Mid-20th century New Jersey. If that calls to mind nothing but factories, heavy industry, warehouses, and long lines of smoking automobiles at toll booths (impatient to get to The City), uh, no.
Think South Jersey, not North; Philadelphia, not New York; farmlands and forests, instead of manufacturing. (They don’t call New Jersey the Garden State because of the twenty-five percent of it enshrined in 1950s and ’60s pop culture and not forgotten since.)
Think especially of a small town on the Delaware River. Two elementary schools, each within a few blocks’ walking distance of its students’ homes. The business district: a library; a camera shop; a pool hall; a five-and-ten variety store, a grocery store, a deli, and a dry cleaner. A few very short blocks this way, you’ll also find a savings-and-loan; a meat market; the post office; a plumbing-supply company; and a dim, dusty, low-ceilinged wooden-frame store selling candy for pennies. Three gas stations. A firehouse. A couple of churches.
The whole thing eerily suspended in the moment, insulated by a creek along one side, and a mile or two of pretty much nothin’ along the others. A population almost entirely white, Protestant families of western- and northern-European descent, whose husbands and fathers work at blue-collar jobs somewhere else, whose wives and mothers work for one of this town’s few employers or not at all. Sandwiches on white bread, served at chrome-and-Formica tables with sticky plastic tablecloths.
Black-and-white television. Big rumbling cars with lots of chrome and ample tailfins, Dogs barking in back yards. Streets lined with giant maples, pin oaks, sycamore and buttonwood. A merry-go-round and an ice-cream truck sometimes patrolling the summer streets. A lone (and lonely) town drunk. A guy who drives around calling for raaaaags, another who calls straaaaaawberries, and a third (tall, lanky, pale, and bald) who pulls a battered Radio Flyer wagon and collects cardboard, and who calls nothing at all but creeps the bejeezus out everyone but the adults (who just roll their eyes). A Cub Scout troop; a Boy Scout troop; definitely Brownies, and maybe Girl Scouts. A weekly Saturday night dance-cum-pickup-basketball-game in the central school auditorium…
If you’re interested in reading any more about all this, you may want to poke around here at the site for posts in the How It Was category. Some of those posts contain actual information.