New Jersey to Princeton.

It’s a two-lane road. By today’s standards, it would qualify as a rural back road – winding through wooded fields and aristocratic country estates. Some Tutor houses slowly tattering in refined poverty; others quietly lush with noble wealth tucked inside ivy-splattered windows.

The narrow macadam road passes by Rider College, Lawrenceville Preparatory School and the Ice Cream Shoppe. Promenades right into downtown Princeton and Palmer Square where the wealthy intelligentsia shop for plaid skirts and wool cardigans; tweed hacking jackets and mahogany-colored penny loafers; polo shirts and professorial khaki trousers.

In the center of the square is my favorite lunchtime treat: a Rexall drugstore with a soda fountain, where I can sit and spin on the red Naugahyde stools while the malt machines whirl.

At a ninety-degree angle is the elegant continental French restaurant. A two-story restaurant with many petite rooms and small tables snuggled together. The coziest tables for two border the walls.

Deep window sills lined with potted geraniums remind me of magazine photographs of European villages. Tiny crunched towns with cobblestones.

Where life is dusky and gnarled old women create sunshine with colored flowers in terracotta pots. These women seem like conjure priestesses to me. I love their power of white magic.

And I love the white crocheted lace curtains that coquettishly cover half of the windows, so delicately divided into small panes by many narrow brown muttons. The windows look like tic-tac-toe games waiting to be played by strolling passersby.

Antique stores with dark, ornately carved furniture and large gold leaf framed mirrors in the windows dot the perimeter of the square. A grassy square of land sits in the center, interrupted by an X that offers shoppers a shortcut between right angles.

The buildings are brick and stone. Tasteful, quiet structures. The people are dressed in neutral colors. Statements of some older, wiser truth than the fickle fashion-minded New Yorkers, just 45 miles northeast.

Traveling a little farther north on Route 206 – or Main Street – is the cluster of castle-like buildings known as Princeton University.

The buildings are pieced together with stones that glisten like the twinkling in the eye of a secret prankster when a certain slant of sunlight peeks through.

Heavy vines of dark green ivy embroider their way up the sides of the buildings and drape like pearl necklaces above the tall windows. The greenery places a hush over the campus. It looks like a land from a fairy tale or the palace of a Celtic princess.

In-between Palmer Square and the University are rows of shops and houses. Thin domino houses, snuggling, sharing plots of grass. Somber buildings with the smile of flowers in window boxes. Skinny streets connecting to Main Street like diagonal arrows.

Somewhere in this section of town is where Albert Einstein lives and walks and thinks.

My mother sees a memory of his profile moving against the rows of dark brick domino-houses. She describes him to me: an elderly man, not very tall, slightly hunched. He is wearing baggy khaki pants, a dark woolen jacket over a brown sweater. The sky is silver grey and the air is cool. Mr. Einstein’s hair is platinum and fuzzy and is tousled by the gentle autumn breeze.

His face wears a bemused expression as he walks along pondering the motion of his sensibly clad feet.

My mother says that Mr. Einstein is a gentle man. He is kind to children. And he smiles as he watches their faces digest images and ideas.

He is a friend of my grandmother, Toot.

Toot teaches science in the nearby Valley Road Junior High School. And a few times a year she invites Mr. Einstein to visit her eighth grade class. He is the guest lecturer, but, my mother says he is more like an uncle coming to visit.

He laughs and plays with the kids. He tells them stories about the constructions of atoms and molecules. Stories about light particles and waves and the speed of traveling across invisible distances.

I am told that he has the students sit in circles on the floor. He is not like a regular teacher with attendance rosters. Not one who lines up students in grid formation for the pledge of allegiance.

He is relaxed. Rather sloppy, with messy hair and bright, sparkling eyes.

When I am old enough to go to school, I recall my mother’s stories of Mr. Einstein. And I wish that he could have visited my school and taught science with stories instead of leaving me incarcerated in textbooks.

