Jersey City’s sparkling waterfront and all of its luxuries – is not where I live. I’m in the low-rent, gun-slinging part of town populated by amorous feral cats, the working poor, drug dealers and at least one writer. After Northwestern and NYU, I could have forced myself into a white collar career, but the freedom to triumph over grit holds more appeal. Inland Jersey City puts hair on your chest.
Enjoy the following true incidents in all their raw, character-building glory. But keep in mind that I’m a delicate lady who meditates. And I weep at the annual Blessing of the Animals ceremony. Just FYI.
So I walk past Summit Chicken one night, a no-hope, fast food dump for the lazy. A few months ago I saw the floor covered in what looked like flood water mixed with hamburger blood and swore the place off for eternity. But every plate at home is dirty and I am willing to defy my vegetables to rot rather than cook something, so I slink back to Summit Chicken.
I order a grubby deluxe for $3.50. The Indian guys who run the place seem to be gone; instead there are two teenagers behind the counter. They look at me and then disappear to horse around in back. About four or five more teenaged boys come in, maybe customers or rambunctious kids wanting to hang out. I must look like a curious, pale specimen, because I wonder if someone will spit in my fries. Feeling vaguely nervous and disappointed in myself for letting a teenager fix me a low-life burger, I walk out before the deluxe is ready.
On my way to fetch coffee the next morning, some guy says, “White girl,” under his breath. Monsieur states the obvious. Seconds later I pass a radiant woman who says hello. She beams out love to everyone, regardless of complexion. I want to grab her hands and tell her what a relief her warmth is and thank her for living in our less than welcoming neighborhood. I crave that warmth, want it extended my way all the time – though I’d like to be evolved enough to offer the first hello. Her sweetness sustains me for a while. I’m a camel that way, capable of making my water last a very long time.
Daily life here is tough, but when someone punctures the illusion that we’re impossibly different, you really feel it.
Today the bus that takes me to Journal Square to catch the PATH train into Manhattan has a hand-blocked sign in childlike letters: “BACK DOOR’S OUT.” There’s a blue-eyed 20-something girl on board with a blondish ponytail. Her face could be attractive, but it’s gaunt and pock-marked. She holds an important prop, her cell phone, wears black leggings, a graphic t-shirt and hoodie.
Just before placing a call, she gets into character by brightening up her face, sitting attentively and smiling in anticipation of what she’s about to orchestrate. But it’s her voice I notice. She sounds confident with her articulate, round pronunciations and chats up her contact at full volume, cooing and flirting like a trained actress while determining where he is and estimating her arrival. She smiles, throwing lots of “babys” and “honeys” at this guy she’s clearly never met: “What’s your car look like, baby? Meet me at the Square, sweetie; I’ll be there in five.” Then in a stage whisper (for privacy) she says, “I need a clip.” “Clip,” she repeats, whispering. Whoever is listening to her on the other end still doesn’t get it. She whisper-spells it, “C-L-I-P.”
“What – she think we don’t spell?” a woman near me says.
Oh, I realize later, clip for a gun.
Once the call is over, the possible murderess drops the sweet act. Her eyes look dead, the smile falls away and she peers out the window to gauge where we are. She tucks the phone into her bag and gets ready to move.
I overhear a conversation on the bus about who’s out and who’s in. The faces change but I hear the same dialogue every few weeks: “He just got out,” or sometimes, “Naw, he back in.” Hey, if someone’s willing to purchase a gun on a city bus, there’s no reason not to discuss who’s currently in or out of jail. New York City’s magnetic energy and accomplishments, at seven miles away, wield exactly zero influence on this corner of Jersey City.
That evening I get out of the shower to discover a tiny man in my living room. He scoots out my window clutching a sterling silver cigarette box engraved with dad’s name and races down the fire escape. As my hands shake, the cop who answers the call sounds bored, “A bunch of people just got out. Eventually we’ll catch him and he’ll go back in.”
Oh, so the system works? In addition to installing metal window gates, I’ve nailed the goddam windows shut. I don’t understand why low-cost housing comes at such a high price.
In July it’s too hot to go cycling during the day, so I leave the house that night at about 11 p.m. to ride my bike. A bunch of neighborhood kids with the same idea are already out wheeling around. I wait for the light to change on the corner of Belmont and Bergen Avenues.
On the sidewalk, three or four young teenagers sit perched on their bikes near a boy who looks to be about two years old. There are no adults in sight. The older kids decide to tear down Belmont Avenue and leave the little boy behind. Standing alone now and wearing only diapers, he starts to cry. I inch my bike a little closer, not certain how involved I should get. “Do you know where you live?” I ask him. He nods through his tears. “OK. Why don’t you go home? It’s time to go home now.” The idea seems to calm him a bit. He wanders toward an apartment building, providing me with enough comfort to leave. I sob until my ride is over.
Why do I stay? My landlord is Dennis. “The Donald Trump of Jersey City,” according to my neighbor Cheryl. (If owning buildings in Hudson County, where some of our politicians get involved in organ-smuggling, makes you a Trump, then… sure.) He keeps the rents low on principle — not so Trump-y. It’s the main reason I showed up in this neighborhood ten years ago; cheap rent. That and my street looks magnificent in the spring, with its lush, pink-blossomed trees and Victorian homes. I won’t stay forever though. No ill will, just bad fumes.