The snow came down hard the weekend before my trip to Aruba. “The fourth worst snowstorm in the Tri-State History” proclaimed the news anchors. I wasn’t around for the three previous ones. I spent the snowstorm of 1996, the infamous nor’easter that laid flat the Mid-Atlantic sprawl from Alexandria to Nashua, in Boston. It was the spring break of my sophomore year, and I had decided to spend it alone in the city. Wandering the trenches that the city public works department or the campus facilities crews had dug, I felt as though I was seeing, in some small part, what the siege of Stalingrad must have been like.
This year’s blizzard, another nor’easter, albeit with a very wide swath, gave me the opportunity to spend some quality time with my parents. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. I was trapped at home for two days. Like it or not, an expanse of time had been opened up before me. King’s X, the weather declared, your date book is now cleared.
The prospects seemed daunting.
The adage that distance makes the heart grow fonder is true in my family, at least for me. I love my family. I just don’t like the idea of being with them on a constant basis for more than twelve hours. Shoveling snow on Sunday, I found myself reverting back to old behaviors, old habits, in dealing with my father.
“Are you going to come out and shovel with me?” I asked him on Sunday night.
“Now?” he asked.
“No, Dad, next Thursday at three in the afternoon. I just want to put it in my handheld now.”
He didn’t come out to shovel that night. I cleared the front walk, grumbling to myself about how I would probably get harassed later this week with his traditional complaint that I never do anything to help him out (he did, in fact, make that complaint). I never really thought about the fact that I was obnoxious for snapping at him as I did. No, doubt and self-criticism never comes quickly, at least for me. The injury has to be sufficiently irreparable for me to realize my fault.
By Monday morning, another two feet of snow had fallen. I woke up late and shuffled downstairs. Bedhead giving me a lopsided, somewhat stoned look, I stood in the kitchen, blankly staring out at the snowfield behind my house. I could hear my father starting up the snow blower in the garage. Shit. I thought. I’m going to have to go out and do this again.
It took us four hours to finish shoveling that day. Afterwards, I went upstairs to read William Gibson’s latest novel, Pattern Recognition. My father stayed downstairs, watching ESPN. In the kitchen, my mother contentedly worked on baking. It was all terribly domestic, in every sense of the adjective.
Domesticity has its way of coming to a close, and the evening’s events demanded my departure from the home. I came downstairs after finishing the novel, and watched as my father repeatedly pressed random buttons on the home theater I had built for him.
“It doesn’t work,” he said.
“What, the Dolby? I told you, we needed more speakers for tha-“
“No,” he said, “not that.”
“No, the satellite. It doesn’t work.”
“Let me see what I can do with it.”
My father stopped pushing random buttons. I noted, with some amusement, that the whole time he was fiddling with the home theater system, he had been adjusting the stereo sound from Dolby 5.1, to THX surround sound, to two-speaker sound, and then back to Dolby 5.1. Not once had he recognized that he was ignoring the satellite component.
I turned on the dish, and watched as the screen indicated that it was searching for a signal.
“Did you do anything to it?”
“No,” he said.
I reset the satellite receiver, and went upstairs to check the separate one I had set up there. The upstairs dish worked. I walked back down to the downstairs system. My father was now pressing random buttons on the satellite dish’s remote control, shifting from menu to menu.
“Hey, hey, hey, hey… don’t do that. In fact, don’t do anything just yet. Let me see if I can figure this out,” I said.
He nodded, and went upstairs.
I began to adjust the calibration of the receiver, making sure that it was directed at the proper line of sight, that it was capable of storing information, and that the connections from the dish to the receiver were in order. As I finished up with the final task, the television’s screen switched from the traditional menu to a second of static and then a blinking error message.
No signal. No signal. No signal.
My father came downstairs.
“I adjusted the dish. Is it any better?” he asked.
I looked at him for a second, my mind blank.
“Um… you didn’t happen to keep it on the same declination, did you?” I asked.
“The same what?”
It’s okay, I thought. There’s nothing you can do. Without the satellite dish pointed in the right direction, it would not receive signals from whatever EchoStar satellite beamed information down to us. He means well.
“Okay well it’s broken broken. As in, it can’t be fixed by us.”
My father looked at the television somberly, as if it were a fallen comrade.
“If you call the DishTV people, they’ll figure it out for you. Someone will probably have to come over, though.” I said. It offered him slim consolation.
He found the ray of light amidst these clouds soon enough, though.
Eagerly, he walked over to his collection of videocassettes and thumbed through them, carefully selecting a tape.
“We can still watch tapes, can’t we?” he asked.
