New Jersey is Perfect

A brief romantic ode to the Garden State

Let me tell you why I’m like this. If you don’t know what I mean, that’s fine — you don’t know me, and I don’t expect you ever will. But I know me, and I know what I’m like, and now you’re going to know, a little bit, kinda. This is a story about a state the size of a postage stamp, wedged between New York, Pennsylvania, whatever’s south of Cape May, and the beautiful goddamn Atlantic Fucking Ocean. This is a story about New Jersey and me, and maybe you, if you’re lucky enough to be from here, too.

An antique map of New Jersey
An antique map of New Jersey

Let us begin in the beginning. Science teaches us that Prometheus sculpted the first humans from clay and the sacred spit of Zeus. He so loved his creations that he stole fire from the gods to give to people so that they could thrive. The gods were angry, and frightened, because suddenly here were puny but oddly powerful creatures who were terrified of the Olympian deities but who could, if they chose, take this collective fear and love and respect away, rendering the gods impotent, pointless, irrelevant. To the gods went the glory, but only so long as the humans gave a shit. Eventually, the humans stopped worshipping them, and their powers faded.

What I’m saying is the people of New Jersey are made of Boardwalk zeppoli and asphalt, and New York only exists because we say it does. Also, all our diners are Greek. Coincidence? No way, and if you disagree, Άντε γαμησου.

I know New York City is not the only city lucky enough to sit very, very close to New Jersey. Philadelphia also exists, and you neglect it at your peril. The Hephaestus of great American cities, Philly is earthy, rough-hewn, unhinged, untamed, full of deep fiery talent, with a big cracked bell as its primary tourist attraction. Those people are scary as hell and I have nothing but respect for them. They know no god but music and, of course, Gritty, a genderless demon who is spiritual kin to our own Jersey Devil, but wilder and less predictable.

The people of Philadelphia are better left to their own devices, unless you wanna fuck around and find out, which you don’t. Let’s go back to New Jersey, a place where people who have definitely murdered people will speak about Eagles fans in frightened whispers.

In fact, let’s talk about that Jersey Devil. Heard of it? Here’s how the story goes: in 1735, or thereabouts, Mother Leeds, or maybe she had another name, went into labor with her thirteenth child. She and her family lived deep in the Pine Barrens, a big picturesque swamp formed millions of years ago in the region the gods and especially Baby Jesus intended to one day be called South Jersey. Today, 1.1 million acres of the Pine Barrens are preserved as the Pinelands National Reserve. It is a land of mystery and magic and exactly the kind of place you’d expect a woman to give birth to her thirteenth child who turns out to be a demon.

Leeds Baby 13 had hooves and wings and was not at all adorable. It flew out of its mother’s undercarriage, bit somebody on the neck (mom? A priest? A random passerby? One of the 12 older siblings?), executing a swift and casual murder before flying out into the Pine Barrens, where it haunts the strange inhabitants to this very day. Our hockey team is named after this thing.

There was a giant portrait of the Jersey Devil, or maybe it was actually Satan, painted on the wall of my high school gym. During wrestling meets, they’d dim the lights except for one spotlight on this two-story tall, muscular red demon creature. I believe some sort of dramatic music was played, perhaps something from Jock Jams ’99. Then several white youths with varying stages of cauliflower ear would appear and grapple and writhe atop one another. This was a normal way to spend a Friday evening. Sports! Jersey!

Everyone in New Jersey is somehow related to everyone else in New Jersey, regardless of race or ethnic origin, at least by marriage, and it’s so humid in the summer that your hair is big even if you’re bald. Everything is haunted. Everybody knows somebody who knows a kid who died at that waterpark, or the other one, or down the Shore.

When I was a teen I spent a lot of time watching people kick the shit out of each other at all-ages hardcore shows in basements of VFW halls and Masonic lodges. Once we went upstairs at one of the places owned by the Masons, and there was a whole throne and everything. Or maybe I didn’t go upstairs, because I was afraid of getting in trouble, but these kids told me about it so vividly I feel like it was in that room. New Jersey makes a storyteller out of you.

When we were kids we had to wear water shoes, which are shoes you wear in the water to avoid stepping on hospital waste or stinging creatures. It was good to wear them on the sand, too, to avoid the hypodermic needles or the broken glass. Summer! Jersey!

When I was a kid, they just gave us a piece of burlap to sit on, already wet from some other kid’s swimsuit-clad ass, and pushed us down a six story plastic slide. This happened at amusement parks and Boardwalk attractions all over the place. This was entertainment. Vacation! Jersey!

Sometimes I listen to podcasts about New Jersey or watch documentaries about New Jersey or read books about New Jersey and I honestly, really, truly can’t fucking believe it’s real. And I live here now. It’s like living in Oz and Narnia and Zamunda and Eden before, during and after The Fall, plus Wakanda and Sunnydale and the Upside Down and the Shire and then that place with all the WASP elves except less WASPy.

Once we were walking across some historic country footbridge to Pennsylvania, and a bunch of kids jumped off and plummeted three or four stories down to the Delaware River and they were fine. Then some swimmer, an adult man, got caught up in the current and yelled for help, so we waited and watched to see if he would drown. We lined up on that footbridge, curious and horrified. Did anybody call 911? Did we have cell phones yet? I don’t recall an ambulance or water rescue team appearing. Some dude with a speedboat just showed up eventually and collected the guy and everybody went back to walking across the footbridge. I think I was eight and my brother was five. Saturday! Jersey!

Have you been to a wake or a funeral in New Jersey? If you’re a WASP and you went to, like Pingry or Princeton Day or something, this next paragraph is not for you. It’s okay, it’s not your fault, you just won’t get it.

