What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Identities

I Heart N.J.

Call It Smelly. Call It Sleazy. Call It the Armpit of America. To Me, It's Home.

welcome to new jersey WIMTBA

By Carly Okyle
June 19, 2015

I’m sitting in a circle during the second week of my freshman year of college, listening to everyone perform the introductions that have become comically commonplace: name, hometown, dorm. It’s routine until someone farther down the circle, some five bodies away, says he’s from New Jersey. I break into a smile, then catch his eye. I do the only thing I can think to do to commemorate this moment of commonality—I lean across two people to my right, raising my hand up in a high-five gesture. I’m surprised, then relieved, when he angles himself toward me and leans over to slap my hand. He’s smiling, too.

“I can honestly say this is the first time I’ve ever seen anyone high-five over New Jersey,” the activity leader says. The group chuckles. I shrug. She just doesn’t get it.

To be fair, most people don’t. They think of New Jersey as “the armpit of America” or some sort of Jersey Shore/Sopranos hybrid, where in between getting drunk and getting tan it’s perfectly normal to firm up your illegal deals in the back room of a strip club. As someone who grew up in the Garden State (like Buzz Aldrin, Queen Latifah, Dennis Rodman, and many, many others—after all, N.J. is the 11th most populated state in the country), I can tell you that it’s far more mundane than the television shows would suggest. Many were the Saturday nights in high school when my friends and I lamented that there was nothing to do in town.

I think my experience in Livingston was typical of American suburbia. I was happy to live close enough to Manhattan that a trip into “The City” was easy and quick, but I liked spending time in my hometown, too. I loved the neighborhood haunts where you could get a meal named after the high school mascot and the small shops that, while not brand names, carried high-quality, fashionable goods.

When it was time to think about college, I wanted to get out of the state not because I felt I needed to escape something, but simply because I wanted to see more of the country. In doing so, I found out that when you leave Jersey’s borders—even if it’s just, as in my case, to venture as far away as Boston—outsiders with a ton of assumptions and associations await.

Some samples:

“I was on the turnpike once. Is the whole state like that?” (No. There are lawns and trees and businesses other than strip malls and rest stops.)

“I’ve heard it smells bad.” (The Meadowlands are, literally, a swamp, surrounded by factories, so yes, that particular area, which you pass through when you head east from Manhattan, does have an acrid smell. But the solution is simple: get off the turnpike.)

“There sure are a lot of diners.” (Yes, and thank god for them.)

What surprised me most was how much other people’s opinions about my home state bugged me. I never had felt any particular pride about where I was from while I was growing up. It was just a fact, like my eye color or my age. I didn’t think it meant anything. But once I left the state, it became part of my identity. How else to explain my unbridled excitement the one and only time I ever worked a gas pump myself, my understanding of jug-handle turns, or why I feel no shame when belting out any Bruce Springsteen or Bon Jovi song, regardless of who is around?

I admit that I may have gone a little overboard at first. By the time my first semester at college was over, for every negative comment someone made about “the dirty Jerz,” I would be ready to counter with interesting facts (New Jersey is the only state where every town is a suburb of either New York or Philadelphia), celebrity natives (Jason Alexander and Chelsea Handler went to my high school), or just straight-up pride (New Jersey is awesome, and you have no idea what you’re talking about).

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I understand the easy appeal of generalizations. I’ve made a few pithy comments about other locations myself. When my AmeriCorps team was assigned to work in Oklahoma, I wondered aloud how a group of cows and horses had filled out the application to receive help from the program. Of course, after spending time there, I realized how badly I’d misjudged the place. I only wish others would afford the Garden State some open-mindedness as well.

It’s not that New Jersey is better than other states. The George Washington Bridge scandal was embarrassing, as is the fact that The Real Housewives of New Jersey is filmed there. And I admit that you can’t call either the Turnpike or the Parkway “scenic.” But for all of its flaws, real or perceived, New Jersey is still the place where I feel comfortable. I like that its greatness is understated, as opposed to Manhattan’s glamour or California’s cool. It’s not going out of its way to try to impress you. It is what it is, and you either get it or not.

Travel is said to broaden horizons and gain understanding. However, it also brings an awareness to what you have left behind, to what is home.

Carly Okyle is a writer for Entrepreneur.com who lives in Manhattan and freelances whenever possible.

Primary Editor: Sarah Rothbard. Secondary Editor: Jia-Rui Cook.

*Photo courtesy of J. Stephen Conn.