Steph is a Giants fan, so when they made it to the Super Bowl in 2012, she put together a viewing party in our building’s common room in London. Her roommate was a friend of mine, so I dropped by to scavenge the pizza and buffalo chicken dip. The seat closest to the hors d’oeuvres also happened to be the one closest to Steph, so I sat next to her. The first thing I said to her was, “So where you from?”
“The Jersey Shore,” she said.
“Wow,” I said, “I’m surprised you’re willing to admit that.”
“Oh you can go fuck yourself,” she said. “That show is bullshit. Most of them aren’t even from Jersey. And I’m not from Seaside where the show is shot. I’m from Point Pleasant. Home of Jersey Mike’s.”
“I’m more of a Subway guy,” I said.
She turned to my friend and said, “Who is this fuckin’ guy?”
It was love at first “go fuck yourself.” We eventually started dating, and when we moved back to the US, we both moved to Washington, DC. But I knew staying with Steph inevitably meant that someday I’d be moving to New Jersey.
The “Armpit of America”
American pop culture is not kind to Jersey. Sure, it’s the state that’s given us national treasures like Jon Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, and Tara Reid, but pretty much any story set in Jersey is about gangsters, urban decay, or corrupt politicians. Springsteen is basically the state’s patron saint, but his best song, “Born to Run,” is about teenagers desperately wanting to leave Jersey. In the DC Comics universe, Superman’s shiny, art-deco home of Metropolis is in New York, but Batman’s grimy, crime-ridden Gotham is in Jersey.
For me personally, Jersey belonged on my State Hate list. My State Hate list is composed solely of states I hate because I was forced to drive through them. Right now, the only list members are Delaware and Nebraska. I’ve never done anything in either of those states except drive, and because highways are the worst places on Earth, I have extremely negative reactions to those states. Unfair? Yes. But hate isn’t a rational emotion, and the Jersey Turnpike is, objectively, hellish.
Steph has far more home-state pride than I do. I’m from Ohio, which is another state whose citizens are irrationally proud. I really like the chili in Cincinnati, but being from the birthplace of a popular type of watery spiced meat never really filled me with a quivering, patriotic pride. I never ate Cincinnati chili and thought, “This is the best goddamn place on Earth.” There just didn’t seem to be any reason to be proud of the place I was born. I could just as easily have been born in Djibouti.
When you arrive in Newark Airport, as I did before the Fourth of July weekend in 2012 to meet Steph’s parents, you don’t initially see much to be proud of. Newark and Trenton aren’t the prettiest of cities, and even if they were, they were always doomed to be overshadowed by the towering Metropolis across the river. Driving south from Newark and Trenton, you pass factories and urban sprawl, and you realize most of the tourists aren’t driving to Jersey to get to a place in Jersey. They’re probably on their way to Philly or New York. The entire state is a way station. That’s why they call it “the Armpit of America.”
How I became a defender of New Jersey
Steph and I are getting married in November 2015 in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Right there on the hated Jersey Shore. We’re in the process of moving to Jersey City now. I’m probably going to be living there for the foreseeable future. I’m not too concerned about it.
The progression of switching from a Jersey basher to a Jersey defender was relatively easy. First of all, both New Jersey and the Midwest are places held in some degree of contempt by the cosmopolitans in New York, so I was able to transfer my deluded sense of being a scrappy Midwestern underdog fighting for respect over to Jersey.
Second, Steph’s family and friends are amazing. They are friendly, warm, welcoming, and they pour stiff martinis. I was in Point Pleasant a couple days after Hurricane Sandy to help Steph’s parents clean up their yard, and I saw the same thing there that I saw in my hometown when we got hit by a tornado in 1998: people helping each other.
I doubt New Jersey is ever going to be the most beloved state in the country, no matter how many Bruce Springsteens and Frank Sinatras it produces. But it doesn’t deserve to be maligned as much as it is. The people in Jersey are great. And it’s hard to hate a place when you come to love its people.