I grew up in a cigarette box in the Garden State.
Well, close. The name “Marlboro” is indeed a popular brand of cigarettes with truckers and hipsters alike, but alas, the origin of my hometown’s name hails from much classier linguistic roots.
Originally an agricultural town, we were blessed with clay-rich, fertile earth called “marl”. Accordingly, some savvy inhabitants officially labeled the area the borough of marl–essentially, “dirt town”.
I grew up in the Dirt Town of the Garden State.
But in reality this is a terribly ironic title for my hometown. For the most part, Marlboro is a sprawling suburb of strip malls, diners, and “McMansions”. Rolling hills of corn and tomato farms were plowed down long ago, replaced with regimented rows of houses, lawns, pools, and two-car garages. Rinse and repeat.
Adrift in a sea of sameness, from people’s polished “off-road” vehicles cruising the rough terrain of Rt. 9 to their matching Tiffany heart necklaces, I desperately searched for a corner of town untouched by the material culture that hangs over Marlboro like thick smog.
Naturally, my curiosity led me to the only creepy places of town at 14 years old, including the old graveyard at the Old Brick Reformed Church. Abandoning homework on my bedroom floor, I’d set out on a hand-me-down bicycle with my notebook of awful, angst-ridden poetry. I would stay for hours tip-toeing around the growth-entangled graves, their stiff, colonial Dutch names fading from moldy headstones.
After about a week of morbid exploring beneath the ominous swaying willows of the graveyard, I became more ambitious. Following a gravel trail towards the back of the church property, I came to the tallest chain link fence I’d ever seen. Beyond it, the road transformed into a long, narrow, paved path encompassed by curtains of tangled New Jersey forest on either side. There was a convenient, teenager-sized hole in the fence to my right. What else was a girl to do?
Alright, so since I was a scrawny 14-year-old girl with nothing but a house key hooked to her belt loop to serve as any sort of protective weapon, this may seem slightly precarious. Well, it was. After squeezing through the fence and shuffling anxiously a foot or two, the fear sunk in. Leaves hung idle on the skinny tree branches intertwined around me like a cage. The heat of the baking pavement filled my Converses. The pungent stench of flowering weeds seeped into my lungs until I felt like a ferule part of the wild.
I practically dove back through the distorted hole in that fence to the gravel safety of the church.
“What a coward!” you may be thinking. Or if you are sane, “Thank God; that’s so stupid!”. For the faint-hearted, we can only assume that you are no longer a reading, thinking individual, but merely a collapsed heap on the floor clutching your Mac book in gripping trepidation. But perhaps not, because I spent my adolescence trekking around unsavory parts of the suburbs, not the crack dens of Newark.
Questions flitted through my mind. Where did this seemingly endless path lead? Why was it blocked by an apparently useless, large metal fence? Could I, if at all possible, get myself into another dangerous predicament? Well, at least I knew the answer to the last one was “yes”.
My appetite for small-scale adventure was sparked. You see, the Old Brick Reformed Church had a much creepier companion right next door. It was the abandoned Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital.
Built in 1931, while Marlboro was still considered the boondocks, it housed hundreds of manic depressives, schizophrenics, and a handful of endearingly insane criminals. However, by 1958, Levittown suburbia began to blossom, with a children’s summer camp, Camp Arrowhead, being built across the street. Interesting development plan.
Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital remained until 1998, when New Jersey decided to close all large state psychiatric hospitals and transfer the patients to smaller hospitals, group homes or their own homes in a three year process of deinstitutionalization. But that’s too simple.
The hospital was actually investigated in 1993 by then New Jersey Senator Dick Codey, who went undercover at the institution as an orderly for the midnight shift. He assumed the identity of a dead convicted rapist and armed robber, and guess what? The administration at Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital, with a ravaging fetish for corruption, thought he was just perfect for the job! Codey observed physical and sexual abuse of patients, thievery of their property, as well as state contract manipulation and stockpiling of hazardous chemicals at their sewage treatment plant. What a cozy place to receive mental healthcare.
I had only limited knowledge of such a history of scandal at the hospital as a 14-year-old. I was much more preoccupied with trying to fill a B-cup bra and imitating Sylvia Plath. However, I knew that: A. it was still daylight, B. I was bored, and C. an abandoned psychiatric hospital a five-minute bike ride from my house was just too good of an opportunity to pass up! So I sneaked in between the barbed bushes of the roadside and into the small development complex for hospital staff of the past next to the main building. It’s strange now to look back and think that I was walking in the footsteps of some sadistic hospital workers.
Immediately I was filled with a sense of awe and dread. A row of identical, dilapidated brown-shingled houses lined the right side of the development path down the middle. They disappeared into obscurity closer to the hospital, as if nighttime approached outward from where the patients dwelled. The dirtied yellow “No Trespassing” sign glared at me forebodingly. This was an island, a place obscured by sickly overgrowth with a history deeper and darker than anyone really knows.
A sinking mansion stood alone on the left side of the path, its cracked columns, intricate spires, and molding signaling old money gone to waste. Who lived there? The head honcho of the hospital? Did a family sit lazily on that porch, sipping lemonade on humid Jersey summer nights? Did patients ever see those porch lights flicker on the faces of those free, smiling people?
It was 80 degrees and I had chills. I heard no sounds. The road was empty behind me, and the murmurs of a strange life that once filled that place had dissolved into the marl-coated ground long ago.
Sometimes I think I searched too desperately to find something interesting in Marlboro that didn’t sparkle in the cold and uniform manner of the suburbs. When I found it, it wouldn’t leave. When I think of Marlboro, those moments are deeply woven into the fabric of my memory. It haunts me as equally entertaining and disturbing. I have a feeling that almost every hometown is a Dirt Town in some way.