Garden State

As much as I loved the hustle and bustle of life in New York City, it can be overwhelming, to say the least. After the weekend that was my 22nd birthday celebrations, all I felt like doing was curling up on the couch for a few days and recovering. Mischa, Jesse and Georgia had all had to head home soon after the weekend was over, so it was back to normal life for the rest of us – well, whatever normal happened to be for me, at the time. However, instead of hiding from the city and feeling sorry for myself, Melissa and I had an interstate excursion planned. She had come bounding in from the other room like an overexcited puppy when she’d got the phone call before the weekend.
“My mom wants to make us her special spaghetti and meatballs! We’re gonna go out to my home in New Jersey, and we can spend a couple of days there, if you like.” I was always keen to check out other less frequented parts of the country and, let’s face it, I couldn’t let me only impression of New Jersey be the nightmare that was returning home from Six Flags.
“Wow, Laura is gonna make her spaghetti and meatballs for you?” Stefon seemed genuinely impressed, maybe even a little jealous. “You should feel special  – they’re kind of a big deal.” Unfortunately Stefon wasn’t able to join us for the trip, so I promised him I’d have a plate in his honour. Laura, Melissa’s mom, picked us up one evening to drive us back to New Jersey, asking questions all about the birthday weekend, as well as all the other travels I’d been doing prior to New York. She was just like Melissa in that she was so generous and kind-hearted, and I watched the the New York skyline glitter in the distance and eventually fade, happy to be surrounded by such beautiful souls.

***

I actually really enjoyed my time in New Jersey. I try to not say that with a tone of surprise, but I guess the pop culture references had planted me with a few doubts. But for every movie that I’ve seen that was set in the busy streets of New York City, I’ve also seen one set in the all-American suburbs. I don’t want to lump the suburbs of every state into one blanket stereotype, because I know how much the US can vary from region to region, so I guess the way I would describe the Marlboro Township of New Jersey is ‘cozy’. The streets were wide, yet still neat and trim, and there was a lot of trees and greenery – probably why they call it the Garden State – that made it all seem so homely. It was late by the time we made it to Laura’s place, so after a quick tour of the family home we hit they hay. The following morning, we went for a drive to with Laura to pick up Melissa’s friend Asha before driving to the state border with Pennsylvania to visit a flea market. We browsed the markets for a while, and I bought a pair of sunglasses to replace the ones Kathi had given me in Vienna, which were literally falling apart by now. Laura insisted that they were a gift from here, forcing me to put my wallet away, and afterwards we drove back over the border for her to treat us to lunch in a quite, leafy little area. I don’t remember the names of many of these places – I just let the locals take me wherever they thought was best.

I also experienced a couple of things that felt like a huge culture shock to me, but were completely normal for all of my American companions. For Laura to make her famous spaghetti and meatballs, we had to visit a grocery store. Not like the ones in New York though, which had an extraordinary range crammed into an unbelievably small space. The supermarket we went to was huge – it even had its own free wifi network. And the selection of brands within certain types of products was simply staggering. Potato chips? There had to be at least 20 different brands, all with their full range of flavours. Chocolate bars? They basically had their own entire aisle just to cater for the range of selections. I found it completely overwhelming. The other thing I found peculiar that was apparently common in these parts was drive-thru anything and everything. I hadn’t seen it as much in New York, probably because hardly anyone owns their own car in the big city, but out here it seemed to be a very standard thing. We have drive-thru establishments in Australia, but they’re usually limited to fast food restaurants, and the occasional movie theatre. But on our drive back home to New York, Laura told us she had to stop at the bank. I was expecting her to have to park somewhere and visit a branch, but instead we turned off the road an into a driveway. Yep, there was a drive-thru bank. Your money gets delivered to your car window in a little express tube. It was like Laura was a secret agent or something. There might be Americans reading this thinking, “Yeah… and? What’s the big deal?” That, my friends, doesn’t not happen in Australia. Or anywhere else in the world, as far as I have seen.

