Every small town has a place where everything meets, whether it’s a town green, a thoroughfare, or a community center. The equator and epicenter of my hometown—Caldwell, New Jersey, a suburb of Newark—was Bloomfield Avenue. All the best businesses and restaurants in the borough were found along Bloomfield. In middle school, entire weekends revolved around “walking the Ave.” Although this was not as Pretty Woman-ish as it sounds, it WAS always pretty salacious. Most nights I spent wandering aimlessly up and down the length of Bloomfield ended in making out with a classmate, witnessing a fight, or, thrillingly, both at once.
Based on where your house was located in relation to the Ave, people could easily determine your family’s socioeconomic status. Since the western part of the street dipped into North Caldwell, a bougie paradise of expensive condominiums (and where much of the Mob show The Sopranos was filmed), that was the rich side. If you lived on the other end, marked by its close proximity to the highway and the shady drug deals that took place in the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot, you might find yourself referred to as “lower Dunkin’ trash,” as if you were a doughnut wrapper or used coffee cup. This was perceived as the most horribly cutting insult there ever was in my town, which valued wealth over everything else and judged everyone on the basis of class. Over the years I moved from house to house (six in total) and lived on both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between, discovering plenty of havens where I could escape the social politics created by the Ave, which I grew to hate as I got older. I managed to find a few places in town that were sanctuaries from the constant judgment of my neighbors, and these are the very special locations I’ve drawn here—the places where my friends, my boyfriends, and I passed our time and created the memories that we recount to one another when we meet up now, working ourselves into hysterics over all the crazy and wonderful things we used to do. As a result of this, the town that I so despised the entire time I lived there has a kind of mythology to me now.
I used to love to make ballpoint maps of all my favorite spots during class to distract me when I couldn’t escape to them physically. Here’s a new one that represents many of the places where my most breathlessly told stories came into being. Sadly, most of them don’t exist anymore, but I’ll always have my maps and memories.
1. Jack’s IGA
This supermarket sat in the middle of the Ave and, for a time in middle school, was my favorite place in town. It’s not that I’m an extreme couponer or anything–my money-management skills are far too poor for that–but that there was a fire escape ladder behind the store that allowed me and my (also broke) friend Sara to climb onto the roof at night and get away from the class divide at ground level. We’d lie on our backs and look up at the stars, trying to figure out their patterns, or lean out over the edge of the building and watch the techno-blaring cars go by. Since all the buildings on the Ave were sandwiched close together, we could jump from roof to roof to roof along the street and observe all the action going on below.
The owners of Jack’s IGA finally got wind of our antics one night and called the police, putting an end to the fun. The ladder was raised the next day, and we were forced to find other places to pretend we knew which constellations were which (just like back then, I can still only suss out the Big Dipper and Orion’s Belt).
2. The Abandoned Jail
For a predominantly rich, or at least money-obsessed town, Caldwell had a lot of abandoned buildings while I lived there. This jail closed in 2003, probably because people kept escaping from it. Throughout grade school, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to rush into homeroom and tell a thrilling story about how a convict was found in their backyard, or of being woken up by searchlights and yelling police officers. Casual.
When the Essex County Jail Annex was shut down, all the prisoners were moved and the buildings and everything inside them were left to deteriorate. I moved directly across the street from the structure in 2008 and had a perfect view of the main tower from my bedroom window. My friends and I would go to the abandoned grounds and pick through all the treasures left behind, which included prisoner files dating back to the late 1800s and my first fake ID, an identification card belonging to a grimacing, mustachioed fellow named Angel from the 1980s. I kept that ID in my wallet until it was stolen last year.
Despite the fun artifacts it offered up, this building complex was really, really creepy, even for an abandoned jail—the first time my friend Jane and I climbed onto the roof, it was littered with old dollhouses and baby dolls lying facedown with their frilly pink pants pulled down around their ankles. When the jail was torn down a few months ago to make room for condominiums, my awesome mom went and rescued tons of the old files left behind—she has a thing for history. But she keeps them in our garage, terrified of inviting in ghosts.
3. Forte Pizzeria
Since the Sopranos lived down the street from my house by the jail, all my favorite restaurants got shouted out regularly on that show—and for good reason, because the Italian food where I grew up is unbeatable. This restaurant is a shared favorite of mine and Tony Soprano’s. I knew a ton of classmates who worked there in high school, so my teenage life was more or less a shower of free penne vodka slices (if you haven’t tried these, YOU MUST IMMEDIATELY) and fountain Diet Coke, which is basically my idea of heaven. When a drunk driver smashed his car through the plate-glass window, burning the place down in the process, a few years back, the town was devastated and mourned Forte as though it had lost a beloved member of the community, which it basically had. Lucky for us all, it was revived a year later and the great vodka-sauce famine of 2007 is but a distant, nightmarish memory now, although the emotional scarring will forever linger on in our hearts.
