Yesterday, at the World Trade Center transit station, as I took the escalator down to the PATH train, heading for an afternoon spent with a cousin living in Exchange Place, New Jersey, I made note of a little datum: I’ve been crossing the Hudson–in both directions–for over twenty-five years. One such crossing, back in 1993, has kept me on the New York side since.
I first crossed the Hudson to arrive at graduate school, taking a combination of the Long Island Railroad and the PATH train to Newark, New Jersey. I was bewildered by the dereliction and disrepair visible in that city when I emerged–eyes blinking in the bright August sunshine–from the Newark subway station. For the next six years, as I studied and worked in New Jersey, the skyline of Manhattan was often visible, tantalizingly promising a great deal that was not present in my daily existence on this side of the Hudson. The two cities, Newark and New York, seemed so close and yet so far.
I crossed often–‘escaping’, as I sometimes described it–seeking diversions in all the ways that New York City appeared to offer them: food of all stripes, arthouse movies, live music, raucous bars. Sometimes, I took the NJ Transit trains to arrive at the stuffy, ugly, Penn Station and then headed for the subways; sometimes, the PATH trains to their steaming, malodorous Manhattan stations. (In the late 80s, the subways still featured ample displays of graffiti; these served as a garish welcome to the new urban landscape I had entered after my subterranean travels.) These were journeys that never quite lost their mysterious magic: a displacement from my weekday trials to a place of seemingly endless promise. My returns to New Jersey–after the night’s engagements were done–required expert deployment of train timetables. Or to be more precise, the times of the last train. A delay or two entailed a sleepless, weary, return at dawn.
New York remained the diversion of choice after I began work in South Central New Jersey; I began graduate school there while commuting for night classes (at the 42nd Street site of the old CUNY Graduate Center). I continued to dream about life in ‘the city.’ Finally, in 1993, I left New Jersey, and moved across the Hudson, up the West Side to 95th Street and Westend. I sold my pickup truck, shook myself free of my ridiculously overpriced auto insurance policy, and began buying subway tokens. I was now a New Yorker.
My crossings of the Hudson though, continued; I returned to visit old friends from school and work. Sometimes barbecues, sometimes children’s birthdays, sometimes trips to the beach, sometimes a Cape May weekend, sometimes a bar hop in Hoboken. New Jersey became my Thanksgiving destination–an annual ritual, observed with some faithfulness every year in Marlboro township. I was the New Yorker friend, the one that required a pickup from bus and train stations while the other guests arrived in their cars. I saw the state differently; I didn’t drive on its roads anymore.
The Hudson crossing is still an easy one if you don’t drive; its significance for me now resides in its reminding me of a time when I drove on New Jersey’s highways, New York’s profile looming large, just out of reach, a place that was the repository of dreams both practical and idealistic.