I was even impressed – or surprised, at the very least – by a drive-thru Starbucks. I mean, I guess it makes sense, but I’ve seen a lot of Starbucks all over the world (thank God for free wifi) and that one in New Jersey was the first I’d ever seen with a drive-thru lane. Melissa and Asha found my sense of wonder amusing, though I had to refrain from making the critique that this whole obsession was drive-thru’s was actually incredibly lazy – mainly because it really was just so damn convenient.

***

In the way of tourism, there wasn’t a lot to see in New Jersey. No museums, no iconic landmarks, nothing like that. The state itself is the butt of more How I Met Your Mother jokes than I can keep track of, and I guess in a way it sort of lives up to that reputation. It’s peaceful, clean, relaxing – everything that New York isn’t. But I still thoroughly enjoyed my brief visit to the Garden State, not only because I spent it with such fantastic company, but because I got to see a part of the country that isn’t really on every tourists to-do list. I’m always saying that I like to live and experience places the way that the locals do, and when you visit places like the suburbs of New Jersey, you don’t really have any other choice. I saw a very different corner of the world, one that I think a lot of people are too quick to brush over when doing a tour of the US. Of course, not everyone has as much time to go off the beaten track as I did, but if you do – and you know some locals who will show you around – I would definitely recommend to any travellers to go beyond what you think you know from the corny American high school movies, and actually experience that setting for yourself. I returned to New York with Melissa feeling refreshed from my stay in the suburbs, and with a tonne of leftovers of what was potentially the best spaghetti and meatballs ever made.

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Roller Coaster: a trip to New Jersey and back

As well as getting to know my new American friends, being in New York also gave me the chance to catch up with some other dearly beloved old friends. Mischa was another American whom I had befriended during his exchange semester at university in Sydney. His speciality was mathematics, but the flexibility of his units whilst on exchange meant that he was able to take some subjects that weren’t usually offered in his discipline, and so we met in the tutorial for one of my Gender Studies units. He was also gay, and we hit it off right away and ended up hanging out quite a lot, and he became part of my regular circle of friends in Sydney. He was originally from Baltimore, but was now living in Connecticut, so as soon as he had a free weekend he jumped on a train down to New York to meet up with me. He is the sweetest little guy, and I was so happy I got to catch up with him – he met Melissa in Sydney too, so he stayed with us in the studio apartment that weekend, despite it still being full of the previous owners’ things.

Mischa and I went out for some drinks with some of his friends who live in New York (an evening which I’ll detail more in a later blog), the result of which we woke up at 7am on Saturday morning to drag ourselves to Port Authority Bus Terminal. Mischa’s friend Walter was going to the Six Flags in New Jersey for an event called ‘Out In The Park’: basically the theme park chain hosts an event where queers take over for the day and night. Walter was going with his friend Neil – who we met on Friday night – along with Neil’s friends Gabriel and Tim. Neil had convinced us to come along, so even though I was pretty hungover that morning, Mischa and I bid farewell to Melissa, still half asleep as we crept out the door, and headed across town to catch the bus that would be taking us to the neighbouring state. We greeted Walter and Neil, who looked equally as hungover, we were introduced to Tim and Gabriel – who turned out to be a couple – and there was a frantic rush to get our tickets, make our way through the terminal and get onto the bus or we would be waiting another hour for the next direct one. Slowly, we began to perk up, and after emerging from the first tunnels I was able to get a glimpse of Manhattan from the other side, from the second state I had been to since arriving in the USA on this trip.

Manhattan disappearing into the distance.

Manhattan disappearing into the distance.

It was a bus ride that shouldn’t have taken any more than two hours on a good day. Unfortunately for us, today was not a good day. There was traffic – my God, there was traffic. The bus came to a standstill at one point for almost 45 minutes. I’m not sure what was happening, because there didn’t appear to be any accidents or roadworks or anything… the cars just seemed to be going nowhere fast. “Oh my God! What is taking so long?” Neil said, peering down the aisle to catch a glimpse of the road out of the buses windscreen. “I have to pee so badly!” We’d consumed a lot of Gatorade and Red Bull to combat the early morning hangovers. We passed the time by chatting, getting to know my new friends, and taking the odd selfie here and there.

