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Why I like New Jersey.

It’s been almost three years since we moved here. 

Once I met an English woman in Istanbul and I asked her, “How do you like Turkey?” 

“It has its daily frustrations,” she replied.

That line comes into my head anytime someone asks me how I like it, a few years in.  

It has its daily frustrations.

I work from home, so I don’t commute into the city.  Indeed, the only time I do now is to pick up my daughter, which is really to say, “I drive around New York quite frequently.”  It was very difficult, when I arrived, to properly attribute things: this happened because of the pandemic, but that happened because it’s how things are in NJ, but that other thing is just a weird new way things are now.  So: how do you like New Jersey?  I felt like I was a detective standing over two bodies killed in different crimes(moving, pandemic) and didn’t know how to tell them apart.

There are many beguiling, seductive sides to being a New Yorker, but some are also corrosive, in many ways corrupting, financially draining, irritating and broadly, unhealthy.  There’s enough here for another post, but not least of these, is the sense that it gives you that being there is in and of itself a competition: that you are constantly working to not get pushed out, not get voted off the island.  This always filled me with a sense of pride, but also? Kind of fucked-up.  Those are the terms of a duel, an endurance game. You want the place you live in to receive you, to want you to be part of it, not to be fucking Arrakis.  The goal always seemed to be: own property and you will be safe.  And so we’ll never quite get to see what would have happened, there.

I did not want to leave that way, not under my control and in the midst of a public health emergency.  The sheer act of moving was one of the most traumatic days of the decade, for reasons I won’t get into.  But there is no denying that our timing was as good as it possibly could have been–trendsetting, even.  Arriving here, looking in our metaphorical rear-view mirror, and it was loaded with people.  So with the benefit of a certain amount of hindsight we could recognize our good fortune.  A risk that paid off, if not monetarily (real estate doesn’t do that usually, right away) but in a place that we could live and settle in a bit.  Yes, we were lucky to be alive.  But it became clear quickly that we could survive, and thrive.

I was also open to it and ready for it. When I moved to Brooklyn in 1997, most people my age who did not grow up in New York were going to Manhattan. Though hard to imagine now, at that time it was a more known quantity; there wasn’t a lot of good information easily available about Brooklyn unless you broadened your search to include it explicitly or knew people there. People didn’t seem to know what to think. Brooklyn Heights is nice, they would say thoughtfully. It’s just so far. When I landed there I discovered almost immediately how many incredible, indeed preferable elements Brooklyn had to offer, but it’s not like I knew what I was getting into.

I returned to Brooklyn in 2005 as a property owner (for a few minutes before divorcing) and then ended up a renter again, sampling Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens, Red Hook, Park Slope, and the Columbia Waterfront District as a resident. I gave Brooklyn most of my time, and felt and still feel part of the wave that created the “Brooklyn-branded” vibe of the 2000’s, a twenty year golden age, peace and prosperity. And it took work! Investment, sweat equity, risk. I say without much exaggeration that I left my heart there, I expected to be there another twenty years, and I chose where I live quite specifically because it was as close as I could manage to stay to that place. If Brooklyn seceded from New York and moved an hour north on the maps (replacing New Haven, let’s say) I would choose to live there, instead.

All this to say, Brooklyn wasn’t considered edgy, when I arrived there, it was just considered puzzling. As in: “Why would you want to do that?” So when the same people had the same nonsense to say about New Jersey, my attitude was a hard “hold on a second. You aren’t going to fool me again, this time. Brooklyn was great, I bet New Jersey is great. This is some kind of goddamned conspiracy.”

So I might not have been ready to leave when I did, but I was definitely already psychologically post-New York. There was one thing that the warnings did bear out: it did take about 2-3 years to shed that twitchy, “what if it’s-3am-and-I-want-Chinese” feeling of being a New Yorker (I imagine New Yorkers who go to an actual laid back place like Minneapolis or Boulder have a much bigger speech to offer, here).  I have not yet wanted Chinese food in the late hours of the night but I have spent many, many summer evenings on my porch, gazing into the darkness at the treeline, listening to the insects in the grass. It ain’t so bad.

When I go back, it’s like nothing has changed, though I see the city aging, cycling through eras more rapidly, but absently, like trying out new hats. Nothing is sticking, it doesn’t know what it wants to be. There are fewer people and the ones I see look either well-fed and well-fashioned or at the edge of death, midway in a crisis, something I never really noticed before. I drove in Brooklyn recently and it just felt like hell: like I had stepped into a river of malaise and venom.  I used to drive there every day, without thinking about it.  Now it’s just something else I don’t have to put up with, most days.  I do miss the subway, though.  I miss not driving.

Now I live in a forest. 

If I haven’t mentioned it, there are deer here.  A lot of deer.  I don’t know if this is true, but one of the contractors who have been around mentioned that during the pandemic the traffic levels became so low that deer were able to cross highways and spill over from the north and west.  When the traffic returned, they became trapped here.  I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s local-contractor true.

Now, by an incredibly lucky twist of fate, my house is essentially a deer observation platform.  A creek in the backyard adjoins a few other lots in such a way as to create enough space for the deer to run, play, drink and rest, and the space between my and my neighbor’s fence provides a narrow funnel that gets them in and out of the area.  

When I tell you I see deer often, I can say without exaggeration that I see many deer, several times a week, often every day.  I’ve also become an expert at spotting deer, who are incredibly difficult to see in the trees if they are still, but very often, quietly surround us.  I grew up in a rural town with real forests for Deer to roam in–I never really saw any there.  Here, I can’t shake them.

Last year my wife and I were on one of our long walks when we came upon a mother and baby deer.  The mother had successfully escaped a backyard fence by leaping over it, but the baby was still stuck inside, head trapped between the metal bars.  We approached, doing a gentle bit of trespassing to get in close and hands-on with the deer, we saw the baby had run itself ragged trying to escape. He was at this point exhausted and ready to fall over, its neck and shoulders raw and ragged against the bars, fur matted with blood, a fleshy, exposed stripe of meat rubbing against the bars.  After a few attempts it became clear the baby’s shoulders were too wide to get him through by pulling him.  So I climbed the fence, which was about neck-height, and landed in the backyard.  I took off my shirt, using it to cover the baby’s head to reduce panic, and tried instead to pull him backward, back into the yard.  A couple steadfast pulls and he was free!  I looked up to see a woman holding a phone, no doubt curious why a sweaty, shirtless guy was in her yard, but the story kind of told itself.  She wisely walked down and opened the gate and left it open.  

“They always get stuck,” she explained.  “That’s what I try to leave this open.”

Fast forward two years.  Two nights ago, looking in the observation platform, I saw him.  Our little “Stripe,” bounding around the creek with his family.  White, grown-in patches of fur where his shoulder and neck gashes had been.  I can’t be sure it was him, of course, this was a young deer who was now an adolescent deer, but the similarity and circumstances of his marks were undeniable.

There are a lot of things I miss, and it has its daily frustrations.  But it has its moments, too.

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