Walking in the footsteps of the past

The Wyckoff House in Brooklyn, New York was built in 1652, one year before my ancestor Willem Traphagen arrived in the New World. Almost certainly he saw this house but could not possibly imagine me standing there. It would be like me imagining a descendant there in the year 2376. Mitch Traphagen Photo


I stood in front of the oldest house in one of the oldest cities in America and tried to open my mind to the past.  The Wyckoff House in Brooklyn was built in 1652, only a year before my ancestor Willem Traphagen arrived in the New World. From where the port was to where he eventually settled, he almost certainly would have passed this house. As there were relatively few structures at that time, he likely stopped for a look. Back then, the population of what would become New York City was only a few thousand people, spread out among farms and small, developing villages.

There is no way he could have imagined me, his direct descendant, standing in front of the same house in 2013. There is no way he could have imagined 2013. That would be like me trying to imagine one of my descendants standing in this same place in the year 2376. People sure as hell better have flying cars by then.

Genealogy is the study and history of families. Seeking out the roots of your family, the lineage from whence you came, can do much to help explain who and what you are today. Despite our technological society that Willem Traphagen could never have imagined 350 years ago, many of the problems and challenges we face today have already been faced and solved by those who came before us. More often than not, what is old is new again.

My journey in finding my past was a fairly easy one. First and foremost was that an enormous amount of research had already been done by a man from Kansas City named Christopher Brooks. He has been researching my family name for at least two decades, even making visits to Germany to search ancient records. At last report, he had traced the name back to two brothers who had leased a lake in the 1300s.

Secondly, my ancestor Willem had what must have been thought of as a tendency to make waves. And, as a child from a family of considerable means, he also felt compelled to have much of his life documented in official records — including a somewhat premature last will and testament made before a court in New York in the 1680s. He left his family home in Germany during what were likely the darkest years of the Thirty Years’ War, arriving in Amsterdam to become a journeyman baker.

Rhinebeck, New York. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Soon after, he made his way to the New World to start all over again. He was one of 23 men who signed on to charter the community of Bushwick, now part of Brooklyn, New York; he made things happen, got into trouble, lost everything and worked his way back — more than once. He was the essence of what could be considered an American more than a century before there was an America.

His grandson, William, who also opened the Traphagen Tavern, now the Beekman Arms, the oldest continuously operating hotel in the United States, founded the town of Rhinebeck, New York. I visited the Beekman Arms in the hopes of finding ghosts, which unfortunately proved elusive. On the upside, I had the rare experience of not having to spell out my name when I made a dinner reservation at the hotel’s Traphagen Tavern restaurant (since renamed and reduced to…a “Traphagen Burger”).  More, on that trip I made contact with an archivist from New York State who later managed to find Willem’s will in the state records, bringing his words and sentiments forward through the centuries.

Willem was likely in his 70s or early 80s when he passed away, a remarkable feat in a place and an age when life expectancy was only 40 or so years. Through his failures, successes and words, he lives on today. For me, that is fortuitous as he carries with him lessons on life. From him, I know the worst can be overcome, that life isn’t merely any given moment, it is a collection of times good and bad with things tending to work out in the end.

Moving through the centuries, I found that Henry Traphagen was the mayor of Jersey City in 1874, Ethel Traphagen, a New York fashion designer, is credited with bringing shorts and slacks for women into the mainstream in the early 1900s and Dake Traphagen, a luthier, is still building beautiful, high-end classical guitars in Washington State.

Although I’ll hopefully never be tied to a stake in the town square, as Willem was in Bushwick, I’d survive it, too. I wonder if they still do that? Eh, things would work out.

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.

Words from the past in spray paint

The Oculus at the World Trade Center. On September 11 each year, the glass ceiling is opened as the sun aligns with it. MITCH TRAPHAGEN PHOTOS


It was a bitterly cold day at the end of December when my wife and I waited in a long line to see a hole in the ground.

That was 2001. The place was Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. In the vicinity, you could still see dust forced into window sills and corners, but there was nothing left of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. It was a sacred, enormous hole.

