A City Idyll, in the Heart of the Suburbs

June 14, 2014

There is truth in the t-shirt adage, Once a Jersey girl, always a Jersey girl, though until recently, I would not have conceded it.

My mother and father, who grew up in the Bronx and Brooklyn respectively, fled to the New Jersey suburbs soon after my birth in Manhattan. The lure was typical: home ownership, room to grow, a yard for the children. Most of the families I knew had followed a similar path to our sleepy borough.

My parents brought their marital malaise with them, and I, sensing something, was always just a bit sad. My mother tended her rhubarb and sewed our dresses. My father fixed things around the house and smoked his pipe. To stave off my own brooding, I cooked up precarious adventures that gave them both pause.

After I learned to read, the ever-present stack of library books in my room became my escape hatch. Later on, I began to entwine dreams of Manhattan with the imaginary worlds from those story pages, providing myself with a two-part distraction. We’d often spent Sundays in the city, seeing a Broadway show or going to a museum, but in my adolescence, I suddenly became aware of its magical, limitless, and breathtaking possibilities.

Crossing the George Washington Bridge, I felt my soul lift above my body in expectation. New York had a throbbing pulse I wanted desperately to keep pace with it while we were there. So I fell into the city’s waiting arms with abandon, pledging to flee the suburbs as soon as I could, while befuddling my poor parents, who had made the journey in reverse.

When my best friend and I turned 14, we finally received permission to travel into New York by train, by ourselves. From then on, I came in whenever I could, sometimes with a specific plan and at others, just to tap briefly into the city’s energy. I rarely ventured far from the Public Library, yet I always stayed long enough to believe that the city was where I belonged.

I settled onto the Upper West Side two years after graduating from college, living with a string of roommates in various apartments and later, by myself in a studio. When my husband and I married, we moved into a tiny one-bedroom. We could not stand in the kitchen together if the refrigerator was open, but we had a winding staircase that led to our six feet of rooftop access. If we craned our necks to the side, we could sort of see the river.

We had very little to our names. Still, our Manhattan years were too short-lived. Uprooted by my husband’s residency, we packed our stories and resettled in Queens. I eventually made peace with the move because the F train tethered us to the mainland. Only when work drew us back to the suburbs did I feel like I’d contracted chicken pox a second time. It wasn’t the Garden State’s fault; it was an existence outside the city I dreaded.

Though I commuted in daily, I suffered a withdrawal period nonetheless. It was always too quiet to sleep. Perhaps it was poetic justice for having fought so hard to escape the suburbs in the first place. I missed the corner bodega, too, resenting the drive required to purchase a gallon of milk. But I worried most that I would lose the sense of freedom and wonder the city had instilled in me since my youth.

That was ages ago. We have been back in New Jersey long enough now to know that great stories happen here, too. We’ve embraced our yard, our garden, and our basketball hoop. I’m no longer a commuter, but I’ve also stopped hoarding quarters for the washing machine. Most important, I’ve held onto my fearless city girl voice, while adjusting its volume just slightly for the quieter demands of the suburbs.

Besides, we are thankfully not that far away, because there are days when what I pine for – need, really — is a good dose of New York. My husband and I even discuss the possibility of retiring there after we’ve finished our carpool tenure, when we might have the time to take advantage of the cultural wonders the city has to offer. Then again, we might stay put. It took us a long while to grow where we were planted, and we aren’t the sort to uproot ourselves easily.

Meanwhile, our sons like Manhattan only in small, specific doses. They love to travel and explore, but ultimately prefer the stillness of the suburbs for the long term. My husband insists that this is not a kind of rebellion on their part, as I first assumed. For them, the city is just another place on the big wide beautiful map of the world. Crossing the George Washington Bridge is no different from crossing any other, and it is surely not an existential exercise on their road to self-discovery.

Or maybe, we have pulled off an amazing feat: raising them in the New Jersey suburbs with a New York state of mind. After all, they know that adventure and magic, if they are willing to look, await them at every corner.