This motorcycle serves many purposes for me. Sometimes it’s transportation, sometimes it’s a tool for meditation, and sometimes, like this ride on Father’s Day – it’s a time machine.
I was born in northern New Jersey and I lived in the area until I was 12-years-old when my family relocated to Florida. My dad wanted to leave the bustle of the northeast and start his own business so he could forge a better life for our family of 7. During those years before we moved, my entire extended family lived in the area. Everybody. 4 Grandparents, 3 aunts, 3 uncles, and 10 cousins. There were, parties, parades, barbeques, and birthdays so often it seemed like they were daily events. Nobody was divorced. That was taboo in the community at the time. I was lucky to have had this solid experience of family as nowadays many families are separated for different reasons. I myself am divorced and estranged from my former step-daughter.
One of my favorite memories as a boy was getting to go to my paternal grandparents house to spend the night. My brothers, sisters, and I got to take turns staying over. Sometimes it was two at a time. Many a great memory was formed in this house. My dad grew up in this place with my grandparents, his brother, and the family dog, a boxer named Reggie. It was a comfortable home filled with stories and history. My grandfather had a full-blown rumpus room in the basement complete with a bar, pool table, darts, puck bowling, and a pinball machine. It was paradise to kid. The elders would be upstairs as the kids played in the underground amusement park making a racket.
My grandfather was a hilarious character. He was quick with a smile and very physical in the sense that he always had a hug or tussle-on-the-hair for me. He was an interesting man because he was so ritualistic. When he would throw a baseball with me, he wouldn’t just toss it. He would have to rub the ball between his hands to get the laces to stand up, spit on his fingers for improved grip, and then perform a crazy wind up before releasing the throw. He was a funny man and I think much of my demeanor comes from him. I shake hands hard and hug people I just met. I make jokes and I can get loud when I am excited. It was my grandfather’s way. He used to call me “Jojo the Tiger” which I believe was a reference to Jo-Jo White who played for the Detroit Tigers from ’32 – ’38. He kept a seemingly endless supply of Lifesaver Pep O Mints in his shirt pocket. He would crack the candies into 4 pieces so that when giving them out to the grand kids they would go farther than giving each child a whole one. He was a larger than life and I could fill many pages talking about the man. He passed away when I was a senior in high school and I miss him to this day.
My dad lives is St. Augustine and I was not able to be with him on this Father’s Day. As a substitute, I decided I would go visit the house he grew up in – my grandfather’s house. It’s exactly 18.7 miles from where I live in Harlem to 6 Valley Road in Paterson, NJ. I thought about that. I have moved so many times and I wind up mere minutes from where I spent so much time as a boy. It’s almost as if magnetism were at play, drawing me nearer to where my memories live.
Today’s drive was not about being on the road. Today was about visiting the old places that I knew from my youth. I left about 9am and made my first stop at my grandfather’s house. I pulled onto the side of the road across the street and took some pictures. I emailed one to my dad and brother and wished them both a happy father’s day. I called my dad but got his voicemail, so I just left a message. I’m sure he got a kick out of the picture. Looking at the second floor bedroom where I used to stay, I remembered a specific moment. I used to love sitting by the window and watch the headlights rush by on the busy street long after I should have been asleep. It was exciting to me as my parent’s house was on a very quiet avenue and being at grandpa’s felt like being in a city. One night while watching and listening to the cars, I figured out how old I would be in the year 2000. I arrived at the number 35. I must have been around 8 at the time, and I couldn’t believe that I would ever get to that age. What would I be doing? What would I be? Now here I was at 47, looking at the place where I made that calculation in what seems to be a second ago. Time is a blur. An non-renewable resource that we don’t appreciate until it starts to run out.
I thought about a few other great memories like my grandfather giving me my first pocket knife and warning me, “Always cut away from yourself!” I of course ignored this advice and cut a chunk out of my finger. He wrapped the wound in a white cloth hanky that he always carried, and I watched as a red dot blossomed larger and larger. He later bandaged it tight with a band-aid. He never told my parents of the incident because he knew if he did I wouldn’t be able to keep the knife. I still sport the scar on my pinky from that day. I am glad to bear it because it always reminds me of my grandfather. I also remember sitting in one of my grandfather’s t-shirts watching Snub Pollard in his magnet car on TV with my brother John, the air conditioner fighting off the heat from hot summer night. So many great times that I didn’t realize were so great until now. Simple things silly adults like me try to recapture on motorcycle rides.
Across from the house is a driveway that leads up to Lambert Castle, a small fortress nestled on the side of Garret Mountain. I drove up and parked the Brick in the visitor’s drive of the Castle which is a small museum. It was closed, so I just looked around. More memories flooded back. I recall my dad buying paper kites and putting them together for me and my 2 brothers and 2 sisters. He showed us how to put the proper bend in the wooden struts of the kite to provide the correct stiffness and catch the breeze better. My father has taught me so many skills throughout my life. I guess the greatest skill he taught me is not really a a skill at all, but a mindset: “Everything can be figured out”. He never said those words but by example he taught me to not fear taking things apart and putting them back together. If it is broken, it can be fixed. If it is in pieces, it can be reassembled. It gave me a very do-it-yourself point of view that I have carried with me to this day. I use this mindset in my job, my hobbies, and even my relationships. This ideology does not always work for the last item though. Sometimes those just can’t be fixed, they just need to be let go as I have learned.
