SURPRISE!!!

It was early summer 1971.  School was out.  Time for my annual flight from Orlando to New York, uh, I mean New Jersey.  I rode the plane up North like a nice person (as usual).  Disembarked at the brand new terminal at Newark Airport.  Ran into my Dad’s arms.  We got into the car.  Everything normal.

“How was your flight?” Dad asked as he tried to merge into the right lane, some angry driver honking furiously.  I looked to my right to see a cobra-faced man spewing venom in the car next to me.  Reflexively, I turned my gaze away, out the front.  A flock of New Jersey state birds let loose and took to the skies.

“Great,” I lied.  Seventh grade had been a tough year at Trinity Prep School, my new school that year.  What exactly had been “great” was that it was summer vacation and it was over.  On the last day of class, everybody had tossed their books to Hoe Brown, the class beast, who manually tore up each one into several strips of paper.

“How are things with you?” I asked.

Dad grinned.

He ignored my question and said, “I have something to tell you.” He looked at me for a moment.  We had survived the merge okay and were headed northbound on the New Jersey Turnpike, toward the glistening swamps and after that Weehawken.

DUEL AND DEATH

Hamilton was said to have been popular with the womenfolk. Illustration by Roberto Parada

ALEXANDER HAMILTON’S NEMESIS

One such who had no love for Hamilton was another New Yorker named Aaron Burr who hailed from the opposing Democratic-Republican Party.  The two crossed swords numerous times such as a prior duel Burr fought with John Baker Church in 1799, who was married to Hamilton’s sister-in-law.   The duel ended peacefully with Church apologizing, and soon thereafter Burr sought Hamilton’s support in funding a water company.  Unfortunately, Burr baited-and-switched Hamilton in that the new venture turned out to be not a water company at all, but the Bank of the Manhattan Company (fore-runner of today’s JP Morgan Chase Bank).  Hamilton, who already had elite bankers in his pocket, did not want a new bank carrying the flag of his opponents.   He withdrew, crying foul.

HIS NAME WAS ALEXANDER HAMILTON

In 1970 Dad was happy with his relocation to Weehawken for tax and rent reasons.  As can be seen from the map above, his new home was less than 2 miles from the New York Athletic Club.

However, there was just one teensy little problem.  He literally could not get there from here.  Two miles away, true, is considered generally to be very close.  Assuming you can find your car keys, you can cover that distance in less than 5 minutes in most places in America.  Except from Weehawken to New York City during dining, drinking, and playing hours.

Dad tried, of course, to pop over to his old stomping grounds in Manhattan as usual.  And fatigued of it fairly quickly.  The traffic and parking turned out to be too much of a nightmare.  Thus, I imagine that Dad felt a little cut-off.  I am sure that he tried the Irish pub downstairs when he felt like “catting around” but found the local talent to be lacking.  He never went there with me or mentioned it to me, ever.

I CAN’T STOP MY LEG!

On Saturday night, November 15, 1975, I was a senior at Choate School.  Some buddies and I had signed out that weekend to go to Boston, ostensibly to look at colleges.  Which we did of course the next day.  But mainly it was a weekend to blow off some steam.  One of my pals, John Helmick, kept an illegal car near campus and so off we went off that afternoon driving north on I-91, joined by Neal Collyer and Tom Trimble.  CB Radio was in vogue and John impressed us all with his ability to talk to the truckers.  “This here is Orange Crate,” he drawled in his Des Moines accent, “how it be looking over your shoulder?”  Trucker-speak for “any highway patrol passing out speeding tickets around here?”

After settling in at our Copley Plaza Hotel, grabbing some pizza, and a six pack of beer procured, someone had the foresight to turn on the boob tube late that night.  To our amazement, we tuned in right at the beginning of Robert Klein’s legendary “I Can’t Stop My Leg” skit.  It was one of the first episodes of Saturday Night Live.  Playing a ridiculously amped-up blues musician, Klein’s gag was to bounce his leg up and down in an exaggerated way while singing “I Can’t Stop My Leg” repeatedly.  Without warning, the leg does stop in the middle of the performance.  “It stopped!” he shouts in put-on shock.  Only to start up again.