Walter, Mischa and I on the bus to Six Flags (filter courtesy of Walters Instagram)

Walter, Mischa and I on the bus to Six Flags (filter courtesy of Walters Instagram)

***

When we eventually arrived at Six Flags it was well after midday. One of the first things we did when we arrived, after buying our tickets and getting given our ‘Out In The Park’ event wristbands, was locate the nearest refreshment venue and order some food and some beers. I’m not really a fan of American beers, I discovered, but I drank them anyway because there really wasn’t much other option that day. We didn’t overdo it though, because we had a day of roller coasters and rides ahead of us. Now, for those of you who don’t know, I’m a screamer. Whether it’s scary movies, theme park rides, or just loud noises when I’m sitting in traffic, I am easily startled and I vocalise it loudly. Even for a theme park, where basically everyone screams to some extent, I think I earned myself a handful of strange looks from fellow riders. There were Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, and a bunch of other comic book superhero themed rides, there were rickety old wooden ones (at least, they seemed rickety – I really hope they were actually stable), there were sleek futuristic ones and there were the slower, more sensible rides for when your head, or your stomach, needed a break. I went on everything – as much as I scream, I love the rides themselves, and am never put off by any amount of twists or turns or loops. The slower ones, however, were good because they gave you a chance to use your phone mid-ride. One ride that was designed like a parachute descent allowed a brief moment of standstill in which I was able to take a few ariel shots of the surrounding park.

View of one of the huge, wooden roller coasters.

View of one of the huge, wooden roller coasters.

Six Flags: New Jersey at sunset.

Six Flags: New Jersey at sunset.

As the day grew later, we started to see more and more people with the same wristbands as us, meaning they were also here for Out In The Park. The event ran past the usual closing time of the park and well into the evening, which meant that for a couple of the rides we decided to forego the wait in the long lines and return later, when all of the regular visitors of the park were required to go home. The plan worked, and we managed to ride pretty much every major roller coaster, but if we hadn’t had the extended event passes I doubt we would have been able to see it all in time. When day well and truly became night, the park became a party in a huge outdoor area, almost like a mini-festival. There were crowds of people dancing to the music that was being pumped from the temporarily set up stages, and while the whole thing looked like it would have been a lot of fun, we were all just so exhausted from the day we’d just spent walking around in the hot sun and riding all the roller coasters. Neil was attempting to keep the spirit up, and most of us were still drinking our beers, but… in the end we decided it to call it a day. We still had a long way to go to get back to New York, and Tim even had to work the next day.

We exited out into the car park, and here is where the night started to get interesting… or frustrating, is probably a better adjective. As we were leaving, we had asked one of the women who worked at Six Flags where exactly to go to catch our bus, and what time it was coming. Seemed simple enough, so we exited and made our way to the stop. The parking space was comparatively empty to what it had been during the day, and there were a lot of buses at the far end. We inspected them, but they all appeared to be waiting for tour groups or something, or were otherwise pre-booked. So we waited where our bus was supposed to pick us up… and we waited… and we waited. Night had completely sunk in now, and while the September afternoon had been bright and sunny and warm, there was a chill in the evening that was inescapable, and I hadn’t even had the foresight to bring a jacket of any kind. As I was shivering there in my t-shirt and hugging Mischa for warmth, a guy approached our group and told us that there were no more buses coming to this stop.
“Over there is where the buses leave from this time of night,” he pointed past a fence to where there appeared to be some kind of security compound and back entrance. “You’ll be waiting until the morning, at least, if you stay here waiting for a bus. Trust me, I do this all the time.”
“We’re trying to get back to New York, though,” Gabriel told him. “This is where we were told to wait.
The man thought for a moment before continuing. “I don’t know about New York, but either way, there ain’t gonna be any buses coming through here. Over there you can get a bus to Freehold, probably back to New York from there.” We all looked at each other, not really sure of what to do. In the end we went with the stranger over to the security entrance, hoping that we might be able to speak to someone else who knew exactly what was going on.

