The Contrarian: Hometown Blues

In my short run producing this column, I have written about New Jersey numerous times. One explanation is that there has been so much to write about. Anti-Bullying legislation without the money to make it work. Rife unemployment. Governor Chris Christie making a commencement speech to the turned backs of graduating education majors at the old Alma Mater. All these reflections of the major issues that exist throughout the country and in the bowels of its history, boiled down to outstanding prevalence in the crucible, the microcosm of our nation that is the Garden State.

In the unlikely case that my language has not yet given away my bleeding heart, another explanation for this geo-political focus is the same reason I know the difference between “Taylor Ham” and “pork roll.” Writers either write about what they know or about what they want to know. Most exercise the latter, warranting the lofty encouragement of the former, and I am in the devastating position of truly grappling with both. Native Jerseyan status notwithstanding, I’m finding things harder to understand.

A couple weeks ago, I got a text message from a friend asking if I had heard about the guy who “got murked in the middle of Woodbridge Mall,” fatally shot once in the face by an off-duty police officer after holding a woman hostage at knife point and dragging her into Sears of all places. I don’t even need to detail the “Hoodbridge” jokes that the townies, and the townies that pretend they aren’t townies, circulated with scoffing incredulity in the week that followed.

That week lead up to yet another armed robbery in the same wing of Woodbridge Mall, this time with a firearm. The suspect was implicated in an armed robbery that occurred shortly thereafter at a GameStop in the city of Perth Amboy, who made out with at least $800 of merchandise including a game console and videogames and is suspected to have had an accomplice. NOTE: At the time this article was written, the suspect(s) remained at large.

And this is only the past two weeks. The first robbery had the community joking nervously; the second forced a great consideration about the state of the town and the state of the state.

That said, there is a North, South, and Central Jersey, no matter what you are told—Yeah, get at me about that. The borders of each are up for dispute, but the existence of those distinct regions are not. Culturally and economically, these territories carry the significance of state sovereignty, and this diversity might be a contributing factor to our reputation as hard-asses; we act like our own country with territories all our own.

We pack all of America in all of her glorious diversity into a few thousand square miles of land. We’ve got America’s most dangerous city, Camden, and what used to be considered the safest, Moorestown. We have enough green to give a last bit of credence to our state nickname, attract the greatest diversity of immigrants and other minorities, and can be considered one of the most liberal states in the country while exercising genuine conservative foundations. And we have the extremes of brutal winter cold and the most awful, sweltering summers.

Because we can be regarded, in a way, as our own country, the issues within our borders might be so compartmentalized that they are near impossible to tackle from the ground, up. But because we are such a microcosm for the rest of the larger picture of our country, it might serve as a model to more closely examine its problems; recent provisions in New Jersey law enforcement legislation and the passing of the Anti-Bullying Bill Of Rights have been cited as potentially serving as models for the effective provisional implementation of similar legislation across the country.

And there’s a microcosm within that microcosm. You know how there might be cities and towns within your home state that you cannot place? “Where the hell is Tuckerton?” “Uhh, is that, like, way south?” Woodbridge, “Proper” and the city, is not one of those cities, and might in fact be the embodiment of New Jersey as a state—the aforementioned Woodbridge Mall a landmark for the Tri-State Area.

Woodbridge, level with “Jersey’s armpit,” is literally where the Turnpike and the Parkway intersect, where Staten Island filters in and out, and grants access to both places known as “The City.” It is the hometown to controversial former Governor Jim McGreevey, and the home of the famous Reo Diner, where Jack McGreevey, Jim’s father, can often be found ordering eggs.

All this info is available online or by hearsay, but that last part I can confirm up and down; I served those eggs, and I sang at his son’s, then-Mayor McGreevy, gubernatorial inauguration with my choir in a unique high school situation that I describe as “Glee on crack.”

Everything to love about this state can be found in Woodbridge, as well as everything to abhor. Systems within systems that we try to separate ourselves from, as if the problems of a town are not the problems of a nation. Yup, I grew up in this town, and I’ll always say that when I settle down, I’ll want to live somewhere just like Woodbridge, with its gorgeous juxtaposition of order and absurdity. Just not Woodbridge.

As if.