In Defense of New Jersey, the Best "Bad" State in the Country
Let's start with what you've heard: New Jersey is a coastal shitfield of garbage and hair gel that shields New York City from the rest of the country. Sound about right? You can admit it. It won't hurt my feelings. I know that New Jersey is famous for grungy, over-industrialized highway corridors, loud people in expensive T-shirts, and a statewide prohibition on self-serve gas stations. The Garden State, as it’s optimistically called on postage stamps & license plates, is more colloquially referred to as “The Armpit of America,” and “JOISEY." It's a time-honored American tradition to take a steamy dump on New Jersey’s reputation/chest.
Having lived there for the majority of my young life, I can confirm that New Jersey is not always the best. But let me be equally clear in stating that it’s far from the worst. Like anything, NJ contains multitudes. Italian subs and beautiful shoreline compete with high property taxes and horrible drivers (who may also be high, depending on how close to Tom’s River you are). There are mountains and Pine Barrens. The latter may or may not be haunted by a demonic spirit called the New Jersey Devil -- after which our professional hockey team is named. We're weird like that. So weird, in fact, that there's an entire magazine dedicated to our weirdness.
New Jersey is a gloriously human, distinctively American hodge-podge of good, bad, and ugly. It’s also my home, so defend it I shall.
Down the shore
Then, of course, there's the shore, New Jersey's paramount natural asset and the closest thing to a state-sponsored religion you'll find anywhere in the country. With 130 miles of coastline, the Garden State ranks a modest 13th nationally. But so damn much of it is prime, sandy beach instead of the rocky, pebbly, muddy shorefronts of those states in front of us. (Looking at you, Maine.)
Then there are the boardwalks. We basically invented that shit. Alexander Boardman, a railroad conductor/American hero from Atlantic City, installed the state's first one in 1870 (yes, that's his real name). We've since perfected the art all over the state, creating templates from Wildwood, to Ocean City, to Seaside & Point Pleasant that the rest of the country has copied endlessly. Salt water taffy, garish sideshows, senseless games of impossible chance -- it's all here.
Where else but an NJ diner can you get coffee and a Reuben at 3am?
As cheesy as it sounds, being "DTS" isn't just about geographical location. The Jersey Shore is a headspace, an ideology, and an all-for-one vacationland democracy. It's the dogma of Wawa, the melody of car horns on Route 35, and the firm conviction that there are no calories in disco fries consumed outdoors.
It's ripping down the parkway at 80mph with the windows down and Q104.3 way up, and getting passed on the right because you're going too damn slow, asshole.
It's mini golf and boogie boards and beer -- cheap, cold, delicious plastic cupfuls of the stuff that perspires under the beating sun on a rickety deck of a beachfront bar as you wait patiently for your fried clams to arrive.
Yeah that was a run-on, but so what? The Jersey Shore, man. If you don't know, now you know.
The view from the road
The Garden State is criss-crossed by a dense network of asphalt. This is fact. The Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike cut South from NYC and fan out across both sides of the state. Regardless of whether you lay your head anywhere near either road, people will ask you where you live by saying "what exit?" Then, they will chortle with laughter, because they're under the impression that a) no one has made this joke before, and b) New Jersey is nothing but traffic-choked roadways flanked by grimy marshland and belching smokestacks.
The joke is on them. As an East Coast hub of shipping, refining, and other heavy industries, parts of the state (especially its Northeastern counties) look like a cross between a Blade Runner set and a Rammstein lyric. Fair point. If you've only driven through those areas, though, you're missing everything. Judging New Jersey by what you can see from the interstate is like judging New York City by what you can see in Port Authority's bathrooms. Which, like... don't do that.
Beyond the highway, NJ is a pastoral paradise. Sprawling farmland. The Delaware River. The Palisades. We have bears, for Chrissake. With easy access to Philadelphia and New York City via the second-most highly trafficked commuter-rail system in the country, New Jersey is one of the few places you can have your cake and eat it, too. (Plusice cream, if you want.)
