Finding Home in a Dive Bar

Astor Bar on Montgomery in Jersey City. Mitch Traphagen Photo


On our second visit to New York City, my wife and I knew that we wanted to live there. Coming from the insane sprawl of Florida where everything is a 20 to 45 minute drive in hot traffic away, actually walking to a store felt like freedom.

On our first two visits, we stayed at the Grand Hyatt, a nice enough place that, at the time, we had no clue to its history, and not exactly cheap. So when AirBnB just started emerging, we took advantage of it, flying up every month or so, trying out different neighborhoods. Our first AirBnB place was a studio in a brownstone just steps from Central Park West in the upper 80s. We paid $130 a night for that.

From there we tried other places in Manhattan and then moved out into Brooklyn and then Queens. AirBnB started to be…difficult in the city. So in a crazy move, we tried a place in Jersey City, not far from Journal Square.

We loved it. We felt like we had come home.

And not long after, we did come home to our first apartment in the Heights. On the very first day we learned a lot: 1) normal furniture won’t necessarily fit into a city apartment door and 2) don’t leave the elephant-ear-like rearview mirror of a U-Haul sticking out into traffic on Summit Avenue, just waiting for a passing ambulance to take it out (which one did — the EMTs and two JCPD officers were among the first we met in Jersey City — all needlessly apologetic about the mirror, and all offering us a sincere welcome to the city).

After that we met our neighbor who tried taking our door frame apart to smush a couch through — we had to stop him before that went too far.

Unfortunately we somehow got pulled back to Florida. But not for long. Which resulted in our second apartment in the Heights.

Unfortunately, we got pulled back to Florida. But really not for long. Which has now resulted in our third apartment — in a very cool Victorian in McGinley Square.

During our first stay at the AirBnB rental near JSQ, we walked the neighborhood ending up at what a lot of people might call a local dive bar. The Astor Bar on Montgomery was dark and cool and the prices were right. The people were friendly. We asked about food and first heard of “bar pies.” We talked with the bartender and tried to have a little cred when I explained that one of my relatives was actually once the mayor of Jersey City.

“What’s his name?” she asked.

“Henry Traphagen,” I replied.

“Never heard of him.”

Yeah, no one has because he’s dead. He was the mayor around 1870. Some people probably can’t remember the mayor before Steven Fulop.

Regardless, it was nice. And again, we felt like we had found ourselves a home. Even while living in the Heights we’d occasionally hop the buses to get to Astor Bar. It’s still a great place.

So now the Astor Bar will just be down the street. They won’t remember us, just as Henry isn’t remembered but we remember them. They helped to show us the way home.

Captain of my own shipwreck

As a good friend recently said, “We are all the captains of our own shipwrecks.” That may be true, but our place, my place, remains at the helm. Mitch Traphagen Photo.


In the dream I awoke from last night, I was preparing to leave Florida. I had checked the bilge on the boat as I always do and was ready to go. A woman stopped me on the way out, touched my arm, and said, “I will miss you.”

In my dream, I thought that was a very nice thing for her to say and then I responded with, “Like a bad penny, I keep turning up.”

I have no idea why I’d use an 18th-century phrase in a dream that I don’t recall ever using in waking life.

But, just like a bad penny, perhaps, I keep turning up back in Florida, back in New Jersey. Some of my friends thought we’d be back forever not long after the first snowflakes of winter appear in Jersey City. Another friend ominously wrote that it seems to her as though Florida has its talons in me.

I’ve become convinced that a midlife crisis, even one that has lasted for a decade, has less to do with facing imminent mortality and haplessly attempting to recover lost youth than it is simply, suddenly, finding yourself lost in the world.

Perhaps it is just a case of being the devil I know.

The problem is, living in two places makes it hard to know where I belong. Yeah, mine is a First World problem, to say the least.

I’ve become convinced that a midlife crisis, even one that has lasted for a decade, has less to do with facing imminent mortality and haplessly attempting to recover lost youth than it is simply, suddenly, finding yourself lost in the world. It seems that one day I merely woke up, just like any other day, and the world that I knew had been replaced by, as author Douglas Adams quipped, a world even more bizarre and inexplicable — and from that moment and forever it was completely unlike any other day. In the crystal clear vision of hindsight, it really does seem as though it happened that fast.

I don’t know any of today’s (or even yesterday’s) pop stars. I honestly don’t know what Justin Bieber did to earn fame and fortune, besides apparently annoying a lot of people. And seriously, what the hell is “spin class”? Do people actually pay a membership fee to spin around? I don’t have a clue.

