I come from the south half of the mailman shaped plot of land most people refer to as “New Jersey.” Some people call it the “Dirty Jerz.” Some people call it the “Armpit of America.” Lately I’ve been calling it “Jan Brady.”
New Jersey has created all kinds of people, and has been the butt of all kinds of jokes. The rest of the United States has a strange perception of us, and I’m positive that as a result we have a strange idea of ourselves. Growing up I often felt like there was no reason to be proud of where I was from. Saying that I hated New Jersey, or simply claiming that I was from Philadelphia, were common habits of mine. However the older I get the more I feel a desire to stick up for my home state, and to declare with confidence that I come from New Jersey.
(I am not going to delve into the endless discussion of North, South, and Central Jersey. While I do have feelings about our differences, I would prefer a united Jersey).
What is my identity as someone from New Jersey? We have two very important and very famous neighbors. New York City to our Northeast and Phildelphia to our Southwest. Sandwiched between these cities, we possess mountains and flatlands, Pine Barrens, really good blueberries, tomatoes, and corn, and the entire Shore.
But we are Jan Brady. Ignored, bullied, and desperate for love.
I spent part of my later teen years on a Greyhound bus to New York. I spent my days in college on a train to Philadelphia. Did I ever take time to explore and appreciate where I came from? No. Not once, because I didn’t see the importance of anything New Jersey had to offer. Despite lying on the beach all summer, the Pine Barrens scared me to death and Cape May was a tourist trap. And I think I just gave up trying to figure out what was north of Toms River. Even though there is an impressive Wikipedia list of “famous people from New Jersey,” I just assumed we were culturally deceased.
Recently I got lost in a rainstorm driving home from Pennsylvania. I drove around New Jersey for hours, lost in towns and on highways I had never heard of. When I finally was so lost that I had to pull over and call my parents for help, I pulled into a strip mall near Freehold. I found a Chipotle and had my first Chipotle meal. I sat in the corner and watched as countless families piled in for dinner. Some of the kids in baseball uniforms, post-game glory. When my cell phone started to die and I couldn’t find an outlet, I walked outside past a fro-yo place packed with teens, and into a casual Italian place.
I blurted out that I was lost and tired with a dying phone, and the sympathetic waitress with ’80’s style poofed up blonde hair and lots of eyeliner let me use the outlet by the coffee machine. I sat down at one of the booth tables and started reading my book while most of the young men who worked at the counter chatted in Spanish and took pizza orders.
In the middle of a Jersey I had never been to, frustrated and alone, I felt strangely okay. I watched these people go about their lives on a rainy Wednesday night, and I felt that all over this state similar scenes were happening. Wonderfully kind ladies with red lipstick were helping other lost kids and serving spaghetti while the delivery boy dropped off a pizza to the women who ran a Chinese massage place next door. Teenagers were Instagramming their frozen yogurt and little kids were being treated to fast-food on a school night.
I suppose that is all very “American” in general, and it could just be my recent return to New Jersey that is making me nostalgic. In either case, feeling uniquely New Jersey is going to help me survive this summer. When the shoobies arrive and crowd the Expressway, I will chant to myself all of the reasons this place is pretty awesome.
Exit 40 ❤