I come from a small suburban town about forty minutes west of New York City, giving me an easy way to describe where I live to those who aren’t from here. My town lies in the northern part of New Jersey, nestled in the prestigious Bergen County and tucked into a valley of the Ramapo Mountains. We have one main road that we call Ramapo Valley Road, though a map will label it as Route 202. Everything that means anything in my town lies on this road, making it the buzz of the town and the busiest street no matter the time of day. It doesn’t help that the train tracks cut directly across it, causing traffic when the Mighty Susquehanna chugs through with its fifty-seven freight cars at 8:40 AM, 6:15 PM, and 9:30 PM every day.
Nearly twenty years before I was born, State Route 287 was extended to meet Route 208, which happens exactly in Oakland. It didn’t change much, however, because the two highways were built literally over our town, allowing the commuters to drive right past us without a second glance. Sure, we’ve been constructed on and passed by countless times, but in all fairness, they gave us a fancy sign that says “Last Exit: Oakland, New Jersey”. At least people know of my town, but nobody really knows my town.
Developers are always trying to build upon our ground, commercializing the main road, constructing new condominiums, adding more gas stations, things like that. But little do they know Oakland actually has everything it needs, and we townspeople are more than happy with what we’ve got. Need some paint or gardening tools to freshen up the house? We have a paint store, a hardware store, and a gardening facility all within three miles. Hungry for some Japanese, Italian, American, or Chinese food? There are plenty of family-owned and operated restaurants within walking distance for those with a diverse appetite. Looking for something fun to do? Try the local animal shelter, Great Oak Park, Crystal Lake, or the Oakland Recreation Center, all of which host events and entertainment for the townspeople to enjoy. In other words, you name it and we’ve already got it, so those developers should just let us be the independent and self-sufficient town that we are and always have been.
Nevertheless, they still try, and they still fail. For example, a Walgreens was built about ten years ago, but my family and most others still pick up our prescriptions, toiletries, and other necessities at Oakland Drugs; it’s run by a little old lady who has watched our town develop since she was born here. Also, right near the big highway, they built a gas station with prices so high that only the fools exiting would be dumb enough to pay that much and get right back onto their highway, probably noting to never stop there again. Or, there’s the Pizza Hut that opened in a prime location on Ramapo Valley Road with big banners and flags announcing its business, which closed about six months later after seeing a grand total of maybe a dozen customers. It had the best competition out there since it was across the street from Junior’s Pizza, also known as Oakland’s (and probably the world’s) best pizza place.
Throughout high school, I had the pleasure and honor of working for the coolest bosses ever at this amazing, old-fashioned, family-run pizza shop. Nearly every resident of Oakland comes here regularly. We even have customers from other towns, way out of our delivery range, that make the journey for our delicious pizza and homemade Italian food. Every shift I work is more of a social gathering than doing a job, since I know almost everyone who walks into our homey, warm restaurant. We have old couples and businessmen at lunchtime, middle and high schoolers after school, and families around dinnertime. And that’s just Monday through Friday. On weekends, we have to double our staff, stay open way past midnight, and push aside tables just to accommodate the hungry folks of Oakland and beyond. I think that working this job was the best thing about my childhood, since it truly included everyone from my hometown and made me a more sociable, adaptable, and confident young woman. It was the perfect job for a high school student who was looking to give back to her perfect little town. I go back to Junior’s every time I visit home, because the sense of community and family that I experience in that pizza shop is one of the greatest things about my hometown.
As with everything else, Junior’s Pizza lies on the main road, which is probably about two miles long. It starts with the local farmer’s market and ends at the ridiculously overpriced gas station, with the rest of the town being mostly neighborhoods and residencies that branch off from this strip. If you’re going north on Ramapo Valley Road, take the turn right before this gas station and you’ll enter my little neighborhood, nestled on the shores of Crystal Lake. Our homes are humbly sized and fairly close together, which pretty much sums up the relationships we have with our neighbors. Some people I know from other towns have never spoken to their neighbors or barely know their names, which I find absurd! I can’t remember the last time I walked out of my house and didn’t get a wave and a smile from over the fence, around the corner, or even through a car window. I have grown up with this supportive and loving sense of family in my neighborhood that I bring with me everywhere I go – even my college dorm! I refuse to not know who I am living so close to, since neighbors are a valuable relationship and resource to have with one another. I will always be able to reach out to my neighbors, figuratively and literally, and I cherish that my town has allowed this bond to grow.
As much as I love my town, I can’t say that I want to live there forever. I was raised from birth in that town, grew up there, and have developed into a successful grown woman so far. I give many thanks to my hometown for being the wonderful place that it is, and I never plan to leave it in my rearview. However, I think it has fostered me long enough and is ready for me to be sent out into the world and accomplish amazing goals. Oakland has always been and will always be my safe haven, which I am grateful for, since not many can say the same about their hometowns. When I do leave, it will be bittersweet – sadness that I won’t live there, but happiness and great memories of all my time spent there. And when I do finally return after years pass, I know without a doubt that I will be welcomed back with homemade pizza, smiling neighbors, and the comforting sense of my true home.