I wandered around the castle and the large green fields taking pictures and just breathing in the air. The weather was slightly overcast but the temperature was perfect. I descended from Lambert Castle and wound around the other side of the mountain to Park Road that leads higher up the mountain. I came upon Barbour’s Pond. My grandfather, my father, and I would sometimes fish in this small pond. I caught my first bass from this water with a goofy telescoping fishing pole I used to think was the coolest device ever created. I thought about how I know how to operate three types of fishing reels because of teaching moments during these excursions with my grandfather and father. Information regarding levers, buttons, and technique passed down from generation to generation. I sat by the pond for a few minutes and noticed fathers and their sons fishing. I smiled broadly to myself, glad to witness such a great ritual still occurring in this hectic world.
I exited the park, stopping along the way to take more pictures. It was nearing lunch time so I punched “Libby’s Lunch” into my GPS. I hadn’t been to this mecca of Hot Texas Wieners (deep fried hot dogs with chili sauce to the unknowing layperson) since my brother visited around the days before 9/11. Our favorite place from back in the day was called Falls View, but that has since closed and relocated, so Libby’s was the next best thing. Libby’s Lunch was established in 1935 as their faded sign still advertises. I pulled into the parking lot and the door was propped open as if it was a welcome gate to the past. I walked into the empty restaurant. “You open?” I asked the two women sitting at the first booth. “Sure are!” they both replied. I sat on a stool at the counter and ordered two “all the way” which is a Hot Texas Wiener with chili sauce, minced onions, and spicy mustard. The drink to get with them is a birch beer, but I decided to get a Coors light to put a more adult spin on this ritual.
I took the first bite and it was like a flashback. I was once again transported back in time when my parents and grandparents would bring back stacks of these wieners to the Valley Road house. They were sandwiched between Chinet cardboard plates because this was well before the dawn of styrofoam clamshell take out container. I remembered how the chili sauce would drip out from between the two stapled plates, their contents quickly emptied by 5 hungry kids hopped up on too many 16 ounce Pepsi colas my grandparents kept in abundance. As I sat and ate I talked to one of the women who was the daughter of the present owner. She shared the history of the restaurant with me and it was a very pleasant way to relive some of my youth.
I climbed aboard the Brick and headed over to Great Falls, a waterfall that my grandfather claims he jumped from as a boy if I remember the legend correctly. The city is currently refurbishing the park around the Falls which is crumbled and dilapidated. I took several pictures from Overlook Park on McBride Avenue, but then decided to drive around to Maple Street to Mary Ellen Kramer Park so I could traverse the walking bridge that crosses the Falls. When I arrived at the park I saw a sight that I had long forgotten. Hinchliffe Stadium. I only came here once as boy, and that is when my father took me to see a stunt car team named Hell Drivers. I’ll never forget how exciting it was to see these cars performing tricks and jumping through rings of fire. I am not sure fathers know how much it means to take their sons to events and places. A few times my dad pulled me and my brother Tom out of school early to go to Mets games at Shea Stadium in Flushing, Queens. He worked long hours at a car dealership, and I am sure fighting the thick NYC traffic was not the first thing he wanted to do, but he did it for us, to inspire and expose us to interesting events many boys never get to see.
I walked around the graffitied ruins of the stadium. A rusty gate was cracked open and it didn’t appear that security was a big concern, so I walked into post-Chernobylesque stadium. I remember our approximate seats for the Hell Drivers show and sat on the same now crumbling cement bench, recalling the cheers and excitement of that day so many years ago. “Thanks dad” I muttered to myself collecting in my mind the many great things my father has done for me over the years. He once traded a set of chrome side pipes from his Meineke Muffler shop to obtain my first electric guitar (a 1969 Vox Thunderjet), a curly patch cord, and an amplifier. I took a few more pictures of the stadium and headed over to the walking bridge.
This steel crossing is now famous as it was featured in Episode 6 of the first season of The Sopranos. The character Mikey Palmice and one of his thugs threw a drug dealer, Rusty Irish, off of the bridge into the Passaic river roaring below. Being on this bridge was another flashback. It was the first waterfall I had ever seen as a boy, and again I’m standing here some 35 plus years later looking at it again. The view of the powerful water is captivating, exciting yet calming at the same time.
I left the bridge, mounted the Brick, and headed for home. There was little traffic on the roads as I am sure many sons were having backyard barbecues or watching baseball with their fathers. I couldn’t be with my dad today, but it was nice refreshing some of the fading memories of the many great things my father has done for me. I realize Hallmark probably created this day to sell more greeting cards, but I realized today wasn’t Father’s Day. That day is much more frequent than once a year – it’s any day when a father does something special for his child.
Click images for larger versions:
The faded sadness of Hinchliffe Stadium
A view of Paterson from atop Garret Mountain
A trip in time to Paterson, NJ