I grew up in Tenafly, New Jersey, a small town of around 15,000 people or so about 18 miles from NYC in Bergen County. I was born in Minnesota, so I can’t say I was born and raised in NJ, but I moved there with my family when I was very young so my father could take a job at Columbia University.
I loved Tenafly. It was a nice, close knit community. I played Little League and soccer, went to a great school just minutes from my house. We lived on a quiet block with nice neighbors and I walked to school almost every day. We would drive down to the shore in the summer when I was little and would always go to Sandy Hook. I remember vividly the walk from the parking lot across the beach, the hot sand burning my little feet. Jumping the waves with my dad. The ride back up the New Jersey Turnpike, skin salty, hair knotted from being tossed in the sea, eyes too tired to keep open.
I felt safe in my little town, buffered from scary things like earthquakes and tornadoes. Those were things that happened somewhere else. Not in Tenafly. Not in New Jersey.
On the flip side, I also grew up going into Manhattan. My father worked there, and some nights we would go meet him at the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. He would take the subway up to the bridge and would walk over. My Mom would let us run up to him to meet him in the middle of the bridge at the end of his long day just when the lights in the buildings would start lighting up across the Hudson. He would take us to the laboratory where he did cancer research at Columbia and after work hours he would let us play with the dry ice and we would have wheelie chair races down the empty hallways. I grew up loving the salted pretzels he would let us get and going skating at Rockefeller Center every winter. The old Hayden Planetarium was like a wonderland to me. Seeing that huge whale at the Natural History Museum never got old, and it still sends an excited chill up my spine to see it in all its enormity.
As I got older New York City took on a larger part in my life. We would sneak off from school to go hang out in Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park, buying cans of beer from the guys who used to walk around with garbage bags full of loose cans for a dollar each. My friends and I would take the Path train from Hoboken that would take us to the World Trade Center to go to illegal raves that would get shut down by the fire department at 2am. We would wait for the first morning train that could take us back, eating bagels and laughing about our nighttime adventures. I worked for my father at Imclone over the summers and built up a roster of new favorite places on earth: Mamoun’s Falafel on MacDougal, Down the Hatch, the Slaughtered Lamb. New York City gave me the chance to take risks, to push my boundaries, and then take the drive back over the bridge to my sleepy little town across the river, far away from anything dangerous.
I spent my first year of college in NYC at Marymount Manhattan, living at the 92nd Street Y. I relished having access to every inch of the city I wanted and would spend the majority of my time out in it rather than in the postage stamp sized single room I was assigned. Classes in the morning, Central Park with friends after school, early dinners with my father, finding new bars, new theaters, new clubs, new friends, new experiences. Although I loved finally living in the city, when I would go visit my mom back in NJ I still soaked up every bit of that sense of relief of crossing the bridge, back into my little Tenafly bubble.
College life in the city was great, but left me wanting more. Instead of feeling like I was in college I felt like I was just taking a few classes while living in the city. I knew that my short time in college would fly by, and I wanted that regular college experience. I wanted a student union and sports teams and dorms and the whole campus thing. So I moved upstate and went to a SUNY school.
The funny thing is, it wasn’t till then that I started hearing the New Jersey jokes. You know what I’m talking about. “Oh, you’re from JOISEY?!” people would laugh, mocking an accent I did not have and had never actually heard in real life. “What exit??” was another popular one. People had all these negative connotations about New Jersey. That I was a mall rat, that I should have “big hair”, that I liked “guidos” and Corvettes and had numerous airbrushed t-shirts. That I lived next to a garbage dump, that I listen to Bon Jovi nonstop, that I thought Springsteen was the best musician on the planet. The “armpit of America”. Nice, right?
