Sometimes, I get off the train early. For most students, NJ Transit serves as a ferry between Princeton and New York. For excursions to urbanity when suburban ennui seems intolerable. On route to concert, museum, or nightclub, they stay on the train until it pulls into New York Penn Station; their naps are periodically interrupted by the train conductor’s almost mechanical droning, “Metropark… Metuchen…Rahway.” These familiar, yet foreign, words assume a mythical quality—passengers imagine histories for these in-between places that inevitably fade into obscurity as the hum of New York approaches.
We enter the Dinky defined by what we do on campus, where we go on Prospect, who our friends are. We exit the train at Princeton Junction another person on our way elsewhere, where comfort can be found in unrecognizable faces. In the real world, people are so much more approachable.
But sometimes we get trapped on the train—in Princeton—longer than we’d like. Careless eye contact on the Dinky can lead to forced conversation with your freshman year roommate. After awkwardly exiting the Dinky together, you are unsure if you want to commit to an hour-long interaction on the train to New York. And if you do end up sitting together, the exodus at Penn Station can be even more awkward—both of you shuffle out of the train and say goodbye too early. There is an uncomfortable silence as you ride the escalator together. Eye contact is averted.
Recently, I’ve taken the train to New Brunswick and the conductor has never checked for tickets. It’s an easy getaway—it’s one stop away from Princeton Junction and a free trip, sort of.
Getting off at the station leaves you in downtown New Brunswick. Just down the street is a record store hidden in the basement of a smoke shop called Spina: probably only a tenth of the size of Princeton Record Exchange. The selection is both niche and meticulously curated: Judas Priest, John Lennon, and classic rock dominating the shelves. Though I have only been there once, Spina Records was comfortable: like an old leather jacket with a faint aroma of incense.
And New Brunswick is comfortable, with dozens of close high school friends going to school there. I often imagine what it would be like to go to Rutgers: Grease Trucks sandwiches instead of Hoagie Haven, frat houses instead of eating clubs, a city instead of a suburb. However, growing up, my parents warped the word “Rutgers” into the bogeyman of higher education: conflating the school with mediocrity. After a missed curfew or argument, my dad would shake his head and sigh—convinced and dismayed that his son was going to end up at one of the most affordable and respected public universities in America.
Within walking distance of the Edison station is a Korean barbeque buffet that my family goes to for special occasions. A Mandarin-speaking waitress would come over—they can always somehow tell that we aren’t Korean—and help us start the grill on our table. Wandering around the restaurant, my dad would make small talk with acquaintances: figuring out where their kids were going to school, how much “face” they would bring to the family, lining up his son against theirs.
Unlike Edison, the suburb I grew up in had very few Mandarin-speaking people. Instead, my parents received a weekly Chinese-American newspaper that always seemed to feature some award-winning chess prodigy or Chemistry Olympiad who lived in Edison. Out of obligation, I looked over the paper, feigning interest in this removed world of perfect SAT scores and unbalanced equations.
But Edison was not always an Asian-American mecca. In a controversial humor column, Time magazine correspondent and Edison native Joel Stein laments, “The A&P I shoplifted from is now an Indian grocery. The multiplex where we snuck into R-rated movies now shows only Bollywood films and serves samosas.” Unlike Stein, I enjoy Edison’s thriving Indian personality: you can’t buy frozen naan bread at an A&P.
In Metuchen, I learned how to play piano. Like a good Asian parent, my mom drove me to 351 Main Street, Metuchen for weekly lessons with a family of Russian émigré musicians. On their walls hung yellowed diplomas from Moscow School of Music next to frayed photos of St. Petersburg in the snow, the house strangely removed from the town’s colonial American history. Here, all conversation was carried out in a hushed Russian or broken English. But this translocation would sometimes be interrupted. My music classroom had a window that overlooked the tracks leading to Metuchen station, and for the last twenty minutes of each week’s lesson, the commuter trains would pull in from New York—the noise of their engines providing a fitting accompaniment to a poorly played Rachmaninoff Prelude.
If you look closely out the window as the train pulls out of Metuchen, you can see the tombstones from the Metuchen Colonial Cemetery. When I was in elementary school, my mom and I would go for walks in the cemetery if we had extra time before my piano lesson. Clutching at my folder of sheet music, I would practice reading names instead of notes. My mom told me that the American flags planted in front of some tombstones meant that those people were particularly brave. I wondered if I would get a flag by my tombstone someday.
