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Monday, February 11, 2008

The good Montclair

As I leafed through some of the many Super Bowl aftermath stories, I came across this tale from a nice little town in northern New Jersey, overlooking the Big Apple from a safe distance. And it reminded me that I never filled in the final installment of our mini-series on my recent junket to that part of the world.

For you see, the town in question is Montclair, and that's a place that my sister and I are wont to visit when I'm crashing at her place. We spent a few hours up that way on each of two different days this time around.

Now, you have to understand, in the eyes of some who live around that way, there are two Montclairs: the good Montclair and the bad Montclair. The good section is further west than the bad; the bad is down along the railroad tracks. In the good section are stately homes and a sweet old-fashioned couple of main streets that are being lovingly kept up; in the bad is a fair helping of poverty and trouble. There's something of a racial divide as well. The process of gentrification is under way, however, and the bad section is getting ever smaller as the good section moves its way east.

On the vintage shopping strip up in the good part of town, with a collection of pretty churches tucked in behind them, there are several great spots for a meal, and we caught the daytime version of two of them. One is called Raymond's, and we piled in there for a Sunday brunch. The place was packed, but the help was fantastic, and the food was worth waiting for. It was Jersey diner food at its best, only spruced up with a few yuppie innovations that sent the menu over the top. It all looked so good that I ordered an omelet -- I rarely eat eggs any more -- and noticed that they prominently offered an all-egg-white version. That was something I had never tried before, and wow, it was great. There were also corn pancakes that I passed on, but next time, I'm going for it.

Another day, we had a late lunch at a place called the Stockpot, just up the street. This was a different scene -- old-fashioned as all get-out, and not from the diner. The menu was a collection of homemade stuff like quiches, soups, salads, and sandwiches. We showed up just before closing time -- a little risky in most restaurants -- but we got the royal treatment. Nothing like real food made by real people.

The weather was unseasonably pleasant for early January -- moderate temperatures and fair skies. After lunch, we decided to take a walk around the little shopping district, which doesn't take too long, and then up the hill onto the bluff to see what kind of view it afforded. There we strolled through a neighborhood of stunning old houses -- mansions, really -- that afforded a view of the marshy flats that lead to the Hudson River, and Manhattan in the distance. In high school 40 years ago, I knew some rich guys from this part of the world, but I never got up and took a good look at their prime turf. Now I see. What a gorgeous place it is, and how lucky they were.

Neither my sister nor I will ever live in that place, but that didn't stop either of us from appreciating it. And for once in our lives, there didn't seem to be anything in our voices that sounded even remotely like jealousy of the people who had these riches. We are all just renting this planet. Sure, there are wonderful fortunes and great opportunities behind those spectacular walls, and no doubt their taste is sweet. But who could beat what we had? A beautiful day, free from work duties; bellies full of good food; good company; open hearts and minds; and good legs to propel us up and down the hill. That ain't bad.

As we got back on lower ground, we passed a grand old house that had been dedicated to some sort of nursing home-type function. A couple of guys on the porch waved at us enthusiastically, as if we were their only link to the outside world. We waved back and gave a friendly Jersey "How ya doon?"

A great day, but the finest moment of the trip was still ahead of us. We shot an e-mail to our cousin Jim, proprietor of the much-loved blog Parkway Rest Stop, and asked if he could tear himself away from his capitalist duties for lunch somewhere over the next couple of days. Not only did he have a lunch slot free, but he also pulled out of his "cruller" the location of an excellent Italian joint in a strip mall in the nearby town of Belleville, where he bought us a fine meal.

Lunch with Jim was a real tonic. Actually, there was no tonic, but there was gin, and Chanti, too. (Heck, Sis was driving, and I had a six-hour flight ahead of me to sleep it off, and so I went for the gusto.) Our time together as a close-knit extended family had ended around 35 years ago, but there was so much that we'll never forget. A long lunch barely scratched the surface, but we packed in a lot of laughs and memories. Not to mention food to die for. (Indeed, a funeral "repast" was in progress in the banquet room of the place. I hope they weren't too offended when we howled with laughter at some of the scenes from our shared family history.)

Anyway, a week or so after I got back to Portland, in the mail comes yet another gift from the House on the Parkway. It's this CD, by an artist we hadn't ever known about before that lunch. In it, amid a score of other show-stoppers, she belts out a couple of numbers that were standards throughout the fourplex that was our home growing up. Songs that Granny Bogdanski used to sing, or at least ask the other people at the party to sing: "Our little canary won't sing any more..." God rest the singer and the Granny, and God bless our sister and our cousin for a truly special end to our latest journey home.

UPDATE, 10:12 p.m.: More on the football angle (and good stuff at that) here.

Comments (4)

Oh, yeah !!!

It sure was fabulous seeing youse guys. I still smile inside when I think about it.

We hope to do it again this summer.

My mother grew up in Montclair and Glen Ridge and loved this post when I forwarded it to her. Thanks!

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