Between the Pulaski Skyway and the Holland Tunnel sits Jersey City, one of those old urban conclaves of northern New Jersey. When I first knew the place, my great-grandmother lived there in a Victorian multi-story house filled with antimacassars and little glass dishes of hard candy. The neighborhood was solidly Norwegian, with a church where fire-and-brimstone sermons were preached in the language of the Old Country.
Before World War II, it was a city of immigrants, mostly from Ireland, Italy and Germany (in the 1940 census, it was 95 percent white), but now, it is the most ethnically diverse city in the nation, with the single largest chunk — over one-fourth — being Hispanic — and many of those from Puerto Rico.
I hadn’t been in Jersey City since the 1950s, when our family would drive down to see our great-granny and those giant overstuffed chairs and the pulled draperies and Oriental carpets. I went back in 1998 to cover a story in New York, but I decided to stay in a motel in Jersey City, which was not only much cheaper, but let me explore the nostalgia of the old city.
Jersey City hadn’t changed much, it seems. Oh, the ethnicity had changed from when my great grandmother lived here with a whole community of Norwegians. But the streets and buildings look the same: brownstone apartments, old two-story wooden homes and streets lined with first-floor shops. Bus fumes and knotted traffic add to the nostalgia.
Up three blocks and over 10 on Kennedy Boulevard, I found a tiny Puerto Rican restaurant. It was about 10 feet wide, with a white tile floor. Along the left wall ran a counter with some stools and a display case filled with pastries. Along the right wall ran, well, the right wall. There is no room for anything more. They managed to squeeze in some travel posters, but anything thicker than that and there would have been no room for paying customers.
I knew right off it was worth it: The smell was thick and spicy — the combined fragrance of hot cooking oil and achiote. The woman behind the counter was smiling and friendly. Her name was Nelly Cintron. An older man sat at the last stool dividing his attention among the newspaper spread out on the counter, the Spanish-network news on the TV up on the wall, and a cup of coffee. He turned out to be the cook’s husband, Angel.
These little shops are what make a place like Jersey City. The downtown may now be new and filled with high rises, but the old part of the city remains; it is not one of these brand-new plasterboard and stucco cities that seem to pop up all over the West. These cities were built when to build still meant to build to last. So, instead of tearing things down and putting up yet another Denny’s, they use the old buildings and recycle the businesses in them.
The front window of this Candlelite Cafe displayed a pan of fried chicken, some pork chops and several varieties of bread that I’d never seen before, along with a menu sign in chalk that listed the day’s specials. The biftek encebollado looked good, so I went in, sat down on a stool and ordered it.
Nelly looked at me funny. My Spanish is not good, but I didn’t think it was that bad. I repeated it in Spanish and then in English — beef with onions?
She didn’t have that, she said, still looking at me funny. I pointed to the chalk board and she laughed.
“That was yesterday,” she said, figuring out what I meant. “Today, we have stew.”
I let on that stew would be quite nice, so she served it up: A plate piled high with yellow rice, beans and fried plantain, with a side bowl of stewed beef and potatoes. It smelled heavenly.
I downed it with a bottle of Goya Malta, a beverage whose existence had eluded me until then. It is sort of like an unbrewed beer drink, only very, very sweet. It had the flavor of a carbonated iron tonic. It sounds terrible; it looked terrible. But when I tasted it, to my surprise, it tasted very good, and what is more, it was the perfect accompaniment to my Puerto Rican beef stew. I have ever since appalled my friends by popping open a bottle of the dark, syrupy soda pop. I offer it but there are never any takers. Their loss.
We talked over the meal and Angel chimed in periodically, pointing to something interesting on the TV news. A hurricane headed for Honduras; someone he knew knifed at a service station; a political ad for Al D’Amato, aimed at the Hispanic voter. Angel laughed. Al D’Amato?
I answered their questions about Arizona, they were eager to tell me about Puerto Rico. He loved it; it was his motherland. She was a little more skeptical.
“I was born here,” she said. “We’ve gone to Puerto Rico. It’s beautiful, but I never want to drive there again; the traffic is worse than here. The roads are worse.”
“Yes,” Angel admitted. “Puerto Rico is only 100 miles long and 70 miles wide. To drive that far here takes what? I made a delivery last week to Hartford (Conn.) and it took me two hours to get there. In Puerto Rico, you’re lucky if you get there by next week.”
“It’s not that bad,” she responds, “but it’s close. And the road over the mountain. It’s all up and down and around.” She makes her hand into a karate chop and wiggles it around like a fish.
“The cars go around the corners like this and this and you don’t know what is around the curve” — at this point, her left hand makes an alternate wiggling fish and plunges into her right hand — “like that.”
“You’ve got to go there sometime,” Angel says. “You’ll love it.”
“Yes,” she says. “You’ll love it.”
The meal leaves me stuffed like a salami, is the best thing I have eaten in five days on the road and sets me back an entire $5.75.
“That’s too cheap,” I complain. “You can’t stay in business that way.”
“Oh, no. It’s fine. We Puerto Ricans know how to get the most from a dollar,” she says.
Nevertheless, I leave behind a very fat tip.
“What are you cooking tomorrow?,” I ask just before leaving.
I have searched for that restaurant and it is no longer there, replaced by a liquor store. I often think of Nelly and Angel.
Sic transit gloria mundi.