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.

Answering calls

Mitch Traphagen Photo


The woman who opens the bodega down the street each morning is too little to open the steel anti-theft shutters by herself. So she arrives at work on time and then stands there and waits for someone to help her. Sometimes that someone is my wife, Michelle, as she passes by while walking our dog to a neighborhood park. She knows Michelle now; she knows to bring out a loaf of bread on her return trip from the park so Andi the dog doesn’t have to be tied up outside the store. The woman sees Michelle, she brings out the bread, Michelle gives her a dollar and then it will all happen all over again in a few days.

For being part of one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas, Jersey City is a strange place. I never once imagined living here. I thought New Jersey was nothing more than chemical factories and refineries separated by crazy freeways, mobsters and guys with strange accents and an obsession with heavy gold jewelry.

I haven’t seen a mobster yet, at least not that I know of. Nor have I heard any unusual accents, or noticed a strange abundance of heavy gold jewelry. There are chemical factories, but none are nearby or visible from where we live on some high bluffs overlooking the Emerald City of Manhattan. People are almost crazy friendly here. I needed a bolt for a microphone stand, so I walked down to the local hardware store just a block away. The owner wasn’t sure what screw was the correct one, so he just gave me a few to try, told me to take them home and come back to buy the one I needed. Who does that anymore? Jersey City isn’t exactly Mayberry, but sometimes it acts like it. At least in our neighborhood.

Of course, not everyone is friendly. Certainly not the guy who tried to pry off the passenger door handle of our car with a screwdriver one night while we slept.

I first arrived in Florida by airplane, sometime in the early ’90s. I was working in Minneapolis and had a project that involved my giving a presentation at a large company facility in southern Georgia. I really did work hard on it, and as a result, I was told that I could pick anywhere I wanted to go and make a three-day weekend of it. Having never been to Florida, and since it was close by, I chose Sanibel Island. I flew into Fort Myers, happily discovered the company had rented a convertible sports car, and drove to the island and to one of the most mind-opening experiences I have ever had. Here I was a guy just out of Minneapolis — in February, no less — and suddenly finding myself standing on the most beautiful beach in the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen. It was probably 25 below zero back in Minneapolis.

Until that moment, I had no idea that people could actually live that way; being warm … in February. It was an absolute revelation to me. Before that trip, all of my vacations had taken place in summer or, if winter, to various ski resorts in the Rocky Mountains — not exactly Florida weather. Before that visit, I thought Florida was nothing but nursing homes, swamps and mosquitoes.

The people in the shops seemed so happy and so laid-back. Everyone was friendly. I immediately fell in love — with absolutely everything. When it came time to leave, I kept stopping and turning around before crossing the bridge. I would park and look out at the water and drive off, then turn around and pick up some seashells. And then a small palm frond that had fallen near the road. Everything felt so exotic … and I felt brand-new.

Now in fairness, going from Minneapolis to Sanibel Island — as I said, in February — didn’t exactly make for a fair analysis about my newly found love of the Sunshine State. Had I really been motivated, I would have flown down in August to spend a few hours in a laundromat in Tampa. But I knew nothing of that. I made a few more trips down, and then, less than two years after first setting foot on that Sanibel beach, my little sailboat was being loaded aboard a truck, just barely escaping a frigid winter at its former home port of Duluth on Lake Superior.

After 20 years, I’ve seen a lot, but Sanibel is still paradise to me. It is my favorite place in Florida, it’s my happy place — a place I think about when I need to chase darker thoughts from my mind. But most people can’t live there. I’m not sure I’d want to.

Going through life means gaining knowledge — and not all of it is pleasant. In reality, there isn’t a pure paradise for commoners like me. Every place has its good and its bad, and perhaps that’s how things should be. Sometimes we are called to help with the bad, and that provides us with a purpose. A purpose is a good thing.

Yes, most definitely some have it better than others, but it turns out that we are called to help; it is not demanded of us. It’s up to each of us to decide if we want to answer the call. Whether that call comes in the form of a happy but short woman who needs help with steel shutters, or if it’s kids needing gifts on Christmas in a rundown corner of Florida, or a family needing help with the electric bill, or simply to put food on the table that evening. Perhaps it’s to save some of the remaining wild places. Calls come in many forms.

Over the years, I’ve seen killer snakes, ginormous flying cockroaches, tropical storms, searing heat and drowning humidity. I’ve seen crime, a little bit of mayhem, and some stuff that I simply can’t understand. (Who calls 911 over being shorted a few Chicken McNuggets?) But the bottom line is: Paradise, or whatever passes for it, is what you make of it. Even in February, Florida isn’t always what you might think.

But I still have that beach on Sanibel Island. It’s a good place, a good memory. But it’s time to answer some calls again. This time, the area code is 201. To me, it’s a little slice of paradise.

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 added 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, a little at least, 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 few blocks’ 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 Ruskin, 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.

The captain and the bad penny

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, if if we wanted to live there. Plus, 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 — 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.