The Accidental Tourist

Dan Barry spends most of his weeks thousands of miles from home, chasing stories about other places. He’s found, much to his surprise, that he’d rather be in New Jersey.

Dan Barry lives in a small town but asks big questions, week after week, in a column for the New York Times. Every Monday he piles out of his brick-and-clapboard house in Maplewood; says good-bye to his flaxen-haired wife, Mary Trinity, and his precious (and precocious) daughters, Nora, 10, and Grace, 4; boards a flight from Newark to Podunk; fills up a few notebooks; heads back home in time for his Thursday-night basketball game; writes his column Friday; spends the weekend with Mary and the girls; and when he reads the column in Monday’s paper, he’s on the trail of his next subject.

The column is called This Land. Barry, 50, writes about places like Standing Red Rock Reservation in the Dakotas, where he exhumed the mystery of Sitting Bull’s burial ground; Salem, Oregon, where a park somehow got a bad reputation (“Oh, that reputation. The trees in the park hang their very boughs in shame, their leaves turning crimson at the thought of the gossip being spread by those chattering chickadees above.”); and tiny Greensburg, Kansas, a town pancaked by a tornado “in about the time it takes for a cup of coffee to cool.”

Oh, the questions: Where is Sitting Bull buried? (Hint: not in Standing Rock Reservation.) How does a park get a bad reputation? Why did the storm destroy that little town in Kansas, and how are the people there coping?

It is precisely because Barry lives in Maplewood, population 23,868, that he is able to ask such big questions.

In 1999, when Barry, Mary, and Nora moved to Maplewood from Brooklyn, he was, in a sense, going home. While he grew up in Deer Park on Long Island and is a New Yorker at heart, Maplewood is Mary’s hometown. In fact, her family, the Trinitys, are somewhat famous there. Her father, Joe, taught English and drama for 35 years at Jonathan Dayton Regional High School in nearby Springfield. Her mother, Mary, was a well-loved substitute teacher at the Tuscan Elementary School. Mary was the oldest of five; she, Joe, Frank, John, and Eileen all received diplomas from Columbia High School. Today, a tree dedicated to Mary’s mom, who died in 1997, grows beside a path in the park. Barry walks past it on the way to the station when he takes the train into New York.

If that sounds like Mayberry, that is exactly how Barry saw Maplewood when he was courting Mary. They’d met at St. Bonaventure University. “Mary was a junior and I was a senior. It was during the Carter administration,” Barry says. He didn’t know they’d wind up in Maplewood, but he had an instant affinity for the town, as he explains while we explore it by car and on foot on a cold January day.

“I grew up in a classic late-’50s subdivision, where they cleared away the scrub pines and the potato fields and slapped up houses that are pretty much identical,” he says. “The houses all looked the same, the streets were numbered: West 21st, West 22nd, West 23rd. It was a mile to get to the delicatessen. Everything seemed so distant. I started dating Mary, and I came out here to Maplewood, and I thought, ‘This is fantasy land.’ First of all, there were—and still are—so many trees, big beautiful trees, big oaks and what have you. The houses were beautiful: They’re all from the 1910s, 1920s, and a few from the 1930s. Nice old houses, each one different from the next.”

The architecture and the physical makeup of Maplewood, with its self-contained downtown shopping area, parks, and old Victorian train station—it all struck a chord with Barry. “In the village,” he says, gesturing to a storefront, “there was a place right here called Savidi’s Deli. You could go in there and get your Sloppy Joe sandwich, and you could also get beer or liquor there. You had Peter’s Bakery, and the Maple Leaf, which is still the place to go for your hot chocolate and your grilled cheese. King’s Supermarket, it’s still here. You could walk there from Mary’s, get your pound of white American cheese and your Entenmann’s, and walk back home. The movie theater is right downtown, too. This was not really the culture I experienced on Long Island. It was, like, everything I’d ever read in the Hardy Boys books and seen in old Henry Aldrich movies. I used to tease Mary, ‘This isn’t real, this is fantasy land!’ ”

The often harsh reality of Barry’s childhood heightened Maplewood’s Brigadoon-like qualities. His father, Eugene, a quirky intellectual who passed away at 76 just a week before our Maplewood tour, spent his four children’s formative years in a debilitating 20-year battle with severe migraine headaches that cost him his good Wall Street job. He went on to manage a fast food restaurant and a check-cashing store.