“Well, I’ve got a great one here,” he said as he turned on the old videocassette recorder he kept.
I sat on the arm of the love seat, an old habit my mother hated. The screen was full of static for a second, but then suddenly a basketball game appeared.
“What is this?”
“1999. BC versus U Conn,” my father answered as he settled down into his seat on the couch.
“You tape old basketball games?”
“I tape every sporting event I watch.”
I thought this over for a second.
“Wait a minute, weren’t you at this game?” I asked.
“Yep. Maybe we’ll see me.”
I pondered the post-modernism of that statement for a second before shaking my head as I snapped out of it.
“Wait. You tape games that you’re at?”
“Yep.” My father looked at me like I had asked him with incredulity about the fact that he tied his shoes.
“But you’re there?”
“Yeah,” he answered, blinking, “but I like to relive the games.”
It was time for me to go. Instead of replying, I went upstairs, bundled up in my down jacket, the one friends jokingly referred to as my “gangsta’” jacket, and threw on a cap, a pair of driving gloves, and grabbed my camera bag. I moved quickly. I was frantic.
“I’m going into town,” I told my father. He nodded absently.
Driving into town, I watched as the last gasps of the nor’easter came down. Broad, airy flakes tumbled down on the roads, still thick with snow and ice. As I drove, I pulled out my cell phone and began dialing the number of a pub at which a friend of mine tended bar.
“Dublin House,” he answered.
“Tell me you’re open!” I shrieked.
“Yeah, yeah,” he laughed.
Thank God. I closed the cell phone, flipped it onto the passenger seat, and slowly continued driving. The snow has a way of giving a place, once familiar, a new and alien look. I decided to take some photographs, to capture that effect.
I stopped in front of the local pharmacy so I could take a few pictures of the snow for a friend that lived down south. The pharmacy, one I've never entered, is a relic from the fifties. Its neon sign is a reminder, to aficionados of the era, such as myself, of a day when men wore hats and when automobile design required fins, not because of aerodynamics, but rather because… god damn it, a car needed fins! I took a few shots of the building, focusing on the neon as a few illegals pedaled by me on their bicycles. In my town, many of the restaurants, bars, and shops are cleaned by illegal immigrants from Mexico. Without citizenship, they have no way of obtaining drivers' licenses, and so there is a contingent of young men that ride around the town on old Schwinns or Huffy BMX bicycles. To most, the illegals seem to quietly fade into the background. I like them, and, although I dislike the idea of illegal immigration, I admire their work ethic. Life is hard for them, yet I've never seen seek out pity as he busses a table or does yard work. It's a tough life they lead in that shadow between legitimate society and the underworld. In my mind, though, I envision that one generation lives that life to advance the lives of the next generation. That makes the endeavor worthwhile.
Down the street, after I had finished taking photographs of the pharmacy, police cars blocked off the central square on Broad Street. Behind them, front-end loaders and tractor trailer rigs engaged in snow removal in front of the upscale boutiques and the cigar bar, Ashes. It used to be that these boutiques and somewhat self-important bars and restaurants were unheard of in Red Bank. Twenty years ago, business leaders and politicians jokingly referred to the town as "Dead Bank." Growth had been stifled for nearly a decade. Most of the major stores - Bloomingdale's Department Store, F.W. Woolworth's, and the like - had left the town. All that remained were a few local stores. Prown's, one of the last true general stores on the East Coast, remained in its sturdy red brick building, selling lawn chairs, screen doors, model trains, candy, and anything else that caught one's fancy. In the summertime, they would bring out a wooden barrel, in which they would deposit countless American flags. Flapping in the light breeze that comes off the Navesink River, cooling the city, the flags always caught my eye as a child. A few doors down from Prown's was Carroll's Stationery. Carroll's was another old time store, one of the few places where one could order custom paper - truly custom paper, where one could pick out the hue of the sheet, its texture, and even if there should be flecks of another color infused into the paper. There, my mother bought me my own set of writing stationery when I went through the Sacrament of Confirmation. It was a full set, with paper sizes that were last widely used during the late Nineteenth Century, in the high culture of Wharton or Cabot Lodge. Carroll's left years ago, after its owners (the great-grandchild of the original owners and his wife, elegant, quiet people who always smelt of the talc used to keep moisture from the paper goods) died in a car accident. Their son, just seventeen, sold the store for a hefty sum. Now, the Carroll's lot has been given over to a store that sells upscale furniture, and, in a unique combination, also offers Spanish tapas and Brazilian rodizio. I haven't gone in since the stationer left. I still have a few sheets left of the paper my mother purchased at Carroll's, a deep, rich brown with neat lines impressed upon its surface, my initials in black embossed in an architect's font on the top.