The truth is, we did like Springsteen. My brother Teddy and I would re-enact Bruce’s Dancing in the Dark video on our deck as little kids in the 80′s, I would play the Courtney Cox “fan” and the neighbor would be The Boss who would pull me up on “stage” and I would do the classic Courtney Cox shuffle dance. I went through a Bon Jovi phase, I did. I still know pretty much all the lyrics to his songs through the 90′s. I’ll admit it.
But, I shrugged off all of the teasing, all of the poking fun. Because you know what? My hometown was beautiful, it still is beautiful. It was a great place to grow up. I would try to explain that to people but they didn’t understand. They would tell me that they had seen Newark. Apparently all of New Jersey looks like the surrounding areas of an airport, who knew?
Throw in the Sopranos, the Jersey Shore and Real Housewives of New Jersey and forget it. FORGET IT. People feel like they can openly mock you based on these shows. That we are all just like the people on those shows. To this day I still have had people make jokes about me being from New Jersey. Without asking me where in New Jersey, without knowing anything about it. It’s annoying to say the least. Also, even though I grew up in New Jersey I felt like part of was also spent growing up in NYC. I felt a little bit like a New Yorker too, but no one else really saw it that way. I was from NEW JOISEY. And that was something to make fun of.
I was glued to the news last night, watching parts of my childhood home state being literally washed away. Little Ferry, just 8 miles from Tenafly, is devastated. Homes filled with four feet of water, personal belongings, everything people had, just washed away, gone. Everything they went to work every day for, things they saved for, things they wanted to provide for their families, gone. And you can say “These are just things”, and yes. They are. But these are the things that make up your life. The little clay bowl your child made as their first art project, the photos that you had from your grandparents, the letters and cards written to you from loved ones. Videos of your kids’ birthday parties, their blankies from when they were little that you swear still smells like them as babies, the collar from your beloved family pet that passed away. Gone. Irreplaceable.
It’s funny how much of your identity can get tied up in geography. It’s a structure, a place, but you feel connected to it, even if you haven’t been there in years. The fact that it still remains the same as it was when you were there, when your memories were formed, becomes so important. Like a childhood home from years ago, if something is changed it has the power to sort of ruin something, to alter it. Especially if something horrible happens to it. It’s sad enough in a let-down kind of way when a childhood favorite is, let’s say, torn down to put up a new strip mall. But when someplace special is destroyed, torn apart, washed away, it’s like a hole is punched out inside you. That space, that landmark inside your heart, inside your memory, is taken down, is torn down.
New Yorkers though, they are incredibly strong. They have been through the worst. They have been through the worst imagined, and they got up, went to work, carried on, and continued. This is bad. It’s really bad. It’s so bad it is hard to wrap your mind around it. But I have faith in New Yorkers. I do.
And New Jersey? We’re tough too. Your little bridge and tunnelers? We’re just as tough as you guys are. This armpit of America, these “guidos” and mall rats? We can rebuild. We CAN rebuild. Everyone else might make fun of New Jersey, but everyone that lives there loves something about it, and holds something about New Jersey close to their heart. They won’t take this lying down. It will take a long time probably, a long time and a lot of support, and a lot of help, but it will happen. And you know what? People from New Jersey won’t care if you still make fun of New Jersey. Because we know that where we live is worth the incredible effort of putting it back together.
My heart and my love go out to everyone affected by Hurricane Sandy. And I will send as much support as I can as well. Last night I got a little angry seeing tweets and facebook statuses complaining. “I bought all these candles and batteries and now nothing!” and “This hurricane is lame, I thought I was going to have the day off work tomorrow!”. I won’t chastise you any more. I will give you the benefit of the doubt that by now you realize the enormity of the situation and will keep your ignorant and selfish comments to yourself. Put that shoe on the other foot, okay? But in that vein, let’s all keep it in mind that if it WAS us up here in upstate New York that got slammed, that had our homes destroyed, our businesses washed away, our lives altered, we would want to have everyone’s support. Just because it “missed us” doesn’t mean it missed us. This affects all of us, truly. Help, support, and send love. xoxo