The Clerestory Podcast S1 E25

The Oklahoma Tenant Farmer and Me
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Haters and the Garden State

This essay has an associated podcast episode. Listen now.

A familiar scene: at an East Village bar last week—the windows thrown open, announcing spring— a woman among a new group of friends lamented about her home state. Ohio by farrrr gets the worst rap of any state she said, her eyes wide, begging for objection.

I thought: isn’t that where that family was convicted for keeping their kids caged in the basement? I thought: The epicenter of the nation’s opioid epidemic? I thought: well? Isn’t it?

It’s easy to be critical of other states when the cross you carry for your own is so heavy.

Leaning in, I said: People think New Jersey is the worst state, too.

Without hesitation, the group chorused, one collective mind: No, they said. People think New Jersey is trashy.

Trashy. “Of inferior quality,” Webster’s dictionary defines. Its etymology dates back to 1604 Othello, applied to ill-bred persons or groups.

I let this word dissolve on my tongue, seeing how it reconciled with the driveway lined with cherry blossom trees that, for a two week window in springtime, appeared like a wedding aisle on my way to my bus stop; the sod fields like patchwork on all sides of our property when you clicked the aerial view on google maps; my mother in a pants suit, handing me a strawberry pop tart wrapped in a paper towel and kissing my cheek as I head out the door. I thought of sticky vinyl diner booths and perfectly cooked omelets; I thought of the endless number of Greek waitresses in lipstick that served them, calling me honey; I thought of the badge checkers guarding entryway to the beach in a folding chair, though sometimes sleeping instead (Imagine, growing up without an ocean?); I thought of the farm stands selling ripe and sweetly smelling jersey tomatoes, their color almost pink; I thought of my brother’s wife, raised in Colorado, commenting on how New Jersey’s main interstate, I95, is flat and barren of trees. How only then did it occur to me that not everywhere else was like that.

I also thought of the silver hoop earrings of high school; the naked rib cages on the beach emblazoned in permanent ink with the borders of our state; strip malls with seemingly nothing in them; the acetone smell of nail salons; booty shorts on the boardwalk, trailing cigarette smoke; Booty shorts stamped with LONG BEACH ISLAND or SEASIDE across the back, hiked way the hell up; Booty shorts in general; Talon nails clutching a large Dunkin Donuts iced mocha frappuccino. I thought of the my dear friend in middle school’s mother—younger than most—who I worshipped for her rhinestone embedded jeans and the languid way she smoked Marlboros out the window when she drove us to the mall or to McDonalds, and the direct, economic way she clipped the word fuck into a sentence to elaborate a point. I am fed the fuck up with this traffic.

I feel flattered when people say I “don’t sound like I’m from New Jersey.”

The first time I realized New Jersey was regarded as trashy by many of its friends and foes I was an 18-year-old college freshman on the cobblestone streets of Florence, Italy. The program I enrolled in sent 50 students—mostly from the tristate area— to its satellite campus in Florence for the first year, then brought them back to its base campus in Poughkeepsie, New York, for a remaining three.

It was 2012, the height of the Jersey Shore reality TV show craze. For three years, Jersey Shore aired on television depicting eight housemates living debaucherously in a vacation home in Seaside Heights and people —for whatever reason— loved it. Or at least they watched it. Maybe the appeal was in feeling superior to the exploited cast, who were often caught appearing vapid on camera, proclaiming a love of tanning and the gym. In 2011, the Italian-American cast (only two of whom call NJ home; the rest are from Staten Island, New York, us New Jerseyans are quick to assert) filmed in Florence in furry boots and microscopic shorts for six weeks in an attempt to “discover their roots.” They went to the same clubs my classmates and I frequented, and similarly walk-shouted through the streets in the early hours of the morning.

Men in tough leather in the Santa Croce market, or flanking the doors to a small trattoria, would heckle any human organism that walked by. Ciao bella, where you from? Where you from? They were selling leather sandals or they were selling food or they were selling nothing. My answer was repeated back to me across Italian, Albanian, and Senegalese tongues. Jersee girl, they would say, their face in a suspended grimace mixed with something else, was it pleasure? Snooki Jersee Girl.

