I had lunch with a friend this afternoon, a born and raised New Yorker, who recently moved to Basking Ridge, NJ, the town adjacent to the small town of Millington that I grew up in. I actually grew up in Meyersville, a town so small that it didn’t even have its own post office. Although Meyersville was technically part of Gillette — and Millington, Meyersville, Gillette, and Stirling were all part of Passaic Township — my mailing address was somehow Millington, even though I attended Gillette School. If that wasn’t confusing enough, my parents called me by my middle name growing up: Scott. Thus I spent a disproportionate amount of my youth explaining how I wasn’t James, but Scott, and that I lived in Meyersville even though my mailing address was Millington and I went to school in Gillette. To make matters worse, in 1992 Passaic Township — to distance itself from the county of Passaic and the town of Passaic (and really the town of Paterson, the decrepit shithole Passaic County was best known for) — changed its name to Long Hill Township, named now after the longest road instead of the most prominent river that runs through town. Needless to say I have a hell of an identity crisis, but at least now people call me James (except for my parents).
To further muddy the waters, in the Venn diagram of Passaic-now-Long-Hill Township, we were also in the unique subset of those who grew up within the confines of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest preserved deciduous swamplands in the Northeast. Or to simplify, we, my brother and I, were the weird kids that grew up on the weird street in the spooky swamp: we were “Swampers.” In fact, my mother even played on a softball team called The Swampers, who at some point divided mitotically into The Swampers and the bizzaro-world Repmaws, further adding to the lore of the fetid swamp kids.
The point of this, if there is a point, is that I grew up in a place that was rather rural, surrounded by small, discrete, almost impossibly precious farm towns that belied the incredible wealth hidden just further beyond in towns like Bernardsville, Chester, Mendham, and Gladstone. My parents house was and still is a small three bedroom ranch, around 1, 500 square feet, on a street that hasn’t changed much since I moved there in 1978: I was six. The housing developments that now resemble the concentric rings of Dante’s Inferno were just beginning to be built. The traffic light at the end of Morristown Road did not exist, nor did the traffic jams on Valley Road. And probably most telling, my best friend’s mom drove a 4 speed VW bug that never heated in the winter and was too hot in the summer and we had an avocado green Oldsmobile station wagon with simulated wood paneling and a “way back” seat that faced backwards and was an endless source of pleasure as we taunted following motorists.
I quietly reminisced on this as I pulled my black, 1999 Ford Ranger pickup into a space in front of the restaurant amid gleaming Acuras, Merecedes, BMW’s and the occasional, sensible Subaru. Everyone who grows up poor says they never knew they were poor; to this, I reply, bullshit. And we weren’t poor, but we weren’t rich. If anything, we were kind of an oscillating Horatio Alger story, who went from poor, to comfortable, to uncomfortable when my father started his own business, to very comfortable when it took off, to middling when the economy crashed in 1993. I do think some people don’t consider themselves poor because they have no context to distinguish between the haves and have nots because they are only surrounded by have nots; however, there were always enough well-to-do in our area that we knew otherwise. Yet, overall, our area was decidedly middle class growing up, and I never really met anyone with money until I went to our larger regional high school; a high school that was the kind of place kids got new cars for their sixteenth birthdays even though the driving age in NJ was seventeen. Two kids I knew got matching Miatas — no joke. I took the bus. I’m not sure anyone out here takes the bus anymore, as kids are shuttled to and from school and sports and music and karate classes in a luxury unimaginable to my six year old self. We made faces out the back window. And this isn’t to say our parents wouldn’t have done the same for us, but that world just didn’t exist. It was as incomprehensible to us as the rings of Saturn.
My friend, Dave, beat me to the restaurant — another sign that my new New Orleans’ body clock is becoming inextricable from my essence. I wasn’t very late, but five minutes later than I would have ever been before. The restaurant, the Mocking Bird Café, was certainly a place you’d probably not find Atticus Finch. No, it was a haven of ladies who lunch, a group of smart looking, impeccably groomed, and invariably wealthy women whose activities most likely alternated between shopping, tennis, and lunching. These were the girls I went to high school with all grown up. They were also unavoidably white.