Immediately visible from the train station is the ice-cream place “What’s the Scoop?” on Main Street that I used to frequent with a high school sweetheart. We shared scoops of green tea and coffee until she broke up with me over tumblr post, citing her reading of the movie 500 Days of Summer. Worried for my wellbeing, my best friend took me out the next day. Stepping off the train and walking past What’s the Scoop?, she led me to The Raconteur, a bookstore that sold VHS tapes for a dollar and had a first-edition copy of The Tin Drum by Günter Grass. Before we left the store, she bought me a copy of The Stranger, telling me reassuringly that reading would make me feel better. Several months later, The Raconteur closed down and was replaced by a new bookstore: To Be Continued…
When people ask where in New Jersey I’m from, I tell them Metropark even though it’s just the name of the train station. Located between the towns Iselin and Woodbridge, Metropark is a fifteen-minute walk from my house and a thirty-minute drive when my sister calls me for a ride home after work and there’s traffic. But now, I’m usually the one that gets picked up: returning home for a needed, home-cooked Taiwanese meal or the chance to play with my dog Lucy. On the drive home, we pass three Indian restaurants—Iselin happens to be home to one of the largest Indian communities in America—my elementary school, and the park where I had my first kiss.
As a freshman in high school, I inexplicably became entangled with Iselin’s hardcore music scene: I straightened my hair before school, wore skinny jeans from Hot Topic, and fought my way through mosh pits. To my parents’ annoyance, the house across the street would organize a backyard show every summer, inviting bands in the area to come play. As a rebellious teenager, I gladly paid five dollars to hear music perfectly audible from my bedroom.
The band Palisades—formerly known as Marilyn is Dead—is particularly ingrained in Iselin lore. Before replacing their drug-addled singer and getting signed to Rise Records, these twenty-something year olds frequented high school parties in town, sometimes dating friends of mine. Their Wikipedia defines them as “a post-hardcore band from Iselin, New Jersey.”
During drives from our suburb to a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant in Rahway, my friends would often lower their windows to let the sound of Spanish conversations mix with the pop-punk playing in the car. Sometimes, someone in the car would recognize an uncle or cousin walking in the street and shout hello. Though we mostly stayed in the car during these short trips, we welcomed the break from the monotony of our neighborhood. After all, an empanada from La Malinche is just a Spanish samosa that goes a lot better with Corona.
The first time I saw my dad give money to a homeless person was outside his luggage company’s warehouse in Linden. I remember waiting in the backseat as my dad locked his barbed wire gate and noticing the rattling of a shopping cart approaching. Framed by a dim street lamp, the man seemed menacing and my eight-year-old self prayed that my dad would get back in the car. Instead, my dad made conversation with the man, asking about his life before handing him a fifty. Every so often, I catch my dad in little acts of charity.
Even now my dad tells me not to give money to people on the street, emphasizing the work he puts in to get a dollar. Don’t tell him, but I donate to Planned Parenthood instead.
For summers in middle school I learned the value of that dollar by working in my dad’s warehouse. For eight dollars an hour, I packed and unpacked “super light” luggage into cardboard boxes, wheeled crates into the delivery truck, and counted the blisters on my fingers. I learned that my dad was a reluctant suitcase man who picked up the business to support my mom through graduate school, filling his brain with dimensions, weights, and color schemes out of necessity rather than choice. Nothing mortifies him more than when I go outside the family for baggage, my A.P.C. backpack tantamount to betrayal.
Still, at airports, I look for familiar suitcases. Seeing strangers lug around my dad’s “National Travel Product” brand bags in New York or Taiwan gives me a strange feeling of pride. I like to imagine past lives for these bags, sometimes thousands of miles removed from Linden, New Jersey. This must be what it’s like for James McCartney when he hears a Beatles song at a Starbucks.
Princeton University was founded in Elizabeth in 1746 but the city could not be any more different from Princeton. For one, Elizabeth has one of the highest rates of car theft in any American city, while I have accidentally left my car unlocked on Nassau Street for hours without consequence.
I wonder if Judy Blume ever got her car stolen. If so, she’s probably written a young adult novel about it.
Newark Penn Station
Freshman year, I saw Drake at the Prudential Center with a friend from high school. We met at the station and decided to walk to the venue together, traversing the uncomfortably empty streets with hordes of excited high schoolers. No one seemed to mind that the city, despite being populated with tall towers, was pitch black.
In July 2014, the New York Times reported, “a three-year federal investigation found that the Newark Police Department engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional practices, chiefly in its use of stop-and-frisk tactics, unwarranted stops and arrests, and discriminatory police actions.”
“Don’t think about it too much, too much, too much, too much/Don’t think about it too much, too much, too much, too much…”
A few weeks ago, I tweeted: “Before I die, will I ever get off the train at Secaucus?” As it stands, the prospect seems unlikely despite the station’s role in linking the Northeast Corridor with other NJ Transit lines that lead to New York. By the time I get to Secaucus, I’m already blinded by my destination: who has the time to transfer trains just to go to another suburb?
But what if I get off and don’t transfer trains? Wikipedia tells me that Secaucus is Algonquian for “place for snakes”—fitting for a transit hub. Hailing from various ends of New Jersey, these metallic snakes intersect, realizing their purpose as passages to civilization.
There is a beautiful section of track where the train, surrounded on both sides by the Hudson River, appears to be moving on top of water. For a moment, New York disappears from mind and the NJ Transit—despite all its faults—is sublime, a marvel of engineering that brings suburban kids to the city they wished they were from…
New York Penn Station
To an extent, we’re all bridge and tunnel.