Quick…when I say “New Jersey”, what’s the first thing you think of? Is it an ethnically-diverse garden paradise with lovely sand beaches,
fine dining, and hidden Victorian-era gems like Cape May? Or, is it a hellscape of smoking oil refineries and steaming marshland hiding the evidence of who knows how many mob hits? Maybe you are obsessively following the trials and tribulations of one Christopher James Christie, the big-mouthed XXXL love-him-or-hate-him governor who was recently bumped to the kids’ table for the Big Debate.
New Jersey is a logical home base for the growing suburban-bound family, for the recent immigrant who just landed a cushy job in Manhattan but isn’t ready for Manhattan prices, or for the completely-fed up with New York City who are yearning to breathe free and maybe do some fine outlet mall shopping along the way. In fact, my husband Al (his story here) tries to make the case for Fort Lee every now and then. It’s right across the bridge, honey! We could own a car! Do some gardening! Great Asian dining! We’ve got lots of friends there, too! I’ve resisted, for many reasons. Mostly, I get panic attacks unless I can walk to a subway station.
Al has a variety of jobs, most of them legal, which require him to travel far and wide in the tristate area. At times, Al takes the independent shuttle bus (two bucks gets you across the G-Dub) to rent-a-car heaven in Fort Lee. After doing whatever it is he does out there, he’ll come back, load up the family, and take us for a day of lunching at Red Lobster on Route 4, mall-hopping or Ikea-shopping, ending with an obligatory stop for dinner at the Mitsuwa noodle court. It’s just enough fun to remind me why I live in New York City.
But it’s not always smooth sailing in the world of the New-York to New Jersey day trekker. Sometimes, you run afoul of the law (such as it is), and then you learn that there are differences that run deeper than the river that forms the border between our two states. Here is one man’s story (OK, it’s Al’s story. He’s the guest blogger this week.
The scene opens with Al hitting the ceiling after opening an official-looking envelope from the New Jersey Department of Transportation. The notice inside stated that he was delinquent in his toll-paying efforts and they were planning to arrest his ass if he set one toe back in the Great State of New Jersey. That may not be a direct quote, but it was the general nub of the matter.
In order to understand how galling that is, you have to realize that here in New York City, traffic violations are the poor stepchild of the Police Department. If you run enough tolls or stop signs, they will suspend your license, fine you, and probably arrest you – especially if you were high at the time. If you don’t pay your traffic tickets, you get plenty of notices warning you
to pay up. Then, they sit tight until they get a chance to tow your car, and whammo! It’s jackpot time for the NYPD, Traffic Violations Unit. (Hint: this has happened to me twice and I don’t even OWN a car). If it turns out that your car is worth less than the total you owe to the city (a distinct possibility), it’s back to the car auctions for the both of you.
Not so in New Jersey. I’ll let Al pick it up from here.
“Did you bring money?” Those were his first words to me. I managed to stammer a weak, “Yes, of course.” He seemed friendly enough, his eyes as blue as the uniform he wore, and he visibly cheered at the prospect of separating me from my hard-earned cash. I was lead to the bowels of the station house and casually informed me that I was, technically, under arrest. The officer pointed to a bench with hand cuffs attached, and stated that he should cuff me but probably wouldn’t do it “because you seem like a friendly sort.” “Gee whiz officer, thank you ever so much for your kindly disposition!” I didn’t actually say those words because I was able to beat back my amygdala and go for the less sarcastic “Thank you sir”
I forked over the cash (just shy of $150). In return, I was given some paperwork and warned that I should keep it constantly on my person while driving in New Jersey for the following few months, lest I be caught breaking traffic laws again and thrown unceremoniously into the slammer. The whole affair took less than 20 minutes, and I must admit to a tremendous sense of relief after walking out of the station house.
It’s ironic that this happened in the lovely town of Fort Lee, New Jersey. First of all, Fort Lee is one of the towns I mention to the wife, whenever the topic of moving back to the burbs comes up. I have always liked Fort Lee because it’s just over the George Washington Bridge, and it has a very diverse population which makes for some wonderful restaurants.
In addition, any town plucky enough to piss off Chris Christie into closing the GWB can’t be all bad.
Fort Lee feels very suburban, but its proximity to New York City assures that is has a cosmopolitan feel. When I’m there, I don’t feel hopelessly cut off from city life, as I have in other places, like, I don’t know, upper Westchester County.
However, this whole experience reminded me of the fact that most towns, no matter how charming they seem, have a slimy underbelly. Part of their purpose in life is to fleece unsuspecting out-of-towners out of as much cash as possible. In my case, it turns out that had I used an express lane on the NJ Turnpike some months earlier with an expired E-Z pass card. My bad.
I still like Fort Lee, but it no longer seems like a palatable alternative to city living, and I’m pretty OK with that. –Al
OK, back to me. Any of you New Jersey residents out there….is this how you get treated too, or does having a Jersey driver’s license exempt you from the “I should probably cuff you” treatment?