And that’s the problem. The world has passed me by, or I’ve lingered too long in a place and time in which I felt comfortable and suddenly it was gone. And now I don’t have a clue where I fit into this new world. I don’t want to go to spin class or wonder about my gluten intake.

When Johnny Carson passed away, I knew things had changed. I never had the honor of meeting Mr. Carson, but his grace, wit and the class with which he carried himself since I first saw him on The Tonight Show as a child, was something unique. I grew up with him. And then he left, and for me, he left a void.

A good friend once said, “We are the captains of our own shipwrecks.” Indeed, that is the case. I know that some people are simply dealt bad hands in life, but for most of us, certainly for me, any unhappiness, any lack of fulfillment in life, any lack of success is the direct result of my own doing, or lack of doing, as the case may be. Sometimes I feel as though I’ve wrecked upon the rocks and, thanks to my friend, I can appreciate that I alone was at the helm. There is something clarifying and cathartic in that. Not in beating myself up but in taking responsibility and knowing that next time I can do better. And still other times, I’m on a beam reach, racing for the golden light on a boundless horizon.

Another very bright friend, a co-worker, once said that she thought New York City was the perfect place to retire because you don’t have to drive anywhere. I’ve come to agree with her — it is a remarkably easy city to get around in. The walking is good for me, and my front yard is a concrete sidewalk, so I don’t have the temptation to yell at kids to “get off of my lawn.” And they can’t get into the backyard, so, I’m good there, too.

It isn’t Florida, although in some ways the two states have much in common.

I was somewhat taken aback by the number of people who wrote to me upon our move a few years ago — notes with some very nice words, and generally one in common: “Jersey???” Yes, we moved to New Jersey; to a rapidly growing city commonly referred to as the sixth borough of New York City. We can’t afford Manhattan, even if we wanted to live there. Real estate has long since eclipsed insanity in the city.

But the truth is, I like Jersey — in some ways it is the Florida of the North. If something weird happens outside Florida, you can bet that it happened in New Jersey. Trust me, Florida isn’t alone in generating weird news. I’m quite certain that California appreciates the effort by both states. It helps them look more normal.

I am high over North Florida — at roughly 34,000 feet and moving along at a brisk 525 miles per hour. I just found out the glass of Pinot Noir I had enjoyed on the flight was complimentary. “Don’t worry about it,” the nice flight attendant said when I offered him my credit card. It’s amazing what $7 can buy for an airline — but then again I already like JetBlue. I just like them more now.

I’m a middle-age guy, dressed reasonably well. I’m flying home, or wherever serves as home these days, the direction really doesn’t matter. At this moment, things feel pretty good. I’m okay with my place.

Like you, like all of us, I am the captain of my own ship, just trying to avoid the rocks. I need to adjust course a bit, and that takes effort. Nevertheless, I belong here, at the helm, shipwreck or no. I’m happy here, wherever “here” is. But like a bad penny, I keep turning up. See you soon JC.

All Too Soon Enough

One of the few advantages of a 1,700-mile drive from the bottom of the country to the top is having copious time to think. The road of life has many interesting milestones. Mitch Traphagen Photo


I think it possible that the road to hell is paved with 13 lanes running northbound out of Atlanta. It is truly amazing that anyone gets out of there alive. Oddly, it reminds me of life itself.

One of the few advantages of a 1,700-mile drive is the copious time to be lost in thought. Life today moves so fast, with so much stuff competing for attention that it seems time spent simply thinking is nearing extinction.

On this drive, I realized that many of the milestones in my life have involved traveling. And yes, even Atlanta is a milestone of sorts. I’m sure it’s a nice enough city, just as I know that Georgia, off the I-75 corridor, is a beautiful state with wonderful people — but it’s hard to see that from the freeway. That’s when I realized that life is a lot like that. You have to get off the fast lane and stop to look around to really appreciate things. The beauty is in the back roads, both in Georgia and in life.

