It’s not until you leave Manhattan that you realize how darn busy, noisy, grimy and pressured it is. It’s summertime, which means those locals who can afford a 30-room getaway cottage in the Hamptons and Martha’s Vineyard have left, but for every one of them, it seems ten tourists have sprung up Hydra-like in their place.
I really became aware of this when I returned to Union City, New Jersey. It’s literally only ten minutes and 5 kays by ‘chicken bus’ from Manhattan, but about 50 years and 5000 kilometers in social time. ‘Cos downtown Union City is Central and South America, transplanted.
When I first heard of the ‘chicken bus’ I had images of those old third-world buses, peasants hanging out of every window and door, each clutching a handful of chooks, and more hens, pigs, goats, whatever, in cages atop the roof. The reality’s slightly different. Everyone gets a seat, and there’s nary a single item of livestock to be seen. Turns out they’re called ‘chicken bus’ because they’re small, and always moving about (you never have to wait more than three or four minutes for the next one) and pecking up passengers (sorry, never can resist a bad pun). But on them, all you’ll hear is Spanish.
‘The Bergenline’ (Bergenline Avenue) is the main shopping drag. It feels like a village, which I guess it is – so much of life seems to be lived out on the street here. Come on a Sunday, and it’s full of strolling families. I half-expected to hear a horse clip-clop along, and the occasional pig to dart out from a cross-street, but it didn’t happen (although I’m told that last night, on one of the streets not far away, there were lots of pigs and chooks to pet – part of Union City’s pre-Independence Day street fair).
The people here are first-generation migrants, and their children. They come from Peru, Puerto Rico, Honduras, Chile, Cuba, and more. Most don’t need high ceilings in their houses, although already their children are showing signs of being taller. For a brief while, I was a giant among men.
The male culture’s interesting. It’s definitely macho. The first time I strolled The Bergenline, I was waiting for someone, dark eyes hidden under a sombrero, to call out “Hey, greengo, you better sheeft your donkey out of our street pronto” and then proceed to stub his cigarillo out in my eye socket.
It’s not like that. There’s little of the affected ‘get out of my way, white honky’ swagger that’s seen among some of the young male Afro-American population in NYC. In fact, the only time I saw someone moving in that swaggering way on The Bergenline, the Latino men looked quite uncomfortable with it. Maybe these machos have a softer side: what do people do at the Ponce de Leon bank?
You’d expect an area like this to be totally RC, but the other religions are also represented. Every sixth store seems to sell Catholic iconry (spread-armed Jesus statues, head-tilted Virgin Marys, rosaries, bleeding hearts etc). While the JWs don’t seem to have taken hold of the idea of merchandising, they do have a place of worship on the main drag. At least, I think it’s the JWs – perhaps it translates as ‘Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Testicles’, which would be an entirely different faith. It’s a nice touch that next to it, is ‘Glory Shoes’ – perfect for dressing to enter heaven.
Most of the shops on the Bergenline are signed in Spanish. Occasionally there’s English, but it’s handy to have read a lot of cowboy comics as a youngster, especially those set around the Mexican border. Some signs are harder than others to translate. I think this one marks the place to go when you’re running low on ferrets. Or perhaps you take your ferret here for a feed?
If you ever travel to Manhattan, do yourself a favour – hop on one of those chicken buses at Gate 51 in the deepest bowels of the Port Authority Terminal, hand over your three bucks, and take the trip through the Lincoln Tunnel – and through time and space – to The Bergenline.