I suspect that avuncular tales of physics in circles of children might have sent me into a different orbit of life. Might have carbonated my mind with fizzier ideas.

I smile as I gaze back, imagining the infinitude of possibilities that I could have called my future; my present.

 

Front Porches

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House - Black & White Illustration

 

My childhood largely revolved around front porches.

Front-porch life was stuffed with neighbors, waves, smiles, spontaneous conversations, sounds of children playing, delivery men, coffee klatsches, repose, daydreams, and mosquitoes.

On the East Coast, screened-in porches were a necessity if one wanted to linger in summer’s hazy, lazy, crazy days of white heat. And that quivery, tar-colored mesh created a new seasonal room overnight.

It was magical.

And I claimed it as my secret space .  .  . sitting on the painted mocha concrete, hidden from the gregarious world by a hedge of boxwood. So perfectly sculpted in geometrical angles. It was my father’s pride, as an engineer, to bring his drafting skills home from the office and share them with our landscaping.

It was technical perfection as it rounded a porch corner, and, tall enough to camouflage a tiny girl playing with her simmering fantasies.

Sitting on my front porch in the summer, I would look out at the world through a mesh veil of tiny squares. Small enough to prevent a mosquito from flying in. Fine enough to allow my child-eyes to see through. To see the details of life.

It was nearly transparent, but screen vision left an imprint on my inner lens.

Life always wore a tulle shroud of imperceptible right angles, square snapshots multiplied exponentially.

Vision was defined by bolts of woven wire. A plain weave. A diaphanous wall through which angels and children watch the world. Not yet knowing that life is really lived outside the graph paper rhythm of mosquito screening.

Insects do bite. And vision gains clarity outside the porch cloak.

But as a child, I felt protected inside the porch with its concrete floor and painted wooden side door. And the screens, where windows once sealed a space, now permitted breezes to visit in diced ripples.

I didn’t know yet that tiny squares were prisons, too.

And I didn’t know why mosquitoes were feared.

I was a child designing hopscotch blueprints and diagonal dreams for the asphalt avenue just outside the porch.

I was unaware of my containment in squares.

And unaware of what a vast breeding ground little square porches and concrete steps can offer to someday stoop-sitting philosophers like me.

Yes. It’s always a surprise to pause, take a moment to look back to childhood, and see how that child birthed the woman I am today.

A woman happy to sit in a rocking chair on any vintage front porch and daydream as cotton-candy clouds scud overhead.

Will I ever truly grow up?

Only time will tell.

Time: that faithful, gossipy scribe that records all life’s events – both visible and invisible.

 

 

Marooned Trucks

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Pickup Truck - New Mexico

One of my favorite personalities of New Mexico is desolation.

 

I tingle at its tableaux, especially pickup trucks parked randomly – slantwise on farm roads overgrown with buffalo grass. Parked on dust ravaged, ghostly earth. Earth that crawls continually toward the gaunt hills of a frontier desert, across a basin bottom that fillets before them, across those boundless flounder-flat plains.

 

This is also a portrait of my heart, I realize – a montage of rusty and hollowing. A still life of my red-clay heart sinking into fields of somber silt. Left behind by the thoughtlessness of time.

What attracts me to inertia is its potential. The power, love and wisdom that can flow through once the current is turned on.

I love the stillness of potential:

The hour just before dawn

The heart just before it loves

The marooned truck just before its engine ignites

The moments after death before the soul transitions

It’s all so scintillating.

Prairie Schooner Cartoonery by jayni

I look at my heart like a crazy cartoon outlined in black and I color it with ridiculously intense colors, trying to resuscitate it. Inflate it. Give it a second birth. Just as I do with marooned trucks that I adopt roadside.

 

Sometimes my heart feels like a sordid red satin curtsying cowgirl at the close of the fair. Waiting for her night shift to end. For night to run away, chased on its heels by dawn’s bloody fingertips.