Here’s the only version of the skit available on YouTube; it’s filmed right from the monitor with a low-grade phone, but you get the idea:

GOODBYE 212, HELLO 201?

Dad turned right to head from Park Avenue (Weehawken) over to Boulevard East where he turned left.  Directly ahead was the Manhattan skyline, in full view from the Battery all the way past Morningside Heights.  The North Tower of the World Trade Center could be seen rising to the right.  “Look at that view!” he declared again.  It was magnificent.  The centerpiece was the Empire State Building stretching regally skywards.  Ordinary and old-looking row houses lined the other side of avenue.

We pulled up to 974 Boulevard East, with its Dutch Colonial roof, which is found in the center of the 1930s era picture above.  It was one of the very few buildings to be found on the east side of the Boulevard, which was usually only a sidewalk, the railing, the Palisade cliffs tumbling down to the river, and of course, the view.  From Boulevard East onwards to the west was a hodgepodge of gerrymandered towns, sort of like the ones on the north side of the Charles River from Boston.  With names like Guttenberg, West New York, and North Bergen, these communities had all of the grit of Cambridge but none of the charm (although today there is a lot of new construction).  By 1970, the trolley line, the railroad pier, and depot down the cliff were all gone, the pier destroyed in a fire perhaps 20 years earlier.  It was a dreary and derelict waterfront.  The rotten posts formed a large swath of dots in the inky water off the trashed riverfront below, missing here and there like bad teeth.

974 Boulevard East itself had three creaky levels.  There was an Irish pub restaurant on the first floor.  The second floor hosted the offices of Olcott International & Company, newly incorporated and busy paying patents renewals in 60 countries around the world.  And a small air-conditioned cocoon of a studio apartment at the penthouse, the third floor.  I called it the “Little Retreat.”  “Look at this commute,” Dad said as he demonstrated walking up and down the small staircase between the second and third floors.  We both looked out the window at the river, the skyline, and boats plying the Hudson.  It was a mesmerizing tableau.  Was it truly goodbye area code 212, and hello 201?

WELCOME TO NEW JERSEY!

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.

WHAT’S IN A BORDER?

North of the Rio Grande River is a huge expanse of North America divided up into 49 states, 10 provinces, 3 territories, and 1 district.  Just about everywhere, the dividing lines are sleepy affairs.  No fences to block your way.  With a flashlight, you might find a surveyor’s marker under a bush assuming you knew where to look.  Typically, a sign is erected on the “border” welcoming you to the new jurisdiction.  Some places have signs to serve the opposite purpose, that is to say farewell to the hapless traveler.  In the Southern United States, it is possible to see a sign with the information “You are now leaving Bucksnort, Hurry Back!”

Technically, the most severe crossing is the one between the United States and Canada.  When Mrs. Findlay F. Traveler from the US drives over that line, she can expect to be interrogated by overly inquisitive Canadian custom agents eager to ascertain just exactly how many bottles of liquor and cartons of cigarettes are stashed in the trunk.  Any kind of vague answer will trigger an immediate request to pop that puppy open.  A precise inventory will be taken and the requisite CDN $38.50 levy lifted from the traveler’s credit card.  This interrogation is also offered in French as a sucker ploy.  If Mrs. Traveler chooses (poorly) to respond to any question using her middle school French, the agent’s eyes will harden with suspicion and the customs’ duty tagged with a 12% nuisance surcharge.  It has nothing to do with us in the US; it’s related to some kind of internal trauma up there.  It’s best to answer everything in English taking care to ask if the border station has a gift shop where you can buy the moose tee shirt.  Knowing the system thusly, you can be waved through in under 60 seconds.

Driving back into the US on the other hand is a quick passport sniff to insure that you are really from one of the 63 entities mentioned above (or Hawaii and a few other scattered islands).

All of this is relevant to The Bernard Olcott Story because of one peculiar exception to this peaceful patchwork littering the landscape from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  One border where the crossing is associated with profundity from a logistical, emotional, and psychic (perhaps even psychotic) point of view.