Moving Home (the first time)

The sun rises over Lower Manhattan as seen from a marina in downtown Jersey City. Mitch Traphagen Photo


We were welcomed to the city by rain, two young guys I only hoped were the people we hired to help us move, along with a nice police officer and a handful of emergency medical technicians, straight out of an ambulance with lights flashing.

“I’m sorry about the mirror,” the EMT supervisor said as he reached out to shake my hand. “And welcome home.”

At that moment, and in many moments since, I wanted nothing more than to flee back to our quiet lives in Florida. The EMT might have sensed that, too, as the first thing he asked was if I was okay. I’m sure I didn’t look okay.

The entire trip was timed to the minute to avoid hitting the rush hours in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Newark and Jersey City. Unfortunately, we left Florida six hours late. To make up the lost time, we decided to forgo the comfort of a hotel room and spent a few hours sleeping in a North Carolina rest area — Michelle in our new-to-us minivan with the dogs and cats, and me scrunched into a somewhat leaning position in the cab of the U-Haul truck.

Our new apartment is on a city street, and parking is at a premium. Driving a U-Haul truck into that situation was not something I was excited about. The Jersey City Police Department was nice enough to put up two “No Parking” signs directly in front of our apartment to accommodate the truck. Unfortunately, the two cars we found parked there upon arrival didn’t seem to notice the signs. We found one driver, a woman who moved her car, giving us just enough space to park and get the ramp down. Still, the truck was huge parallel-parked on the relatively narrow street. I wasn’t “city-aware” enough to know that most people fold in their driver’s side mirror. The U-Haul had two mirrors sticking out into the street like elephant ears. At least it did until a passing ambulance smacked into it.

From that point, very little seemed to go right. The previous tenants had left us a filthy apartment, complete with some furniture they had chosen not to move. That was a Really Bad Thing, considering we moved from a nice, two-bedroom suburban home into a city apartment. We had way too much stuff as it was. We had no choice about the filthy apartment — the movers were there ready to work hard; it was raining and getting dark out. We filled the place up with boxes and furniture, and greatly adding to the filth with what we tracked in from the wet sidewalk. We also found out that our beautiful living room furniture from Florida would not fit in through the apartment door. Oh, and it was then we found out that the apartment did not come with a refrigerator.

In previous moves we’ve made, we set records in getting our lives arranged and settled. That was not the case with this move. A full week disappeared in a blur of boxes and chaos, with herculean efforts at cramming stuff into every possible nook and cranny.

My desire to flee back to Florida only increased during that time.

And then one day, the living room was reasonably clear of boxes and other random detritus, and new, smaller furniture was there. Sammy, the big old dog, was snoozing happily on our tiny new sofa. Despite being in our new place for a week and despite being only 20 minutes from Manhattan, we had yet to make a trip over to the city that we had come to love after numerous visits over the past few years. That morning I hopped a train and stepped out in Midtown and made a short walk to a ginormous photography store. I stopped for a quiet, leisurely lunch and then rode the train back home. It was a good day. It reminded me of why we were here.

My genetic history with New York and New Jersey goes back more than 350 years, with my direct ancestor, Willem Traphagen, arriving in the area in 1660. Over the past years, Michelle and I visited the city often, and we’ve always felt at home. As much as people love to hate New York, it truly is the world’s greatest city. Yes, it is crammed with people, but they are surprisingly kind, and there is litter (although less than you would imagine), and on garbage days in the summer the smell is…well, unique. But it is something that all Americans can hold up with pride. Our heritage is that of a rural independence, strong of heart and will and with the ability to accomplish the impossible. All of that happened in New York, and Americans should be proud of the metropolis this nation has built.

Several years ago we briefly moved to a small town in Iowa. I don’t think that was as far away from suburban Tampa as is our new home in Jersey. There are at least a half-dozen small grocery stores within a block or two walk of our apartment. At anytime of the day or evening, I can step out our door and see people walking along the sidewalks — from young families to the elderly, going about their lives. On that first, horrible day here, we met nearly as many neighbors as we knew in Florida, and many of them offered to help. The neighborhood liquor store gave us a cooler to help until a new refrigerator was delivered and, the next day, while Michelle and I were struggling to get an old motorcycle down the ramp of the U-Haul truck, a young mother pushing her child in a stroller stopped and offered assistance. Almost without exception, we’ve encountered kindness over big-city callousness. And, we’ve discovered that we’ve had to restrain our Midwestern-ingrained predilection for saying “Thank you,” because every single time we say it, people respond politely with, “You’re welcome.” Even when we’ve said it three times in a single sentence.

Here there is every race, every religion and every kind of personality, and it all seems to work to form a functioning neighborhood, small communities that make up a huge metropolitan area. It turns out that there are good people everywhere. Either that or we have just gotten lucky in life.

So much has changed for us over the years, but I know we are walking on a well-trod path. Even Willem Traphagen had similar problems and life questions all those centuries ago. Parents and friends age and eventually die. Nothing that we can see will last forever, and even the Universe itself will eventually grow old and die. Michelle, perhaps quite wisely, felt that we needed a change that was within our control, rather than simply reacting to change that was well beyond it.

From this side of the Hudson River, I watched the sun rise over Manhattan, the new World Trade Center dominating the stunning skyline. It stands symbolically 1,776 feet tall and is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, as is befitting the world’s greatest city, an American city. Finally, I pulled my eyes away from the surreal view of the island of skyscrapers and walked home.