Friday, April 18, 2008
...And On the Eighth Day, God Hired a Marketing Team
As the New Jersey Transit bus accordions into an exit off the New Jersey Turnpike, Teaneck’s religiosity comes into full view. With its suburban burnish and perfectly manicured small businesses, Teaneck is a sleepily tolerant religious ecosystem, with Catholic, Jew, and Muslim perfunctorily resigned to one another. Up the hill from a major park is a Baha’i log cabin temple, cast inside a forest veil.
Though I rode this route hundreds of times in the 16 years I lived in Teaneck, I could not recall the church off the Turnpike advertising as it does now.
A large placard promises, in avuncular bold, that “GOD ALLOWS U TURNS.” The next side shows itself as the bus pushes forward: “DON’T GAMBLE WITH ETERNITY.”
How convivial, even playful. But…the NJ Turnpike; a bus; gambling; a u turn; hometown dread…suddenly I feel like hightailing to Atlantic City to do the exact things that might endanger my eternity. Still, the sign swears that there’s always time to repent, so I figure that pushing off my prodigious U-turn until after a weekend of roulette and self-loathing is perfectly within reason. The only way to truly gamble with eternity, after all, is to deny the possibility of repentance. So long as I remain somewhere between conscientious and contrite, I will remain in good stead with the Almighty.
Despite all the misgivings about rolling through my hometown (Teaneck and I have an icy, adversarial relationship, dating to the time it removed the mailbox on my family’s block), there is something unfailingly comforting about being back. The houses never change, the people always walk slowly, there are two 7-Elevens, and the religious institutions try their best to save your soul as you careen onto Teaneck Road. “Make a U Turn,” they beseech. “Your fate is worth it.” I may not care for Teaneck, but Teaneck cares for me.
Meanwhile, in New York City, the Church is far more unfeeling. When the Pope visits, the Powers That Be stage him at Yankee Stadium, home to more spit, urine, and profanity than R. Kelly’s diary. Religious communities are marred by infighting and turf wars. The fratricidal air even extends to the outer boroughs, where fragmented worshippers splinter into countless synagogues and cells, content to pursue the afterlife with an irreconcilable distaste for fellow pursuers.
During my early childhood (late 80s-early 90s, approximately Michael Jordan’s first reign of dominance), I succeeded in finding every reason to hate suburbia. Most of those reasons had nothing to do with suburbia itself, but rather with its maddening inability to be a major urban center. I complained often that being seated in an uneventful picket-fence universe imposed an artificial ceiling on my opportunities. I told my parents and teachers that Teaneck was the ambition graveyard, and that the only way to try at superstardom was to migrate to New York City.
Now that I am in the city (in the aforementioned outer boroughs, at least), my original claim still rings legitimate—city life affords manifold routes to success that northern New Jersey simply cannot accommodate. I don’t miss the snail’s pace, either, and there are more 7-Elevens here than the suburban child in me could ever imagine. What I miss, though, is the caring air, the way that people build a cohesive community and protect their families in its structure. A monolithic and homogenous structure, yes, but (I like to think) well meaning.
The bus continues past the sign-bearing church and the Dairy Queen and the hospital and both 7-Elevens. I disembark at a shopping complex and confirm its intertia. Blockbuster, Walgreens, and Dunkin’ Donuts are still there, as are the same sundry shops that always lined this shoehorn-shaped stretch. I spy three people I haven’t seen since high school, and they look exactly as they did years ago.
I turn around, away from the impending “hey-how-are-you-what-are-you-up-to” conversation. After all, God allows U-turns.
Stay Static, Suburbia