Monday, November 14, 2011

Closing Up

I had missed the service at Christ the King on the Friday before, because I had to return to Chicago to teach.  I’d told Harry I’d be back to help him when the others, the friends and relatives, mourners all, had left and he would have more use for me.
I was up at 3:30 Friday morning checking my boarding pass to Newark and my printouts for the rental car; with these early flights, it’s hard not to lie awake worrying that the alarm won’t go off or the taxi won’t arrive in time.  I had directions from Google Maps that took me from Newark Airport to the Thruway, after which it was pretty much rote memory to get over the mountain and back to the farm and to Harry’s.  The first few miles took me right through Newark, so far as I could tell, and the rush-hour traffic was just beginning to thin out as the directions started to get much more detailed and complicated and I found myself trying to calculate just where I was on the sequence that Google Maps prints out.  It’s always difficult to determine which set of mileages applies to which segment on the printouts, and the rental car’s trip odometer wouldn’t zero out, leaving me with recurrent exercises in addition and subtraction even as the traffic sped up and my chances of properly executing the moves diminished steadily.
When I called Harry, I was somewhere between Ho-Ho-Kus and Mah-Wah on New Jersey 17.  It was after I had turned on the smart-phone GPS and then obeyed an order to exit immediately, a move that got me onto Passaic Street in what was probably Rochelle Park, though I didn’t notice, as there was no return ramp to 17, and the GPS firmly and repeatedly instructed me to take an immediate U-turn and get back on the offramp.  After a half-hour tour of the small-house suburbs of Jersey, I found a quick-talking Pakistani gas station manager who put me back on 17: two lefts and a right quick as you can, three blocks you see the sign. I was clearly not the first person he'd seen flimflammed into getting off onto Passaic Street.
The houses off Passaic were originally small postwar Cape Cods, close cousins of the famous Levittown, Long Island mass-production houses that are generally seen as the model housebuilder’s response to the housing shortage brought on by extraordinary demands of returning GIs and their new families.  This was one of those small ad-hoc developments, and the streets here were named after the relatives of the builder’s extended family—Marion Avenue, Dorothy Avenue, Gertrude Avenue, and Ward Street were sandwiched between Spring Valley Road and Fairview Avenue.
Catherine Pskowski, my mother-in-law, pointed out that the experience of most postwar house-seekers involved not mass-scale developments like Levittown, but small, in-fill projects like the one off Passaic—three or four streets filling in a few acres of residual farmland or a larger estate gone to seed during the Great Depression and unexploited during the war. She and Ed had bought a house like that on Greylock Parkway in Belleville, about 12 miles south of the development I was haplessly circling, as the GPS voice repeatedly announced it was recalculating route and then, repeatedly, directed me to that suicidal drive the wrong way up the exit ramp on Passaic. She’d had an aunt who’d bought a house in Belleville, a more substantial place put up on spec. in the economic upturn just before we entered the war, when Lend-Lease and war conversion were restarting the American manufacturing engine. Now that developer had bought a parcel, run a cul-de-sac street into it, and was building a dozen houses on the satellite streets off the semicircle. It was small, but they were glad to have it. It was their first house;  Fredericka was already born and Catherine was pregnant with Eddie. When they moved up toward Montclair years later, they’d had no trouble selling the Greylock house. It was a starter home, and now a new family was going to begin there.
The houses on Dorothy, and Gertrude, Marion and Ward are no longer uniform boxes of a thousand square feet.  As in Levittown, the generations of buyers and sellers have put their personal stamps on the houses.  Over the last couple of years, despite the housing crisis, houses on Dorothy and Marion have sold for prices in the $350,000 range; they average about 2,100 square feet, and it was only because I have been studying Levittown’s transformations over the course of the postwar years that I could detect the small, unprepossessing starter home embedded in the elaborations of various remodelers:  second and even third floors, dormers, large entry atriums, bulging extensions off the backs, filling most of the small lot with family rooms and bedrooms and large eat-in kitchens.
