Trenton Makes

The steel mill along the river was shuttered and dark, looming over the highway outside Trenton like a villain in a bad movie. Stevie Cohn fidgeted restlessly in the back seat of the car, eager for the whole day to be over with. He was tall and thin, with brown hair so dark it was almost black. He stared out the window as his father drove past where Stevie’s grandparents had lived when his mother was born, a house that looked primed for urban renewal. For once, mercifully, his mother did not point the house out, though by then Stevie knew the whole story by heart.

It was hard enough, he thought, to be dragged into a family event like a bar mitzvah, but knowing how rich his aunt and uncle were and how ostentatious the reception was likely to be only made it worse. He thought about how much money the bar mitzvah reception was costing as the Cohns’ car continued through a shabby neighborhood at the heart of the city. He was proud of himself for recognizing the irony in having those thoughts in that place.

Finally they passed into the suburbs on the other side of Trenton. The catering hall was large and elaborate, and a valet in a uniform that reminded Stevie of the monkeys in The Wizard of Oz took their car.

Stevie’s parents and his brother hurried into the reception, while Stevie lingered in the lobby of the catering hall, staring at an enormous framed photograph. The governor of New Jersey stood next to his desk, his hand resting on the back of his chair. In the chair sat Stevie’s cousin Marty, wearing his bar mitzvah suit.

“Boy,” he said.

“Even a dentist’s son from Trenton can make it to the governor’s chair if his father puts enough cash in the party coffers,” a girl standing next to him said. “You know him?”

“Yeah, he’s my cousin.”

She turned to him. “Geez, you know, I always seem to say the wrong thing to the wrong person. It’s like I have this knack for putting my foot in my mouth.”

“You think it’s bad here, wait til it shows up in their living room over the couch,” Stevie said, looking at the girl out of the side of his eyes. She was about his age—22-- and she wore a cream-colored silk jacket over a light blue dress with a high slit in its side. She had hazel eyes and piles of dark brown hair held in place with tortoise-shell combs. “Can you imagine what it’s like inside?” Stevie asked.

“My mother says they’ve made a model of the Lower Morrisville Free Bridge in flowers with miniature lights spelling out “Trenton Makes The World Takes.”

“That’s nothing,” Stevie said. “My mother says Aunt Sylvia’s got street signs set up all over the ballroom marking prominent intersections in Marty’s life— and little papier mache models of buildings important to him. She said we’re gonna get the model of our house.”

Most of the people had already gone into the first reception room, just up the stairs from the lobby. Stevie heard a steel band kick into a calypso tune up there and a family rushed in late, the heavyset father scratching uncomfortably at his neck, the mother in high teased hair adjusting the lapel of a little boy who would not stand still.

Stevie’s Aunt Sylvia swooped out to the lobby in a swirl of silk and Chanel Number Five. “Stevie, darling!” she said. She kissed his cheek. “You know Jane Maltzman, don’t you? Of course you do. How could you both spend practically your entire lives in Trenton and not know each other!”

“We just met, Aunt Sylvia.” Stevie stuck his hand out to Jane. “Hi. I’m Steve Cohn.”

She said hi too. Aunt Sylvia said, “You look darling, Jane dear. Now go inside and eat!” She gave them a little push and rushed to embrace the woman with the high teased hair. She led the family up the steps and into the reception.

Jane and Stevie followed them up the steps to the sign-in board where a group of randy thirteen-year-olds were drawing a picture of a naked woman right beneath “Congratulations, Marty­­ Today you are a man, love, Aunt Miriam and Uncle Jack.” When they approached the boys scattered, dropping yarmulkes and presents in their wake.

The centerpiece of the sign-in board was a skyline of Trenton with a rocket leaving the roof of Adath Israel synagogue. Underneath it read “Marty takes off!” Friends and relatives had signed their names, along with the obligatory cute slogans­­ “Today I am a fountain pen”; “Today I am a savings bond”.

“That’s my father, upwardly mobile as always,” Stevie said, pointing to the last in the series­­ “Today I am a home computer.”

Stevie scrawled “user friendly” below his father’s note and wrote “Congratulations­­ Stevie Cohn” beside it. Jane wrote “Next stop the White House, love, Jane M.” and said, “You know, the thing of it is they won’t understand it’s sarcastic.” They walked into the high-ceilinged reception room together. It was already packed with celebrants.

