My first Thanksgiving in New Jersey

When I was eleven, way back in 1965, my family was invited for Thanksgiving to my cousins’ cousins, a Jewish-Italian family who lived in the southern part of Staten Island. This was the other side of the world to us if you lived in Brooklyn — but, now, with the completion of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge just a year earlier, Staten Island was more accessible by car. And off we went in the family car, our white 1954 Buick Special.

My mother spent a good portion of the trip, while we sat in traffic on the Belt Parkway, explaining to us why the cousins, Anthony and Dominick Arcamone, of my cousins, Lenny and Robert Novick, were not our cousins, but only cousins to Lenny and Robert — way on the other side their family. “The Arcamones are only cousins to Lenny and Robert, but not to you,” she told me.

“But how can that be? If Lenny and Robert are my cousins, and Anthony and Dominick are their cousins. That must mean that Anthony and Dominick are my cousins, too,” I retorted, asserting my early understanding of transitive logic. Finally, exasperated, my mother said, “They CAN’T be your cousins. They are not Jewish.”

Jewish/Catholic intermarriage was not a topic my mother wanted to venture into just yet, although Lenny and Robert seemed comfortable with the concept.

Finally, after almost an hour of traffic, we finally made it over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge for the first time — the longest suspension bridge in the world. We paid our 65-cent toll, and got a great view of the Hudson River, the Statute of Liberty and Manhattan bay.

The Arcamones lived just off the last exit in Staten Island, just before the Outerbridge Crossing. Unfortunately for us, my dad was not the best with directions, and he missed the exit. So, we were treated to two bridges that day, as we crossed over the Outerbridge Crossing into Perth Amboy. If Staten Island was the other side of the world, New Jersey was another planet, if you came from Brooklyn.

Somehow, we got on Route 35 and then onto Route 9 South, my father desperately looking for a way to turn around, by making a U-turn. And, so for almost 2 hours, we were lost in New Jersey. And each time my father got directions to “go up to the next traffic circle, and make a right turn on the jug-handle” proved to be completely unhelpful. Such terms as ‘traffic circle’ and ‘the jug handle’ were foreign to Brooklyn drivers in 1965.

We drove further and further south, and it looked like Thanksgiving with the Arcamones was not going to happen, and we started looking for an alternative place to eat. But this was Thanksgiving, and every restaurant was either closed or booked up.

Finally, we arrived at a gas station somewhere outside of Freehold — I remember passing the Freehold Raceway. The station was owned by an older Indian couple, who took pity on us, and shared with us half of their own dinner — cold meatloaf sandwiches. And so, in 1965, we spent Thanksgiving dinner in New Jersey somewhere on Route 9.

Years later, during a family Thanksgiving dinner, we re-told this story of our Thanksgiving in the ‘land of New Jersey’, and how strange it was for us coming from Brooklyn. My ten-year-old nephew, Brandon, noted, “Uncle Joey, you guys had Thanksgiving in a strange land with Indians, just like the Pilgrims.”

This Thanksgiving, be especially thankful for the veterans who are in Iraq and Afghanistan and cannot spend the holiday with their own families. But for their commitment, we would not be enjoying this time with our famiies.

My first Thanksgiving in New Jersey