I sat down in the gutter with Mischa, while some of the others went to talk to a security guard. The optimistic stranger who had started speaking to us before went down and sat on the bus stop seat. Then it started to lightly rain. I shivered some more.
“Oh my God, Robert, you’re freezing,” Gabriel said as he pulled off his hoodie and threw it over my shoulders. In a brief moment of pride I wanted to reject the offer, but I really was that cold, so I just pulled the hood close around my neck and thanked him.
“It’s okay, you were making me colder just by looking at your shiver. I’ll just steal Tim’s if I get cold,” he said with a laugh.
At that moment, Tim came over to us, accompanied by two girls who apparently worked at the park, who must also be trying to get home. “The security guard said there’s no more buses coming,” he said grimly.
“Well that’s just great,” Gabriel said. “Where are we supposed to get a cab out here? We aren’t even close to anything.”
Six Flags was located a fair distance from even the closest small town in New Jersey – too much of a distance to walk, and it wasn’t an area favoured by taxis. I had no knowledge of the area and know real way of finding anything out, so I felt pretty helpless. All I could do was just stick around and hope the others could negotiate some kind of solution. Gabriel went out to speak to some of the workers nearby, but came back shaking his head.

“I asked if there were was any kind of car service around here. He looked at me strangely and said “What, like a mechanic?” God, it’s like they don’t even speak English in New Jersey!” Despite the bleak situation, I had to laugh. In pretty much every TV show or film set in New York City, they talk about New Jersey like its the end of the Earth, or going there is like crossing over into Mordor or something. I used to laugh when the main character of Coyote Ugly “moves away” from New Jersey to New York: what is that, like, 40 minutes away? But sitting there holding my knees in the chilly air wondering how the hell we were going to get back to New York, I felt like maybe some of those shows weren’t exaggerating as much as I would have guessed.

***

We tried telling the optimistic stranger that there were no more buses coming, but he remained, characteristically, optimistic about the next buses imminent arrival. In the end one of the security guards somehow managed to get a hold of a contact who had cars that were willing to pick us up and drive us back to Freehold. There were six people in our party, plus the two workers and the optimist, who we basically had to drag into the car because we didn’t want him sitting there all night, but I think we all somehow managed to fit into the two cars. One of them might have been an SUV, I don’t remember. I don’t even know if they were legitimate cabs, but we weren’t exactly in a position to be fussy. I was freezing cold and exhausted – I wouldn’t make the mistake of underestimating a North American autumn again. The cars arrived at Freehold just in time for us to see the bus heading to New York to pull into the parking lot. We ran to the bus like our lives depended on it. It was pretty much empty, and it was taking the long route since it was the only service running at this time of the early morning, but the last stop was Port Authority Bus Terminal. We all found our own spaces among the seats, curled up, and slept as best we could, which was hardly at all.

It was almost a shock when we stepped out of the bus terminal and there were still people walking around everywhere at four in the morning, and lights were flashing all the way along Times Square. Of course, this is New York City on a Saturday night, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s just that the contrast between there and the parking lot in New Jersey could not have been any more different. At this point in my stay, Melissa hadn’t even managed to have a spare set of keys cut, and since we wasn’t replying to my messages I assumed she wouldn’t be awake to let Mischa and I in when we got home. We had to catch a taxi with Tim and Gabriel to the upper west side of Manhattan, where they generously agreed to let us crash for the remainder of the early morning.

All in all it had been a fun day. I had met some nice, funny and interesting people, and the debacle that had been the end of the night had been an entertaining story to tell Melissa when we had rocked up back in midtown the following afternoon. I just swore to myself that any future journeys into New Jersey were going to require a lot more planning.