The steel band was directly across from them and a few middle-aged couples made a pretense of dancing on the parquet square in the middle of the room. “Is this a bar mitzvah or an Arthur Murray class?” Jane asked.

“Watch that guy in the gray suit,” Stevie said, pointing to a debonair man who at that moment threw his partner into an exaggerated dip. “That’s my Uncle Jack with my Aunt Miriam. He’s the family comedian. He makes terrible, embarrassing toasts.”

“I’ll keep my eye on him. Let’s eat. I’m starved.”

To their right was a table the length of the room groaning with every variety of kosher fish available on the eastern seaboard, along with some special salmon from Washington state.

“Aunt Sylvia had the bagels shipped in specially from Brooklyn and had the whitefish Federal Expressed from a great deli in Brighton Beach,” Stevie said. Across from the fish table two Japanese chefs slung sharp knives and fried up vegetables at a tempura bar. In the back corner the Cohn relatives crowded the bar, getting settled for a long afternoon.

Jane pointed to the far end of the room and said, “Now that’s ridiculous.” A pair of clowns-- one sad and one happy-- sat in a booth marked “New Jersey State Fairgrounds”. The clowns handed out kids’ food—hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza and sodas. “Can’t they eat the same food as everybody else?” Jane asked. “Children should be forced to eat gefilte fish. It builds character.”

They heaped their plates with fish, vegetables, and stuffed cabbage from a set of chafing dishes and Stevie got them a pair of strong Scotches from the bar, muscling his way past his Uncle Jack. He and Stevie’s father were engaged in a heated conversation about the conversion of State Street into a pedestrian mall.

“Aw, hell, you can’t even drive downtown any more,” Herb Cohn said. “All the streets blocked off or one way. We go out to Oxford Valley Mall or Quaker Bridge.”

“The idea behind the mall was to get people like you from the suburbs to come back into the downtown to shop,” Jack said.

“There isn’t anything to buy there any more!” Herb said, and Stevie slipped away with the drinks in hand.

“Who’s that guy talking with your Uncle Jack?” Jane asked. “I’ve seen him somewhere before.”

“That’s my dad. He probably looks familiar because he said an aliyah this morning at the service. You should have seen him studying the prayers at breakfast. Boy, was he scared.”

“Have you noticed they never ask people who can sing the prayers to do aliyahs? It’s always these old farts who learned Hebrew fifty years ago in the old country and have these rheumy voices you can hardly understand.” Suddenly, she caught herself. “Oh-- I didn’t mean that about your father. He was OK, really.”

“Don’t worry. I already expect you to say things like that. You should hear me when I’m on a roll. I’m always telling people things I shouldn’t and asking embarrassing questions. At my cousin Pam’s second wedding I asked her why she divorced her first husband and everybody stared at me. How was I supposed to know you don’t ask questions like that? I was only fifteen.”

Jane laughed. “I’ve found a soul mate,” she said. “So what do you do? You go to school or something?”

“I graduated from Brown in May with an A.B. in English,” Stevie said. “Now I’m back in the suburbs, wasting my life away. I do temp work for agencies.”

“I just graduated from Sarah Lawrence in May myself. I majored in political science but that was just a cover for a pre-law major.”

They played “Jewish Geography” for a few minutes, asking questions like “Do you know Irma Schwartz from Belle Mead who went to Sarah Lawrence?”

“Most of the girls at Sarah Lawrence were from New York or Long Island or California or Philadelphia. I’d tell people I was from Trenton and they’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, the Metroliner goes through there.’“

“So are you in law school somewhere?” Stevie asked.

“I live in Manhattan,” she said. “I’m taking a year off to work as a paralegal before I commit myself to three years of torts and briefs. I work for this terrific firm in SoHo that handles art litigation. Their clients give them paintings and sculptures when they can’t afford to pay so the reception area, the library and the partners’ offices look like art galleries.”

Jane drained the last of her Scotch and leaned over toward Stevie conspiratorially. “I wouldn’t work for my father’s firm. Who wants to come back to grimy old Trenton and work in the Trenton Trust building on East State Street, right off the lovely Trenton Commons? So my father called up a guy he went to law school with who’s a partner in this firm, and I got a job.”