 

I both fear and crave abandonment. I’m afraid of being totally unloved, yet, I want the world to leave me alone – to cast me into a field of decaying carnival rides. I want the corpse of the barker to kiss me goodnight on the boardwalk at midnight.

I’m a Jersey girl by birth, and, that birthmark can erupt like a wounded tattoo and go bankrupt without warning. I need my hood-love sometimes to tether my bilingual life to a knot in sea-beaten, sun-bleached wood.

 

It’s a moment after twilight and I’m angry.

The anger is born from me not knowing how to operate the instrument panel of my vehicle. The owner’s manual burned when my father died and no one has edited a new reference book.

 

I sense that if I have the keys and can read the dials and shift the gears, that I can save myself. That I can drive my forlorn prairie schooner out of the desert’s talcum powder dust, and into the merger of life’s crossroads.

 

In the quest for meaning, I know that many walks, or drives, through the lion’s den are required.

 

But right now, I’m still angry. Or, I’m angrier still because my dearest friend died last autumn. The last of the true friends.

 

Now I only face faux friends who charge me an exchange rate for likes and favorites and follows and comments and hashtags and stats that exceed the galaxy.

 

I hate bartering for friendship, for love.

 

I hate haggling in the brothel of Wall Street relationships, waiting for the bell to ring; waiting for the net to connect; waiting for inane conversation to begin only to bring shine to the ego of another and shadow to the heart of my vacant vehicle – dying little by little.

 

Yeah. I’ve been on the road all my life . . . out there running just to be on the run.

 

I need a little off-roading time for quiet, detailed contemplation.

 

I need to bury my burdens like a velveteen rabbit and learn to drive my own vehicle of soul back to the original destination from which I departed eons ago.

 

I’m just a traveling soul stripped of her colors. Trying to paint over my anger and reupholster my spirit. And rejoin my tribe.  Pickup Truck - Rusted Trio

 

Tomato Theatre

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Tomatoes - Animated

 

* For anyone unfamiliar with “Jersey Tomatoes,” they are the deepest red, densest, beefiest, most delicious fruits of their kin. Grown only in New Jersey, of course!

 

** For anyone unfamiliar with Hellman’s and Duke’s – Hellman’s is the Blue Ribbon mayonnaise served primarily in the North. Duke’s spread is a cult following in the South. Since I’ve lived on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, I have my opinion. But, I don’t want to split the divide .  .  .  .

 

***A classic Jersey Diner?

A gleaming silver railcar, or a fading glory, in bondage to asphalt. Serving old school Americana food: burgers, fries, hotdogs, homemade pies .  .  .  steaming hot black coffee. Diner - Fading SilverAmerican DinerOne of the definitions of my childhood!

Java Jolt – Chock Full O’ Memories

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One of the most alluring mysteries of my life continues to be my maternal grandfather, Papa B.

I hope that I never solve his enigma; I want him to inspire my imagination as I grow old.

Here’s a little vignette that introduces my fascination with his aura of being:

WHISKEY THEOLOGY

 

Every Thanksgiving I am most thankful for the memories of my grandfather, Papa Ballard. I can see him arriving on the Amtrak train from Newark, New Jersey. Stepping out onto the unsheltered concrete platform in Trenton.

He was a short, thin Irish man with hollowed features. His face wore a serious, “living-elsewhere” expression like the shadow of a leprechaun. In his left hand he carried his luggage. In his right hand he carried a cardboard box with a pliable white plastic handle. Inside nested a 24-pound turkey.

This was his annual contribution of our family gatherings. His employer gave a large frozen turkey to each company member as a holiday gift. And, Papa B., not having a built-in family, traveled south to share his plucked wealth with us.

He spent the four-day weekend with my parents, brother, and me. He and my grandmother, Toot, were still married. It was their encore marriage. A second chance that appeared reluctant because they chose to live in separate cities. I don’t know that they ever saw or talked with each other except during the most festive holidays when Papa B. grew tired of living alone and ventured off by train. This being the urban horse of inner city dwellers in the early 1960’s.

