The eastbound NJ Transit train, having careened past a regular station stop, now stood motionless somewhere southwest of Newark. An indomitably cheerful conductor was bantering with a traveling party seated at the front of our rail car. ‘My choice for Pope was passed over,’ the conductor began a joke whose shelf life expired around five years ago. ‘I was for Cardinal Sicola. I guess they didn’t want a Popesi Cola.’ Amid groans the train abruptly reversed course and headed backwards toward the bypassed station stop. Latecomers left standing on the platform to curse their tardniness were astonished to witness a train returning to pick them up. “I was not aware of that service feature,” quipped a long-suffering commuter seated across from me.
The train was already running twenty minutes late: business as usual on ‘NJ Stranded.’ Our Newark (‘Nerk,’ averting any possible confusion) Penn Station connection to New York City’s Penn Station, we were informed, was forty minutes in arrears, so we’d have plenty of time to make the switch. That mandatory transfer was slated to finally end with the digging of a new rail tunnel under the North River, the one doubling capacity into the city, funded largely with hundreds of millions of federal dollars and deep into construction until the Garden State’s newly elected governor, Chris Christie, abruptly canceled the project because it might cost some extra money. This, not long after a blunder by his office resulted in New Jersey losing four hundred million dollars of federal support for the state’s public schools.
Public school teachers—and public employees generally—have lately been demonized as the new ‘welfare queens,’ not only by Christie here in New Jersey but in Wisconsin and a growing legion of states facing fiscal crises caused, obviously, not by teachers but greed-fueled bankers and investment professionals—many of them residents of the Garden State–who convinced public pension managers to invest in their bogus and now worthless financial ‘products.’
But I digress, albeit only slightly by my standards. Public school teachers we shall have always with us from coast to coast—and here’s to solidarity with them; they took plenty of lip from me and gave back manifold blessings in return—but there is only one great Port; just one greatest city in the world. Chris Christie apparently believes access for New Jerseyans to that harbor and port and city is not a matter of ‘public’ interest. He plugged the rail tunnel to show the nation—especially potential voters in 2012 Republican primaries–he takes no guff from unions or contractors: or the hundreds of thousands of commuters who endure NJ Transit daily.
Image of Trans-Hudson Express Arc Tunnel Project by karsofmig
The railroad’s ridership changed dramatically during the seven years Dr. Chew, Charlie and I lived in America’s heartland. I began riding the old Erie Lackawanna trains to the city in the mid-70s: it was diesel fuel, wicker seats, windows that opened to welcome the Meadowlands’ rich array of memorable scents, and suburban Dads sporting hats and leather briefcases. These men of influence clamored for, and won midtown direct service to Manhattan enabling them to bypass a Hoboken transfer and its lightrail PATH trains into the city. Property values in their rail-served commuting towns nearly doubled, virtually overnight. Today’s commuters hale from the global village and all Jersey locations; their fealty to Republican politicos far less reliable. Yet their inclination to complain about the sub-Third World quality of current public transit in this state remains muted, to understate the case.
Hatted Republicanism is a relic of the pre-bonanza 90s era. Scrappier upstarts like the governor’s exurban pallies began employing private means of transportation–limos–with the occasional whirlybird for special events, beginning in the flush days of the late 80s and 90s, a time when my erstwhile Rutgers students were accruing big buckets of dough virtually for the asking (our gov., a product of fancy public schools in suburban Essex County, graduated from U. Delaware, a New Jersey outpost across the Delaware Bay; it’s even located in a place called Newark).
Chris Christie’s Wall Street executive brother and biggest contributor/booster was nicked up in one of the myriad SEC investigations that inexorably reduced these masters of the universe to mere mortals: Todd Christie got out from under the criminal indictments that smacked his former partners; a famililar enough story around here, but the voluble governor’s total silence on Wall Street’s epic malfeasance makes for a stark contrast with his jihad against school teachers and their pensions, averaging 30-40k per annum.
Before Chris Christie’s family moved to Livingston when he was a child, they lived adjacent to Newark’s Irish/Italian waterfront. In the early 90s Christie enjoyed a sit-down in a Texas federal prison with Tino Fiumara, the Genovese capo who had ruthlessly overseen that family’s extensive interests along the Jersey waterfront, and who happened to be the younger brother of Christie’s step-uncle. That’s a classic Jersey familial scenario and no big deal in itself: but…how the story—and Christie’s habit of steam-rolling his enemies like some present day Mr. Big–plays with heartland tea-partiers remains to be seen: perhaps they’re finally prepared to get over the celebrations of whiteness that undermined national aspirations past of Geraldine Ferraro, Mario Cuomo and, for all we know, Rudy Giuliani.
But here’s an unrelated irony worth mulling. In recent years more and more folks from America’s interior have been spotted on NJ Transit’s lurching equipment, seeking to make their way into Gotham from the much cheaper tourist-friendly hotels found on this side of the river. In many other and prouder jurisdictions—including even car-crazy locales–our decrepit mass transit system would be viewed as an embarrassment for visitors and a civic disgrace to natives. Chris Christie’s bluster, in deriding the rail tunnel project and other public improvements as so much “political candy,” may not play quite so cutely in the heartland as his feisty calculations guaranteed.
Locally, the Jersey isolationism Christie pits against a countervailing, traditionally expansive regional perspective may prove far less potent than he reckoned. Even was the governor to parlay his frenzied YouTube campaign into wresting the G.O.P. nomination, I suspect he’d be life and death to hold serve in the Garden State by November 2012. For as Benjamin Franklin sagely noted, New Jersey is a barrel tapped at both ends, not plugged.