I am not sure what it is that compels humans to be drawn to their pasts. Is it nostalgia? Memories of better days? Or is it just that with each passing year our lives seem to become more complex and we long for the simplicity of days gone by. I’m not really sure why, but something told me to take a motorcycle trip to my home town of East Hanover, New Jersey and just have a look around.
My good friend and bandmate Brian was having a cookout for Memorial Day in Glen Ridge, N.J. so I thought I would take the opportunity to kill three birds with one stone. The third stone being food. I have always wanted to go to Rutt’s Hut after seeing the 1999 documentary A Hot Dog Program on PBS by Rick Sebak. I have been to many of the places on the program already and even attended the Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest. I yearned to put another notch in my wiener belt.
I’ve always had a nostalgic place in my heart for hot dogs. I think a lot of people do. It’s the quintessential American food next to apple pie. Yes, they are constructed of pure evil but who can forget the good times of a backyard barbeque, being barefoot in a swimsuit, and chowing down on these sodium sticks? I sure can’t, so I eat these memories in a sausage casings whenever I can find an excuse to do so.
I took the Henry Hudson through the Lincoln tunnel to the 3 and Rutt’s Hut was right off the highway. I parked the Brick, walked around the place, and snapped a few pictures. I am sure the old neon sign would have looked much better at night as the glory of the restaurant established in 1928 appeared moderately faded by the overcast sky above Clifton. I went into the entrance in the back and had two “Rippers” with onions, mustard, and their famous relish. They are called Rippers because they are deep fried in oil until the casing pops open. I enjoyed the dogs very much and the scarfed them down rapidly. I wish they had a little more snap like a grill cooked dog, but that’s just picking nits. I was stoked to be in this classic establishment eating this classic food.
After I downed the dogs I went up to the front were the bar was. It was like I time traveled back to the late 40’s. The bar looked like what I imagine an old VFW hall looked like shortly after the end of World War II. There were flags and red, white, and blue streamers adoring the walls, and handwritten signs with underlines for emphasis. The entire interior was paneled in a cherry colored wood. There was a sprinkling of regulars, and the bartender was a sweet old lady who shared stories about her cataract surgery and her big memorial day party she was hosting the next day. “Do you think the ice will hold in the fridge over night?” she asked the entire bar. “Aww sure!” a gritty local replied in a dismissive huff. Even the prices were a trip back in time as I sipped on an ice cold $2.25 Coors Light. After the beer, I said thanks and headed out the door. I felt lucky that I learned about a different side of history – one steeped in the nostalgia of this iconic American food.
With my human fuel tank full, I jumped right on the 3 and headed towards my old home town of East Hanover. I can’t even recall the last time I had visited. Maybe it was 1983 for my grandfather’s funeral? I couldn’t recall, as so much time has gone by in my life. I pulled into the town and it was unbelievably quiet. The streets were empty and there was barely a car in site. My first destination was my old house. I drove down Wildwood Avenue where I lived from age 3 to age 12. The green house was now gray. My father had this house built for us and it’s where most of my New Jersey memories reside. I looked up at the driveway and recalled skateboarding for the first time down the gentle slope that seemed to be a mountain when I was a boy. I remember my sister coaxing me on to a two-wheeled bike for the first time when I was only three years old and having my mother discover in disbelief what I was doing. I remembered the neighbors. The Cerbones, the Zaleski’s, and the Prices all of their houses basically in tact, frozen in time.
I was filled with a slight sadness not so much for missing the place, but the amount of time that had gone by in my life. It was 35 years since I lived here with my parents who struggled to give us the best they could. We even had a heated pool. Where’s my house? Where’s my wife and kids? I thought to myself. And then I just drove on letting the pops from exhaust pipe drown out the feeling of emptiness.
I arrived at the dead end of the street and saw the old culvert where I used to catch frogs. The large pipe was fed from a small stream that lead out to the Passiac River where I once boarded a raft and got carried into the current as a boy. My brother John rescued me from drifting away into the fast current by extending a stick and pulling me to shore. I still joke about the event to this day by telling the dinner table story of how he saved my life.
I drove the back streets to East Harvest Avenue where I lived from when I was born until I was three. I couldn’t pinpoint the exact house, but I am pretty sure it was one of the newly erected McMansions placed in it’s stead. My only memory of this place was sitting on my neighbor’s porch with Nicky Vitale watching airplanes buzz across the bright sky.
