What's Rockland County to me? A series of linked and indelible images in the life of a kid from a broken city: An introduction to the wonders of split-level suburbia, an amusing if messy backyard bar-mitzvah, a slightly disastrous hike in the wilderness; even a stint as a potato chip and snack bar packaging salesman.
It's late afternoon: I've arrived a bit early for a Hasidic wedding at a catering hall nestled in the far corner of a potholed parking lot on Route 59 - Rockland's pulsating, if threadbare, east-west commercial artery. Having attended other receptions here, I know that the hall's nondescript entrance belies the astounding Temple-like gilded Doric columns inside.
The antiquity suggested by the imposing pillars in the hall unintentionally hints at the long, illustrious history of County Rockland, New York.
Unbeknownst to most, this very year commemorates the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's fateful arrival in the adjacent Tappan Zee - the widest section of the river that bears his name.
There's nowhere else to wait for the smorgasbord soon to commence, except for a broken bench in the parking lot overlooking the noisy thoroughfare. And so, with corned beef, lo-mein and Hawaiian chicken stations in my immediate future, I while away the moments reflecting on the path that has led me to all my Rocklands.
That path begins with many dismal Groundhog Day-like Sundays of three decades ago: dreaded subway descents to Herald Square with my mother to join the Korvette's-Gimbel's-Macy's department store crawl - a masochistic procession of shopaholic mothers by the thousands and their not-so-silent suffering children crowding a significant stretch of 34th Street.
Other far less frequent Sundays consisted of swooping in uninvited on each of my three kerchiefed Ultra-Orthodox aunts in Brooklyn. For our trouble, a slab of chocolate babka cake and a glass of milk awaited us on the formica tables in their linoleum-tiled kitchens.
Once in a very long while, a new, far better Sunday would present itself: a father-son drive across the churning Hudson to the bucolic land that lay just north of the New Jersey boundary: Rockland.
How different it was from those endless August weekdays, spent roaming the steamy, slightly menacing corners of Manhattan's Riverside Park along the Hudson. Gazing longingly at the George Washington Bridge in the hazy distance, I'd fantasize about an excursion to the triangular wedge squeezed between Tappan Zee and majestic wilderness.
Rockland. Even its name evoked drama. The Ramapos were my Rockies. Seated beside my unbelted father gliding along the Palisades Parkway, I'd peruse his tattered AAA roadmap atlas to inspect that huge lime green patch straddling Rockland's mysterious northwest frontier - Harriman State Park. Isolated crystalline lakes with exotic names like Tiorati and Sebago would tempt any juvenile urban prisoner.
Unfortunately, we never made it to the enticing forests of Harriman; our set itinerary hardly strayed from Route 59. But hey, you know what they say about beggars.
First stop on our Rockland voyages was to the home of Harold, my dad's childhood pal in Nanuet. The second was along the western reaches of 59, to Uncle Yanki who lived with his wife Hindy and eight children (en route to an eventual dozen) in Monsey, which had yet to flower into the New Jerusalem.
Rockland was time travel: while the two onetime yeshiva boys lived on opposite ends of the route, they also inhabited contrasting historical epochs. Harold was a thoroughly secular travel agent and aspiring poet with a huge color TV and fully stocked bar in the den who enjoyed reciting verse while displaying his prodigious stomach in his swimming pool out back.
Yanki, a belt buckle salesman, had no pool or TV and made sure his boys' skullcapped heads were as closely shaved as their payis long. Hindy was prohibited from driving, while their daughters were puritanically clothed from neck to wrist to toe even in the sweltering depths of summer. No exposed bellies here.
Rockland was celebration: my bar mitzvah was hosted in Yanki's home two months prior to the release of Saturday Night Fever. This was an informal affair that spilled into the backyard; my father was big on catering bargains. During the course of a pickup football game, one of my classmates threw a touchdown pass that shattered the living room windowpane; the ball landed in a tray of Swedish meatballs.
Rockland was adventure: proceeding with friends years later beyond Monsey and into the wilds of Harriman Park; it was overcast and we lost our bearings. Out of water, starved and drifting in circles for miles, we somehow emerged out of the pitch darkness into the forlorn hamlet of Sloatsburg at the county's extreme western corner. Memory fails me as to how we returned to civilization.
Finally, Rockland was career: six years ago I accepted but soon left a job at a small snack packaging company, hidden in a cell block just off 59. As it happens, I could just make out from my vantage point on the bench a corner of the squat building that housed my ill-fated foray into sales.
It's time to go. Standing up, I inhale deeply and take in, along with the auto fumes, one last long gaze at historic route 59, as it winds its way west towards the Sloatsburg sunset. The smorgasbord beckons.