I got started relatively early in the morning after a hearty breakfast of beans, rice and eggs. Cookie and I wasted some time, delaying my inevitable departure. It's hard enough saying "goodbye" to strangers along the way, it's doubly hard to walk away from friends. Especially friends that I see so rarely. I think both of us had tears in our eyes as we hugged, I posed for a picture, then headed South.
Deciding to take her roommates advice, I stuck to Mountain Road for a tick, cutting North to edge along the Eagle Rock Reservation on Undercliff Road. Once I found the entrance to the reservation I hiked in about a half mile to take my noon break, and took off my shoes and pack for a bit of a rest. Finally having a little time to think about the past few days, the dichotomy was overwhelming. Going from spending the night in a churchyard in Rye, NY to a doctor's apartment in New Rochelle, NY (thanks Peter!). To a warehouse in Brooklyn, to a townhouse over the river, only to end my weekend in a penthouse apartment with a view of Manhattan after spending the day dodging protesters and cops. Unable to put into words my feelings I just sat and absorbed the sunshine trickling through the leaves, hoping that my memory would hold up until I got a chance to put it down on paper.
Starting to feel drowsy, I figured that was my cue to "saddle up" again, and headed pretty much directly South. I passed through Orange, NJ and saw the heavy hand of the recession. Once nice buildings, while still occupied were falling into disrepair. Monuments to the local war veterans lacked the shine I'd seen in other towns. After getting directions from a friendly clerk at a pharmacy (only after her boss had tersely told me "no we do not have rolling papers" and going back to his work) I headed towards East Orange, NJ.
I hadn't realized that the once bustling town was now a rundown suburb of Newark, NJ. A retirement community, most of the residents live on a fixed income, with barely enough for the essentials. I stopped by Harris' Diner right off the highway, ordered an omelet and got down to jawing with the locals. My waitress Louis was fascinated by the idea of my journey, although (thanks to my clever disguise) she kept calling me "young man". I didn't want to dissuade her, as I'd learned that folks see what they want to see, and generally ignore what they don't understand. Going with the flow I let her introduce me to the owner after I'd eaten and we talked for a while about what Orange used to be, and where she felt it was going.
"This used to be a great place to live, I mean, it still is people don't bother us because we've been here so long, open since 1951. Most of the people here live on a fixed income, Social Security, or state assistance, so they don't have the money to come here anymore, you know eating out is a luxury. We used to have a line out the door for a place to sit and eat, and four waitresses on staff during the lunch hour. Over the past few years it's lay-off after lay-off, I just can't afford to pay them. We used to be open 24 hours, now we cut back and have to close early on the weeknights, we're still open 24 hours on the weekend, but we'll probably have to cut that back too."
"What happened here to cause the change?" I asked.
She thought about it for a moment answering; "Times change, people move away, I mean, who wants to live in Orange, NJ anymore? My husband and I would like to retire, he's in his 80's I'm in my 70's, we try to sell, but no one will buy, pretty soon we'll have to close it down, then what do my employees do? Go on state assistance? Move away?"
We talked a bit longer about the rise in prices on food, and how she would have to start charging more soon, even just to make utilities, the mortgage, even trash pick up.
"Every year they charge us more to come out here and pick up the trash, you don't pay? They stop picking up the trash and it piles up. They charge us more for bread, eggs, vegetables, who has the money to pay for a $10.00 omelet, I can't afford to do that, I can't ask my customers to do that. The mayor, he keeps building things, new houses, buildings we don't know what they are for, no one can afford to rent them that's for sure."
Now knowing that Louis had taken a pay cut and worked pretty much every lunch shift to make up the difference, I gave her as big a tip as I could afford on top of the ridiculously cheap price of my breakfast. I chatted a bit longer with the owner, wished her and Louis goodbye and headed South again, meandering on county back roads.
On entering East Orange, NJ the difference even between the past couple of depressed towns and this one was stark. Closed down gas stations on every block with a handful of people sitting near derelict gas pumps. Mothers shepherding gaggles of children about, avoiding eye contact and unresponsive to my tentative "hellos." If there was one thing I knew it was that I didn't belong here. My collared shirt, backpack and walking stick made me stick out like a sore thumb. Little did I know at that point that I was walking through the western edge of Newark, NJ.