- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

There no doubt are some Americans who think it was just deserts that Richard Nixon retired to New Jersey, land of debris and the home of the knaves.

The state, say wiseacres who know it only from the unflattering vantage point of the New Jersey Turnpike on their way to nicer places such as Manhattan, Connecticut or Canada, is the armpit of America.

“It’s called the Garden State, but where are the gardens?” goes a familiar taunt.

It’s one big Chernobyl with IV-needle-strewn beaches.

In the English Channel, there’s a little island saying: “Why’d you have to go and name that state after me?”

No one is proud to be from New Jersey. Sure, there are your Bruce Springsteens and Kevin Smiths and, well, your Scott Galupos, but no one is really proud. Not the way people are proud to be from South Carolina or Boston.

A New Jerseyite’s pride is a pride that overcompensates for an innate feeling of inferiority, an insecurity. We are prepared in advance to defend New Jersey as though we’re politicians with talking points. Message: “Hey, you know, it’s not all Rahway and Perth Amboy. It’s actually a beautiful state.”

The problem, for starters, is that we have no signature state university. Near the capital city of Trenton, in central Jersey, there’s a fine place called the College of New Jersey (not to be confused with Princeton University’s former designation).

There’s a chance it could eventually become the University of New Jersey. Maybe then we’ll have something approaching what Kansans and Oklahomans feel about college sports, but I doubt it.

Ask Sen. Jon Corzine about another Jersey problem: It’s sandwiched between two giant media markets, New York City and Philadelphia. Neither likes to share.

“Frankly, sharing a media market with [New York Sen.] Chuck Schumer is like sharing a banana with a monkey,” Mr. Corzine famously said. “Take a little bite of it, and he will throw his own feces at you.”

One of the byproducts of this arrangement is that New Jerseyites have a schizoid view on professional sports. Those who live south of, say, Toms River consider Philadelphia’s franchises their own. The rest go for New York’s, plus clubs such as the New Jersey Devils and Nets, which, as far as someone from Camden or Atlantic City is concerned, might as well be from New Hampshire.

Jerseyites, then, aren’t men without a country. They’re men without a state.

Jersey has a people perception problem, too. You know the truisms: Everybody swears too much. The guys who aren’t outright “Sopranos”-style thugs are Camaro-driving, pomade-hair “guidos” who wear too much leather and not enough wool.

The girls are brash, slutty and wear too much hairspray. (In Mr. Smith’s latest movie, “Jersey Girl,” opening today in area theaters, the latter stereotype is subverted by a title character who turns out to be a sweet, precocious 8-year-old.)

And they talk funny.

Coastal New Jerseyites speak in a slight yet discernible accent that’s not quite Philly and not quite Brooklyn. A’s are pronounced short when they should be long, and vice versa. Sentences end unnecessarily in prepositions, as in “Where you at?”

The state’s famous sons and cultural icons don’t often stick around. Jack Nicholson left for California, as did Mr. Springsteen, temporarily. Frank Sinatra left for New York. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin left for the moon.

Whitney Houston — let’s not even go there.

Aaron Burr left for Europe in disgrace (you know, that whole dueling incident, which took place in Weehawken, N.J., away from respectable Manhattan).

The only president to come from New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, was actually Virginia-born. And he was a disaster.

New Jersey does still boast the Miss America pageant, if you care.

On the bright side, there’s Philip Roth, the great novelist of Newark. In his classic “Portnoy’s Complaint,” he spoke of a family vacation to “the wilds of South Jersey.”

The wilds.

That’s more like it.

An episode of “The Sopranos” directed by Steve Buscemi caught onto this perhaps little-known fact about New Jersey. Paulie and Christopher are lost in the Pine Barrens. Christopher looks at all the wooded acreage around him and says something like “I thought we were in Jersey.”

Paulie corrects him: “South Jersey.”

(Of course, that “Sopranos” episode was actually shot in New York state.)

Political guru James Carville once described Pennsylvania, where he ran several statewide campaigns, as “Philadelphia on one side, Pittsburgh on the other and Alabama in the middle.”

Substitute New York for Pittsburgh, and you’ve got most of New Jersey.

Would you believe me if I told you there was a rodeo in New Jersey? There is. Just across the Delaware Memorial Bridge, where, in fact, you’ll see lots of cattle and huge swaths of farmland — until you reach beaches that rival any on the East Coast.

If that doesn’t disabuse you of your New Jersey prejudices, you can always head north to posh Saddle River.

It was good enough for Tricky Dick, who, to my knowledge, never wore leather or set foot in a Camaro.

He sure did have a Jersey mouth, though.

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