“My dad was just complaining about the Commons when I was over by the bar,” Stevie said. “It’s as if they realized Trenton was a dead city and put up the Commons as its tombstone.”

“It’s sure killed business in town. D’you remember going shopping there when you were a kid?”

“Sure. The department stores seemed so big-- Dunham’s, Arnold Constable, Nevius Voorhees. We took our dry cleaning to a place on South Broad Street and I used to get shoes in a little old store on Warren Street where they gave me lollipops.”

“It was like you really lived there, you know?” Jane said.

“My mom was always running into people she grew up with on the street or in stores. Now she won’t even go into town any more.”

“I don’t blame her. It’s scary there, even during the day. There’s hardly anybody on the street and a lot of the stores are closed and boarded up. The only people on the street are these guys with big radios playing salsa all the time.”

“That’s what’s so terrific about SoHo,” Jane said. “There’s so much life going on there. I could never come back to place like Trenton.”

The band swung into a reggae tune with a good beat. “We better not eat too much. My mom says they have four courses for dinner, with this outrageous chocolate cake for dessert from a bakery in Atlantic City. You want to dance or something?”

“Sure,” Jane said. They danced for a while and then the lights started to flash for them to go into the ballroom for dinner. They stopped at the table out front to get their place cards. “I’m at table 15,” Jane said.

“So am I. My family always sticks the kids together at one table. It’s like a ghetto­­ it’s supposed to remind us of one. Let’s go in and stake out good seats.”

“These receptions always remind me of the Ed Sullivan show,” Jane said as they walked. “You get a bunch of comedians with musical interludes. I keep expecting Topo Gigio to come out and provide his advice to the bar mitzvah boy.”

“My name Jose Jimenez,” Stevie mimicked, “And I want to tell Marty--Jesus Christ! Will you look at this room?”

Each table had a building as its centerpiece, as Stevie’s mother had said, and each building was surrounded by four dozen red roses. A little plaque on the bottom of the one at Stevie and Jane’s table read, “October 12, 1969. Marty is born at St. Francis Hospital.”

“I think I’m going to barf,” Stevie said.

“Not on the hospital, please, that wouldn’t be sanitary. How about sitting here by the parking garage? We’ll have a great view of the band.”

“I have to be able to get out easily,” Stevie said. “My brother and I are going to have to light a candle on the cake.”

“You didn’t tell me you had a brother. You’re just a bundle of secrets.”

“I’ll bet you’re  the oldest too. You’ve got­­ let me guess­­ a younger brother and a younger sister.”

“Somebody told you!”

“No, I'm just a good guesser.”

“Josh is a senior at MIT and Judy is a freshman at Swarthmore. They both manufactured exams so they wouldn’t have to come home for this.”

“Do you blame them? I think I am gonna barf now. Really­­ Jane, Josh and Judy?”

“So my parents are queer. Don’t blame it on me. Will you look at this room? This is at least five grand worth of flowers.” The ballroom was garlanded with flowers. “I don’t see the bridge, though,” Jane said. “I’m disappointed.”

“I’m sure there’s more to come.” Stevie and Jane sat down while the rest of the crowd filtered in. A new band, whose members wore polyester tuxedos and white shirts with wing-tip collars, began to play show tunes. There were twenty five tables around the room with a long table up front for the bar mitzvah boy and his friends.

“These models are great,” Stevie said, pointing to the hospital. Around the room he saw models of his own house, Marty’s school, the synagogue, their grandparents’ house, and the garden apartment complex in West Trenton where his Uncle Jack and Aunt Miriam lived. “This old Hungarian woman who lives in Lawrenceville does them from photographs.”

Stevie’s brother Jerry came in and was introduced to Jane. Jerry was charming to Jane in a way Stevie thought was very fake, and Stevie felt jealous. Jerry was two years younger, and while Stevie admitted his brother was better looking, he always thought he was smarter.

The waitresses came around with the wine, and Stevie stood up and said, “I’d like to make a toast to the bar mitzvah boy. Long may he davven.” Jane laughed and when the band swung into “More Than A Woman” in a pale imitation of the Bee Gees, she and Stevie danced.

