A Mr. Richard Feder, famously from Fort Lee, N.J., has a question about the rather infamous closings of lanes to the George Washington Bridge.
“What were they thinking?” he asked Friday. “What the hell were they thinking?”
More than 30 years ago, Feder, 64, was perhaps Fort Lee’s best-known resident, celebrated by a recurring character played by Gilda Radner on “Saturday Night Live.” The character, Roseanne Roseannadanna, would begin her segment on “Weekend Update” by saying, “A Mr. Richard Feder from Fort Lee, N.J., writes in and says …”
Feder did not write any letters. A co-creator of the segment, Alan Zweibel, was Feder’s brother-in-law, and Mr. Feder, the show’s faceless sad sack, bore little resemblance to Feder, the husband who served then as vice president of a textile printing plant.
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Last week, as Gov. Chris Christie confronted a growing scandal about his administration’s role in shutting down the lanes, Mr. Feder’s public role, long dormant, arrived at a trying moment.
“I’m getting emails to my website,” Zweibel said. “What would Richard Feder say about this?”
It turns out that Feder, who is still in textiles, is in a distinct position to comment: He was stuck in that very traffic jam.
Feder, who now lives in Hamburg, N.J., recalled that on either Sept. 10 or 11, which would have been Day 2 or 3 of the four-day traffic mess, he was driving to meet a client on Long Island.
“I heard on the radio, but I didn’t believe it,” he said of the congestion. “I figured, how bad can it be?”
But when he got to the mouth of the bridge, no one was moving. “People were out of their cars. People were screaming and yelling,” he said.
He called the client, reported that “unbeknownst to me, there’s a hole in the George Washington Bridge,” and went home.
Around 1981, not long after Radner, who died in 1989, left “SNL,” Feder moved out of Fort Lee, crossing the border to live in West Nyack, N.Y. In an Associated Press article in 1980, Feder described New Jersey in fairly unflattering terms: “Factories, giant smokestacks, smog, the turnpike,” he said. “It’s the pits.” Nonetheless, he moved back to New Jersey in 2008, making one of Roseannadanna’s earlier routines seem rather prescient.
Radner’s character had introduced a letter from Mr. Feder that detailed his attempt to quit smoking.
“Now I’m depressed,” he supposedly wrote, “I gained weight, my face broke out, I’m nauseous, I’m constipated, my feet swelled, my gums are bleeding, my sinuses are clogged, I got heartburn, I’m cranky and I have gas. What should I do?”
“Mr. Feder, you sound like a real attractive guy,” Roseannadanna said. “You belong in New Jersey.”
During his life in Fort Lee, Feder was a minor celebrity in the borough, approached often and asked occasionally to sign autographs.
“I went down to get diapers and milk like every other father, and I spent 40 minutes talking to people,” he said. “My wife thought I was having an affair.”
As for the bridge scandal, Feder was not entirely convinced by the governor’s assurances that he did not know about the lane closings, though he said he liked Christie.
Nonetheless, while the textile business has kept him busy, Feder joked that a mayoral run in Fort Lee might be next, followed, perhaps, by a bid for governor.
His slogan: “It can’t be any worse than these guys.”
His platform: No tolls on the George Washington Bridge.
But his former kingmaker, Zweibel, of Short Hills, N.J., is unlikely to be swayed, at least on that count.
“I take the Lincoln Tunnel,” he said.