For a state you can drive across the longest stretch of in barely three hours, there was so much unknown geography to me. Many of my peers were from Morristown and Montclair and Metuchen and Mahwah. I’m from Allentown, central Jersey, the dead middle of the state if you use a protractor, but many people from NJ will try to convince you this classification does not exist. I don’t know why. Weird competition may also be a Jersey thing.

Anyway, Allentown is between Princeton and Trenton, the state capital that announces itself with a huge neon LED sign on the bridge reading “Trenton Makes the World Takes,” harkening back to the 1910, when goods from the capital were sent all over the world. Such martyrism! I love it. Depending on where in the state you fall, some people say caw-fee and wuder, some say coh-fee and wadder. Some were beach kids, closer to the eastern coastline, and some were city kids growing up on the opposite side of a bridge from New York. Some were mall rats and some, like me, preferred thrift stores and knock off Abercrombie you could find at the flea market on Sundays.

Most were obsessed with bagels and had strong opinions about sports teams: Giants or Eagles? My friend Brian from North Jersey wore a Phillies cap to Christmas mass at Florence’s cathedral built in the 13th century. My roommate Meredith from Hopewell loved sandwiches from Jersey Mikes and we talked about this a lot; how she missed them. Discovering how I did and did not fit into this New Jersey identity was a big part of college for me.

I said cohfee, felt apathetic towards sports teams, preferred everything bagels toasted with cream cheese and the beach.

It’s weird, how you often can’t see in without going out. For me, that meant transplanting a group of 50 kids from the tristate area to a European city to poorly pronounce Italian words together; the Jersey tends to really stick out against the backdrop of the Uffizi.

I picture it like that one Where’s Waldo illustration where the whole page is clotted with seemingly identical figures wearing different iterations of a striped shirt, beanie hat, scarf and glasses combo, but only one is wearing all four. I’m Waldo, but I don’t realize everybody else is basically Waldo, too, until I turn the page.

Study abroad students from Florida would smirk when I told them where I was from, like they had just learned a perverse secret about me. You—I thought, pissed off and embarrassed simultaneously— need not be concerned about me. Florida? Humid swamp land and guns and old people?

I learned to be ashamed of my roots though, sometimes even lying and saying I was from New York to avoid the reaction. (This horrifies some of my steadfast New Jersey friends. Ew Lauren texts me when I send her this essay. Who said New Jersey was trashy?)

For a while (ever?), I thought of my home state as the younger, less interesting little sister to the ever cool, stylish and cultured New York. City, to be exact. Why cant New Jersey be more like New York?, I thought as a kid as I whizzed past sod farms en route to the Museum of Modern Art for the day. I thought that everything that was good about New Jersey was dwarfed by New York. Pizza. Culture. Exacting humor. A sense of purpose.

Sometimes, people from other states would say you know Jersey is actually pretty nice. My ears caught on actually. I don’t know why it was so hard to like something independent of other people’s (often blind) opinions on it. I otherwise don’t have a problem countering a group’s assertion if I disagree. I might say fuck you, Taylor Swift is a genius and even if you dont like her music you have to admit shes a master songwriter. But with New Jersey, it was personal. It was me; I was a product of the Garden State.

Learning to love New Jersey roughly translated into learning how to love myself.

After college, I stayed abroad for a while. South Korea. Nepal. India. When I returned to the U.S., I headed straight for Alaska, where I took a job at a newspaper and lived for another two years. When people asked where I was from, I would list the last place I lived most recently before I got to the inevitable “but I grew up in New Jersey.” The more time I spent away, the clearer I could see her attributes, which I became well-versed at rattling off as a line of defense to new people before it was ever attacked. Top school system. The largest state population of Sikh Indians in America, and correspondingly fantastic Indian food. Home to Albert Einstein and Bruce Springstein and Bon Jovi. It’s illegal to pump your own gas. Close to every good thing: the beach, the mountains, Philadelphia, New York City. In retrospect, maybe that’s how I thought of NJ in general, close to all the good places without being a good place. Maybe my lack of confidence in the state came through, allowing other people’s poor associations with the state to float to the top. Maybe if I had asserted more ownership, I would have thwarted some of the judgement.