If you are not a WASP, and you are of the type of folks who put a whole dead body in an overpriced box, and especially if you are of the type of people who open that box for the edification of all assembled, you may know what it is like to have a cousin try to climb into the box, or to have a small group of family on retainer to monitor the cousins most likely to try to climb into the box. I know this happens in other places, but it definitely happens in New Jersey, and we are louder about everything.

If you have ever watched in bemused fascination as a couple cousins run a defensive strategy on a third cousin barreling toward the body of a dead beloved, a body to which you’re not 100% sure you’re actually related by blood, and at the same time you have wondered if the food is gonna be good later, thinking you should’ve really stopped at the Wawa for something small on the way to tide you over, and you hope the religious celebrant really keeps this thing short because you had to get on goddamn 95 to get here and it’s scary because the houses are too far apart, you are of my kind.

The smokestacks and factories and polluted swamplands of North Jersey right outside NYC are really a beautiful array of castles occupied by slumbering dragons snoring smokily, if you squint at them just right. There are so many places to pull over and puke on the Turnpike. I once pissed in a bottle stuck in traffic on my way to a concert at Giants Stadium and didn’t spill a drop. Do you know how hard that is for someone with a vagina and the attendant undercarriage parts, like the part where the pee comes out? New Jersey is a land of strength and ingenuity and traffic. You learn things without knowing how. You will find a rest stop with just the right type of vending machine, and you will remain loyal to it for the rest of your life.

People in New Jersey don’t ever stop talking about New Jersey. We are built atop myths and legends and the secrets of millions of people from all over the world told in countless languages.

This land is Lenape territory and was once part of what was called Lenapehoking. The Indigenous peoples of this region spoke Munsee, Unami, and Unalachtigo, and there are in this world, it seems, still a few people who speak these languages, or parts of these languages, or who recorded what they could from the last speakers of these languages. So many people are no longer alive here, but they are still alive here, because nothing and nobody can ever really leave this place.

New Jersey is graves on top of graves on top of graves.

History is loud here. Everyone is loud here. Ghosts rattle around the stone farmhouses of the 17th century colonizers. Ghosts walk the condominium complexes built in the 1980s. There’s a ghost in my condo. Her footsteps were loud on the second floor last night. I slept on the couch downstairs because I haven’t seen a full torso apparition yet in my life but if ever it were going to happen, it would be in a pink-tiled bathroom in New Jersey.

To grow up in New Jersey is to grow up hearing jokes about your home on TV and in the movies, to be the overlooked younger sibling of some glamorous famous oldest kid, and to figure out that you can do all kinds of wild shit because the eyes of the world are hardly ever on you. Have fun playing on a construction site, or in an abandoned junkyard, or in the woods where you can cast spells.

This is a state where, a few summers ago, there were multiple reported sightings of random clowns running around in the woods and fields. And then the stories just went away, because that’s New Jersey.

New Jersey makes you weird, because New Jersey is weird as fuck. Even the normal people are eccentric. Our vowels alone render us absurd to outsiders. People from Central Jersey, the greatest and most mythical part of our state, sound like a Philly pretzel got consensually bodyslammed by a Staten Island dump employee and somehow made a perfect baby.

If we love New Jersey so much, why do so many of us leave? Well, it is our sacred duty to carry the message to those who are still suffering from not knowing about New Jersey.

Sometimes we need space to breathe, even those of us who grew up in the rural parts. Is it really rural if everything around you is farmland, there’s a game butcher just up the road, but you’re less than ninety minutes from Manhattan? Hard to say.

When you grow up in the most densely populated state, which is also the third smallest state (petite Rhode Island is the smallest, and then there’s some other place, and then New Jersey), sometimes you need to see what a big state is like. Like Virginia, which never fucking ends, and California, which is a country and is somehow smaller than Virginia, which is a highway owned by bored horses.

New Jersey is a multilayered sweet delicacy of stories. It is the spumoni of states. It is a savory and decadent land of excess. It is the calzone of the original thirteen colonies.

Immigrants comprise a quarter of the state’s population. One in six New Jersey residents has at least one parent born abroad. They are likeliest to be from India, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, and the Philippines, but they come from everywhere, and they bring food and language and religion and customs and brilliance with them. 155 languages are spoken in New Jersey, and in every single one of them, a grandma can tell you that you really ought to be married by now.

As one might expect, we have all the best hair salons and nail salons. You can get something subtle if you want, but why would you want to do that? This is not the way of our people.

Teen girls in NJ in 1998
Teen girls in NJ in 1998
Look at me and my little friends, casually preparing to take over the summer camp cafeteria

Sometimes you can love somebody best when there’s a boundary, like a river or perhaps a tunnel or bridge or a whole continent. Sometimes you need to drive through Staten Island in order to spiritually reflect on why you love not being allowed to pump your own gas. I’ll probably move away, but I’ll probably come back. I always do.

We leave and we never stop talking about New Jersey. Then we come back, and we keep talking about New Jersey.

Once, circa 1990, sitting on a big beach blanket at Point Pleasant in my water shoes and my knockoff Hypercolor t-shirt over my wet bathing suit, I heard some people talking on a nearby blanket.

“New Jersey is fuckin’ beautiful,” one guy said. “People don’t know.”

“Don’t fuckin’ tell ‘em,” another one said. “It’s crowded enough.”

Don’t tell those guys I told you, but it’s fuckin’ beautiful here. It really is.

Author, REAL ARTISTS HAVE DAY JOBS (and other books). Writer of scripts. Host of WELL, THIS ISN’T NORMAL podcast.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store