For a three-year period beginning in 2009, every time a stranger discovered I was from New Jersey, they would ask me whether I knew the cast of MTV's Jersey Shore. (I don't.) Among that show's many legacies -- GTL, "grenades," on and on -- the greatest trick it managed to pull was to convince the nation that New Jersey is populated exclusively by a bastard breed of radioactively tan meat-monsters with spiky hair and tribal tattoos. This is not true. Er, not entirely true.
Sure, if you spent 10 minutes on the Seaside boardwalk today, you'd probably see at least three coppery Johnny Bravo clones in cargo jorts. And sure, it's a safe bet that at least two of these aliens are named Rocco. But guidos/guidettes/whatever are just as alien to most New Jerseyans as they are to outsiders.
Of course we're defensive. You think our home is a festering corpse covered in Blimpie wrappers.
In fact, assuming that we're all a bunch of monstrously over-buffed science experiments is downright silly when you consider that NJ is the most densely populated state in the US. There are all manner of folk who call this place home. We’ve got big-time celebrities like BRUUUUUUUUUUUUUCE! (Among others: Bon Jovi, Frank Sinatra, Philip Roth, Victor Cruz, Danny DeVito, and Fetty Wap, who is a treasure.) We've got rich WASPs: three of the country's top 10 highest-income counties are within our borders. We've got vibrant immigrant communities brimming with generations of Americans who cook ludicrously good food.
That's just the tip of the iceberg, man. We've also got people named Teresa who put ice cubes in their Chablis and go grocery shopping in velour pants with “KISS MY JERSEY ASS” embroidered on ‘em in sequins. New Jersey is crawling with incredibly diverse, fiercely vocal, and deeply proud residents. Not every state can say the same.
Of course, this essay being published on a website obsessed with food, I've gotta talk about New Jersey's inimitable culinary tradition. To the unenlightened, it's just an endless succession of greasy-spoon diners and greasy-everything pizzerias. They're not wrong, per se. Now, our state's got plenty of classy-ass restaurants, too, don't get me wrong. But in general... yeah, that's how we chow down in NJ.
Is that so bad? Overall, the state's food is like its people: sometimes weird, sometimes greasy, and not terribly classy, but impossible not to love. Especially after a few drinks.
When you can't sleep, is there anywhere else but a diner where you can order a cup of coffee and a Reuben, and watch the headlights speed past through the window? Nope. Is there any more perfect way to start your day than with a Taylor ham, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich? Double nope. Is there any truer haven besides that first bite of a handheld behemoth from Hoagie Haven or a Rutgers grease truck (RIP College Ave)?
Triple. Fucking. Nope.
Though it's almost never included in the national conversation, New Jersey's pizza is every oozing inch as high-caliber as NYC's. Unless, of course, you're talking about Trenton tomato pie, in which case, it's something completely different (and arguably, better).
By way of tying this all up, here's an anonymous quotation about New Jersey that was popular AIM profile fodder for teens in the late '90s. Here it is in its approximate form (from Urban Dictionary, so sic everything):
"I am from NJ. I curse... a lot. I say 'yo', and I say it often. I never had school on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. I sure as hell don't pump my own gas. I know what real pizza tastes like, and I know that a bagel is much more than a fuckin' roll with a hole in the middle. I judge people by what exit they get off the parkway. I can navigate a circle -- with attitude. All good nights must end at a diner -- preferably with cheese fries. It's a sub, not a hoagie or, worse yet, a hero, and I wash it down with soda, not pop. Two words... 'mother fucker.' I don't go to the beach, I go down the shore. And boardwalk brawls are just a part of the atmosphere. Yes, I drink cawfee. I know that 65mph really means 80. I've always lived within 10 minutes of a mall. When someone cuts me off, they get the horn AND the finger. And they expect it. I am from New Jersey, and damn proud of it."
I know: poetry, right? Not all of it is entirely accurate, but it's a poignant articulation of New Jersey's fearsome underdog spirit. When everyone in the country thinks you're a festering corpse covered in Blimpie wrappers and methane fumes, you tend to get a little defensive. Maybe it's insecurity that makes us loud, crass, and obnoxiously cohesive; maybe it's delusional confidence. More likely, it's both. That's New Jersey: a barrel of well-meaning contradictions full of pugnacious people and unpredictable natural beauty.
Honestly, it's better than wherever you're from. Come at me, bro.