by Rebecca Burr
Hey, Jack! I dreamed we met in Woolworth’s in the goldfish aisle!”
“Wow! I had the same dream!”
* * *
I used to think that people who lived in Trenton had poor judgment or bad luck. I’ve reconsidered. People end up in places for a thousand reasons. They end up. I, too, will end up, no matter how much I try to be intentional.
Walking on a summer day, alone as usual, along the leafy green streets of Trenton, an old city on decline and not really believing it, I met Jack. Maybe I was 14. Maybe I wore pink Bermuda shorts and a pink sleeveless blouse. And pastel striped sneakers. And freedom.
Toward the Sanhican Luncheonette. It stood on the city edge on an arrowhead of sidewalk, just past a long block of rowhouses elevated above steeply sloped yards with ungrowable grass or littered with ivy, and held back by low stone walls.
We never used the sidewalk along that stretch. Just the wall – steps – wall – steps – wall – steps – jump! The wall was irresistible. Always there were the nice Jewish parents of kids I thought didn’t like me, hanging out of Cadillacs and Chrysler New Yorkers, waking me over for a ride. To school, to Hebrew school, or wherever I should have been going. I always chose to walk.
Although I was often followed by slope-headed guys in beat cars, or bejeweled Italians in MGs or El Dorados; propositioned by angry teenage boys popping out of shadows and doorwells with pathetic switchblades (I was disdainful and fast), joined in walks by lonely, shiftless men, I never thought of not walking. Anywhere.
On that long-ago summer day in a Trenton that had just begun to sigh, on the brink of race riots and the exodus of the Jews, before the weariness that had not yet set in, I walked, with purposeful randomness and “with no particular place to go.” Chuck Berry. Past the Sanhican with its dark night-green shingles and old red brick. It seemed darker inside, with a set of locals at the lunch counter, wearing felt hats, smoking and trading tales. An Edward Hopper “Night Hawks” scene. Some neon lettering lit the dingy window, and an aluminum sign swung above the door with an ice cream logo.
I didn’t go in. I always felt watched and disregarded at the same time. Sometimes I bought Doublemint chewing gum. Whether or not true, there seemed always to be the presence of a grouchy old man in a squashed Fedora, the proprietor, yelling at kids to get out. Burgess Meredith in “Rocky.”
A big green car — I felt it before I saw it — invaded my peripheral field. Tom Jones singing “What’s New Pussycat?” radioed out of the car on the ether of pheromones. An ancient whale of a car out of the ‘50s, sandblasted by time. Once probably a shiny, roomy family automobile, the color of pale maple buds in spring, now matte and blotchy and full of rammy 16-year-old boys.
It slowed down to a walk. To walk with me. To roll down the window and say, “Hey, Girl!” That’s how it usually went. I kept walking. It was full of the blond, rosy cheeked Irish brothers with predatory eyes. And Lenny, a classmate of mine. Also rosy. Petite and dark, he was of their neighborhood by the river, yet he did his homework and wasn’t feared. And Jack.
I knew who he was, had seen him in synagogue on high holy days, or roaming the halls with other guys, peering into classroom doors. Sometimes foot cruising, sometimes car cruising. I knew his name. He was skinny in a rugged sort of way with a lightbulb-shaped head. Full of bright ideas, I was sure. And close-set brown eyes, his curly hair already thinning a little on top. He was in high school somewhere. Jack did not look so much predatory as searching. Intensely curious. Wiry, lanky, not a Beach Boys hunky catch, but he walked around with a certain positive sense of himself.
I walked, and felt the gravitational pull between me and the Big Green Car. Its jaw opened, and Jack landed neatly near me and joined in my stride as the car went with us, six eyes, sidelong, watching.
“Hey, can I talk to you for a minute? My friend wants to meet you,” he said. I was like a young animal, with no social graces. Just instincts. Maybe an inner social gyroscope.
“Who are YOU?” I asked. I knew them all, really. They were part of my landscape. Formalities were the missing link. Jack did a surprising thing, then. He gave a high-pitched laugh and snapped his fingers. He stood before me with a serious dignity, extended his hand, and said, “That was stupid of me. I’m Jack. I want you to meet my friend Tom.”
“YOU want me to?”
“Yeah. I want you to.” Said with a bit of a twinkle.
The boys in the car all looked away. Jack was the footman as I entered the back seat of the old coach. He referenced everyone properly. I was surprised by his manners and the shyness around me.
“Hey, Tom, whaddya say?” Jack was in the middle. Tom’s blue eyes sparkled for a moment then he leaned into his corner. His brother drove us all up and down State Street, “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy Dum Diddy Doo” on the radio. Lenny kept a bantering conversation going up front.
After a chaste hour of teenage awkwardness, I was delivered back at the Sanhican, because, in some way, that was our collective address. Where, eventually, whoever you were looking for would be found.
* * *
“Hey, Jack! I just left home and I need a place to stay for tonight.”
“Yeah. Me too!”
Rebecca Burr grew up around Princeton. Her second child graduated from Princeton High School this year.