4. The Sanatorium
New Jersey is famous for its abundance of spooktacular abandoned structures and haunted sites, so it really isn’t that strange to me that I grew up near both a vacant jail and a sanatorium. The latter was definitely the creepier of the two. It opened up first as an orphanage and “home for wayward girls” in 1873, was converted to a full-scale insane asylum in the 1920s, and was finally closed and forgotten in 1977, allowing this modern-day wayward girl to poke around in it over 20 years later.
My dad and his five siblings actually paved the way for my generation of explorers, having grown up down the street from the sanatorium in the ’80s. They were the ones who told me about the system of underground tunnels that connected all the buildings on the huge property, but I was too scared to fully check them out. I did, however, go into every building I could, even though they were terrifyingly plastered with graffiti that said things like “GATEWAY TO HELL.”
Like the prison, this place was recently razed to make way for more condos, although it stood just long enough to give me the closest thing I have to a ghost story: Just before I moved away to college, a friend and I were there at night and suddenly shined our flashlight on what vividly appeared to be a person in a black surgeon’s mask. We were too busy screaming and sprinting to verify what we saw, but just about everyone from my hometown has a story just as terrifying about this place. Maybe we should have paid more attention to that graffiti.
5. The Cemetery
Morbid teenagers worth our black lipstick, my girlfriends and I loved to hang out here. In middle school, the cemetery was also the go-to boxing ring for people who wanted to fight, since it was, oddly, right next to the school building. You knew there was going to be one hell of an after-school spectacle if, during class, you heard “MEET YOU IN THE GRAVEYARD, BITCH!” echoing through the hallways.
I myself was caught in the middle of one of these altercations in the sixth grade. This is actually how I became friends with Sara, my supermarket stargazing companion—she had been pushing around one of my guy friends and when I tried to intervene, she challenged me to a duel. I trooped over to the cemetery with my gang after school and Sara and I proceeded to pull each others’ hair and knock each other into tombstones in a stunning display of disrespect for the dead. I’m not much of a fighter, so before things got too serious, I apologized and put down my dukes. We started talking and became fast friends that same day, so I’m actually grateful for that brawl.
We started going back to the cemetery in high school—this time, for the much more peaceful purpose of smoking pot behind the mausoleums.
6. The Power Lines
Caldwell contained an expanse of forest that was the most serene place I knew growing up, and which served as a necessary respite from the general ostentation of the developed parts of town. However, its abundant wildflowers were overshadowed by tons of huge power lines, which, people said, ironically rendered all the pastoral beauty completely radioactive.
Since I lived next door to the entrance to the forest for a while, I visited it almost every day to write by the creek and watch the deer, ignoring the potential health risks in favor of enjoying the only wildlife in the area. Sometimes my friends would come too, and we’d spend our time trying to see who could throw a cattail the farthest and making wreaths out of the overgrown black-eyed Susans.
Radioactive or not, we treasured this little world that seemed completely opposite from the one we were used to. It seemed especially foreign to me the time I went off-roading there in my friend Mike’s ancient Jeep, which died on us in the farthest reaches of the forest. Since we were trespassing, we couldn’t call for help. I bailed and found my way home after about two hours, but he insisted on staying with his car even though it was totally dead. After that, I decided to stick to hiking—that is, until the forest was cut down a year before I graduated high school. Years later, I still don’t know how Mike got his car out of those woods.
Besides lower Dunkin’, this was definitely THE SPOT to conduct drug deals, probably because of its location—it was a five-minute walk from my high school. It had such a bad reputation that I wasn’t allowed to go there at all until freshman year. I have so many memories attached to this place, since it figured into just about every night out—inevitably, someone would need to stop for cigarettes.
One evening in my junior year, my friends and I pulled in before going night swimming at some scummy man-made pond a few towns over. Jane’s sister was driving, and the three of us were waiting for someone else to be dropped off. At that time, our anthem was “Jackie Wilson Said” by Van Morrison, and we were blaring it with the windows wide open and doing convulsive shoulder-wiggling and head-shaking moves as we screamed the lyrics at the top of our lungs. A 50-ish woman pulled up next to us and observed our car, smiling, for a while. When I got out to smoke, she happened to be walking into the 7-Eleven, and told me, “You remind me so much of me and my friends when I was 16.” This moment has stayed with me always. Unexpected poignancy courtesy of 7-Eleven—I think that probably summarizes my experience growing up in the ’burbs pretty well. ♦