I then headed towards my preschool, but on the way I came to the place where my first memorable tragic life event took place. It is still pretty vivid in my mind. I was speeding down Ridgedale Avenue on my new ten-speed bicycle that my grandfather just bought me. I didn’t want to stop to cross over to Orchard and I got hit by a yellow Chevy Vega as I cut across the cars path. The car clipped my back wheel and I got knocked to the ground. I recall a balding man getting out of the car and yelling at me, “What are you doing? Are you crazy?” The accident was my fault but to this day, I think what a strange reaction for a person to have before knowing the condition of the kid you just hit with your car who is lying in the street. I was okay. I had sprained finger and even went to school the next day, the din of rumors of how I was paralyzed now quelled, exemplifying the wild fire behavior of gossip in a small suburban town.
I headed to my preschool which was also the first aid house and remembered the smell of paste and making things out of cereal boxes. A new ambulance has replaced the old one that picked me up after the Vega crunched me, but the building was the same. I proceeded on to East Hanover Central School where I attended grades k – 5. The building was the familiar and the fallout shelter sign still hung as it did way back when. I went around to the back of the school and saw the field where I learned how to play soccer in fifth grade. This “new sport” was sweeping the country and for some reason I had an aptitude for it. Suddenly I went from being picked 8th or 9th for sports activities to being picked first. Needless to say it became my favorite sport and I played all the way through 10th grade in high school.
I continued my nostalgic ride along the streets of my youth and stopped by the East Hanover Middle School where I attended just 6th grade before moving to Florida in 1977. This was a pretty amazing school. It was very progressive in the sense that every student had to take woodshop, graphics, sewing, and cooking. There are skills I learned in that school that I still use today: squaring up a board, cropping photos, making french toast, and threading a sewing machine. Such a wide variety of neat things to learn and carry with you in life. Now I see schools struggle to just keep art and music alive within their halls, as progressive programs such as the one here at East Hanover Middle have long since died.
I made one last stop at Lurker Park where I used to play and ice skate. I asked Betsy Cutter to go steady there and she said yes marking the first time I would fall in love. She later broke up with me after I returned from a trip to Florida with my dad. I bought her a present of bubble gum that looked like oranges in a green net bag. I never got to give it to her, and remember eating it myself in anger.
I sat in the parking lot of the park and realized that I recalled a mixed bag of both pleasant and sad memories of this town. I wracked my brain and tried to jar loose some more pleasant ones. I relived getting a grand slam while paying in little league and hearing the thunder of the parents. I thought of the joy of getting my first bike and skateboard. The warm summers that seemed to go on forever with my dad shooting fireworks off in the backyard. The jingle of the Good Humor truck rolling by and chasing after him on our bikes. The winters where we sledded down the slopes of our yard and countless birthday parties of my enormous crew of brothers, sisters, and cousins. It was a good life here as a boy, and I am glad my parents worked so hard to keep such a nice roof over our heads sacrificing everything for our joy – I was a lucky kid.
I drove on to Brian my bandmate’s house for the cookout. It was a short spin down 280 East to the town of Glen Ridge. I was the first one there as always, as I am ridiculously punctual. Brian toured me through the house and pointed out the renovations he had done over the past three years. I remember when he bought the house and it needed a ton of work but now it is nearly finished. He lives there with his wife and his daughter and has another child on the way. I was hit with a similar feeling as I was in East Hanover – Where’s my house? Where’s my family? This threw off my mood for a while which I covered best as I could. I cheered up as friends arrived, all familiar faces with their broods in tow. I am always the guy that plays with the kids at the parties. I guess this is because I have none I my own. I had a great time making up games and chasing the kids around the yard as they shrieked with joy. We later ate and I stuffed myself with a hamburger and yet another hot dog, further cementing it in my psyche as the best American food ever. A warm summer rain fell and we all retreated under an umbrella. The shower didn’t last long and I was soon saying my goodbyes with big hugs all around.
I got on my bike and rolled out of the driveway, The kids looked on with excitement at this guy with the bizarre two wheeled motorized vehicle. Just then I had another realization. Maybe the house and the kids are just not my path. I had that for a while when I was married with a stepdaughter, but it ended 4 short years later. There were many trials and tribulations during that time, just as I am experiencing trials in now. Maybe what I am doing now is my path. Being a good “uncle” to my friend’s kids and learning to be satisfied with what I have, as there are so many others with so much less.
I pulled out onto the road and as I rumbled away a smile suddenly came across my face. The skies ahead were clear, the road was smooth, and somewhere on the 30 minute flawless ride home I found a small piece of enlightenment – my path is chosen by my own decisions. The grass will always be greener if I choose to look over the fence, but after my journey today I looked at my own lawn, my present situation which I have sowed, and realized it looks pretty damn green.
A big figure 8 through New Jersey
|The famous sign||1 1/2 “Rippers”||Nostalgic bar|
|My old house||Culvert||First car accident|
|Preschool||Grammar school||Soccer field|
|Middle school||Church||Lurker Park|