An Englishman in New Jersey: Part Two

New Yorkers think of New Jersey as their outside toilet, especially if, like the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, they came from there originally.

Actually, New Jersey is my favourite state, but it takes a bit of getting used to. How did my thoroughly English husband manage his week-long venture into the unknown?

NJ causeway

He couldn’t get what the natives were saying. We had just passed through the toll on the turnpike where I was relieved of about three bucks. “What’s that she said?” he wanted to know.

“She asked me how I was today, and whether we were from England.”

He rested his head back and closed his eyes. It was too puzzling. A little lady who sits sweating all day in a tiny metal booth gives enough of a shit to ask you how you are and whether you’re from England? 

“Welcome to New Jersey,” I said.

By en:User:Mr._Matté [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We’d packed way too much stuff.  All we needed for the week was Bermuda shorts and flip flops. And swimsuits, obviously, because between the beach and the pool, we practically lived in them.

One afternoon, two guys were splashing about in the motel pool, alternately hugging and trying to drown each other. I was worried. “He trying to kill you?” I called out.

He surfaced to reply, “Nah. He ain’t gonna hurt me. We’re brothers.”

If you’ve ever heard of Cain and Abel, that’s no consolation.

My husband remarked later, “They didn’t look much like brothers.”

“Perhaps one of them’s adopted,” I suggested.

Just when you think you’ve got the hang of the language, someone breaks into Spanish.

Yep, Spanish is an American language too. However, a sign saying PISO MOJADO is neither an instruction to empty your bladder, nor an explanation of how the floor got wet.

It’s obligatory to visit the legend that is Conte’s Pizza

inside Conte's Pizza, Witherspoon St, Princeton NJ

It has the longest bar in Princeton and ranks as one of the top 33 pizzerias in the nation.  I always have everything on my pizza. Saves a lot of hassle trying to decide.

Also I stop by the drug store on the way there. Saves a lot of hassle later.

Tums assorted berries

Jet lag gets worse with age. Even the modest time difference of five hours left us dazed, drowsy, disorientated, and puffy from fluid retention.

Luckily you can buy melatonin pills at CVS or Rite-Aid at the same time as Tums. Do they work? I have no idea. Some people swear that drinking urine is just as good. Tell you the truth, I had no idea we were that confused.

You may see flashing lights in front of your eyes.

I swear they weren’t there in Norfolk. That’s because they’re fireflies.

You need a permit like this to go onto the beach.

Barnegat Light beach badge 2015

And then you have to show it when asked.

The same goes for your driver’s license. None of this English namby-pamby seven days to produce your documents. Which makes it just like the beach badge, only you can’t get out of trouble by paying five dollars to the Highway Patrolman.

NJ is a highly dangerous place.

We took our lives into our hands and set out for a walk by the Delaware and Raritan canal, though not its whole length as I couldn’t manage 70 miles. We certainly needed the big stick my husband had brought along to protect us. There were nettles galore, even the odd dandelion. Couple of people cycled past and said Hi. A bit further on, a family of turtles sunned themselves on a log. It was bloody terrifying.

old tree by Delaware and Raritan Canal, NJ

Restaurants are family joints. Although it’s probably best not to ask on arrival, as my son once did, “Is this the restaurant owned by the Mafia?”

Here’s what we found parked outside one of them. We had to wait for our table, so we hung around watching people leave. 

Corvette Stingray

The trashy trophies on the sugar daddies’ arms. The Mercs and the Stingrays. The guy putting the hood up on his convertible before driving off, so the wind doesn’t blow his toupee off. The scene could have come straight out of The Sopranos.

Yep, all the stereotypes about NJ are true, and then some. But I would say that. You won’t hear a thing from me about the art, culture, or history because I don’t want the world discovering how good it is.  

 

An Englishman in New Jersey

It always irks me to hear Newark’s Liberty Airport described as being one of New York’s airports.  New Jersey, as any fule kno, is not New York. True, it’s only a short train ride to Penn Station. But it’s equally just a short ride to the heart of the most underrated state of them all.

Rand McNally map NJ

The chemical stench that hits you on the New Jersey Turnpike is enough to put most people off, but I know different. It’s my favourite state.

Admittedly the favourite bit doesn’t begin till some hours after landing. It also relies on my taking the right route onto the NJ Turnpike first time, not ending up in Elizabeth, NJ, where I always have to do a U-turn at the Gulf station. The petrol pump attendant – there’s no self-service gas in the state – is used to me now. “You again, eh? Have a nice day.” But after that you need to step on it. If you hang around in Elizabeth, you get offered crack.

A Christmas pudding can delay all this, as it did when I last brought one in my carry-on. Americans don’t have Christmas puddings, so I was bringing one over for a friend. On arrival, the screening contraption did not like it one bit. Two Homeland Security officers approached. “Ma’am, is this your bag?” They gave me a stern look. Actually I don’t know if they do other kinds of look.

“Yes, it is. And I know what the problem is,” I said, reaching towards the bag to extract the pudding.

“Step away from the bag!” one of them bellowed.

Sainsbury's Christmas pudding

“But it’s only a Christmas pudding.” Idiotically I added, “Here, I’ll show you.”

“Ma’am! Step away from the bag!  I’m not sayin’ it again.”  Her partner reached for his holster.

I got the message. They didn’t want me to blow up the pudding. And I didn’t want a bullet through my chest.

As carefully if it were a landmine, the two officers extracted it from my carry-on.

I finally got a chance to explain.

They were sceptical. “You mean you all eat this in England?”

I confirmed that we did, every Christmas day, though we generally got it out of the plastic first. 

They said it was mighty heavy, ma’am. Yes, I agreed. Indigestion was usual, especially when you’ve already stuffed yourself on the main course.