Aunt Sylvia caught them when they were walking back to their table. “I’m so glad you two are getting along. You make such a cute couple.” She pinched Jane’s cheek. They both looked sick. “Now smile, you two. We’re ready to take the pictures of your table.”

Everyone clustered around one side of the table, with Aunt Sylvia, Uncle Walt and Marty in the middle. Stevie put his right arm around Jane’s shoulders and smiled. She tickled his ribs just as the photographer said, “Say pickles,” and Stevie laughed. The photographer frowned and made them take it over again.

Just before the main course was served, Stevie’s Uncle Jack walked up to the microphone. He tapped it with his ring and it made a high squealing noise that made Stevie shudder. “Is this on?” he said breathily into the mike.

The room quieted down as most people turned to watch, Stevie and Jane among them. “As many of you know,” Uncle Jack said, “I’m the designated toaster in the family.” He made a little hop, like he was a piece of bread flying out of a toaster.

Stevie groaned. “I told you he was terrible,” he whispered to Jane.

“I just want to take this opportunity to tell you how proud we all are of Marty today, on the occasion of his toilet-training.” The crowd laughed, and Uncle Jack looked over toward his brother. “What’s that, Walt? That was last year? Right, this is the bar mitzvah then.”

The crowd laughed again, politely. “It’s funny what a massive infusion of alcohol does to your sense of humor,” Jane said.

“No, really, on a serious note,” Uncle Jack said. He cupped his ear toward the band. “Could I have a serious note, please?”

The piano player obliged with a deep bass note. “Thank you. On a serious note, Marty’s bar mitzvah represents his entrance as an adult into the world of Judaism. He’s taking on all the rights and obligations of a Jewish male. That reminds me, Marty, your day to clean the synagogue is Tuesday.”

After the laughter died down, Uncle Jack said, “I just want to tell you, Marty that your family welcomes you as a man, that we love you, and that we’ll always be there for you. Mazel tov!”

He lifted his glass, and the crowd followed him, echoing the mazel tov around the room.

Stevie and Jane lifted their glasses and toasted, too, though Stevie felt a little self-conscious doing it. The waiters emerged from the kitchen in a procession. They all wore black pants and white shirts edged with eyelet lace, in the manner of Breton peasants. They started to circulate through the room, pushing little carts with built-in hot plates. There was a choice of tiny Cornish hens stuffed with wild rice, or a steamship round of roast beef to be carved at each table.

Each waiter was followed by a waitress in a broad black skirt with a white lace blouse and a black shawl draped over her shoulders. Each of the waitresses wore a wide black bonnet and carried a tray of tiny baby vegetables. Another younger waitress followed with a bread basket over her arm.

Stevie and Jane ate and made small talk at the table Jerry and Stevie made a show of getting along together. When Jerry got up to dance with the girl Aunt Sylvia had paired him with, Jane turned to Stevie and said, “Tell me about your brother.”

“He’s only a junior in college but he’s got his life mapped out for the next twenty years. He’s sure he’ll graduate from Penn summa cum laude and he wants to go to Penn Med and then do an internship and residency in plastic surgery at Graduate Hospital, and then after a few years set up his own practice. You can see how different we are­­ I don’t even know where I’m going to be working next week.”

She sighed. “I know how you feel. Josh wants to be a nuclear physicist. He even knows which great man he wants to study with. It’s really nauseating sometimes.”

“Do you ever get the feeling that your parents have given up on you­­ that they’re just concentrating on Josh now because he knows what he wants and they know they’ll be proud of him? I feel that way about my mom and dad sometimes. And I know that I’m the one they’ll be really proud of someday. Jerry’ll have a house in the suburbs and a Volvo station wagon, but I’ll be doing something better than that. I just don’t know what yet.”

“I’m going to live a glamorous life in New York City,” Jane said. “Josh can stick himself in some dreary laboratory if he wants, but I’m going to represent performance artists and Bruce Springsteen and write a book and go on talk shows.”

Jerry and his girl came back with Uncle Walt in tow. “You boys have to come over to the back of the room,” he said. “We’re going to start lighting the candles in a minute.”

Stevie looked at Jerry and groaned. Jerry frowned and said, “Sure, Uncle Walt. Where do you want us to go?” Uncle Walt pointed, and Jerry took his brother’s arm. “Come on, Stevie.” Halfway there he said, “I’ll light the candle, OK? You just stand there and look dumb. You’re good at that.”

