1 from The Writing on the Wall:
Monday, July 18
There are few things in this world more
ugly than graffiti.
After the day I'd had, it was the last
thing I needed to see, and if I had been in my usual fugue when taking the exit I would have missed it. "Fugue"
is not an overstatement, since I do tend to enter an altered state of consciousness when I'm behind the wheel. It never
fails: Upon arriving home from wherever I've been, I can't remember having driven there. I step out of the car and
say to myself: Now, how did I get here? Since I'd just stepped out of the car, I'd tell myself, it makes sense
that I would have conducted my car between my point of embarkation and 44 Hiawatha Lane...but damned if I could remember actually
getting in the car, getting on the highway, taking the exit, making a few turns, and pulling into my driveway. Sometimes
the experience would get me wondering about matters existential--how, in fact, did I know that I had driven here? Perhaps
my identical but opposite twin in the world of antimatter and I had traded places for a short time, and he was the one who
had gotten me home? Maybe, but not likely, so most of the time I took it on faith that I was indeed the one who had driven,
that I had not been transported home by an act of God or some other supernatural occurrence.
I've mentioned my driving-induced blackouts to a couple of my friends, who tell me that there's a simple explanation: I'm
just so involved in my own thoughts as I'm driving along that I'm not paying attention, and I know the roads so well that
I don't need to take account of my surroundings. Hmmm...maybe they're onto something. I've lived around here for
pretty much my whole life and I know my way around quite well. And I do pride myself on never having to sit in a traffic
jam when I can get to where I'm going by ducking onto an obscure side road that is falsely marked as a dead end. (FYI:
That's a little trick that some of the affluent towns around here use to prevent traffic avoiders from cutting through residential
But, that Monday, it just so happened
that someone cut me off when he realized that he was almost on top of the exit. I was forced to slam on the brakes instead
of taking the exit at my usual 40-45 miles per hour (25 miles over the posted exit speed limit). The jolt of adrenaline
as I nearly collided with the Beamer snapped me awake--I think I had been thinking that I'd someday like to visit Egypt to
see the pyramids, then wondering what I would do in Egypt after seeing the Sphinx and Giza--and I noticed the maniacal scrawling
on the exit marker.
The sign should have said LINCOLN AVENUE/RIDGEWOOD. As
far as highway signs go it isn't particularly large, and many people unfamiliar with Route 208 have been known to sail past
it without even seeing it. Matters are only made worse when they make a U-turn a few exits up, only to find that there
is no Lincoln Avenue exit on the southbound side of the highway either. But that day the little sign on the northbound
side might as well not have existed at all, because the black spray paint over the white lettering left it completely unreadable. It
was like stepping into the South Bronx for a brief, nightmarish moment.
I guess the graffit made such a strong impression on me because it was one of the things I had never gotten used to about
New York City. Graffiti, and homeless people, and pandhandlers, and street garbage. To me it had always been the
single best metaphor for urban decay--no place that had graffiti could be a place that people wanted to live. In fact,
that idea was at the heart of my confusion with the whole graffiti culture. I could understand the how of graffiti, how
it could happen and under what circumstances: You got a can of spray paint, or a thick permanent marker, and did your stuff.
A highway location made it easy to do a quick defacing job, away from the eyes of the cops who were busy patrolling
the town's streets to prevent things like graffiti from happening there. The highway was also probably the ideal situation
for vandalism, given the convenient escape route afforded by two lanes with a 50 MPH speed limit. But the why of graffiti
escaped me entirely. I know I bored my friends with the topic more than once. What satisfaction did people get out
of doing it? What purpose did it serve? Could anyone ever think of graffiti as aesthetically pleasing? Why
would anyone purposely make their surroundings ugly?
Part of my annoyance was at the rudeness of it all. The thought of spray painting a highway sign was incomprehsible to
a man who remembered getting a sound whacking when, at the tender age of five or six, he decided to start coloring in a book
he had taken out of the library. The worst part of it had been having to apologize to the librarian, a very intimidating
lady named Mrs. Blatkowsky who primly accepted my apology while the fire in her eyes only hinted at the punishments she could
have devised for people who defaced library books. Good God, what would she have done to graffiti artists, whose canvasses
are a lot larger than library books?
But, digging a little deeper,
as I'm prone to do on matters psychological--Sara says I missed my true calling--I realized that I was just as upset because
of the pedestal on which I put my town. Ridgewood is, by most people's account, a very nice place to live. We have
a thriving downtown area with a lot of cool shops and places to eat. There's a movie theater that shows all the most
recent flicks, which I can usually see for free if my friend Gary is working and I give him ten minutes' notice. Once
you're out of the downtown area, you move into some quaint neighborhoods with well-maintained lawns and Japanese cars in the
driveways. Slightly beyond this middle-class ring around the center, you get to some very chi-chi areas where the houses
go for upwards of half a mil or more. I happen to live in a cottage on one of the largest estates in town, a middle-class
guy living among the New Jersey aristocracy.
In many ways,
Ridgewood is the quintessential New Jersey suburb, but it does have one thing that most of the other burbs around here don't
have: a sizable population of former City people. I don't have any hard and fast statistics on this, but the people who
live here now fall into one of three general categories: (1) people who've always lived here, (2) people who are attracted
to the town for its (dare I say it?) snob appeal, and (3) urbanites who fled New York City when it was time to start having
kids. Those in the third category are attracted to its Westchester-like feel (but lower, but not by much, taxes), its
good schools, and its easy commutability to NYC via bus or train. The Ridgewood train station is the major stop on New
Jersey Transit's Northwest Bergen line. On the morning express, the train zips you down into Hudson County in a little
more than half an hour. Once in Hoboken, you switch over to the PATH (the Port Authority Trans Hudson) trains, which
take you under the Hudson River and into Manhattan lickety split. You can be at the World Trade Center in about ten minutes,
or at 33rd Street in about twenty. It's not a bad little set-up for people whose businesses are in New York but who don't
want to live there any more.
The presence of the former Manhattanites
gives Ridgewood a certain edgy urbanity--a whiff of New York west of the Hudson, one might say (though there are those residents
who argue vehemently that Manhattan, and the scents that go along with it, are best left about 15 miles due east). Many
of the suppies (suburban professionals; I also like the acronym since they're always going out to supper) are part of Ridgewood's
burgeoning theater and arts groups. These are the same people who bop into the city two weekends per month but stay at
home the other two, eating at the trendier Ridgewood night spots or window shopping at the overpriced boutiques. Go into
the Country Pancake House on East Ridgewood Avenue on Sunday mornings after church and you'll swear you're packed into a little
pancake house in Greenwich Village.
What people like about Ridgewood,
and I include myself among them, is that the town (though I should go on record by saying that it's officially a "village")
seems so bloody civilized. Old ladies walk arm-in-arm down the street, and summer nights and weekends see lots of families
swimming at Graydon Pool and rollerblading alongside the duck pond. Because so many people live here, the streets are
frequently gridlocked with cars, but all in all Ridgewood is a place where people feel safe. We're not so naive that
we don't lock our doors, but most of us don't worry about getting mugged or having our cars vandalized. It's a haven
away from the mean streets of New York, and we want to keep it that way.
Given the day that I'd had at work, that black spray paint on my exit sign foretold nothing but doom and gloom. It seemed
to be saying: In no time flat, your nice little suburb will be swimming with graffiti. When that happens, you might
as well move back to New York.