Between the Swamp and the City

As faithful readers know, I’ve spent a lot of time on the New Jersey Turnpike over the last four years, since my move to New York in May of 2008.  I’ve spent a lot more time walking around the city, I realize, so herewith a fair and balanced accounting of recent, totally random encounters with these divergent realities.  Never mind, I’ll get back to the city tomorrow.

New Jersey is one huge swamp between New Brunswick and New York.  But go ahead, drive ten miles south of New Brunswick and you’ll be in pine barrens that stretch all the way to Cape May.  Who would want to live in this benighted place?  And yet it’s the most densely populated state.  It’s also the place where the American Revolution was rehearsed and enacted on battlefields: if David Hackett Fischer is right about this in Washington’s Crossing, and I think he is, the war was won between Trenton (in Jersey, it’s pronounced Tre-eh) and Morristown.

What were those angry, mangy patriots defending, except their right to kill the vicious mercenaries who treated them as so much cattle?  Grasslands, marshes, one huge swamp, unless they went due south, to the teeming metropolis of Perth Amboy, now just another disaster on the scale of Camden or Newark, which then rose proudly on the north edges of the Raritan Bay?

It’s perfectly amazing, the Turnpike is one long bridge over that swamp, you know because you car is always counting the creases—the expansion joints—of this elevated highway, until you get to something like dry land near New Brunswick, and then you abandon all hope in view of endless beige apartment complexes that rise in the ragged shadows of scrub pine.

I admit that if you drive twenty miles west of New Brunswick, you’ll encounter something like the rolling hills of eastern Pennsylvania, that verdant, fertile land that leads, as all two-lane highways will, to Gettysburg, the crossroads of American history.  But Pennsylvania writ large is otherwise Appalachia, a scary place to be in a car, which is to say in the 20th century: imagine being on a road trip with Rick Santorum and you have scaled the aesthetic heights of the Keystone State as made available outside of Philadelphia.

But I had more local anecdotes in mind.  I leave my apartment at 6:00 AM to drive to New Brunswick every Monday and Thursday, to teach a class on 20th century cultural history at 8:00.  I’ve done it so many times now that it’s automatic, muscle memory and all that, I can honestly say that I’m not paying attention when I get into the lane that will take me across the local level of the George Washington Bridge—on the other hand, every time I see those palisades on the other shore, I wonder how Washington’s army climbed them in retreat from the British forces who had driven it out of Manhattan—and yet today the traffic and the sky were light enough to let me notice some obvious things, not for the first time, but for good.

For now I’ll leave it at the Linden Generation Plant and what stands opposite, on the other side of what, at this stage of the Turnpike, is a 12-lane highway: United Freezer Services.

The Linden plant reads like an advertisement for Hell: “Energy Efficient, Environmentally Advanced,” it announces on the ribbed white aluminum that might be the front of the place where human beings decide where and when the electricity goes.  The complex stretches a mile between Exits 13A and 12, giving way, as you head south, to the two-story petroleum silos that squat on silent brown marshlands like football helmets fastened on timid dinner guests.

At eye level from the Turnpike, the Linden plant is made of turrets and chimneys, competing ziggurats, all narrow metal sheaths except for the two concrete towers in the foreground.  At night, or in early morning, this jagged horizon breathes fire and smoke, so you know you’re staring into Hell as you change lanes, you know the end of civilization—in both senses of that word, I’ll let you decide which word I mean—is close by.  Energy Efficient, Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here Are Environmentally Advanced.

But lower your standards, look down and see the ceiling of your favorite loft, whether residence or restaurant, all pipes and fittings and fastenings, the world turned upside down but without politics, without style, without purpose except efficiency.  See this thing for what it is, a monument to your own monstrosity, not “theirs,” you’re driving the car that gives you a point of view on something obviously external and maybe inexplicable but by no means extraneous—it’s outside your window, but you are there, across the divide of Exit 13A, burning with all the pointless fury of a fire started long before you were born.

And across from the Linden plant is United Freezer Services, about a mile of aluminum siding.  As against all those sharp slivers of metal that signify the generation of energy, on the other side of the Turnpike, all you see are two big white boxes that cover as much ground as a small town.  Nothing happens here, not supposed to: no fire, no smoke, no nothing.

That’s where you go to die.  Which side are you on?



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2 responses to “Between the Swamp and the City

  1. Jim B.

    “… a scary place to be in a car ….”

    That’s where the bears are, Jim. Look for road kill, and you then will know that the swamp is not a swamp but a home.

    Can’t go under it. Can’t go through it. So, you gotta go over it.

  2. Matt Friedman

    In fairness, many of the Patriots who wanted to kill the vicious mercenaries were pretty vicious themselves. I say this as a descendent of United Empire Loyalists. 😉

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