Just over 15 years later, I needed to run from my office in downtown Jersey City to Staples for office supplies. The store in Lower Manhattan was the easiest to get to — just a quick subway ride away. The store was just down the block from the World Trade Center. As I exited the train into the expansive, stunning Oculus — the shopping and transportation hub connected to the new World Trade Center — I was suddenly awestruck.

Sixteen years ago, no one could imagine what I was seeing now. I certainly could not have imagined it. Nor could I imagine that I would be living there, casually running through, as I’d done dozens of times before. But that moment struck me. The entire scene was suddenly striking.

It is capitalism to be certain, and there is nothing wrong with that. Capitalism is what has made New York City into the most powerful city in the world. But to me it speaks more of human resilience and determination. The new World Trade Center is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and tourists were everywhere. Most identifiably, people young and old were crowding the Apple Store.

Leading out from the Oculus to the E Train subway line, two original doors from the tunnel that existed from the twin towers were replaced intact from 9/11. The doors still bore the spray-paint markings made by a rescue crew from Massachusetts, indicating that the area had been searched on 9/13/2001. The tunnel reopened relatively recently and the doors, which somehow survived intact, were returned to duty with their subtle reminder of what was, of what happened. It’s likely that few tourists even notice them. But New Yorkers do. There is a slight sting, perhaps, but they carry on. Nothing stops New York.

A marker from the past: re-installed doors in the tunnel leading from the World Trade Center to the E subway line still bear the markings of September 11, 2001.

That happened a while ago but it is back into my thoughts. Declaring independence from a world superpower was no small feat in 1776. Not to mention that most of the delegates were wealthy men with everything to lose.

The new nation was basically a ragtag collection of states, most of which did not get along all that well and a federal government that was extremely weak — the power was left with the states, per the Continental Congress. As such, the federal government was free to borrow money but had no authority to pay it back (the nation defaulted at least once). It was free to print money but it wasn’t worth the metal or paper it was printed on.

The American Army, with George Washington in command, was outgunned, out-manned and outspent. And, a good number of the people living in what would become the United States of America didn’t much care about the revolution, independence or such things.

Washington had a secret weapon, though. All he needed to do was to be enough of a leader, win a few battles here and there to keep morale up, and sooner or later the British would lose. The cost to Britain in fighting the war was immense. He knew that all he had to do was wait and victory would happen. Sooner or later.

Of course, it did. American troops never did take New York City, instead the British fled. At the time, it became the capital of the new nation and people heralded Washington’s arrival to the city. Delegates from the 13 states were already fighting about where the permanent capital would be located and deals were made, settling on a swamp on the Potomac River. But that was later. President Washington, who never once campaigned to be president over his two terms, gave the first inaugural address on the steps of Federal Hall in Lower Manhattan. In statue form, he is still in front of that building today, just kitty-corner from the New York Stock Exchange, off Wall Street.

Two terms later, there was a peaceful transfer of power to John Adams, the nation’s second president. Washington was a national hero — can you imagine what Adams faced stepping into his shoes? It wasn’t easy.

The World Trade Center, as photographed from the 9/11 Memorial Park.

Washington was the only U.S. President to have never lived in Washington, D.C.; to have never lived in the White House.

The British set it afire in the War of 1812. We re-built it. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. We re-built it. Terrorists severely damaged the Pentagon. We re-built it. Terrorists took down the twin towers of the World Trade Center. We re-built it.

Despite that I had been through dozens of times before, standing in the Oculus in the World Trade Center complex that day had an impact that I can feel to this day.

The Founding Fathers had no idea to what extent, but they knew this nation was one of vast resources — enough to make the United States the world’s greatest power. But they also knew if they failed in their fragile attempt at independence or, worse, self-government, that they would either be ignored or reviled by history.

Washington wrote and spoke with an eloquence and wisdom that sadly seems to be lacking today. He wrote about the need for religious guidance for humanity’s survival. He also wrote about the dangers of arguing about — and discriminating against — religions and how people worship their God as they see fit. He wrote about war and about peace. He wrote about attaining the highest office in the land and how it meant nothing to him other than to advance the nation and, in particular, the individuals within. His words, more than two centuries old, are likely more meaningful today than they were in his time.

But, on this day, just as when I stood on the mezzanine of the Oculus, mindful of those who perished, seeing the tourists and the office workers bustling about, it is his last words that come to mind: “Tis well.”