A girl I once knew once told me, “I have no idea what you’re looking for …but you HAVE TO get the fuck out of New Jersey if you’re ever going to find it.” We spent the night in a park, holding hands, getting touchy-feely, and talking the way high school kids talk: about nothing and everything all the time. I drove her home in the “silver pony” ..the nickname for my 2001 Ford Mustang which I owned from 2002-2004 before I totaled it on an icy hill high above Montclair. The next day, I helped my dad bungie my things to the top of his Nissan and I left for college. I made it. I beat New Jersey. I was on my journey and would never be looking back.
I know you’ve been watching the news. You’ve seen a telethon where celebrities asked for your money. You’ve seen our governor, the Hamburgler, on television shaking hands with Barack …rocking his fleece …shedding his tears. Even Blink-182 made a t-shirt. Some people Instagrammed the siding ripped off their house, their car underwater like Armor for Sleep, the lines for gas …snaking like a Michelin commercial. Then you saw the roller coaster in the ocean and Snooki lamented the loss of the Surf Club. No matter where you live, what you’ve been trying to avoid or remain glued to, and how connected you are, you know what happened here.
As far as I ever went, and as much as I tried to redefine home, I couldn’t escape it. I would lie and tell people I was from New York City …but some naivety gave it away. I hadn’t been hardened by the city. I was a huge, soft, New Jersey cookie …still cooling and not quite ready for the world’s plate. My memories are still of Memorial Day weekends down the shore. Tall tales of blackout claw-game victories and magical under-the-boardwalk sexual encounters. After my prom, at 4am, after drinking all that high-school-Nick could drink …I took my date to the Pilgrim Diner, where she broke a glass and got thrown out. I brought our Taylor Ham and cheese sandwiches to the limo where we ate and I stained my rental tuxedo with grease. When I finally left for higher education, I thought I was rid of it all. I didn’t want another diner …another Parliament Light outside of Jenkinson’s… another Magic: The Gathering tournament at Time Warp Comics and Games. So I packed up, and I left.
Coming home is bizarre. It’s like a Saves the Day song that you can’t turn off. It just keeps playing as the backdrop to everything you do, adding a twinge of nostalgia to even the most mundane events. I left at 18 and came back at 22. Due to a series of unfortunate events, I ended up, at 25 years old, living back in my childhood home in New Jersey. I drank alone on the curb where I’d first chipped the paint on the “silver pony.” I had memories piled on memories like a hoarder. I realized that I’d kept every single one. One night, on a card table that I used for a writing desk …unfolded in a bedroom that used to be mine, but had since been remodeled and re-painted and relabeled “guest bedroom” …I cried thinking that I was a guest in my own home …in my own state …in New Jersey.
This hurricane …a gigantic vortex of a thing that decided we no longer needed the boardwalk or the places we went to have fun …or a sense of calm …or a sense of normal …has brought out some of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen. Just tonight, I stood in the middle of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, packed to the ceiling with displaced commuters, and just drifted in a sea of people like some violent criminal being passed through the town square and up to the guards to be crucified. I saw a man at the gym literally break down mid-bench-press because he had used his last bit of fuel to drive there and pump iron. My job in New York offered free counseling services because executives and professionals and the most normal among us lost enough to absolutely need to be counseled for grief and anger and depression and all the things that hit you like concrete in the face no matter who you are. If you’re quiet and you really listen, you can hear the chorus rising up from insurance companies across the whole Northeast …it’s rhythm and meter only offset by the words “we don’t cover you or this or anything close to what you had and what you’ll miss.”
I think of my father, a real Jersey guy. He works with his hands, replaces the “coff” with “caww” in “coffee.” He grew up spending summers down the shore, for almost 30+ years, in a house on Newark Ave that his father built. That day he was tying my things up on the roof of that Nissan was the saddest I’ve probably ever seen him. We had breakfast at a Denny’s on the state line, and he drove 18-year-old me the rest of the way. He slipped me $100 and told me that if I ever needed anything, home would always be there …just a phone call away. I’m putting out that call now. I miss you New Jersey. You aren’t a laughingstock or a fist pump or a fake tan …you found a place for me. For that, I’ll be forever grateful and I can only hope to help you heal again.