They let both pudding and me through, all the while shaking their heads and averring that you learn something new every day, ma’am. Ain’t that the truth?

wedding day 2013

This year I brought no pudding, but I did take my husband.  It was high summer, and the flight was full of Camp America kids, except for the seat the other side of us, where there was a walrus, snoring and taking up two arm rests.  

Welcome to the United States of America, they say at Liberty Airport. We had ample time to savour the warmth of the welcome during an hour and a half waiting in line to exhibit our passports, in a hall without air con.  

What did my very English husband find most disorientating in New Jersey?

1 The language.  As half my family is American, conversations with them were a challenge.  Americans do use many of the same words as the English. But then they do and pronounce them all wrong and use them to mean different things. ‘Chips,’ for instance, are not fries. They are crisps. And ‘being sick’ only means you’re ill.

Most puzzling of all, ‘breaking up’ has nothing to do with the end of term. This may explain why, when OH asked if they’d broken up, my 15-year old niece flushed bright red, and said Mommy didn’t even know she had a boyfriend.

2 Then there was the food.

He’d never had grits before. They tasted, he discovered, a bit like semolina.

Smuckers strawberry jam

You can use Smuckers preserve or maple syrup to make ‘em sweet.

Old Barney's Hot Sauce

Or you can smother them in Old Barney’s Hot Sauce if you like your tongue on fire.

A short stack is just two pancakes. But they make them pretty big at Mustache Bill’s Diner.

Mustache Bill's diner, Barnegat Light

Either you take them back in a box if you don’t eat them all. Or, if you do, you go back in a box.

So taken were we with Mustache Bill’s that we queued up (translation: waited in line) for up to an hour to get in. And the OH was desperate to emulate him.

seaweed to look like a moustache

3 The beaches, contrary to popular belief, are not covered in medical waste.

Though there may be sharks. Nobody’s been killed by a shark here for nearly 100 years, but they’re around, or rather one in particular is.

FreeImages.com/ChatrinORockerz

Mary Lee is a thoroughly modern shark with her own Twitter account @MaryLeeShark and over 87k followers. We think she’s pregnant. Hard to tell as she’s a tubby lady, weighing in at over 4 tons, hence, people say, a real Jersey girl. She’s been tagged by OCEARCH so we know she gets around. The East Coast is Mary Lee’s usual hunting ground, though she has been as far afield as Bermuda. Well, a gal needs a decent holiday now and again. 

Did we encounter any sharks? Did The Mob get us by the canal? And was my husband brave enough to uncork the hot sauce? Find out in my next post.

Easy tweet: NJ is underrated, as @D‘s partner discovers An Englishman in New Jersey

Why I write

One Night at the Jacaranda

First cover of my novel

Not being George Orwell, I can only tell you why I wrote this book.

Every writer wants to produce the kind of thing they love to read themselves. I’ve read a lot of great authors, so I had in mind a contemporary novel with flawed characters, dialogue that rings true, a sense of place, and a terrific story-line to pull it all together.

That may well be how I wrote it, but it’s not why.

It began on a plane as my eldest son and I headed for Princeton and my father’s funeral.  The 7-hour journey to Newark gave us plenty of time to talk.

Most families are complicated.  My father moved out when I was about four.  Although my earliest memories go back to my second birthday, all I remembered of my Daddy was trailing around my mother in the too-large flat and asking where he was. “Heliopolis” she said.

Just recently I looked through an ancient photo album.  It was a jolt to see evidence of the three of us together, Mum and Dad and myself as a young child.

For years after he left, we had little to do with each other.  It was my grandfather I called Papa.

Then came occasional awkward meetings in Philadelphia or Washington, DC.   The most awkward was an outing to buy a Barbie doll, during which my knicker elastic snapped.

But I was lucky as a teenager and then an adult, because we gradually grew closer despite living on different continents most of the time.  Recently we were seeing each other once or twice a year.  I’d often go over with my children to spend some time in New Jersey with Dad and the wonderful American woman he’d married when I was about 9 (‘stepmother’ is too Grimm a word).

On flight CO19 Julian and I reminisced.  Dad was the archetypal Brit in the USA. Despite having settled there decades before, he was still sustained by Tommy Cooper videos and Harrogate toffees that played havoc with his dentures.

His death was hardly premature, but his last years had been tough, with serious lung disease, spinal stenosis, and a heart attack that made his heart stop twice.

Julian and I talked about the little oxygen cylinder that came with him everywhere.  His reluctance to use a disabled badge.  His marvel at the benefits of knee exercises (most of my patients hardly bother with them, but Dad was meticulous about his quads regime).  His impatience with politics both sides of the Atlantic, yet his infinite patience in his volunteer work for Centurion Ministries, which absorbed him after he retired from decades in life insurance.

At some point Julian slept and I got a gin and tonic.  That’s when I started jotting things down on the napkin.  Then I asked for another napkin.  Julian stirred and wanted to know what I was writing. “Notes for an article” I said, unsure what I had in mind.

The notes developed into a plot about a motley group of singletons (there’s more on the Books page). They are all, not surprisingly, trying to find someone special.  I know I was.

I scribbled some more, and a novel developed.   The story has nothing to do with my father. Except for this one thing: he’d always wanted to be a writer.  When he read my first (non-fiction) book, he never said he was proud of me, but he did say it was a bit like something he’d once written.

Is One Night at the Jacaranda the kind of book he’d have wanted me to write? Absolutely not.  I think he’d choke on a toffee if he read it.

dad and IPS For the curious, Centurion Ministries is an investigative agency with no religious affiliation. Its mission is to free from prison those innocent individuals who had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the crimes for which they were convicted and sentenced to either life or death.