Being a Jersey girl in the early 60’s meant that you were savvy, pretty and street smart. My oldest brother hung around with car monkeys who, bent under the hoods of a pair of Mini-Coopers in my parents’ garage, puzzled to turn two beat up cars into one running one. With cigarettes hanging off the side of their mouths, they cannibalized the engines to life fueled on beer and testosterone. Town greasers flocked to the local soda fountain across the street from the Corner Cupboard where I waitressed after school. I would watch them as I stole a smoke during my break, and they would come and go like peacocks up and down the wooden steps, hoods with slicked back hair as they strut their stuff in tight jeans and leather jackets. The hippie movement was afoot and murmured its peace-and-love talk under the radar of the social storm about combust with activism for civil rights in the south and dissenters marching against the Vietnam war on the television news nationwide. Even though I’d left school in a plaid uniform while the public schools girls wore whatever they liked under teased hair and strong makeup, there was a universal default we shared as young women in the metropolitan New York City area. We were Jersey girls.
Looking back now, I’m glad that I came of age there. Coming out of a shy adolescence in New Jersey, I found ways to explore courage, independence and vast variations on the human theme as a budding songwriter. At fifteen, I would act on a dare to myself, skip school and take the shortcut through the woods behind our house to the train station. When the train came in I would hop on a coach to the Port Authority, and take the subway to the West Village where I would walk to Washington Square. After checking out whatever musicians might be busking at the time, I’d beeline from there to the Chock Full O Nuts a few blocks away to buy a cup of coffee and a glazed donut. Then I would perch soundly on a round chrome and vinyl stool to write poetry in my journal and look up to watch the tide of passersby through the safety glass of the window. Once done, I would retrace my steps back to the train and home, composition book underarm filled with insights from of my fresh adventure tightly rhymed within its pages. In my large family, the thrum of my unrevealed journey to the city and back resonated exotically inside, oblivious in the noisy din of family life at home. These dips in the world from the safety of the bedroom community exhilarated my teenaged sensibility and became my prompts to bigger steps as I grew closer to my emancipation from the nest.
Fifty years later, the familiarity of the streets of New York reminds me of those early days. I fly in from the Pacific Northwest, where I’ve resided for the last thirty-seven years, and walk in the Upper West Side from my in-law’s apartment on West 79th to take the subway with my husband to Brooklyn and visit relatives ensconced there. Manhattan is filled with the same charge that excited me all those years ago as a Jersey girl in Gotham. The feeling, the smells, the crush of people in the subway, the rush hour on the streets and sidewalks – it’s all still there in its daily improv with the elements and a cast of millions. The dynamics of just being there in the thick of it are breathtaking.
After blurting out the news of my pregnancy to my mother at eighteen years old, I walked into my bedroom teary-eyed and red-faced looking to escape. My younger sister Mary and her friend, Ruthie, a romantic poet of fifteen, were prone on the floor in the depths of swapping journal entries, dreams and Ouija board speculations. I told my sister I had something important to tell her. From the distressed look on my face, Ruthie picked up her diary and said she’d be downstairs in the kitchen. I told my sister what was going on. Mary would be one of the only siblings to know the truth. We told each other everything and this was no exception.
Fifty years later, this comes back to me as I ponder all of us Jersey girls. Ruth has remained friends with my sister and visited with us during family gatherings over the past few years. She is a seasoned editor and writing coach in Massachusetts and has been a strong advocate of Kathleen~Cathleen since its inception and has cheered us to finish over these ten years. This year she joined us and became our new editor for the project. We three aim to bring the manuscript to completion by the end of this summer.
I am struck by synchronicity once again as the story continues, not only from its history but in the living story today. We all live in other places now but we are telling the tale from the root and branches we stem from – as Jersey girls.
To read my daughter’s counterblog, visit ReunionEyes.