When I hugged Papa B. at the station, he smelled of damp wool that had inhaled tobacco smoke and captured it like a spider in its web of fibers. His voice was raspy and congested. He always seemed to be overwhelmed by the display of children’s affection. He couldn’t hold a hug for too long. He had to release and step back. Compose himself. Then greet my father with a handshake. My mother, his beloved daughter “Skibus,” was the only person who received a full-length hug.

My brother and I adored Papa B. Mostly because he was quiet and mysterious. Later, I learned that he had abandoned Toot and their two children and run off to California for a while. He also served time in prison for embezzling state money while serving as Tax Collector. But before I knew the details of his criminal past, I was enchanted by his aloofness. I think we all were, but only we children were brave enough to admit it.

Papa B.’s first stop once inside our house was to unpack his small black satchel in whatever room had been designated the guest room for that weekend. People would double-up in bedrooms, or someone would sleep on the sofa, just to accommodate our special guest.

I would creep upstairs and tiptoe around corners, just to peek in and observe the ritual. The hanging of button-down cotton shirts and dark pleated trousers on wire coat hangers. Then, the queuing of personal items along the bathroom sink counter: a toothbrush in a plastic traveling case, toothpaste, a hand razor and shaving cream.

On hands and knees, I watched his brown oxfords with skinny laces and punched-leather toes, crisscross the carpeted hallway. When the feet descended the stairs, I jumped to attention. Once his footsteps reached the end of the hallway, I snuck down the stairs. Sliding along the banister so I could step on the thickest edge of carpet. Silent as a stalking cat, I entered the family room. Then watched Papa B. settle into the corner of the sofa, next to the end table with the reading lamp.

He would pull his reading glasses out of his shirt pocket and place them on the table. From another pocket, he would pull a pack of cigarettes and arrange them next to the amber crackle-glass ashtray. The Newark Star Ledger posed in his lap like a rolling pin. Papa B. removed the paper’s rubber band garter much like my mother unrolled her stockings and slid them down her slender legs.

He unfurled the snuggly clinging paper. Smoothed out the wrinkles with his long, filigree fingers.

Before he had time to begin reading, my mother served him a glass of Irish whiskey. She set it down on the altar of reading materials. It was a short glass, with two ice cubes. It reminded me of the communion chalice at church. Polished and waiting on its hand-embroidered cloth. Waiting for the end of the sermon when the pastor would raise it in his right hand and accuse it of being the blood of Christ. Then he drank the blood and called for the elders to serve sewing-thimble glasses of wine to each congregation member squirming in the wooden pews.

I would wait for my grandfather to mount his reading glasses on his long bumpy nose. Then light a cigarette and begin reading the front page news.

The whiskey glass would stand still, ice slowly melting into its clear liquid existence. By page three – the local news – Papa B. would raise the glass and sip. So softly that it looked like he was kissing a glass lip.

He would read and sip and smoke for a couple of hours. Not wanting to talk. Just wanting to ingest.

When my mother called us all to the dining room table, we took our assigned seats. Bowed our heads for grace. Toasted to our health with the tinkling of crystal wine and water glasses.

My father carved the turkey with the electric carving knife. I chose the white breast meat. Papa B. chose the leg with its moist dark meat. He helped himself to scalloped oysters – a favorite casserole that my mother prepared for her father only on this day each year.

After biting into its toasted Saltine cracker crumb topping, his shoulders slumped. He sighed. He seemed to relax and crawl out of his cocoon.

He began to talk. To talk of all the information he had been accumulating: stories about Newark. Stories from around the world. Historical facts.

Papa B. was a human encyclopedia. I loved to listen to his husky voice as it spoke like an ancient teacher. Like someone who knew more than a few dark secrets of knowledge.

