"Just a small town girl, livin' in a lonely world,
She took the midnight train goin' anywhere"...
So many places where I have lived no longer exist. In Bernardsville, this one haunts me the most, a basement apartment with two living rooms and a vault room, complete with a huge safe and one 6 inch square barred window. I painted the grey concrete the yellowest yellow I could find, with a mural on one wall for my barely able to walk daughter. I painted a rainbow curving above a young barefoot boy holding a magic kite. His name was Zibby and every night I sat in a rocking chair, making up tales of where the kite would take Zibby, always bringing him back home safely to sleep. After many adventures, the most requested destination was to Candy Land, and at some point, a smallish dog named Zibber was added, for company and comedic relief. Zibber had simple but silly suggestions for getting out of any potential danger such as dark clouds and stomach aches. Thunderstorms were as bad as it got in those days. Zibber also liked songs to be sung by me, ranging from Moon Shadow to Old Man River to The Wheels on The Bus to It's A Grand Old Flag, as sung by GaGa, (how my daughter pronounced Grandma at the time).
The house above us was a gorgeous but boisterous Victorian with stained glass windows and old sinks, bath tubs and toilets. The kitchen was sunny and always full of fresh baked bread, chicken bones scattered on the floor for the ever-increasing number of cats who found their way there. Dishes were washed by hand and the stove had a large cheap coffee can full of meat grease, right next to a continual supply of coffee. Percolator coffee, which made acid rain coffee. That was most likely when I got serious about proper coffee preparation. It was either that or get ulcers. The floor tiles were like a checkerboard, except white and black, instead of red. There was a dumb-waiter on the upper floors, which on good days dropped laundry into the basement, just outside my door. On other days, cats or a tumble of kittens would be delivered, much to my daughter's delight.
It was within walking distance to an old bottle burial ground, a stone church which looks much like the one currently next door except that church was Episcopal with an ongoing history of bursting into flames, downtown stores, a tavern where mostly men played pool downstairs in a smoky room. In my innocence I thought my landlord liked walking everywhere. I later found out he had driven home from his research job at Warner-Lambert after drinking laboratory strength alcohol and lost his license after fighting with the police. He was a large bear of a man, with the deepest belly laugh and a stutter left over from childhood. He had two delightful daughters less than half my age and he treated me like the wild, know-it-all 21 year old I was. But it was my daughter who melted his bear heart.
They didn't need my rent money, but I think they used the cash to buy marijuana. I didn't think that at the time, only now, looking back. I babysat; I washed floors and bathrooms; I traded art for living there. My daughter had her first tricycle there, made her first snowmen, six of them, each less than a foot tall. I befriended his wife, Sarah, who played tennis and hardball with me, let me paint her kitchen blue, like the bluest sky. I wanted to add clouds but she was more practical than that, so no clouds. It was there that I sold Mothertrucker, not without a great deal of remorse. At some point, they had a third child and I moved out, lost touch, heard they sold the house and moved to Eden.
Recently, I walked over the railroad tracks, past the old cinema that still changes the movie titles being shown by hand, letter by letter. The Friendly Cobbler is now an upscale Japanese restaurant; the optician who fixed many a pair of my son's glasses for free even though we purchased them elsewhere, gone. A dry goods and miscellaneous you name it- he had it store, the owner a friend who also wrote a weekly column for the town newspaper, openly Jewish and proud of it, now gone. I can still see him, his gold Star of David on a thick chain around his neck, saying, "What? I should hide being a Jew from Hitler now? You need a good fabric to sew curtains? I have the best fabric you should ever want. I give you extra, no charge and matching thread, exact color. You should kiss me for that." So I did.
One block up from the stone train station, past the bank on the corner with a large clock that stops every few years, each new shop has an old story in my head. Turning left onto Essex Avenue, the house is gone. They did indeed, pave paradise and put in a parking lot. I asked the man next door, who came back from Vietnam and lived with his always dying parents. His eyes got more than misty as he described the bulldozing of the house and a small red maple in the front yard. "But what about the basement? The vault and the safe? Do you know what happened to that?" I asked, expecting a different answer.
He wiped his eyes and smiled, "Oh, that's all still there. Cheap sons-of-bitches wanted a quick job and the safe was too heavy to move. It's just covered over by a useless parking lot. Any time you want, I'll help you dig it up." Laughing, I declined, but there are times when I do think of doing that, even just a small corner, for a wistful glance at the buried past.