“You’re an asshole, you know that? I’m the oldest. I’ll light the candle. Oh, my God, look at that!”

Two waiters dragged a replica of the bridge past them. It was about seven feet high, high enough so that Stevie could walk through it without stooping. Flowers covered all the girders, and, just as Jane’s mother had said, “Trenton Makes The World Takes” was spelled out in lights in little letters on its side, just like the original.

“Isn’t it great?” Uncle Walt beamed. “Cost a little fortune, too. But we’re going to put it in the back yard over the creek when this is all over.”

Jerry and Stevie waited in the back until their names were called. The bandleader said, “And now, from just across the river in Yardley, Pennsylvania, we have two of Marty’s very special cousins who want to congratulate him on his bar mitzvah. Let’s have a big hand for Stevie and Jerry Cohn!” They had to walk through the bridge then while everyone clapped. It was strange walking through the bridge, and Stevie thought he knew how girls who jumped out of cakes must feel, blinded by the bright lights of the room and the feeling that everyone was watching you. Stevie was mortally embarrassed but Jerry took it all in stride. Out of the corner of his eye Stevie looked at his brother as if he was a strange new creature.

When they got to the cake Jerry kissed Aunt Sylvia and Stevie shook hands with Marty. While Jerry was shaking hands Stevie took the candle and lit it. He caught just the tiniest piece of a nasty look from his brother, but responded with a smile. Then all five of them posed for the photographer.

When Stevie was walking back to the table after the  ceremony it suddenly struck him how much he would be giving up if he left town like Jane, made his fortune and his life somewhere far away from his family. He thought about the incredible support and love that was massed for Marty, that would be there at weddings and brisses and funerals. People who would love him just because he was related, or because they knew his parents or went to grade school with his mother a hundred years before.

“You looked so cute coming out of the bridge,” Jane said. “Your face was red and you were grinning like a baboon.”

“You’re awfully familiar considering we only met today.”

“You love it. We are going to get together, aren’t we?”

“Sure. We’ll have lunch. We’ll go out walking together on the Trenton Commons.”

Jane laughed. Herb Cohn came over to the table to make sure his sons were getting along, and to see if they were being nice to the other guests. Jane and Stevie danced for a while, and pretty soon the place started to empty out. Stevie’s mother came over and said, “We’re getting ready to leave, dear. Where’s your brother?”

Stevie pointed out to the dance floor. “I’ll get him when the song is over. We’ll meet you outside.” Stevie turned to Jane after his mother left. “I didn’t really mean to be so flippant before,” he said. “I come in to New York pretty often and I really would like to see you again.”

She wrote her home and office numbers on a napkin and Stevie gave her the number at his parents’ house. “I’ll call you when I’m coming in to New York and maybe we could have dinner or drinks or something,” he said.

“That’d be fun. I know a million neat places in the city. And when I come home again I’ll call you. Though I’m trying not to come to Trenton too often these days. It’s not exactly the garden spot of the Garden State. And it’s hard to have this person who normally lives two area codes away asking you what time you’re going to be home.”

“I know what you mean. Trenton will always be home for me, and I love my family, but sometimes they just get to be too much, you know? I want to go out into the world and make my own way. I’ll be on a rocket out of here someday, maybe to New York, maybe someplace else.”

Jane smiled, and leaned over and kissed Steve’s cheek.

The song ended. “Listen, I’ll give you a call, OK?” Stevie said, standing up. Jane nodded.

Across the dance floor Stevie caught his brother’s eye and waved. They met at the door and walked out together, as the bridge was being loaded into a truck. The lights were turned off and a few limp flowers hung down over the sign. Stevie knew he would leave Trenton some day and he knew he would miss it.

“When I was a child I thought Trenton was the center of the world,” his mother said in the car. “When they first unveiled that sign on the bridge there was a festival and fireworks and my father took us all out to see it.” She shook her head and sighed. “Trenton used to be such a place,” she said.

They passed the state capitol, and sunlight glinted off the west side of its dome, which was being regilded. Stevie reached forward and patted his mother’s shoulder. “It still is, Mom,” he said. “It still is.”