Me and the Skyway
An imposing, iconic structure from my youth may be tumbling down soon. It's the Pulaski Skyway, the elevated stretch of highway that makes up U.S. Routes 1 and 9 between the east side of Newark and Jersey City, N.J. Word from my old schoolmate Matty J. in the Garden State is that they're talking about replacing it. The new road will no doubt be bigger and safer, but it could never replace the Skyway. It's one of a kind.
Fans of The Sopranos will recognize the highway right away. It's been prominently featured in many an episode. And not in a flattering way. They put a hit on Chrissy at the Skyway Diner, which sits beneath the Skyway in Kearny. To some, this elevated road is a symbol of the dark, dirty past and present of the industrial areas through which it passes. Its grim, ancient look also fits right in with the pollution that spoils the rivers over which it carries auto traffic -- the Hackensack and the Passaic -- around 10 or 12 stories above. But if you grew up, as I did, literally in the shadow of the thing, you develop a strange fondness for the Skyway. The fact that it was named after one of the countrymen of my paternal ancestors, who helped America in its time of need, makes it even more endearing.
Built in the Depression, it was a marvel of its time when it opened in 1932. But of course, those days are long past. It's a narrow two lanes in either direction -- primitive for a freeway, really. There's no shoulder or sidewalk, and trucks and pedestrians are strictly forbidden. The on ramps and accompanying merges are a real nightmare. I never once got out of my car on the hundreds of drives I took across that span -- it was no place to ever be on foot. I guess if you broke down up there, you'd have to get out, and flag down somebody to give you a push to the next off ramp.
Once it reaches Tonnelle (pronounced tunnelly) Avenue in Jersey City, the skyway ends pretty abruptly with a traffic signal. There, Routes 1 and 9 take a left and zig north, while something called the "viaduct" -- a largely underground road -- takes you most of the rest of the way east to the Holland Tunnel and Gotham. Again, there's no place that you'd want to stop under there, at least not until you reach the crazy plaza where the tunnel entrance sits.
On the Newark end of the Skyway (Exit 15E country of the Turnpike), a couple of stories were told. Although I don't believe I ever saw it (at least not up close), my schoolyard buddies said that out where the concrete pillar bases of the skyway sit in the "wetlands" -- in our day, known more directly as the "swamps" -- one of the uprights bore a plaque dedicated to the dozen or so men who died building the thing. The story went that when they were pouring that much concrete, if you fell in, there was no way to save you. They just kept pouring, and they put up a plaque in your honor when the construction was finished.
Neighborhood lore also had it that there was a catwalk way up top, just under the road surface. Some of the bigger, crazier guys in the 'hood claimed to have climbed up there and walked quite a ways on the catwalk. I believed it -- still do. There was something about the young men who lived in our neck of the woods that made them want to try daredevil stunts for pretty much no reason at all. I remember the night when a gang of us organized a Mission Impossible-type party to climb up on the locker room roof at the public swimming pool and swipe one of the giant loudspeakers. It was extremely well organized, and it went off without a hitch (I remember walking across the top of a narrow little stone fence, about 10 or 15 feet up, with some trepidation), but when we smuggled our booty down to the one guy's basement bedroom and hooked it up his stereo, it sounded kind of tinny. We sat there listening to "I'm a Girl Watcher" a couple of times, and then started wondering what we were going to do with the stupid thing.
Anyway, did some of the Down Neck teens somehow climb up 100 feet and walk around on a Skyway catwalk? I would not put it past them.
My own Skyway stunt was somewhat daring, but in a different way. One weekday on Easter break from school, a handful of us walked along the railroad tracks and through the swamps to get to the Passaic River. One of the pillars of the Skyway was close enough to the riverbank that you could hop onto a ledge on the side of it without getting wet, if you got a running start. From there you could climb up onto the base of the concrete pillars (on which the huge steel girders came to rest) and look out over the river.
Now, keep in mind that there was absolutely no reason to do any of this. The Passaic River was then well known for being the most polluted in America, and at this particular bend in its course, it's downstream from several of the worst polluters humankind has ever known. But hey, did I mention it was Easter break? So we take turns jumping across, one by one. As I recall, a guy or two didn't make it all the way to the pillar, and so there were a couple of wet shins. But the unspeakably filthy water between the bank and the pillar wasn't that deep, and so wet shins was all it was. At first.
As we sat out on the pillar, no doubt smoking Winston cigs and thinking about how cool we were, the day grew hotter. Unseasonably hot for that time of year -- maybe 70. On the concrete pillar, with the sun reflecting off the river, we started to get a little toasty.
That's when The Idea came to us, and there ensued several minutes of animated discussion about who was -- what can I call it, brave enough? stupid enough? for there was no line between the two that day -- let's go with brave enough to jump in.
Eventually, I think there were two of us. Off we jumped, most of our clothes on, into the river. Yes, out toward the middle of the Passaic River. A regular couple of Huckleberry Finns.
It was awful. We came up gagging, covered in a tarry industrial goo. It wasn't refreshing, that's for sure. It was a long, stinky, squishy walk home down the tracks. I don't recall getting into too much trouble over it, but I distinctly remember that our clothes had to be burned.
Years later, the Skyway figured prominently in my driver education. I was taught to drive by a very smart but somewhat sadistic fellow for whom I worked at the college I attended. Our first Sunday session was easy -- starts and stops in the huge Roosevelt Stadium parking lot in Jersey City, where they used to give the driving tests. But on our second session, much to my surprise, he directed that I turn out onto Route 440, and then Route 1 and 9, and drive around on that busy highway! On the way home, I had to do the Skyway! You talk about your white knuckles.
There are many other, more interesting legends about the Skyway. On the Jersey City side, it passed over a dump run by a guy they called Brother Moscato. It was in the days before intense regulation, and I'm sure the proprietor would tell you, "I gotcha freakin' DEQ right heah," grabbing his nether region, or maybe his gun. At one point there was so much methane being produced by the garbage that it caught fire underground. Burned for months -- indeed, it may still be burning today, for all I know -- all visible from the Skyway.
And if you asked around northern New Jersey, people would tell you that you can also see the final resting place of Jimmy Hoffa from the Skyway. Nobody knows exactly where -- or if they do, they aren't talking -- but it's in the line of sight.
I'll miss the Skyway, if I live to see it fall. A lot happened to me on it, and under it. I hope they sell pieces of it, like the Berlin Wall. I'd gladly buy a chunk.