Jul 30, 2009

Ain't Nothing Wrong with New Jersey

I was watching ABC World News on July 23 when I heard Charlie Gibson say the state of NJ “has a long history of corruption.” I take exception to that negativity. New Jersey is a state I once called home, and my family still lives there. I have very fond memories of NJ -- the Jersey shore, boardwalks, Philly cheesesteaks, pretzels, Italian water ice. And let’s not forget the toxic waste dumps, mafia, the highest car insurance rates in the nation, full-serve gas stations, and Wawa convenience stores.

But why is it that every time NJ is mentioned in the news, it’s always something bad? The state is a national joke, but it’s not funny to me. When we lived in Maryland, we used to call NJ the “armpit of the nation.” Now that’s funny.

If you’re not familiar with NJ, just think of the state as a giant suburb to New York City or Philadelphia. It’s also known for being a turnpike to those traveling to more important places, like Manhattan or D.C. The only part of NJ that really has its own identity is the Jersey shore, which New Jersians promptly put fences around and charge people high rates to use. Doesn't anyone admire that ingenuity? NJ also has the Pine Barrens in the south, a rural, sparsely populated forest area near the beaches that is home to the legendary Jersey Devil. It is said that the Jersey Devil was born a baby, but instantly changed into a winged devil monster that scares the locals and unsuspecting campers. Now that’s the NJ charm!

You can’t bottle all that goodness, but as I watched the news, Charlie Gibson talked about the dark side, saying 44 public officials, including three mayors, deputy majors, assemblymen, councilmen, rabbis and more were charged with taking bribes. What are people going to think about NJ now? The news reports hardly ever mention that NJ is called the Garden State or that it boasts a lovely, crime-free area surrounding the Atlantic City casinos!

Some people say corruption and criminal behavior are part of NJ life, but I say people from New Jersey are just more open to new experiences. For example, a Christian preschool teacher asked my Italian friend if he does “favors.” My friend understood the mistake (after all, he looks Italian) and told her he wasn’t connected. No biggie in NJ, but everywhere else people would make a federal case of having a preschool teacher ask if you could knock off someone for them. But my friend was born and raised in NJ, so he didn’t pay any attention to it. See, that’s called charming. New Jersians take life in stride and don’t let things bother them. “Fugget about it” is their motto, which they stole from New Yorkers.

What I see as the New Jersey persona begins to take shape quite early in a New Jersian’s life. Cute little toddlers would flip me off from their mom’s grocery cart if I smiled at them in the Shop Rite or Acme. Their parents had taught them to be wary of strangers, and the tots took it to heart. By first grade, street-smart youngsters were playing blackjack on the playground and told my sons that there was no Santa Claus or Easter bunny (which is just not true). I went to high school with a boy linked to a crime family and thought nothing of it -- in my mind, who didn’t know someone linked to the mob? When I was in college, I remember a group of truant 10-year-olds throwing beer bottles at me and other terrorized students as we tried to enter a building on Rutgers’ Camden campus. There was broken glass everywhere. Again, kids are kids. They just want to have a little fun. Are you telling me you think all those people will grow up to be corrupt or criminals? I’m 72% certain they won’t.

People look at the abrasiveness and anger, but don’t see the state’s focus on education. When a 12-year-old punk shot out my dad’s car window with a bb gun for kicks and my husband grabbed the little rascal by the neck, the kid shouted, “F--- you. I’m a minor. If you touch me, you’ll go to jail.” Now some teacher did a great job of teaching that youngster the law! That child was certainly not “left behind.”

Put all these stories together and you’ll get a bad image of NJ, but if you witnessed only one of these incidents each day, they’d soon become part of your daily routine and blend in with the woodwork. Eventually, it doesn’t even bother you. Heck, if you don’t get accosted or threatened in some way on a daily basis, you’ll begin to feel unsettled, as if the world is losing its balance.

I know that from experience. When I moved to the Midwest and no strangers accosted me or cursed at me for days, I felt sort of homesick, as if people here were just disinterested. Where’s the passion? Was something wrong with me?

My favorite NJ story occurred in South Jersey. My friend told me about it at a Jewish bakery, right after we dropped off our sons at preschool. She said the previous night, her sons were playing on her bedroom floor while she and her husband watched TV on the bed. The boys kept saying there was a man under the bed, which she thought was a game. Finally, she looked under the bed and found that there was an intruder hiding there! Talking with a mouth full of pastry, my friend calmly told me that she pulled the guy out from under the bed and “beat the sh— out of him” before her husband even had a chance to get to him. Her story was so matter-of-fact, a reflection that assaulting an intruder is no biggie for a Jersey girl. I looked at my friend in awe. What a story, and that too, told between bites of hamentashen!

I felt awkward, as if I needed to prove I was tough too. I thought about telling her what just happened in my neighborhood -- how the cops finally arrested a peeping Tom who made nightly visits to my backyard and my neighbor’s yard for almost a month. But how could I tell her I never confronted the guy? I would just call the cops at each sighting. My friend would have tackled him and put him in a headlock. I felt ashamed. I didn’t even have the guts to throw a rock at him. Well, we all have regrets in life.

Regardless, I may not be a Jersey girl, but I still love the state. My friends there are real friends, and I’m not just saying that because I’m frightened of them, especially Cindy. So what if a few rabbis, public officials, cops and mayors got arrested in the fifth-smallest state? It could happen anywhere. As my friend Jane would say, “Yous need to fugget about it.”


-- From Jersey Jane: "You misquoted me. It should read, "Yous need to fugget about it you morons."
And HOW could you write such a glowing article about NJ and fail to mention our favorite son: Jim "I am a gay American" McGreevey? You disappoint me, you moron."

-- You forgot to ask, "You from Jersey? What exit?"

-- BTW - more profound polls please. Especially if they use European spelling, as in "colour."

-- I think NJ is a great state. It's so tiny and inferior that I don't have to hear about its problems. Its sports teams are also really bad, so my favorite teams always beat them. That's why I like NJ.

-- I was unable to locate your unextensive playlist. However, Lady Gaga started vocalizing about playing cards and being one crazy girl while I was trying to discern your anti-Jersey comments. Is she part of your musical repetoire?

-- Apparently, I was not scroll-happy enough. I have now located the musak portion of this blog. Poker Face happens to be one of Riley's favorite songs....the video does have two huge dogs in it after all.
Jackie's comment: Sure, whatever you say, crazy person. I love dogs too.