It was mid June 1970. I had just graduated from 6th Grade and had said good-bye to all my friends at Trinity Lutheran School in Orlando (who I never saw again spare one). It was time to fly up to New York to be with Dad for the summer.
Mom drove me to McCoy Airport in Orlando for my flight up. When we pulled up to the curb for Eastern Airlines departures, we looked at each other. “Mom, do you have my ticket?” She shouted something to the effect that she thought I had it. We had 30 minutes until the flight left. It was a 20 minute drive one way to get home. “Put your seat belt on,” she said to me. And then she hit the gas, real hard.
Traffic was moving serenely on I-4 that afternoon. Except for one crazy lady in the brown Mercedes with the “lead foot.” She drove hard on the left lane, up to the bumper of the car ahead. She honked and shouted, “move it asshole!” If asshole moved, she would race up ahead to the next asshole. If asshole did not move, she would glance over her right shoulder, signal, and then the brown Benz would lurch over to the middle lane and race around asshole.
Not many people drove like that around Orlando. Mom was the only one who ever honked. I watched her masterfully maneuver the Benz like General Norman Schwarzkopf in the first Persian Gulf War; over, around, under any obstacle. We reached our house, I raced inside, grabbed the ticket, and then back again to the car. She roared down I-4 to chase more assholes down to McCoy. I made the flight just in time. I looked at my Mom with pride. Homegirl could really bring it when needed.
This airplane ticket was slightly different than previous ones. Instead of the usual “New York JFK” destination, it was marked “New York (Newark).” Intuitively, I knew that there was some deeper meaning to the apparent double destination. “New York” I could see was the optimistic destination. But “Newark” was where you were actually going. There are several destinations like this around the planet. For example, there is “Paris (Beauvais).” You think you are going to Paris but in reality, you are landing at a cowtown 2½ hours away by bus. The one exception I have noticed is the airport for Cincinnati which is located across the river in Kentucky. For some reason, nobody seems to care and I don’t have the time to research why.
NYC Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in the 1930s.
Newark Airport is a notable marker in the New York-New Jersey state war as introduced in my last post “WHAT’S IN A BORDER?” It was here where NYC Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia landed as he was returning to New York from meetings in Washington, DC. When told he had landed in New Jersey, he refused to leave the aircraft! The airplane dutifully took off for the hop to Floyd Bennet Field where there were hardly any facilities. No matter, the mayor said, his ticket listed the destination as “New York” and he was adamant about not disembarking anywhere else. Eventually, under his sponsorship, tiny Glenn Curtis Airfield was transformed into what we know today as LaGuardia International Airport.
I was 12 in 1970 and was completely unaware that refusal to get off the plane was an option. Anyway, I had never gone to New Jersey as a destination. As detailed in my post FEAR AND LOATHING ON SECOND AVENUE, I had commuted through it with my Dad when he lived in Pennsylvania during the summer of 1965. So as far as I was concerned, it was new territory and I was ready to see it. The year before, Dad had brought me to London, Paris, and a few other great places. It couldn’t be that bad, right? In any event, I was, as always, anxious to see my Dad, who I hadn’t seen since last September before school started. As soon as I walked down the gantry and into Newark terminal, there he was, crouched down, arms wide open as always. I raced into his embrace.
And welcome to New Jersey!
As we drove away in his car now sporting the ubiquitous beige-cream colored license plate with the black letters proclaiming the “Garden State,” I looked around, trying to spot the gardens. All I saw were tired old factories and ribbons of heavily used interstate highways. “There’re down south,” Dad explained when I looked puzzled. He merged to the right, provoking some raucous honking by an angry, nasty looking driver. My Mom had pulled the same stunt a few hours ago without much fanfare. The driving was more edgy here.
“Dad, you pulled a fast one on me! I thought I was flying to New York but here we are in New Jersey!” He smiled sheepishly and pleaded guilty as charged.
Soon, the factories gave way to vistas of swamps, landfill, and wetlands. The highway mounted an elevated portion and passed an escarpment painted with various Greek symbols. Well, New Jersey sure looked different than New York – the spires of which peeked out over the eastern horizon. We got off the highway and drove through the busy streets of Weehawken.
I had never heard of Weehawken before. Towns with funny-sounding Indian names were not unknown in New York, take Massapequa, for example. But as far as Weehawken is concerned, there is almost no reference to it in culture or media. The sole exception is Milton Berle in the 1941 film “Sun Valley Serenade” who plays a meek character that introduces himself as being from “Weehawken;” he virtually squeeks it out in his strong put-on regional pronunciation. Wee-ho-awww-ken. Emphasis on the awww.
Milton Berle as Jerome K. Allen (aka Nifty) in Sun Valley Serenade.
Dad pointed out a ramshackle old house perched on yet another escarpment that served as the town library. As we drove along Park Avenue, a busy commercial boulevard that separated Weehawken from the adjacent municipality of Union City, I noticed the dearth of office buildings, electronics stores, art galleries, and Bohack’s grocery stores as typical across the river. Instead there were bodegas, paint stores, and a dowdy looking Shop Rite supermarket with its garish looking red, yellow, and black logo. Most of the signs were in Spanish as Union City hosted the 2nd largest Cuban community in the US after Miami.
Neither Dad nor I spoke Spanish. He didn’t know anyone in the community. He was in the process of reinventing himself all over again. On a deep level invisible to me at the time, the outer borough quality of the neighborhood doubtlessly reminded him of his Queens roots.
Next week: DAD’S NEW HOME.