Photo: Natalia Lebedinskaia/Shutterstock

How to Live in Misunderstood Places

by Matt Hershberger Aug 8, 2017

WE WERE HAVING drinks at my girlfriend’s house with all of her roommates, and I started telling a story. When the Newport Aquarium opened up right across the river from my hometown of Cincinnati, they did this giant advertising campaign to get people to come visit their shark petting zoo. The campaign focused on how to pet the sharks: using your fore and middle finger, front to back.

It was a cute campaign, but the shark petting zoo left, and we all forgot about it. Until a decade later, when the sharks came back. The Aquarium, perhaps overestimating how deeply their ad campaign had penetrated the local psyche, put up billboards all around town that looked like this:

At this point in the story, I pulled out my phone, showed them the billboard, and everyone laughed at the unintended innuendo. Except one of my girlfriend’s roommates, a New Yorker, who just smiled indulgently and said, “Yeah, I guess when you live somewhere that cut off from the outside world, it’s easy to think that everyone just knows all the same things as you.”

1. Keep that chip on your shoulder

I can count the number of incidents where people were this openly condescending about my home state on two hands. It’s not that frequent. But when they do happen, they’re the type of conversations that rattle around in my head for days. I imagine all of the great comebacks I could’ve said (“‘Cut off?’ You realize we have internets and telephone, right? You understand that the Midwest isn’t in the middle of the fucking Amazon?”), and I seethe over the snobbishness expressed by these narrow-minded coastal elites.

The thing is, I live on the east coast now, and it’s because I didn’t really love living in Ohio. It’s a great place, sure, but it wasn’t for me. But my home state is like my mother — only I can make fun of it. Only I can talk about how much it sucks sometimes. And weirdly, this protectiveness has made going home much more enjoyable. I now want to discover things in my hometown that are amazing, so I have a fuller arsenal the next time Ohio’s honor is impugned. I have an infinitely more positive outlook on my hometown and home state than I did when I left for good in 2011. To some extent, I would never have learned to love my home if I wasn’t insecure about it in the first place.

2. Don’t crap on other places

Of course, being insecure about my home state didn’t stop me from being an asshole about other places. In early 2012, I sat down next to a girl at a Super Bowl party in London. I asked her where she was from.

“The Jersey Shore,” she said.

“Ooh, classy place,” I said.

“Oh you can go fuck yourself,” she said, and then went on a long rant about what a terrible representation of her hometown the Jersey Shore TV show was, and how New Jersey was great and you’re welcome for Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra.

I, naturally, was embarrassed, so I apologized, said I liked Springsteen, and then we talked all night, dated, moved to New Jersey together, got married, and are now about to have a baby.

Now that I live here, I hear far more nastiness about the state of New Jersey than I ever did about Ohio. New Jersey is, according to YouGov, the least-liked state in America. It is, in fact, the only state in the country that more people dislike than like. But because I see the state through the eyes of someone who loves the place, I have never been able to see it as the mob-ridden, spray-tanned garbage pit it is so frequently depicted as. To me, it is land of cool towns, great food, and amazing music. I imagine that, seen through the right eyes, there are no terrible places. Only misunderstood places.

3. Embrace the weirdness

When I lived in Cincinnati, I hated it because I compared it to other places I’d been. Cincinnati was no London. It was no Buenos Aires, no Cape Town. And judged by the standards of those towns, it could never possibly compare. There was no widespread pub culture in Cincinnati, no tango, no majestic mountains towering over the city.

But Cincinnati has a weird amount of abandoned tunnels. There are the former beer tunnels that run under the streets of the Over-the-Rhine district, and there are the remnants of the abandoned subway project. The city also does an insane amount of festivals. There’s the Taste of Cincinnati, there’s the largest Oktoberfest in the US, there’s the Tall Stacks old-timey riverboat festival, there’s the massive Labor Day fireworks show (always set to heavy metal music), there’s the choral festival. Measured on these standards (urban exploration potential and festivals-per-capita), Cincinnati is pretty damn cool.

To love a place, you cannot compare it to anywhere else. You have to meet it on its own terms. To set a Cincinnati (or even a New Jersey) next to New York is to misunderstand it. Instead, seek out the history, seek out the weird, and let a place speak for itself.

Discover Matador