The Gun

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  1. Atlantic City. A misty shroud of a Saturday night. 

 

The Blue Devils are playing in the state finals against whatever color of devil Atlantic City has to offer.

 

I don’t remember who wins, but, after the game my friend and I pour out into the street with the rest of the crowd and make haste for the boardwalk. It is thick with people. So thick the community of body heat unchills the night.

 

The saltwater-gnawed wood of the walkway is dark and heavily knotted, slickened by a thin veneer of rain. The street lamps cast a gruesome yellow light on the arcade scene. The bulbs may aspire to radiate a sunny yellow – warm like buttercup blossoms – but I think they’ve swallowed a spoonful of spooky green, painting their aura nauseous.

 

Swarms of people stroll along the creaky boardwalk. Some pause to toss balls for teddy bears; some slip down dark hallways to play pinball. A few families with children dare to risk the rides out over the ocean, high above that ancient dirty-hazel Atlantic, spuming endlessly at the sand like a cobra hooding before it hisses venom.

 

The farther we walk, the denser the population. Then sluggishness sets in. Carol and I wiggle our way through the sloth of the masses, our skinny nimble bodies sliding through the various dimensions of flesh and bone. I am following in her wake until suddenly I am not.

 

Movement stops. It’s pure pedestrian gridlock. I am trapped in a huddle of strangers. Carol’s long blonde hair no longer visible as my compass.

 

I panic, and then surrender to the stillness. I know where the chartered bus is parked, the vintage school bus earmarked for the basketball fans. I just need to make it to the parking lot before it departs. If I fail, I’ll have to find public transportation. That can be tricky.

 

As I stand sardined in my woolen coat and gloves, I glance to my left. A small man in a black felt fedora and dark trench coat stands silently. His gaze straight ahead.

 

I realize then that everyone is silent. A swift hush wraps us together in a peculiar gift box.

 

I look to my right and another man stands. This one in silver grey. Taller. More portly. Gazing straight ahead also.

 

Time stops. I think I’m standing in a noir film.

 

A tiny amount of pressure on my left side, perfectly situated at my waistline. My eyes glance downward. The man in the trench coat has a pistol pointed at my side. Its pewter barrel reflects the sulfur-yellow of the lamps.

 

I am sixteen years old and about to be shot in a crowd of anonymous people on a random Saturday night, miles from my hometown. Who will ever solve this crime, I wonder.

 

Fear seems futile. Running is impossible. Screaming is dangerously un-ladylike.

 

So I stand inside my skin and wait, calmly. In the sick silence of a city ruled by hustle and flow.

 

Minutes go by and nothing happens. I roll my eyes to the right and see the man in grey perspiring. Beads of sweat on his forehead larger than raindrops. His skin sallows.

 

Then I get it. He is the target. I am simply in the way of his death.

 

While rumbling this thought around in my mind like a gumball machine, the crowd suddenly parts, as though a new Moses were standing on the Ferris wheel commanding the sea of skin.

 

I see a silver diner gleaming in the distance. Without looking back or side-to-side, I bolt toward its railcar comfort. Its red neon sign my new North Star.

 

Up the stairs two at a time and through the hand-smudged glass doors. The aroma of coffee greets me like the warmth of a mother’s hug. Red naugahyde stools are twirling bodies. One spins fully around. It’s Carol.

 

I watch the worry, and then the relief, slouch across the terrain of her face.

 

I don’t explain. We merely link arms and run toward the bus.

 

Settled in my seat, riding home in the tumult of a school bus with lazy shock absorbers, I wonder why I can fully relax in the presence of a gun. Why it feels like something close to erotic surrender?

When does the temptation of assault translate into the taste of Home? What is the allure of Russian roulette . . . the odds that no one is wagering? The odds of being a stranger in a strange, unchosen position?

 

Life and death just danced on the head of a bullet in some ecstatic merger that baffles me even now. Why did I draw the dancer of life?