I never thought much about race or culture growing up. There wasn’t much to think about. I didn’t know any black people growing up, and if I knew any Jewish people, I didn’t know I knew: all my friends were Roman Catholic. There were a few Asian kids — Chinese, because to our unsophisticated minds they were all Chinese, probably played jokes, and went pee pee in our cokes — and one Puerto Rican kid who bullied me until I outgrew him. In fact, diversity wasn’t a word I heard until I went to college, and even then, at white bread Boston College, it wasn’t much of an issue. This is a distinct contrast from my friend Dave, who grew up Jewish in Gramercy, a few blocks from the Peter Cooper Houses, and went to NYU. He is city as much as I am suburban, his gradual westward migration from Manhattan taking him first to Hoboken, NJ (where we met), and now to Basking Ridge. Basically, he surfed out on the wave of money that flooded New York and then Hoboken into Basking Ridge, a community where good deals are still available, relatively speaking.
If this is an incredibly long preamble to lunch (but I hope somewhat interesting), it’s because I can’t easily encapsulate my feelings and thoughts in light of my experience in New Orleans: I see things a whole lot differently now, and issues that I never fully considered or understood, issues of race and culture and identity, have begun to crystallize.
Dave and I were an unlikely pair for a mid-afternoon lunch at the Mocking Bird Café. We might have been the only two guys there, and am sure we were viewed with suspicion as such. This is still a town that is dominated decidedly by male breadwinners. I was still dressed New Orleans casual, shirt sleeves, jeans, and canvas shoes; Dave had on Yankees cap, shorts, and a shirt that only a hardcore fan of NYC baseball or public transportation would understand: the white letters B and D on a bright, circular orange field followed by a 4 on a similarly circular green field: the subway trains that run from Manhattan to Yankee Stadium. And as always, we began our discussion about New York Yankees baseball.
When you discuss a team with a lot of history, like the Yankees, you inevitably end up discussing things outside of what happens on the field, especially when you started attending games in the 1970’s. We both saw Thurman Munson play. We both had season tickets in the “old” Yankee Stadium. We lived through the Bronx burning and the Golden Age of Jeter, Rivera, Posada and Pettitte. In short, we have some history with this team and the city in which they play. In fact, when you reach a certain age as a sports fan you end up talking more about history than current events, and I don’t think this is just limited to sports.
If it is not exceedingly obvious by now, I have spent an incredible amount of words on things I’m not really going to talk about — at least not directly. It’s not because lunch wasn’t interesting, or because the history of Passaic/Long Hill Township is as boring as you’d probably imagine. It’s not even because I don’t enjoy talking about the Yankees, because I can talk about baseball almost endless, probably the only numbers game math challenged sports fans like myself revel in. It’s because what I’m trying to get at, circuitously at best, is that feeling of unfamiliarity of being a fish out of water in a place you’ve always known, especially when that place becomes unknown to you.
It’s not a stretch to say the place I grew up is now unknown to me. I mean, it isn’t literally unknown to me… I still know how to navigate it, and where things are, generally. If pressed I can still give directions from the surrounding towns and highways. In fact, if anything, I’ve probably become unknown to it as much as it’s become unknown to me, although neither one of us has left or returned to the other as we found it. The word that keeps rattling around in my head is simulacrum…
When Dave and I talk about Yankee Stadium, we always call it the old ballpark. There is a new ballpark right across the street from where the old ballpark once stood. It even says Yankee Stadium on it. In fact, the design is to replicate, on some level, the original Yankee Stadium that existed before the renovations to the old ballpark in the mid-1970’s. A simulacrum of a simulacrum: almost mind-blowingly meta. And I am nervous to even use the term meta. It exists on my shelf alongside words like meme that I find incredibly repulsive yet often useful. A meme is in essence a simulacrum, or is it a projection: maybe both.
The thing about “new” Yankee Stadium is that it’s a simulacrum of something I loved very much, much like the town I grew up in. Because that’s where this is really going, but I’m going to try and keep it from veering off the cliff of mawkishness. Sentimentality is its own disease that convinces you that things that never were were somehow better than things that are: it is the plank of every good reactionary political and social movement, and at it’s essence, dishonest. However, this does not preclude the discussion of what comes next.
If all this seems incredibly involuted, it actually ties back to something I wrote a few ago about the essence of place. It was a piece called Soul of the City, and the upshot of that piece was about commodification of culture in New Orleans, or essentially, creating a simulacrum of culture that was more palatable to those uncomfortable with the essential truths of street culture. Or in essence, the haves want to buy it up and sell it back to us, the have nots. This is not an issue of right or left, but of the corrupting influence of money on culture.