I came around fully and completely to New Jersey when my parents moved to North Carolina this past year and the ties that bound me to my home state became invisible. No state driver’s license. No home address where my mail was forwarded while I bounced around each year, or place where my professional clothes lived for if I ever got a job that would require them. Now, when people ask me where I live (New York City), or even where my parents or my brother live (North Carolina/Seattle), I can get away with omitting New Jersey from my background entirely. Instead, I wave my Jersey flag, which is actually a little known state crest depicting liberty and prosperity.

This past year, I often crossed the Hudson River from New York to my close friend’s place in Hoboken, New Jersey, to sprawl out on the carpet of her large apartment after dining out.

We’d walk to Jersey City, consistently ranked the most ethnically diverse city in the country, for cheap French-Morroccan food and BYOB restaurants that are impossible to come by on the other side of the Holland Tunnel. We’d get the bill and laugh and laugh at the $40 charge. “Free,” we’d say. “It’s basically free.”

Once last spring, I was IDed at a bar, and the bouncer called his buddies over to get a good look at my snowflake-emblazoned Alaskan driver’s license. I could see their minds perform gymnastics as they looked from the picture to me and back again, reconciling the flower skirt girl in front of them as a woodsy Alaskan who grew up subsisting off the land in a log cabin without plumbing. “I grew up in New Jersey,” I interrupted their computing, resurrecting my erased identity by pointing my finger into the ground to indicate roots. “I’m from here.”

Walking back to my friend’s apartment on another night, my small bladder required me to run into a restaurant and asked to use their bathroom. The maitre d’ waved me in which, I gotta say, would not and does not happen most places in New York City. Course, sweetie, he said. But hurry up, were closin’. Something about this is so New Jersey. Being helpful without making a huge to-do about being helpful. As I wiggled my skin tight jeans down, I thought about the legacy of the state that raised me. Most of the people I love most in the world are unsurprisingly a product of the same area code: My family, who came to New Jersey by way of Ireland and Germany and the Bronx after Ellis Island. (I recently found out my grandmother grew up in the back room of a luncheonette her parents ran in Nutley New Jersey throughout World War II; diners are in my genetic code.) My tight-knit group of friends from high school, some of whom are first generation immigrants whose family found community in the Garden State. Two of my best friends that came to me in college, unsurprising based on proximity and probability, but serendipitously nonetheless.

I like when the New Jersey in you comes out, an ex told me once. I relate being assertive to being from New Jersey. I can still hear my mom, a typically measured woman born and raised in state, on the phone with customer service. “Operator!!!” she bellows into the receiver— a trick I now use myself—when the automated messaging doesn’t correctly hear her. You wont get anything you dont ask for, she told me as a kid.

In downtown Seattle, visiting my brother, I was stopped at a street corner where the walking man was red, but no cars were coming. I looked at the herd of people gathered on the sidewalk, waiting for permission nobody would give. I looked left, then right, and crossed the street in a hurry.

Back home, you see an opportunity and you take it; That’s New Jersey. That’s also New York, but the states are closely related—maybe like second cousins. Jersey is the loud as fuck person on the train, yammering on about her personal life at high volume. She is the unrelenting ocean and a Mafia mobster and a pioneering immigrant and the hard steel of Newark. New Jersey is the indulgent mocha latte frappuccino from Dunkin Donuts— maybe it looks trashy, but do you have any idea how good it is?

Jenna Kunze is a staff reporter at Indian Country Media, where she covers stories impacting Indigenous people across the U.S. and Canada. Previously, she reported in Alaska for two years, with a broad focus on climate change, Indigenous people, and violence against Native women. Kunze is based in New York City.

Discover more from Jenna Kunze.