New Jersey governor Chris Christie is making national headlines again this week, but this time it’s for Wednesday’s revelation that his executive staff was responsible for a week-long closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge—the country’s busiest.
Emails, texts, and all kinds of stuff have been leaked to show that the insane traffic through Fort Lee last September was apparently the result of a scheme from the governor’s office to retaliate against the democratic mayor of Fort Lee. All hell broke loose because of that traffic, which led to delayed emergency responses and, allegedly, the death of an elderly woman. Everything you could possibly want to know about this scandal is available through the magic powers of Google. I’m actually not here to add to that analysis.
I want to talk a little about what it’s like to be from New Jersey, because it’s exhausting to see the worst stereotypes being reinforced everywhere from reality TV to our own state government.
We do not all behave like we’re Sopranos. There are actually four Jerseys when you’re local: North, Central, South, and The Shore. I’m from the heart of North Jersey, nestled right in near Newark and ten miles from the Lincoln Tunnel. That’s prime territory on The Sopranos, and about fifteen minutes from The Real Housewives of New Jersey. I’ve lived down The Shore for the past six years and know that the kids like Snooki and The Situation are mostly imported from New York. I can testify that most Jerseyans are perfectly normal, responsible citizens. Are there some exceptions about? Yes. Just like everywhere else.
Some of the things you’ve heard about us are true. We’re loud. We talk fast, and we have thick accents. Our hands are a vital form of expression. We grow up with a lot of guys who have y’s and long e’s at the end of their names: Bobby, Vinnie, Anthony, Tommy, Danny, Joey, Paulie. And those aren’t limited to one ethnicity or culture.
When we’re hurt, we can hold a grudge like we’re going after the world record for it. Many of us have fiery tempers; as Wreck-It Ralph would say, our passions bubble very close to the surface. We spend a lot of time in diners (everyone has their favorite), and we’ve got a lot of corrupt politicians. Who doesn’t these days?
We probably are a little more jaded about crime than most. When two of your big cities are Newark and Camden, and you border two bigger cities like New York and Philadelphia, it’s hard not to be. Most of the crime here is more Law & Order than Criminal Minds. We understand that we are the most densely populated state next to the biggest city; there are a lot of us right on top of each other, and people will clash. But there can also be a symbiosis between the law-abiding and the not-so-law-abiding. We’re all occupying a small piece of land here, and most of us live our entire lives without seeing the ugly side of it. It’s hard to describe our attitude about this, so here’s a true story.
When my brother was a freshman in high school, he was hired to sweep the floors of the local “sweet shoppe” for $20 a week. The only sweets in this shop were an ancient tub of Bazooka gum and a rack of stale Hostess cakes. The local papers, betting forms, and a lotto machine were pretty much all that I remember finishing off the front of the store. But all the older guys in town were fixtures at this shop, including an enormous man named “Shep” who drove the biggest blue Caddy the world has ever seen. You’d see those fellas draped across the store entrance all day long, smoking and gossiping, and that Caddy was always parked right out front.
Sometimes my brother took me with him to work. I was in second grade, and years later I learned that the sweet shop owner was actually the local bookie. Shep was his bodyguard. Of course, no one will confirm or deny this. (I actually asked a “source” about this yesterday. The response? “Are you asking me on or off the record?”) But there was always a card game going on behind a curtain at the back of the shop.
After a few weeks of helping myself to the five cent gum the owner taught me how to use the lotto machine. (“Do you want that straight or boxed?”) The regulars adopted me like slightly shady grandfathers. They sat me down at their card game in the back room and taught me how to play with nickels and dimes. I was pretty good at poker when I was seven. They gave me a visor and everything.
My brother moved on from that job, I forgot most of what I knew about poker, and life went on. But for years after, when Shep would see me on the street, he’d ask if I was keeping my grades up and staying out of trouble. The owner let me help myself to candy whenever I walked by. I liked those guys, even after I knew about the (alleged) real business. For all I know they were capable of ruthless things straight out of a Scorsese movie, but to me they were nice guys who taught me the value of a poker face. That’s Jersey.
When you’re from New Jersey, any part of New Jersey, you learn to develop a thick skin. We can feel just as much love for New York and Philly as those who live there, but we’re basically seen as those embarrassing neighbors with Christmas lights up year-round and a yard full of plastic flamingos and old cars on bricks. This attitude is especially maddening from twenty-somethings who have recently relocated to one of the big cities and think they’re more native than we are. After a while it can give you a complex, and I admit that we can be pretty defensive about our home turf. We can also crack jokes about Jersey with the best of them, but look out if you’re not from here. We have the same attitude about family; we can say whatever we want about them, but no one else can.
Here’s a Jersey secret: A lot of us actually prefer to live in New Jersey. The view is better, and the taxes are lower.
Here are some other great things about us: We open our homes in a crisis. We like to feed people. If a person from Jersey cooks for you, you’re in pretty much for life. We may have tempers and hold grudges, but we are also loyal. You’ve got a friend from Jersey, and you’ve got someone who will look out for you and stick up for you. Loudly, sometimes. Even those of us (like myself, ahem) who have never, ever been in a fight are not afraid to speak up for people—even strangers—when we care.
We have a rich and culturally diverse population beyond our wonderful Italian and Irish residents. The Ironbound neighborhood in Newark is a thriving Portuguese community. In Central Jersey we have an enormous Indian population. My own mother’s family is from a farming area in South Jersey known for being the oldest African American community in the country. The town was founded by an interracial couple at the end of the 17th century, when interracial marriage was unheard of, and multiracial families have descended there ever since. So the food in New Jersey is pretty great, too.
We’re the home of Princeton University. When Albert Einstein became a United States citizen, he settled in New Jersey to work there. Thomas Edison built the first industrial research lab here. And they may be called the New York Giants and New York Jets, but they play in New Jersey.
The Garden State nickname isn’t a myth, either. If you’ve only seen New Jersey from the Turnpike outside of Newark airport, you haven’t really seen New Jersey. We have beautiful coastlines and beautiful farmland. Jersey tomatoes and blueberries are a big deal around here, and you might be surprised how many farm stands and markets we have.
Everybody knows Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi, but there are so many other amazing people from New Jersey. Buzz Aldrin, Count Basie, Allen Ginsburg, Whitney Houston, Jon Stewart, Frank Sinatra, Kevin Smith. John DiMaggio (voice of Bender) and Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister). Martha Stewart (she’s from my hometown). Meryl Streep, Danny DeVito, and Jack Nicholson are all from the Garden State. So is Paul Wesley (Stefan Salvatore on The Vampire Diaries, thankyouverymuch). The list is neverending.
We’re just so much more than what you see on TV.
CORRECTION 1/16/14: My brother tells me he actually started working for the bookie when he was 11, during the summer before seventh grade. I wasn’t old enough to go with him for a few years, so I remember him older. He and another neighborhood kid spent hours at the sweet shop playing an old video game, and eventually they were offered the job. The other boy turned it down; my brother worked there until he was a junior in high school. I’d forgotten about the video games.