My old seats in Yankee Stadium were field level boxes. They cost $35 bucks a piece. They cost $100 a piece now. A 300% increase since I last had them four years ago. To get the same value as I had in the old ballpark, I’d have to sit in the upper deck now. My friend Dave gave up his tickets, not because of the cost as much as the new “fans” around him who came to conduct business meetings, not watch a ballgame. Or to paraphrase him: When you cheer too loudly, or stand up on a good play, you get chastised. You used to get high fived. If you want to sit with real fans, you need to sit in the bleachers.
The old ballpark is synecdoche. It is the crushing weight of the velvet rope. The fact that our old dive bar is now a martini bar. That my parents quiet tree street is now overrun on weekends by ersatz, wealthy, Tour De France wannabes who act as if they own the road: entitled people complaining about entitlements. That the quaint little farm town next door is now overrun with “McMansions” that have ironic names like Farm House Road. If all of this sounds exceedingly bitter, it’s not as much bitter as bemused: how did we get to this point?
When we decided to leave Hoboken for New Orleans, the deciding factor for me was this: I want to live in a real place. I understand that’s a very vague declaration, but the sense of what makes a place real is anything but vague to me. To some, New Orleans is already an imitation self, the dividing line being Katrina. As someone who never visited New Orleans before Katrina, I can’t speak to this, but I am sure there is some truth in it. Still, New Orleans is gloriously weird. It is still an outlier. It’s still blacker than the rest of America is comfortable with. And poorer too. Katrina, if anything, was a particle accelerator, and it brought issues of race, poverty, education, culture, and gentrification to a head. On some levels it paved the way for a black president, as the inequalities of the storm forced America to take a good hard look at itself. And far from destroying the culture, Katrina made people everywhere understand its preciousness.
Yet despite this preciousness, the city of New Orleans is under attack, not only from without, but within. And this is where it all comes together my friends, when you look around the restaurant and feel like your the one that doesn’t belong in the place that you grew up: except it’s not the place you grew up. Because this is the battle that we’re fighting right now. You never got shushed in the “old ballpark” when your music spilled out into the streets or prosecuted for buying a cold beer at a parade. When you can’t afford to buy a house on the street that you grew up on, or eat at the restaurant that replaced the neighborhood place your family used to go to. Because sometimes a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats, but instead washes away what was there. And I for one intend to stand against the tide.
When I walk through NYC all I see are ghosts. When I walk through Hoboken I hear the music of long shuttered venues and high rises where factories used to be. I walk in the woods around my parents now and can see houses on the ridge line, the maw of the never satisfied suburbs inching closer to the edges of the swamp. And now in New Orleans, I see the barbarians at the gates too: well dressed barbarians who celebrate Mardi Gras in June and have second lines in the French Quarter. And it isn’t so much what things have become but why they’ve become so: the essentially inorganic nature of these changes. No one cried out for a Disney Store in Times Square anymore than they did for Big Red Bus Tours in New Orleans. Instead they were built to appeal to the vast majority who like to travel to places that feel like home. There is a reason for the proliferation of chain restaurants and stores, something in the new American mindset that values security over liberty. Homogenization is the unifying theory of the 21st century.
I’d admit to being hyperbolic if not for what happened at dinner tonight. While deciding on steaks for tomorrow’s meal, my mother wanted to show me something “whimsical.” She produced a bag of red potatoes that you can steam in the microwave. When I asked her why, she didn’t really have an answer. Because there is no answer. The obvious answer is convenience, but it isn’t vastly more convenient to cook potatoes in the microwave than it is to cook them in a pot of boiling water. It is slightly more convenient than cooking them in the oven, but you lose the flavor of the salt and herbs and the caramelization of crust. Then she countered with cost: it was only a $1.50 for the bag. The art of the sale, all that goodness for just $1.50. Costco math. But we had always made our own rosemary potatoes. They were among our favorite dishes. I still didn’t see it… until it dawned on me: simulacrum. The inferior experience that has now become the experience. Why go to Paris or New York when you can go to Epcot or Vegas? Virtual. Now virtual cooking. The TV dinner has finally reached it’s apogee, except now it’s possible to prepackage everything. Prepackage food. Prepackage culture. Just pull off the lid and serve. It’s just as good as the real thing….
I need to get home to New Orleans sooner rather than later.