Jersey On My Mind
Although I share my birthplace of Scranton, PA with Joe Biden and the urban activist Jane Jacobs, who successfully thwarted Robert Moses’ plan to build a highway through Washington Square Park, I was barely out of swaddling clothes when my parents whisked me to the magical land of New Jersey, where I have spent the great bulk of my life during these last seven decades. So I can’t help but shed a tear as my wife and I have decided to split our (we hope many) remaining years between the Upper West Side of Manhattan and our home on the coast of Maine.
Yes, New York City is the home to the greatest array of cultural and entertainment venues known to man, and we plan to spend many days and nights enjoying the Met (museum and opera), MOMA, Broadway, Shakespeare in the Park, a myriad of fabulous restaurants and, not least, Rangers and Yankees games. And while Maine has a special beauty and mystique that we have enjoyed through many summers and more, we will always have a soft spot in our hearts for New Jersey.
I know that many are snickering with the usual jokes about the Garden State (what exit?), but, at the risk of inciting too many gawkers over the border and adding even more density to the country’s most populous state, I think it is only appropriate to highlight just a few of the many attractions that makes New Jersey the special place it is. So, in not any particular order:
- You don’t pump your own gas. Eat your hearts out Minnesota and North Dakota ( and everyone else except Oregonians). While you are trying to stay under the meager cover at the gas pumps during freezing rain and snow, Jerseyans sit smugly in their heated seats while handing their credit cards over and searching for Bruce Springsteen on their radios.
- Bruce Springsteen. We all know the Boss is from Freehold and writes his odes to the common man on his expansive horse farm in Colts Neck, but, let’s face it, his concerts will always be way better than listening to Billy Joel sing his decades-old songs at another inexplicably sold-out MSG event.
- Hot Dogs. Head to Rutt’s Hut in Clifton where this legendary cathedral to the frankfurter serves “rippers,” deep-fried hot dogs that help keep the state’s cardiologists in business. Runners-up: Hot Dog Johnny’s in Butzville and, for Italian dogs (if you have to ask, don’t bother), you still can’t beat Dickie Dee’s in Newark.
- The Great Falls in Paterson. Even though the 2 billion gallons of water that flow down its 77 foot height a day are a mere trickle compared to the 66 billion at its slightly better known Niagara counterpart, you don’t have to go through Buffalo and it is located in the hometown of Lou Costello and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
- Atlantic City Boardwalk. Although it has fallen on hard times with the demise of the casino industry (see Trump, Donald), Atlantic City hosted the Miss America Pageant from 1921 through 2004 and the Democratic National Convention in 1964. And for nostalgia, you can’t beat the line that Burt Lancaster used on Susan Sarandon in the eponymous movie: “[y]ou should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days, it was really something.”
- Organized Crime. Although the mob’s heyday is long past, and New Jersey’s most famous capo, Tony Soprano, is a fictional one, the state has a long and sordid history with organized crime, with many ties to the DeCavalcante and Genovese families. Best tourist sites: you can’t drive the Turnpike without passing under the Pulaski Skyway, where Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa is long rumored to be a permanent part of the structure, and Satin Dolls, a strip joint on Route 17 in Lodi, the actual location of the Bada Bing, where the aforementioned Soprano ran North Jersey.
- Morristown. Our home for 23 years, George Washington actually did sleep here as his troops were encamped nearby during the horrendous Revolutionary War winters of 1777 and 1779–80. Received a cameo in the Broadway play Hamilton as the site where the future Secretary of the Treasury met his wife, Eliza (Schuyler).
- Professional Football. New York City NFL fans must travel almost 400 miles to Buffalo to see a home game played in New York State, while just over the river the Giants and Jets play their home contests in the Meadowlands, a somewhat symbolic description of most of their recent seasons. Both teams showed some promise this past season even though the former’s year ended in a humiliating loss to the (South Jersey) Iggles in the second round of the playoffs.
- The Great Swamp. Jerseyans like to tell it like it is, and other than the Grand Canyon, there is likely no another attraction in the country that is so literally named. But don’t get put off by the nomenclature. This starkly beautiful National Wildfire Preserve, only 26 miles from New York City, is proof that not all of New Jersey is oil tanks and shopping malls.
- The Pine Barrens. It is not only the site of one of the most memorable episodes of the Sopranos (does anyone know what happened to the Russian?), it is comprised of a truly bizarre ecosystem that is the home of many mostly fantasized legends and a true throwback to pre-industrialized society.
I have to stop at ten since a truly complete list would cause the Hudson River crossings to be jammed every weekend by curiosity seekers. But I hope this ode makes you take a new look at your superior attitudes towards my adopted home state and cause you to appreciate the true greatness of the Garden State.
I bet you didn’t know they were born in New Jersey: Jack Nicholson, Paul Simon, Derek Jeter, Shaquille O’Neal, Jerry Lewis, Allen Ginsberg, Barney Frank.
Wish they were born in New Jersey: Everyone else.