The snow removal was going slowly. Most of the cops and road crew workers eyed me suspiciously as I trudged through the snow banks alongside them. I still wore my suit and overcoat from work, although my tie hung loosely a few inches beneath my throat.
Throughout the eighties, Red Bank languished. Economically, the city seemed slowly destined to follow Asbury Park or Flint, and slowly become a necrotic reflection of itself. By the mid-nineties, however, Red Bank had made a complete turnaround, widely considered a model community within New Jersey. Its revival was so remarkable that urban planners studied the town. My doctoral dissertation was on Red Bank, making economic comparisons between it and Jersey City.
The prime mover behind the growth and development of Red Bank was not the deus ex machina of the American economy, which lifted most of the nation into a higher financial state, but rather a small group of local business owners. These business owners, some who had stayed in the town through the lean eighties, others who had just arrived, eager to leave Wall Street for a shot at being a small town entrepreneur, created a private foundation called RiverCenter to improve the commercial state of the town. When Red Bank passed an ordinance, authorized under New Jersey law, that declared a large swath of the town to be a "Business Improvement District," the RiverCenter was authorized to take away zoning and variance authority from the town, and control the development in that region.
Improvement was quick and significant. The Business Improvement District ("BID") took a page from the school of architecture and urban planning known as New Urbanism, a revisiting of classical, early 20th Century notions regarding space and zoning made most famous by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Duany and Plater-Zyberk, founders of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., Architects and Town Planners, are most well known for designing Seaside, Florida (where The Truman Show was filmed) and Kentlands, Maryland. Their design is decidedly a return to late 19th and early 20th century architecture. One almost expects the cast of Our Town or The Music Man to appear while strolling the streets of any of their developments.
I walked away from the snow removal site after taking a few photographs. Slipping as I trudged through the snow in my wingtips, I made my way down a side street, past the back entrance to Jack's, a local record shop that occupies a Victorian-era brownstone. The shop, one of the few independent record shops in the area, has a varied clientele - patchouli-scented members of the local surfing and skateboarding cliques mingle with investment bankers and local celebrities (it was here that both Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen debuted their latest albums). I like the place, but sometimes the clerks remind me a little too much of High Fidelity.
Duany Plater-Zyberk's towns are quaint. They have charm. Red Bank, however, took a different, more individualistic course when it grew. Rather than become quaint, it became lively. New restaurants, three of which stole chefs from Manhattan, sprung up in the region (The Olde Union House, the Pastaria, and the Red Bank Bistro). Nightclubs, one specializing in funk and jazz, another in punk rock and heavy metal, and others that follow the traditional acoustic pub routine, developed, and with them came a devoted group of barflies. I, myself, settled here, at the Dublin House.
At the bar, my friends and I cracked jokes about escaping our homes. Hugh, my closest friend in Red Bank, found me as I tried to park the Sable in the lot behind the Dublin House. My car fishtailed and slid across the lot as I tried to force the car into the proper position for a space. Laughingly, he helped me push the car into a spot.
“What the hell were you doing out there?” he asked, “You can barely drive in this weather.”
“It was an emergency – or at least that’s what I was going to tell the cops.”
The police were, officially, at least, enforcing a ban on non-emergency traffic.
“Yeah, what,” Hugh asked, was that emergency? You were getting the DTs?”
“No. I was preventing a double homicide,” I answered.
I explained to Hugh how my father had destroyed our satellite system and he chuckled. He explained to me that he had been trapped at his ex-fiancée’s house for the duration of the snowstorm. After a few hours of unwinding, releasing tension after our brief travails, we went our separate ways.
I trudged down through the snow to the Broadway Diner, the local sobriety station for the town. Popping in through the brushed aluminum and glass doors, I passed the Greek owner who sat quietly at the cashier’s station, counting money. He waived at me without looking up. Snow plow drivers and third shift cops and nurses sat at the counter in front of the coffee urns that seemed to have been lifted from the USS Alabama and row after row of pound cakes, danishes, bear claws, and Italian cookies.
“Hey, Nancy,” I said to one of the waitresses, a friendly woman who had been working at the diner since I was in high school.
“Hey, babe,” she answered, the wrinkles around her eyes creasing deeply as she smiled.
“Can I get a coffee regular to go, equal instead of sugar?”
She gave me a “sure thing, hon” and took care of the coffee.
The diner, the pub, and the very streets of Red Bank had, over the years, become a focal point in my life. It was a place to which I felt a deep connection, as though the town was a part of my family. Walking out of the diner, back to a car that I would nearly launch off the road on the way back home, I was content to be, quietly, a part of the town.