Paging Moscow Center! What the Spies Found in Montclair

Montclair, a leafy New Jersey suburb, has two movie theaters, three firehouses, 18 public tennis courts, 42 houses of worship

Montclair, a leafy New Jersey suburb, has two movie theaters, three firehouses, 18 public tennis courts, 42 houses of worship and a population of about 38,000. The 6-square-mile piece of land has been called Cranetown, Speertown, West Bloomfield and, by the 1860s, Montclair; more recently the residents have nicknamed it the People’s Republic of Montclair, for its steep property taxes. It has been occupied by the Lenape Indians, who hunted there; the English and the Dutch settlers, who built homes at the base of the mountain; George Washington, during the Revolutionary War, who used it as an observation point to track the eastbound British troops; city businessmen and their families, who, by the 19th century, were drawn both by the proximity to the city and the panoramic views of it from a distance; the landscape painter George Inness; the actress Christina Ricci; and lately, inexplicably, a couple of Russian spies.  

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In 2008, Richard and Cynthia Murphy moved from Hoboken to 31 Marquette Road, a boxy, cream-colored home with red shutters, with their two daughters, Kate and Lisa. They drove a Honda Civic. They ate pancakes at Montclair Char-Broil Diner. Cynthia commuted to a job at Morea Financial Services, an accounting firm in Lower Manhattan. And sometimes, according to F.B.I. reports filed last Monday in Federal District Court in Manhattan, they communicated with the Moscow Center via stenography-encrypting hidden messages on public Web sites-and “brush passes” with other agents.

Secret identities, secret reports, secret correspondences, but as for the actual secrets? There weren’t any. For being Russian spies, the Murphys aren’t even being charged with spying; after living in America for more than a decade, the couple failed to report any classified information back to Moscow.

“It all sounds really cute,” said the Russian-born, Lower East Side-residing novelist Gary Shteyngart, the morning after the Murphys were arrested. Mr. Shteyngart hoped, he told the Transom, that news of the arrests would help boost sales of his forthcoming novel, Super Sad True Love Story. “There are so many people who want to blow us up, and these guys are just trying to get mortgages” he continued. “They were just trying to belong! You can see the sitcom potential, like they keep calling the Moscow Center and saying, ‘Send cash now. We need to fit in more, so we need money for Bingo on Sunday night.'”

If the Murphys were amassing any Montclair secrets and sending reports back home, they might read something like this:

1. That the Spring Pea Risotto at Raymond’s is terrific.

2. That Stephen Colbert used to teach Sunday school at St. Cassian’s Parish.

3. That the mayor of Montclair’s main credential was that he used to own the town bike shop, according to James Percelay, a Montclair resident and TV producer.  

4. That Montclairians often talk about something called the ‘Migration Route’-Upper West Side to Park Slope to Montclair.

5. That “people say we’re 20 minutes west from New York, but really by any means it takes an hour,” David Carr, New York Times columnist and longtime Montclair resident, suggested.

6. That there are so many Montclair residents who work in media that gifts at PTA fund-raisers are often tickets or backstage passes to David Letterman, The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live.

7. That the average Montclairian’s schedule pivots around his or her kid’s soccer schedule.

8. That “children’s finals are often discussed in terms of ‘We’-as in ‘We have a final next week in math,'” according to Jim Axelrod, CBS News chief White House correspondent and Montclair resident.

9. That the Montclair mothers can often be seen in packs at the Starbucks on Church Street most mornings, wearing gym clothes and oversize diamond studs.

10. That there are two Whole Foods in the area, two miles apart.

11. That former Upper Montclair resident Michael Strahan attempted to build a 20-car garage for his home, but got a divorce and moved before it was ever finished.  

12. That despite the town’s beauty, its residents must still access it by a gray, putrid portal called the Port Authority.

13. That a house with an “infinity edge pool” is currently listed for $16,495,000 in Upper Montclair.

14. That there is a Squash League, and Lucas Platt, a producer on Dog the Bounty Hunter and Steven Seagal: Lawman, is a member.

15. That Bus No. 66, which takes commuters to Manhattan every morning, has rules: No eating; no cell phones; talking is frowned upon.

16. That Montclairians love to talk about this bus and use it as intellectual fodder. “I even wrote a play about the bus, about a woman who breaks the rules on the bus and decides the whole town hates her,” said Yanna Collins Lehman, resident of Montclair and a postproduction accountant on Treme and Everything Is Illuminated. Ian Frazier wrote about the bus in “Route 3,” his 2004 New Yorker article about the road that leads to his home in Montclair: “I usually travel to and from the city by bus. The one I take to go home leaves from the fourth floor of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Most bus commuters sensibly occupy themselves with newspapers, laptops, CD players and so on. I always try to get a window seat and then look at the scenery. If this were a ride at an amusement park, I would pay to go on it.”

17. That the author of Cheaper by the Dozen lives in Montclair.

18. That “Stephen Colbert is different than his character on TV,” said his neighbor, Jonathan Alter, Newsweek senior editor and Montclair resident.

19. That a very successful Obama fund-raiser was held at the Montclair home of makeup artist Bobbi Brown and her husband, real estate developer Steven Plofker.

20. That one awful day, a Montclair resident named Jacqueline Smith-Marino allegedly stabbed her husband with a 5-inch Ginzu knife while driving home from the Willowbrook shopping mall.

21. That a young man named The Situation showed up to 501 Lounge, a Montclair nightclub, not long ago and caused a near-riot.

22. That there is an Ethiopian restaurant on Bloomfield Avenue.

23. That when giving directions to his home in Montclair, longtime resident Yogi Berra said that when you get to the fork in the road at Edgemont, take it.

Paging Moscow Center! What the Spies Found in Montclair