You don't make a left turn in North Jersey when you want to turn left, not off a main thoroughfare at any rate. Instead you bear right onto a little one way piece of road and that makes a little "U" turn or "T's" into a side street that you can turn left on and then you go straight across the thoroughfare that you were on thus completing a left turn, capiche? This is a bit confusing when you haven't done it lately, and I hadn't (done it lately, that is) a couple weeks ago when we were spending a Friday night in northern New Jersey prior to hitting New York City on the weekend. How-some-ever, it turned out to be a fortunate happenstance when I semi-panicked and made my right-to-turn-left one ramp too soon...
We'd driven down from upstate New York and arrived at our hotel-with-heated-pool in the late afternoon. The pool was a hit and we swam until past dinnertime and then had to scramble for someplace open past 9:00 PM, we were hoping for local Italian fare but were hungry enough not to be picky when I made my too-early right-left; we looped across an overpass and came face-to-face with a little Italian establishment -- with the lights still on.
The door said 10:00 PM was closing time and as it was coming up on 9:40 we entered a bit haltingly in case the kitchen was already cleaning up, but they welcomed us enthusiastically and ushered us into the small dining room. We were the only diners at first but as we ate a large table in the corner slowly filled up with staff and family of the restaurant. A large man conversed loudly with everyone in an authoritative voice. He didn't look like Tony Soprano, but he called people "paisan" and had a roll of greenbacks as big as my fist. He peeled off a couple and handed them out as staff left for the evening. The service was excellent, my manicotti was very nice and we all ate plenty.
Brisk and early Saturday morning found us down-slope from the Staten Island Zoo, visiting the final resting place of my in-laws. The sun shined, the breeze blew and the peacocks hollered on a gorgeous 70 degree morning. Our rented Dodge Magnum would certainly have been mistaken for a hearse had it been black instead of white. It was serene and somber; maybe a bit surreal. We reflected and then fled for breakfast (bagels and strawberries) at Island Girl's pad: very hip, very Web 2.0. The beaded doorways, the narrow kitchen with scavenged school desk, all accommodated us because we were family and the place was filled with grace and spunk.
Off again, we parked next on a residential block of Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn where my college friend, his wife and young son are doing their part to gentrify the neighborhood. They've bought a row house there. Walking toward their place my 10 year old suburbanite daughter intoned: "This is insane!". She was incredulous that anyone lived like that, where were the yards, the mailboxes, the driveways, the garages? The houses were close enough on Staten Island to touch your neighbors house with a broom stick held out a side window, but here the houses actually touch each other? Pretty cool, huh, my girl? She didn't think so -- but she warmed up when on the inside it was a real house, even if an old and rather ornate one.
We walked through Prospect Park, another amazing sight for the unitiated: real streets but no cars, only walkers, joggers, bicycles and the occasional rollerblader, and plenty of trees and softball fields, right there in the middle of so much city. We walked through to Park Slope for brunch where we had to wait outside for a table at Dizzy's Coffee Shop but the host offered us gratis iced coffees and the extra time offered us a look down below the streets at the F-train stop. The walk back was just as pleasant and the talk back at the house was too short. It felt comfortably intellectual to sit in Brooklyn with shelves full of literature and modern music and my friends, and to meet their son after too long; but they were off to Long Island for the evening and we were headed up to Croton-on-Hudson for a cookout.
Our drive through Queens and the Bronx, mostly on the BQE (a misnomer where the "E" stands for "expressway") was not as bad as such drives can be. We were only nearly squashed a couple times and came to a parking lot stop on elevated highway only a few more times than that. Besides, we got a nice view of Manhattan and of Yankee Stadium. Mark's house up-the-Hudson is a great old Tudor with a slate roof, but at the moment about half the slate is missing -- seems they got hit by a microburst during a thunderstorm and 5 or 6 of his grand old trees lost their tops right onto his house and patio furniture. The cookout was cool though, they concocted some kind of grilled chicken/shrimp/vegetable and feta cheese on grilled pizza crust stuff that was delicious.
Another high school friend and family dropped by to share and so did Mark's doctoral-student-tenant, Julie. Mark and Tina have 3 kids of their own and on this Saturday night a handful of Tina's nephews were staying, too. The house is a rambler and well lived in (not only by the family, but by 1 dog, 2 cats, 3 rats, a hamster and 2 aquariums full of aquatic life forms). There are innumerable remodeling projects in process; one that has been successfully completed is the insertion of a spiral staircase at the end of the hall which now grants a second access to the upstairs, and to the loft that has a shuttered window down to the family room. Again I felt very comfortable hanging out with the nooks and crannies and our hosts' lack of formality. In the morning Mark, Julie, my wife and I ran across the nearby aqueduct and rounded back to the neighborhood through a long stretch of woods, about a 4 mile loop.
Tina shares my love of fine dark chocolate and gifted me with a box of Gustaux French Chocolate Truffles, which were delectable -- coated with baking cocoa powder they are smooth and strong. (I think that is the right brand -- I had to ditch the box when I packed for the airplane, not realizing that the inner foil had no brand information!) After breakfasting on the rest of Island Girl's bagels, plenty of OJ, some Trix and a truffle, I piled the family and a couple of the old slate shingles into the Magnum and headed west under the late morning sun.