Last October I visited the New Jersey town where I grew up. It was my first time back, and I’d made the decision to go in spite of abundant trepidations. I’d fled the town when I was 16, and returned only to visit my parents a couple of times a year.
Lately I’ve been challenging my own uniformly dim view of my Ridgefield Park years by renewing friendships from back then, thanks mostly to Facebook. I only spent a couple of days in memory lane, but I visited every place that held meaning for me, including Luigi’s Italian Restaurant where my family ordered take-out pizza in the 1950’s. I sat at Luigi’s bar eating pasta and talking with the current owner who’s the nephew of the original owners. It was positively comforting – both the pasta and the newly nascent sense of roots in nurturing soil.
In the 1950’s and ’60’s, Ridgefield Park was a conservative Republican town populated by lower middle class white people and riddled with exclusionary attitudes. I hated it. Diversity meant Protestants and Catholics had to live together. I was a budding liberal Democrat with a radically inclusive outlook on life, and keenly aware of my lesbian sexual preference. I sought out people who were different from me in an attempt to survive the 24/7 sense of danger if anyone found out who I really was.Imagine my surprise when I found signs in Korean all over Ridgefield Park. My parents’ Methodist Church is now a Korean sect. When I walked around the high school grounds I saw students from a variety of different ethnic and racial backgrounds. There was a spanking new BMW parked in the driveway of my family’s former home (my parents drove a 1939 Plymouth for years.) Outside the house next door a Chinese man was raking his lawn. The properties in the neighborhood looked positively spiffy – the kind of place I’d enjoy today. I’m a Jew-by-choice, so was somewhat disappointed not to find a synagogue in town, but there was enough diversity and upscale business to delight me. Ridgefield Park has moved on and it seems all for the better.
Some things remain the same, some change. The high school football field, the civic center, my junior high school, the town library and the local Dairy Queen still look and function as they did back then. My grade school and high school buildings are gone, though; there’s only a marker to remind people of what once was. The candy stores that provided sinful childhood delights are gone or converted to different businesses. The Acme supermarket is now an IGA and the ice cream parlour where my girlfriends and I hung out after school is an upscale restaurant.
In the end, I drove home immensely satisfied with my reality check. What I found in Ridgefield Park was so very much nicer than the dark images I had fled for years.