On my car stereo I called up some songs by a friend and talented musician named Eileen Quinn. She wrote music for cruisers — the small and eclectic group of people who travel the oceans with their own homes, homes that have masts, sails and keels on them. I thought back to one particular evening in one particular harbor in the Bahamas. Michelle and I were at home, far from home, on our sailboat, Hetty Brace. It was a perfect early evening in January with a magical golden light contrasting beautifully with the crystal clear turquoise water. We dinghied over to Eileen and her husband David’s boat to purchase her latest CD, which she autographed for us. We sat in our dinghy, they sat on the deck of their boat, and we just talked. Time and the world was ours. Hundreds of boats at anchor in that harbor represented a disparate group of people who all had one thing in common — they had all sailed to this place from somewhere far away. I don’t remember what we talked about but I remember feeling so very good. Thinking about it now, I can still feel it.

There are so many other similar powerful instances in the road of my life: a warm evening watching the sun set after a string of bitterly cold nights in a boatyard on Cape Cod and the haunting quiet of another boatyard off the Chesapeake in the evening after a day full of noise and frenetic activity. Catching rides and getting lost in buses, cabs and overcrowded cargo vans. Being advised to visit the “Pink House” for lunch in a small town in the Dominican Republic only to find a street full of pink houses and being left to guess at which house served lunch. I still don’t know if we guessed correctly but the lunch was wonderful. I remember another lunch, this time in Chinatown in New York City. We sat at a long table with a group of elderly men and found that our waiter had not charged us enough. We tried to point the error out to him, but he grabbed our check only to reduce the price even further.

One of my teachers from high school is in a nursing home in a rural town in Minnesota. In my mind’s eye, I can still see him teaching, he was a tough teacher but fair. That teacher was proof that you can take the man out of the Army but you can’t take the Army out of the man. He could be gruff, perhaps scary to some, but he actually cared enough to make sure his students learned something. I remember one day when a kid asked if he had ever killed anyone. The teacher looked back at the student with all seriousness and said, “Yes.” He did so in the service of this nation in World War II and he did not take that lightly. But it certainly cemented a distinct toughness about him in the minds of some students. After the war, he served the future of this nation by becoming a teacher.

His long road in life is ending at that nursing home. It is difficult to reconcile the image of a tough but dedicated teacher more than three decades ago with the man I now see spending his days asleep in a wheelchair. Every once in a while, he wakes and calls out for help; perhaps calling out to people who now only exist in memories. His wife is gone, except in his mind; mixed in, no doubt, with many false voices, sights and echoes. His body is here; his thoughts and his true essence are elsewhere.

For one attractive elderly woman in that nursing home, every single day is a new beginning. Each day I arrive, she introduces herself and asks what my name is, where I live and if I’m married. She tells me about going to college and getting straight A’s. She can’t remember where she went to college or what she studied but she remembers the happy parts, and that is the important thing. And each and every day she wakes up to a world still full of opportunities and discoveries. She is happy. It seems she has found her way out of Atlanta into the beauty of the back roads forever.

Children from a nearby school come to sing Christmas carols in the nursing home. I remember doing that as a child but it took until I was 50 years old to appreciate the importance of it. And now, I sit next to my mom and listen and fight back tears for some inexplicable reason. The singing is so beautiful.

There are so many milestones in life, so many points where we are at the top of our game — school, jobs, marriage, kids, our kids’ graduations, our kids’ marriage. It is all so wonderful and it is all so very fleeting. Our time is right now, in this moment. At some point, the moment will be gone and, if we’re lucky, we’ll be left with memories wonderful and beautiful like the back roads of Georgia. And then it will be someone else’s turn to be at the top of their game. But no matter what else, we are all headed in the same direction. Even infants get older.

It’s almost dinnertime in the nursing home. One woman sobs quietly at the table, a deep sadness known only to her. The man in a wheelchair next to her reaches out for her hand, their fingers touch but they don’t clasp. I see my former teacher wheeled in and I think about walking over to him, to tell him that he was a good teacher and that I learned much from him — not just from the books in his class, but also from him. There are too many people, though, and before long, he falls asleep. I’ll try again tomorrow although I don’t know if he’ll hear or understand me.

Outside, a carload of kids wearing high school letter jackets are goofing off, laughing and flipping each other the bird. I smile, too. This is their time and they have no idea what is lying ahead down their roads. Atlanta or the back roads, it doesn’t really matter to them. Despite they are just outside of a building filled with the seriousness of life and death; I won’t scowl at their laughter and obscenities because at that age, life is forever. All too soon enough, they’ll find out it isn’t.

P.S. Yesterday I told my teacher that he was a good teacher, that I learned from him and was grateful to him. He looked at me for a moment and then nodded.

Originally published in The Observer News on Dec. 19, 2012

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.