My childhood took place in the land of Used To Be. You may recognize the place by the carpet store where the neighborhood kids used to play sand lot ball. My house and 40 others with the same floor plan were built on land that used to be the Terrhune Farm. Behind some of them onions still grew in the weeds. The barn with stalls and leather straps for the missing horses was off limits so the farmer’s grand daughter and I would climb up onto the billboard erected behind the barn and peel back layers of a sales pitch for the modern life. Then there was a fire and the barn was gone.
Many frosty mornings a group of us on our way to elementary school walked behind a gas station and warmed our hands over an unattended barrel fire. There were vacant lots at first with paths through the burrs that inspired Velcro. Later there were construction sites where the boys would reenact trench warfare. Then there were novelties like the first McDonald’s on the east coast, the first industrial park, then a high rise hotel, and the first shopping plaza, and bomb shelters for sale on the retail highway.
Between the carpet store and Hugo’s Country diner was a little building that housed a florist shop. We picked flowers there each morning checking for new arrivals in the trash bin. We passed a Dunkin Donuts were the boys bought day old donuts for two cents. Carvel ice cream was where the first child to get to the window after school would be paid in ice cream to fetch a newspaper from the candy store. On hot afternoons I would wander into Tilden Brakes past the cars on lifts and men with air powered drills and take a paper cup and fill it from a gurgling water cooler. Kids could do that then. They ran through lives and yards and sometimes they were scolded for it.
I remember the car wash emanating music with chamois circling around the fenders and hoods of dripping cars. Bandanas covered the heads of black men and women out in the open with laughter and movement and I was uncomfortable and unsure. I wanted to wear a polka dot bandana.
In winter I used to hold on to the runner of a five man sled as my brothers led the charge across the highway. We made it through the first two lanes to the Jersey barrier and waited for a break in the traffic to run for the golf course past the sign that read ‘no trespassing, no coasting, no swimming’. What felt like all the children from our cul-de-sac neighborhood piled on for the wild ride down the rough. Once the New Jersey snow was so deep the sled was useless and we decided to roll a giant snowball to make a path for the sleigh. With communal effort we pushed snow till the mass rose above us all and it became an immoveable obstacle. The melting monument was our white mark on the green when the golfers returned to claim their turf.
These are stories from that lost land of Used to Be. I know it was a real place. The Hackensack Meadow painted by George Inness can no longer be found, neither can the Seafood Lounge where I first saw my father drunk, nor Mr. Browse where Mother’s Day gifts were purchased. The shoulders of the retail highway have been repaved. The headquarters of corporations have taken their place in the hostile takeover of the land of Used to Be.
I took the exit off the Parkway and around the clover leaf where I used to play to see what remained of the place. I found the houses laid out like wagons in a protective circle against the frenzy of progress. Families have dug in here. Lawn mowers march the perimeters. Billy’s crying tree stands sentry on the corner. I felt a great fondness for that tree. I found myself loving Billy where ever he is right now, and gratitude for all the characters who filled the land of Used To Be. I found the link of love, the bridge that joins the land of Used To Be to the land of What Is.
Love has been here all along making meals, filling kiddie pools and commuting to work. Love is what these houses are circled around and love is what the families who live in them have preserved from the land of Used To Be.