Punxsutawney Phil may be the most celebrated of weather-predicting rodents but we Garden Staters do have our own. Milltown Mel pops his furry little head out every February 2 in Milltown and, with all the accuracy of a channel 4 weatherman, predicts the winter. This year he did not see his shadow. Maybe because it was a cloudy day; maybe because groundhogs don’t see too well during the day and he never sees his shadow. At any rate, he called for an early spring. In the world of reality TV and the White House, he would have already been fired. But before we start talking gopher-burgers, let’s give Mel a little play. Nobody schooled him on climate change and the extreme weather conditions it promotes. Even his finely-tuned varmint sense of smell is not calibrated for carbon emissions.
Nonetheless, for all our recent nor’easters, Spring, Jersey style, is right around the corner. Why just last week, I saw the first sign of spring – a landscape truck. With mowers! There must have been a patch of green somewhere to weed whack or else they set the blades at the recommended height for mowing air.
We can all enjoy the return of the Friday rush-hour traffic on the southbound lane of the Parkway. From my perch on an overhead pass, it looked like cars welded together in a ritual honoring the gods of warmer weather. Anytime you can walk from Belmar to Toms River faster than you can drive, it’s time for the change of seasons.
Robins and crocuses? Fuggedaboutit! PJ’s Car Wash in Wall Township NJ: there’s a sure sign of the rebirth of human activity. From dawn to dusk, an endless cavalcade of steel chariots getting purged of winter’s salt, sand, and brine that enabled life to go on through February and March. So busy that they have double lanes merging together, alternating turns in harmony except for that occasional meathead who thinks he’s at the Lincoln Tunnel and jockeys himself ahead in line to save four minutes.
The bloom of forsythias is usually preceded in New Jersey by the bloom of golfers. First at the driving range, lined up on their green mats (always green so they think they’re on grass), flailing away with that new $500 TaylorMade M3 driver that they bought themselves for Christmas. Then on the course, shivering behind the plastic windshield of their electric carts, legs turning pink in the shorts they just put on for the first time since September. If you listen carefully, at the fourth green, the first true sound of spring – “Good Par!”
And it’s a new time for the elusive cigarette smokers. The friendlier weather brings them back out into the fresh air for longer intervals. I’m sure there’s a direct correlation between the number of cigarettes you can suck in and the wind chill factor. Evidence of their emergence from winter’s doldrums is all around us. More discarded butts on roadways, sidewalks, bike paths, and entrances to restaurants. Public bathrooms, alleyways, and stairwells are also popular habitats to frequent if you’re a smoker-watcher.
Skateboarders arrive in grand fashion with the arrival of spring. Not in the meticulously designed municipal parks. The younger boarders in their helmets and Pillsbury Doughboy padding will, like ducklings dropped off by their moms, make their debut there a little later. No, the more seasoned among the boarding set: teenagers, baseball caps on backwards, pants inches below their underwear, cruising through the debris of an abandoned lot. Free spirits, untethered by the dictates of an OCD society. They don’t have to read signs that say “No Smoking” or “Open 10-3”. They don’t even have to read. Hair unkempt; shoelaces untied? Who can argue with fashion? Who needs that engineered halfpipe and rail? With the remarkable agility of an Olympian athlete, they glide through broken bottles, shredded plywood and abandoned appliances. Yes! It’s time again for those heelflips, those tailslides, those ollies! Fire up that doob and catch the perfect wave.
The Jersey streams will soon be teeming with thousands of trout harvested from the hatcheries. And thousands of fishermen harvested from Dick’s Sporting Goods. Watching these anglers elbow to elbow on opening day, I guess each fish gets his own guy. At the end of the day, all the rooster tails, spoons, and muddler minnows residing in the streamside brush tip us off – it’s springtime in New Jersey!
I would be remiss if I overlooked the average homeowner taking advantage of that first fifty degree day to get outside, pick up the broken branches from the last storm and finally, finally – take down those Christmas lights. We have an image to uphold. After all, this is the “Garden State”.