But there were still near-untouched original houses tucked between the looming rehabs.  They were the ones whose owners were out on that Friday morning, clearing the fallen limbs from the fluke October snow-and-windstorm that had swept through the last weekend, knocking out power for days and taking down many of the trees that had lined the streetscape.  Those were the trees planted as saplings by the developer some 60 years before; fast-growing trees that had reached maturity decades ago and were now aging and vulnerable.
The men and women out on that Friday were probably out of work or forcibly retired;  they were the vestigial union workers who had soldiered on in the shrinking industrial economy until the Great Crash of 2008: commuters down to the factories and ship- and railyards  in the towns and cities on the west side of the Hudson River, connected by the Lincoln Tunnel to Manhattan:  Fairview, West New York, Union City, Hoboken.  Now they had time to clear their yards of the storm’s detritus, and they looked at me as a suspicious stranger in a neighborhood wrapped up within itself and its shrinking hopes.
In the Cold War years when this part of New Jersey was booming, NY 17 was a vital arterial roadway between the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln Tunnel and the New York State Thruway, one of the major postwar superhighways completed before the Interstate Highway System was fully incorporated. During the years between 1953 and 1960, the road was widened and the intersections were converted to freeway-style interchanges, a process that had been proposed as early as 1936, during the first wave of “parkway” and other limited-access motorways. Along 17, the patchwork of interchanges, stoplights, construction zones and older and newer commercial strips made for a deeply frustrating drive if you were trying to get somewhere in a hurry.  But for many of those who’d thronged to Jersey after the war, it was a sort of consumer-capitalist thrill-ride; LaZBoy franchises chock-a-block with Chevy dealerships, with metal-clad diners to stop at if you were heading, say, for the Irish or the Jewish Catskills, for the working-class and emerging middle-class summer cottages in clusters off NY 209 or perhaps up further, on NY28, to the hotels and resorts.
Today you can still see vestiges of those cottage resorts on the roads up from 209.  When you turn up toward the mountains, the roads get rougher and less populated, and you’ll see the concrete walls of swimming pools long abandoned to fill with leaves turning to loam, saplings growing up in their midst, with the collapsed roofs and disconsolate clapboard facades of the cottages sometimes visible under the welter of vines and weeds and brush.
I didn’t stay on 17 to the 209 intersection in Wurtsboro.  I managed the last maneuver that got me to the Thruway, and I called Harry back, pretty sure we wouldn’t lose the signal this time.  He told me we were going to take the netting off the vines;  it was a three-person job, and Klink was back from Boston for the day to round out the crew.  It was a gorgeous afternoon, and as we reached the end of each row, I had the chance to straighten up from the big can into which I was stuffing the netting as Harry drove the tractor forward and Klink walked along the other side of the row, lifting the netting off the vine-ends that had grown through the crisscross of sharp-edged plastic that discouraged the deer and the turkeys from feasting on the cab frank and the chardonnay grapes, and abraded my hands until they bled as I shoved the stuff down into the storage bags locked into the garbage can roped to the back of the tractor on the makeshift platform Harry and Peter had welded together a few years ago, working from a catalog photograph for a $5,000 version of the thing, sold by an upscale gentleman-winemaker supplier. Theirs had costed-out at just over $500 and, like everything Harry did, was simultaneously makeshift and meticulous.

Stretching my arms toward the blue blue sky, I could see the hawk still following us along the updraft, and below that, Harry’s shoulders, slumped in a sort of resolute grieving, as he steered the tractor and Klink kept up a clatter of talk to distract us all from what we had no words to face. We were men in the company of men.  We might pause for a moment, lapse into silence, look into each others’ faces knowing what was behind our careful demeanor. Then Harry would put the tractor in gear, it would make its slow arc to the next row, and we would begin again the ritual of work that could suffice for everything else we could not do or say.

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