Barry’s mother, Noreen, worked an office job to make ends meet and kept the family laughing despite the chaos at home. The County Galway native, so proud of her homeland that she never bothered to become a U.S. citizen, “was a story teller,” Barry says. “She could make a Homeric epic out of a run to the supermarket for a quart of milk.” Within that home, Barry, the eldest of four children, inherited the sensitivity—and dark sense of humor—that informs his writing. You can see it in his This Land column as well as in his earlier About New York columns for the Times, which were collected in the 2007 book, City Lights, and in his memoir, Pull Me Up, published in 2004.

Barry was the City Hall bureau chief for the Times covering the Giuliani administration in 1999 when he moved with Mary and Nora from Brooklyn to Maplewood. He was also dealing with the devastating diagnosis that a cancerous tumor had been found in his trachea. The father’s illness had been mysterious—the excruciating pain stormed into his head one day and left two decades later, poof, just like that—and so was the son’s. Barry was not a smoker, though both of his parents were. His mother, in fact, had just died of lung cancer.

“It was a crazy time,” Barry says. (Deliberate understatement and gallows humor are two of his specialties.) “I began chemotherapy just as we were moving. When we actually moved our possessions here, I couldn’t even lift the boxes. I had just been through some intensive chemo. It’s kind of a blur, but I remember Mary’s brothers coming in and carrying boxes. For a long time I was just sitting on the couch, pretty much helpless.”

With Mary’s support and a lot more chemo and radiation treatments, Barry recovered. There have been bumps—including a recurrence that required the removal of most of his esophagus—but Barry’s scans have been clear ever since. Today he is healthy, and his sense of humor is intact.

After lunch and a pint at St. James’s Gate, the local pub, as he’s threading his long arms into his jacket, a baby cries. He glances in the direction of the sound. “Poor kid,” he deadpans. “He saw me and is like, ‘Get that man out of here, he’s scaring me —he has no esophagus!’ ”

He zips up his jacket and walks into the bracing cold. He’s talking again, serious now. “I like living here,” he says. “It’s great to leave the city and in 35 minutes be in a place that’s self-contained and has its own world that isn’t necessarily related to Manhattan. I know the guys from basketball, and my kids have friends through ballet and gymnastics and piano. It’s great to be connected to the people who live in your town.”

A few minutes later, at the Goldfinch bookstore, he stops at the little table in the back where Nora and Grace read books. He self-consciously points out his books on the shelves, one of which has a sticker on the cover that says “Local Author!” He makes his way to the library, where Nora has her nose buried in a book, while Mary helps Grace check out books for the first time. Mary kneels next to the child and says softly, “Tell the man, ‘My name is Grace Barry, and my card is on file.’ ”

Barry would never be caught uttering a declarative, “I love Maplewood.” Too trite. But after more than twenty years as a suitor and son-in-law and nearly a decade as a homeowner, he’s nearly as much a Maplewood fixture as the Trinity family. Even if he  does see himself as a man shaped, and still drawn to,  New York, and a storyteller who, like his mother, scours the country for another tale to share.

“There is a sense of sameness in the places that I’ve traveled,” Barry says, “particularly along the highways. There is always a Ruby Tuesday’s and a Chili’s on a corner. And there’s an Outback Steakhouse, representing distinctive dining. At least the village part of Maplewood has retained its distinctiveness. It doesn’t look like Westfield.

“I find great comfort while I am on the road in knowing that I will be home for walks through South Mountain Reservation or up to Hemlock Falls with Mary and the girls, or going to Sonny’s Bagels on Sunday mornings,” Barry says. “I even plan my work trips so that I can get back to play basketball Thursday nights, as though I am still fifteen years old. I play with a bunch of other guys who also think they’re fifteen.”

That doesn’t mean he’ll ever stop questioning why a little town like Maplewood has three nail salons, or why taxes keep going up. He will always have questions but never pretend to know the  precise answers.
It’s the same way with his column. He’s drawn by a single question to each place that he writes about. “It’s a strange calculus that goes into picking topics,” Barry says. “It starts with satisfying my curiosity about who we all are, not America writ large—God, there’s enough of that. I try to find the small stories, stories of small and large bonds.

“What I’m trying to do is slow things down,” Barry says, “to give you the chance to wrap your brain around something, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. We look at public-policy issues from 40,000 feet up, and we don’t really give a look at it from ground level. I just try to put a face on stories, to capture moments like they’re fireflies.” So he witnesses the electrocution of a Tennessee death-row inmate, examines tacit resegregation in Alabama 50 years after the forced integration of Little Rock, Arkansas, or talks to the pastor from a small church in Wisconsin who baptized Jeffrey Dahmer in a prison bathtub. Barry paints each encounter with words, highlights with humor, and punctuates with question marks.

He’s tired of his own uncertainties, which prompts him to question others about theirs. And the person who asks that question, over and over and in many different ways, is not just a columnist. He’s a poet.

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